The deep irony of DiAngelo’s work is that she demands exquisite sensitivity from everyone in all social interactions, but her own gross insensitivity is displayed on virtually every page.
For many people, 2020 was a nightmare that refused to end. For Robin DiAngelo, it was a very good year. In the aftermath of the George Floyd riots, her book White Fragility, surged to the top of the bestseller list. It sold more than 100,000 copies, making her a wealthy woman. This summer, DiAngelo released her newest work, Nice Racism. The most interesting feature of this book can be summarized in three words: It didn’t sell.
On the face of it, there is nothing extraordinary in the collapse of a mediocre book. Bad books drop from the printing press into obscurity every day. Normally, though, the author’s previous work is not still listed by the New York Times. How did DiAngelo’s bright moment pass so quickly? What does this mean for the ongoing debate over Critical Race Theory?
DiAngelo’s work has already received intense criticism from writers across the political spectrum. They found it condescending, hypocritical, or just racist. These charges are probably fair, though it can be difficult to judge, because DiAngelo’s meandering narrative does not readily cohere into a cohesive argument. To a certain extent, this is probably intentional. DiAngelo (under the influence of deconstructionists like Michael Foucault) has a fraught relationship with rational discourse, which she tends to see as an instrument of oppression. She describes herself as an expert in “discourse analysis,” which in her own words is, “a method for identifying how language positions speakers in relation to social others in recognition that language is sociopolitical, not simply a neutral transmitter of a person’s core ideas or self.”
The goal of discourse analysis, in other words, is to look past the truth claims that people make, and instead assess tone, terminology, and the broader social and political context. Who speaks the most, and with whom do they agree or disagree? How do people’s claims and arguments reflect and affect their own social status, and that of their interlocutors?
Within reasonable limits, this sort of analysis can sometimes yield helpful insights. Nearly everyone has the occasional Foucauldian moment, when they notice the nefarious potentialities of narrative. For DiAngelo though, “discourse analysis” seems to have swamped all other forms. She isn’t really in the business of making arguments, or responding to other people’s. On one level, Nice Racism is clearly a follow-up to White Fragility, which was one of the most hotly discussed (and heavily critiqued) books of 2020. But DiAngelo offers almost nothing by way of direct rebuttals, or responses of any kind to identifiable public writers. A few stray paragraphs are devoted to a flyby dismissal of John McWhorter, one of her most eloquent critics, but for the most part she devotes page after weary page to shadow-boxing anonymous detractors, whom we meet through DiAngelo’s anecdotes. She seems to find ignorant, insensitive people around every corner: on airplanes, in taxi rides, and of course, in the diversity seminars that she facilitates for a living. Unsurprisingly, these faceless interlocutors are easily vanquished. One hardly needs reasoned discourse to defeat such opponents.
An Insensitive Subject
As a reviewer, it is difficult to know what to say about such a book. Even when I disagree intensely with a book’s content, I normally try to do the author the courtesy of engaging his argument directly. This book, though, just doesn’t quite rise to the level of argument. Beyond that, the author herself seems to have objections to reasoned discourse. Also, there is the issue of redundancy. I could repeat the critiques of McWhorter, Jonathan Haidt, and others who have already written articulate responses to DiAngelo’s views. Since they remain on the table unanswered, this doesn’t feel particularly worthwhile. It really is not possible to advance the dialectic, because that isn’t a game that DiAngelo plays.
With no argument worthy of the name, readers may find themselves looking back at the author herself. By the end of the book, I was indeed overwhelmed with both pity and revulsion for this wretched-seeming woman. Everywhere she goes, people seem to be shouting, crying, or storming away in disgust. The problem is not limited to her fellow whites! DiAngelo also tells stories about offending or alienating BIPOC friends and associates. One cannot but notice that there is a common denominator across all of these unhappy anecdotes. It’s not white fragility.
The deep irony of DiAngelo’s work is that she demands exquisite sensitivity from everyone in all social interactions, but her own gross insensitivity is displayed on virtually every page. She brags constantly about her “expertise” and deep insight, but this façade falls immediately whenever she starts talking about real human beings. She is astonishingly deaf to the nuances of human relationships and human feeling. She cannot understand the complexities of human motivation. A writer like Chris Arnade brings unseen people to life before our eyes; she seems to reduce everyone to a cardboard cutout. She shows no interest in understanding or learning from the people she encounters, or even in finding more effective ways to persuade them. It’s easy to understand why she is constantly offending people. Her entire perspective on the world just feels bleak and dehumanizing.
Examples are legion, but I will content myself with one. In one chapter, DiAngelo rails against white women who speak in her seminars about their marriages to black men. This, in her view, is extremely insensitive. “There is a long and painful history,” she sniffs, “surrounding white women in relationship to Black men.”