My middle sister once told me disparagingly, “You think you’re so white.” Robin Diangelo quotes Amiri Barak in White Fragility to say that “whiteness has been … a highly adaptable and fluid force that stays on top no matter where it lands” (15). How interesting because I find that I’ve felt at the bottom for such a long time. It could be a shadow of low-self esteem. Or, as Miley Cyrus was saying in an interview not too long ago, no matter what I do, there will always be those that will judge me. I will always be either too this or too much of that. Perhaps my experience is more marginalized than black or white, there are so many other schemas by which to organize our perception of the world: latinx, feminism, sexuality, socio-economic class, fashion, ecology, legal, etc. Depending on which schema you judge by, the scale will always angle one way or another.
Charles Baudelaire: “The loveliest trick of the Devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.”
One of the main points that Diangelo makes in this book is that race may not be true, but it is real. Race in and of itself is a human construct. I read it as a fictionalized value system that we place on the color of our skin, and we’ve used that value system over and over so much that it’s become a schema by which the world revolves. In many ways, what Diangelo is saying reminds me of Judith Butler’s performativity. We’ve performed race so much in the United States and all over the globe that, frankly, for some of us, it becomes a critical point of resistance and deviance. Some schemas no longer work, and we need to cease recycling them.
“Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race” (22).
Do I like the book overall, though? No, I can’t say that it’s one of my favorites or that I would even recommend it to others as much as I originally thought I would. Why? Because, the writer is white, writing about the white experience resisting racism within the white community. Robin says that she’s “using my insider status to challenge racism.” It’s a noble cause. I’m all for it. However, regardless of what my middle sister says, I think I’m way past a book like this one. This book is for Recovering Racists 101. Sometimes, it’s hard to explain to some individuals – like my sister or like actual racists – that there is a divergence – a very important one – from a fragile sense of pride in what we’ve accomplished for ourselves and actual sense of superiority. Is it informed by race? Of course, the accomplishments are despite and because of. It takes a particular kind of self-consciousness, perhaps the very one that lends itself to fall so readily into low self-esteem, to prevent pride from turning to superiority.
“We make sense of perceptions and experiences through our particular cultural lens. This lens is neither universal nor objective, and without it, a person cannot function in any human society. But exploring these cultural frameworks can be particularly challenging in Western Culture precisely because of two key Western ideologies: individualism and objectivity” (28).
I do have to say that I recognize Diangelo’s voice. She writes like someone who straddles a dangerous and precarious margin. She also mentions she’s a sociologist which explains why her book is so generalized and non-specific. Though, I did appreciate the statistics on white teachers (82%) and white professors (84%) in the U.S. Whatever is left of that percentage is likely distributed among minority professors and teachers, a very small number and why I’m so persistent with my PhD goals. I’m happy she clarifies that “the sad fact is that many whites have no cross-racial friendships at all” (86). A sad fact. Lately, I’ve had a few radical ideas slip through my mind. I would have to say that I think many individuals from minorities don’t have many white friends either. Even to say that we would like more white friends, for the sake of diversity, would be criminal. We’re taught racism. Racism is the prevailing topic. In a wild suggestion informed by reverse psychology, shouldn’t we teach diversity? The more we teach about racism, the more it seems to me that we perform it.
“Many of us see emotions as naturally occurring. But emotions are political in two key ways. First, our emotions are shaped by our biases and beliefs, our cultural frameworks” (128).
But, the color in us demands acknowledgement. The highlights in history have become the crux of violence where race was a presiding factor. And, suddenly, this review feels like I’m the British entering World War II to “turn the tide.” America gets dragged into this by default. But, what else can I say on the subject? When I really go into deep thought about this, I depress myself. Perhaps that’s what I sense in Diangelo. The cultural frameworks she speaks about speak to me. If I suddenly told my mother, hypothetically, any of the following, for example: I like women, I don’t want to ever be a mother, I want to marry a black man, I hate dating Latino men, I feel queer, I like kink, I like Korean guys… She would likely disown me, nevermind that she has nothing to give me as an inheritance anyway. The framework gets so suffocating the more you visualize it that it becomes almost impossible to navigate the culture.
For Diangelo, this is book one of hopefully a follow up book that brings out the big guns. I am a pacifist on any given day, but sometimes violence is the last resort to shake something up. What I told my students recently on race, the kind of violence we need the most is psychological. The utter destruction of faulty schemas to re-write the personal constitution, so to speak. Like the creators of #BlackLivesMatter said, we should not get too sidetracked by the actual physical violence. It’s only a representation of some deeper sociological shifts. White Fragility is definitely a good beginner’s text for White America, but it should not be held as the ideal. It is a step toward deeper, more succinct texts like Mikki Kendall’s Hood Feminism or even Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands to really understand racial diversity and informed by Interdisciplinary Studies.
Diangelo, Robin. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism. Beacon Press, 2018.
Get new content delivered directly to your inbox