The great tension at the heart of the book is this: Why is a white woman leading the conversation about racism and racial inequality? If white people are so biased and so blinded by our whiteness (as she herself teaches), how can we trust her to properly understand the problem and prescribe the right solution? DiAngelo begins to offer her resolution to this conundrum by introducing the reader to a key term—identity politics.
It seems like the whole world is talking about race and racism and racial reconciliation. Here in 2020 the conversation has come to the fore with renewed force and renewed urgency. Perhaps no author has played a more central role in this cultural conversation than Robin DiAngelo and perhaps no book has been more widely recommended than her White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Though it was first published in 2018, its moment has come two years later and, according to the foreword, has established DiAngelo as “the new racial sheriff in town”—one who “is bringing a different law and order to bear upon the racial proceedings.”
The great tension at the heart of the book is this: Why is a white woman leading the conversation about racism and racial inequality? If white people are so biased and so blinded by our whiteness (as she herself teaches), how can we trust her to properly understand the problem and prescribe the right solution? DiAngelo begins to offer her resolution to this conundrum by introducing the reader to a key term—identity politics. She states on the opening page that her book is unapologetically built upon identity politics, which she defines as “the focus on the barriers specific groups face in their struggle for equality.” That is undoubtedly a reductionistic definition, but it at least gets at the heart of it, which is to divide people into groups based upon certain identity markers (e.g. gender, race, sexual orientation, etc); then to determine which of those groups have power and which are marginalized; then to identify the barriers to equality the marginalized groups face; and then to have the people with power advocate on behalf of those who do not.
This raises the question: Who in America and in broader Western society has power and who is marginalized? She gets right to it in the first sentence of the introduction: “White people in North America live in a society that is deeply separate and unequal by race, and white people are the beneficiaries of that separation and inequality.” If that’s the case, and if we are to follow the principles of identity politics, then people of color are so seriously marginalized that they cannot effectively advocate for themselves. The systems of racism are so deeply embedded in North America, and people of color have been made so powerless, that white folk must take the lead in advocating for equality—white folk like Robin DiAngelo. In this way she understands herself as acting altruistically. Because she is white, she is in the group that has power and she now uses this privilege to advocate on behalf of the group that is powerless. She does this by targeting her book to what she refers to as “the white collective.” She speaks to others within her identity group and calls them to first talk about racism and then to go beyond talk and take action on behalf of the marginalized.
I have had quite a number of people ask my opinion about this book and request that I review it. To that end, I am going to provide a kind of summary of its contents and then, in a second article, discuss whether it is a helpful resource for Christians. I primarily want to consider the “story” DiAngelo is telling. I am convinced that all human beings believe and then attempt to live out a story about the world. This story explains what the world should be like, tells what the world is actually like, prescribes actions we ought to take to improve the world, and describes the future we can imagine when we’ve done so. I am going to summarize her book according to this kind of narrative structure.
What Should The World Be Like?
The world should be marked by peace, equity, and equality between all people—all races, creeds, sexual preferences, gender identities, and so on. Western nations should have been founded in such a way that they guaranteed these rights and freedoms for all. Had they been founded upon better principles agreed upon by a more diverse cast of characters, all people could have thrived equally.
What Is the World Actually Like?
However, that was not to be and the nations were instead founded exclusively by white men and, therefore, upon principles of white supremacy. White supremacy is “the all-encompassing centrality and assumed superiority of people defined and perceived as white and the practices based on this assumption.” This system, which is the bedrock of Western nations, ensures that white people are always treated as full persons while non-whites are treated as sub-persons. Because of this built-in white supremacy, Western nations were founded with deeply-embedded ideologies that would serve to perpetuate whiteness. The two most insidious and deterministic of these ideologies are individualism and objectivity. “Briefly, individualism holds that we are each unique and stand apart from others, even those within our social groups. Objectivity tells us that it is possible to be free of all bias.” Thus, individualism convinces us that our primary identity is as autonomous individuals rather than as collectives. Meanwhile, objectivity convinces us that the only barriers to success are those that are common to all people, which means failure must be the fault of our own character rather than the fault of unjust societal structures. While we’ve been told that Western nations allow opportunity for all people to succeed, the reality is that these nations are intrinsically biased toward whites.
Today, this system of supremacy is maintained intentionally and unintentionally by whites and then imposed upon people of color through conditioning and violence. It is perpetuated by governmental institutions, economic systems, and mass media. “White supremacy describes the culture we live in, a culture that positions white people and all that is associated with them (whiteness) as ideal.” Whites depend upon white solidarity—an unspoken agreement among ourselves to maintain and protect advantages—to ensure the system remains in place. Not only that, but whites actually define ourselves in opposition to people of color, so that “anti-blackness is foundational to our very identities as white people.” Anti-blackness and pro-whiteness have become embedded in our consciousness in such a way that they are very nearly an original sin that is passed from parents to their children.