Monday, May 20, 2019

book report

White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo (Beacon)

This is a book by a white person, intended to explain racism to white people.

I don't think it's going to work.

The problem isn't with the substantive content of what DiAngelo has to say. I entirely agree with her on that. In particular, I'm in sad communion with her observation that the election of Obama was hardly the end of racism in the US, as was sometimes proclaimed, but the signal for a renewed outbreak of the kind of toxic, blatant, Jim Crow-style virulent racism that some of us were foolish enough to think had permanently faded away.

No, the problem is with the tone and the framing.

Early on, DiAngelo has to patiently explain, as she does every time she brings this subject up with a discussion group, that when she says that white people are racist, she doesn't mean they consciously hate or belittle black people. She's talking about "the racial status quo."

This becomes clear later on when she says that black people can't be racist, even when they're discriminating against white people on racial grounds. Only whites can be racist.

Here it is - or ought to be - as clear as it can possibly be that DiAngelo's definition of racism does not lie in individual acts of racist behavior, but in the whole cultural context of how whites and blacks relate to each other in US society.

Fair enough, but that's not the way she writes. She points to individual whites and says they're racist. She does that to focus them on the problem, but the focus is off. If racism lies in cultural context, then it doesn't consist of individuals' behavior, even when that behavior is discriminatory, and even though the cultural context is formed out of accumulated individual actions. The point is that if that's the definition of racism, then there's nothing any one individual can do to be any less racist, or any more racist for that matter, so the pointing finger is pointing too directly.

I wonder if we need two words, one to mean an inevitably racist context, and the other to mean specific acts of racism.

The people who really need this book - the whites who think that racism is obsolete but who casually demean black people - are unlikely to read it. They'll have been put off by DiAngelo's opening mea culpa breast-beating attitude long before they get to be told to breathe deeply when they're told they're racist, and if they ever get to the point where they read that black people can't be racist while all white people are, they'll just shut down completely.

If you make it to the end, there's some concrete suggestions for how white people should behave in a context of endemic racism, and those are useful, and go against the grain of blaming an endemic problem on individual actions; but first you need to get that far.

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