A Tale of Two Narratives: Review of “White Fragility”
Yours truly finished reading two books last week, each of which rather instructive in its own way. The first is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s three-volume The Gulag Archipelago. In this world-famous, monumental work published in 1973, the author offers a horrifying look into life in the Soviet prison camps. Contrary to popular opinion at the time, Solzhenitsyn traced the gulags‘ origins all the way back to Lenin and argued that they were inherent to the Soviet political system. This came as a shock to gullible Western intellectuals who excused the existence of the camps as a mere deviation under Stalin.
The other book I completed is of a wholly different caliber altogether: Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. This work proffers to demonstrate that white people in the West — particularly in the United States, the book’s primary focus — benefit from a systemic racism in which they swim like fish in the water while barely being aware of it. When they are confronted with this reality, it “triggers a range of defensive responses,” DiAngelo writes. “These include emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation.” This defensive reaction is what constitutes the “fragility” in the book’s title: “My goal is to make visible how one aspect of white sensibility continues to hold racism in place: white fragility.”
The only way one can understand this thesis is to accept a redefinition of the word “racism”, DiAngelo explains: “It became clear that if I believed that only bad people who intended to hurt others because of race could ever [be racist], I would respond with outrage to any suggestion that I was involved in racism. … If, however, I understand racism as a system into which I was socialized, I can receive feedback on my problematic racial patterns as a helpful way to support my learning and growth.”
This use of the word “system” is not a coincidence. White Fragility is drenched in the familiar neo-Marxist and postmodernist talking points. Consider for example this sentence: “While there is no biological race as we understand it, race as a social construct has profound significance and shapes every aspect of our lives.” Though perhaps they may be too scared to say so out loud at this point, DiAngelo would be hard-pressed to find biology professors agreeing with her on this matter.
Or consider the following statement: “The system of racism begins with ideology, which refers to the big ideas that are reinforced throughout society. From birth, we are conditioned into accepting and not questioning these ideas. Ideology is reinforced across society, for example, in schools and textbooks, political speeches, movies, advertising, holiday celebrations, and words and phrases. … Ideologies are the frameworks through which we are taught to represent, interpret, understand, and make sense of social existence. Because these ideas are constantly reinforced, they are very hard to avoid believing and internalizing. Examples of ideology in the United States include individualism, the superiority of capitalism as an economic system and democracy as a political system, consumerism as a desirable lifestyle, and meritocracy (anyone can succeed if he or she works hard).”
This is a cunning sleight of hand. DiAngelo here reduces the very foundations of the West’s cultural and economic growth over the past 400 years to mere “ideologies” which we ought to “avoid believing and internalizing.” The implication is that her ideas, which form the most radical and insidious political doctrine since The Communist Manifesto, are in fact objectively true.
It begs the question as to what the alternatives should be to democracy and capitalism. As so many of the thugs currently looting and setting fire to our cities with an explicit desire to ‘burn the system to the ground’, DiAngelo is rather silent about this. Furthermore, having herself grown up in poverty, she has become quite wealthy marketing and selling her ideas to the naïve American public, charging $12,000 for two-hour corporate sessions designed solely to admonish whites for their systemic racism. Surely hers can be considered a case of ‘biting the hand that feeds you.’ But rarely do the likes of DiAngelo understand, much less acknowledge, what it is that makes the world around them turn.
None of the above should blind us to the fact that racism has been an important factor in the history of the West, particularly the United States, and that it still exists out there. I’ve met enough white people in my life I’d forbid my children to hang out with solely for their casual use of the N-word. There is little doubt that the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow still poses challenges for blacks even today.
That said, if one rejects the concept of individualism as a mere invention by whites to first build and then protect the racial hierarchy in this country, this also means the blame for racism today cannot be laid at the feet of mere individuals. DiAngelo holds whites collectively responsible for any signs of racism at any given place and time. “Individual whites may be ‘against’ racism, but they still benefit from a system that privileges whites as a group,” she writes.
It goes without saying that this betrays a totalitarian mindset. “Substitute ‘Jewish’ for ‘white’ in ‘White Fragility’ to give you an idea of where we’re headed,” a friend told me. While it would be a bit of a stretch to equate the plight of whites today to that of Jews in Germany in the 1930s, his advice does offer an indication of the potential consequences of DiAngelo’s ideas.
Moreover, her reasoning is circular. The following anecdote from one of her corporate sessions is exemplary of many in the book: “The moment I name some racially problematic dynamic or action happening in the room in the moment — for example, ‘Sharon, may I give you some feedback? While I understand it wasn’t intentional, your response to Jason’s story invalidates his experience as a black man’ — white fragility erupts. Sharon defensively explains that she was misunderstood and then angrily withdraws, while others run in to defend her by re-explaining ‘what she really meant.’ … Shaking my head, I think to myself, ‘You asked me here to help you see your racism, but by god, I’d better not actually help you see your racism.’”
An alternative explanation for Sharon’s behavior would be that a perfectly innocent person who hadn’t given five seconds of thought to these matters is forced into a diversity training by her employer and put on the defense by somebody trained to engage in this sort of aggressive dialog. Unlike her session facilitator, Sharon didn’t come prepared with arguments written and memorized before the session. All she can resort to when thus confronted is denying she behaved in a racist manner. But then DiAngelo will explain to her that “this denial is a fundamental way in which white people maintain unequal racial power.”
How can anybody defend themselves against such a tautological assault? Denying you’re a racist is proof of your racism. The only path to redemption is a full-on confession and atonement. You shall be made to love Big Brother.
Another important objection to White Fragility is its baffling silence on any culpability on the part of blacks. The rampant crime in black neighborhoods, out-of-wedlock childbirth, absentee fathers — none of it is even mentioned in the book. These widespread social problems plaguing the black community didn’t explode under slavery or Jim Crow, but after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
Instead of so much as naming these issues, much less addressing them, DiAngelo attempts to gaslight us with the assertion that the infamous ‘white flight’ from American cities is another irrational, indeed racist, phenomenon: “Research matching census data and police department crime statistics show that [the association between more blacks in a neighborhood and a higher crime rate] does not hold, but these statistics do not quell white fears.” Absurdly, she writes that “whites distort the real direction of danger between whites and others,” which utterly flies in the face of any statistic on interracial crime out there.
Cultural factors for the schism in outcomes between whites and blacks are in effect crossed out by DiAngelo. Moreover, the negative unintended consequences of well-intended policies crafted by whites to help the socio-economic plight of blacks — i.e. the Great Society — remain unmentioned too. The only explanation left standing is the systemic racism erected by whites in order to preserve the unfair racial hierarchy. And so a very complex problem with multiple intricately interwoven causes is essentially reduced to a one-dimensional black-and-white issue which would vanish overnight if only whites weren’t so damn stubborn.
Solzhenitsyn famously wrote in The Gulag Archipelago that “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.” DiAngelo takes this mantra to heights unimaginable even to the expiating Calvinists of old — though only when it comes to whites, never people of color, whose innocence is apparently never disturbed by their human inclinations and can never be questioned.
All of this would be more palatable if it weren’t for the astounding lack of a greater historical perspective in DiAngelo’s book. It turns racism and colonialism into uniquely Western sins of which blacks and others would seemingly be entirely incapable. It denies that our civilization has made more progress than any other in human history eradicating these evils over the past few centuries — progress more often than not paid for in blood.
Furthermore, DiAngelo never asks herself the question why it was possible in the first place for the West to become as economically, politically, militarily and culturally dominant as it did. Or why the African continent didn’t. Would Africans have left the rest of the world alone if they had stood in our shoes 400 years ago? Would they have paid visits to Europe with just a guitar in their hands instead of muskets so we could all sing Kumbaya together? It’s highly doubtful.
The likes of DiAngelo display a complete unwillingness to concede that its superior ideas are what propelled the West to the top of the hierarchy, not racism or raw power. And that these ideas have on balance been a force for good in the world, lifting billions out of abject poverty and political tyranny — both of which have been an inextricable part of the human condition since we started walking on two legs. DiAngelo wouldn’t want to live in China or Yemen or Zimbabwe, where even the majority population’s existence is immeasurably worse than that of blacks in the U.S. This is not to mention any oppressed minorities in these countries, some of whom are subjected to slavery even today.
The reason why Solzhenitsyn’s seminal work is as important as it is, and why it’s being brought up in this review, is that it instills a healthy dose of humility and gratitude into its readers. The Gulag Archipelago provides us with more than a mere historical overview of labor camps in the USSR: It offers a window into an alternative way of life, infinitely inferior to ours. It tells us that, for all our faults and historical sins, we have achieved something both unique and remarkable in the West which will still leave historians in awe three millennia from now. And that if we keep gnawing at the foundations of this miraculous civilization and subjecting ourselves to ideological purity tests, very bad things might end up happening.
Let me reiterate once again, before you hit that fatwa button, that none of this is to deny the historically difficult plight of blacks in the United States. Unspeakable crimes have been inflicted on them in the not-so-distant past. We shouldn’t ignore that fact, nor fail to make an effort to improve their lot as well as reflect on our own behavior (I’m speaking as a white guy here).
But the reality is that blacks in America today live under infinitely better circumstances than blacks anywhere else in the world and at any time in history. And if they pull themselves up by the bootstraps, they can overcome any hurdle put in front of them. To deny that fact is tantamount to treating blacks like a group of helpless children devoid of agency and fortitude.
While The Gulag Archipelago will be remembered for a long time to come for its keen insights not only into the dark history of the multitudinous Soviet labor camps but also into our fallen human nature, future historians will be puzzled by White Fragility and other such works, and the Orwellian moral panics they helped spur which are ravaging our civilization at the moment.
One can only hope we will come to our senses before nothing is left but rubble and prison camps. While the Right loves to chatter about the Silent Majority, Republicans have won the popular vote in presidential elections only once since 1988. It’s about time that majority dropped its silence.