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The commodification of Black pain: Why 'White Fragility' falls short

Jay Serrano, Editorial Director

July 15, 2020

In the midst of yet another reckoning with the antiblackness that permeates every corner of the U.S., many people have scrambled for ways to make sense of it all. For some, it is a familiar topic of conversation, one that has shaped their entire life. For others, it is an abstract knowledge they may only be exploring for the first time.

For these individuals, self-education has become a common prescription. Social media users who are more well versed in the topic of antiblack racism have curated various reading lists with recommended reading for nonblack people. One title has popped up in several of these posts, often floating to the top of the list. I recognized it from when it hit the New York Times Best Seller List in 2018 and stayed there for over a year. It stirred some controversy then, but it has since reemerged in the wake of the George Floyd protests, once again becoming a best seller, highly recommended and rated on Amazon and endlessly passed around on my Facebook feed.

The book is called “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” written by a White academic named Robin DiAngelo. You’ve likely heard of this book before—or, at the very least, have heard of its central thesis. Her primary assertion is that White people are inherently complicit in racism and that they must do work to dismantle this, defining resistance to this concept “white fragility” or “white defensiveness.”

I am not the target audience for this book and withheld critique because I did not have a strong opinion of it. I’m half Puerto Rican, and our heritage and history is intimately intertwined with the West African slave trade. I am part Black, like most Puerto Ricans, and much of my family is Afrolatino. So the plight of Black people is something I’ve been cognizant of since I was very small. I thought there was no reason for me to read a simplified version of racism for reluctant White people, but as it became more and more famous, I noticed insidious things about it. Reading it validated some of my more cynical analyses of the narcissism of neoliberal elite establishments, but it also deeply confused me. It appears I was not alone.

The critiques of the book vary. One common critique is some variation of “racism is not that bad, and I’m upset at being implicated.” I view this critique as fundamentally absurd, ahistorical, and demonstrably false. Another critique, primarily presented on the Left, is that DiAngelo uses corporate framing to offer a prescriptive non-solution to a problem that could be more effectively solved by addressing workers’ rights and establishing socialized policy. The idea is that class solidarity supersedes racial solidarity and that to proclaim otherwise is playing into corporate division tactics and identity politics. The Left has very scant media representation and, perhaps predictably, the voices that have succeeded have been almost exclusively White. It is not shocking to me, then, that their critique correctly analyzes DiAngelo’s poor framing and conflict of interest but fails to diagnose the real pervasiveness and seriousness of antiblackness.

I think the real problem with “White Fragility” is that is reads as a self-congratulatory Racism 101 course that centers the White experience above all and sanitizes the experience of people of color, especially Black people—ironically, likely to be more palatable for a White audience. The book is incredibly repetitive and condescending, entirely satisfied in its commodification of racism in the U.S. and once you realize how much money she’s made from this book and how much it has brought her fame, it feels openly exploitative.

  • Centering the White Experience

DiAngelo is a White woman. A White author being the primary spokesman for people of color would seem to undermine the ethos of the book, which often emphasizes listening to us. There is a strong self-centered streak to the entire narrative; it is all about White people, even as we are being finger-wagged at about how we leave people of color out of conversations about their own oppression.

We hear plenty about white privilege, white fragility, white tears, white guilt, etc. But we hear very little from or about people of color’s experiences outside of being spokespeople for oppression. She offers few positive stories about people of color—instead, every interaction regarding racism is combative and confrontational. There’s also a creepiness to the way in which nonwhite people are reduced to props in the backdrop of White people’s journey towards enlightenment.

There is an incredible irony in watching groups of rich White elites argue amongst themselves about racism. There is even more irony is watching the critique of these people come from other White people and watching their arguments still miss the point. It’s a bizarre reminder that we aren’t allowed to be the protagonist even in stories ostensibly about us. DiAngelo didn’t write about us. She wrote about White people’s feelings about us.

  • The Corporate Angle

This is part of the Left critique of DiAngelo’s work that is actually quite prudent. DiAngelo fills her books with anecdotes of defensive workers she met during her stint as a corporate diversity trainer. She, bizarrely, appears to offer her advice as a corporate consultant without acknowledging this approach would be inappropriate with family and friends. She doesn’t appear to acknowledge this because she doesn’t realize it, which makes it even more concerning.

Prescribed lines come across as insincere and almost cartoonishly silly, furthering the impression that this is about optics and sounding woke rather than about effecting meaningful change. She also often paints coworkers as being the harbingers of inequality but fails to ever acknowledge the way corporations are plagued by systemic racism. To eliminate racism from the workplace would require a reckoning with the capitalist structures that have historically disenfranchised people of color, particularly Black and brown people.

She even often frames racism as…microaggressions in the workplace. Sure, this happens and yes, it is inappropriate and negatively affects people of color. However, it betrays a bias in which it is clear she believes the more overt types of racism—lynching, hate crimes, wrongful termination, being denied housing, poor access to medical care, higher mortality rates, etc.—are either less important or less common than corporate microaggressions. We don’t need to protect ourselves from a lawsuit. We need to foster more empathy for people of color. Now, more than ever, what we need is for White people to see the humanity of Black people. This book does not give us the tools to make that happen.

  • The Political Divide

Part of what makes this book stand out and, I believe, part of why this book was so instinctively rejected by the Left is because there is a huge ideological rift between the Democratic Party and progressives. DiAngelo incorrectly defines “progressives,” couching it into the term “White progressives,” which feels as though it is intentionally avoiding Martin Luther King Jr.’s naming of “the White moderate.”

Through subtleties like that, it becomes apparent that DiAngelo has a political ideology that is notoriously infantilizing and condescending towards people of color and is diametrically opposed to the politics of racial justice groups, which are typically Leftist in nature. The New York Times is a moderate outlet with a clear ideological bend, and it feels like no coincidence that this book was widely covered by the publication and then began increasing in sales. To be entirely fair, the New York Times and other more moderate outlets have praised Black literature and showcased it, helping to garner attention, but they can be problematic vessels.

One of the largest critiques of White moderates is that they are often incredibly complicit in systems of racism and inequality, but instead of addressing these issues head-on, they offer strong rhetoric that they do not practice nor seem to truly believe. This political divide is, despite popular belief, not a new one. Again, Martin Luther King Jr. criticized White moderates, and although DiAngelo often says the “correct” answer, her rhetoric is insidious in its insincerity.

  • Letting White Academics Set the Conversation

When we offer academics a disproportionately large amount of credibility, we allow them to set the tone of the conversation. Perhaps this would be appropriate in the case of something like neurobiology or electrical engineering, but when discussing race issues, particularly the systemic kind, academia is hardly the authority. Colleges uphold and perpetuate systemic racism in complicated, nuanced ways, which is not the primary topic of this piece, but remains incredibly relevant. When considering how this book became so famous, one must consider the systems of power that allowed a White academic to set the narrative.

This critique is substantially reduced with Black academics and other nonwhite academics, but even then, the discourse can be divorced from material realities or become corroded by stewing in a context that is implicitly hostile towards antiracism.

  • Offering No Solutions—What was the Goal?

DiAngelo very conspicuously offers no solutions as to how to actually improve the material conditions of Black people. She only appears to encourage self-flagellation to absolve oneself of any accidental racism while engaging in said racism. Feeling guilty is centering your fragile white feelings, she insists, as she continues intentionally provoking guilt and centering the White experience. She paints the reader into a corner by taking the possibility of criticism off the table and gives them nothing but the recommendation they attend her pricey racial sensitivity seminars.

It comes across as being provocative for the sake of being provocative and really, the idea is a self-defeating one. The theory of White fragility is fundamentally unprovable because any critique of it is an apparent confirmation of itself. It does not encourage dialogue or move the needle—it simply alienates for the sake of establishing one’s own moral superiority.

At the end of the day, this is a book that reviews the same concepts over and over without offering any suggestions on how to help advance the liberation of nonwhite people. It doesn’t seem interested in endearing itself to the reader and is, in fact, openly hostile towards the reader, who is ostensibly trying to unlearn their racism. It is difficult to believe her goal is to convert the layman. She simply presents her narrow realm of corporate moderate ideology that abstracts our experiences with racism to make White people feel guilty and buy her books so she can profit off our pain while talking about us like cardboard cutouts.

If we are to assume the goal is self-education, there are far better books written by authors of color which we can and should be reading instead.

As Black Lives Matter is the focal point of this newsletter and the framing I had in mind when critiquing “White Fragility,” I am recommending specifically Black pieces. Many Black liberation writers are Leftists, which comes across in their writings, and I strongly believe we need to reclaim that space on the Left. We must be able to discuss our lived experiences without it being erased as being mere identity politics. A great first step is getting truly educated and building genuine empathy for Black people. Here are some of cornerstone pieces that are actually written by Black people, many of whom were/are Black academics and/or activists:

  • “Are Prisons Obsolete?” – Angela Davis
  • “The Fire Next Time” – James Baldwin
  • “Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism” – bell hooks
  • “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” – Malcolm X with Alex Haley
  • “Report from the Bahamas” – June Jordan
  • “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics” – Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw
  • “How to Be an Antiracist” – Ibram X. Kendi
  • “Between the World and Me” – Ta-Nehisi Coates

This doesn’t begin to scratch the surface and there are many pieces specifically on intersectionality, exploring queer Black identity, Black feminism, Black disability activism, capitalism’s effects on Black people, etc. At some point, we will hopefully explore some of these concepts in depth here.

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