We are, especially here in Brooklyn, living in Robin DiAngelo’s world. And yet she seems so unhappy about it.
The five-minute walk to my neighborhood bookstore to buy DiAngelo’s new book Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm is filled with totems signaling the continued ascendancy of the self-styled anti-racist movement.
A window on my block bears the hand-scrawled sign “INACTION = CONSENT,” a Manichean formulation that DiAngelo echoes throughout her follow-up to the 2018 smash hit White Fragility (“if we are not actively challenging those [racist] structures, we are supporting them,” etc.). The storefront of my local State Assembly representative’s office displays not one but three Black Lives Matter signs. Across the street, the fence of my youngest’s elementary school is festooned with student art condemning discrimination and celebrating diversity. That school recently shrunk its zone (my house, 150 feet away, is no longer in it) and changed admissions policies in an effort to “disrupt zones of exclusion.” And just past the bookstore is my eldest’s much more diverse middle school, more famously known now as the subject of the New York Times podcast Nice White Parents, whose sardonic, guilt-encouraging title likely influenced DiAngelo’s latest.
This movement’s journey from obscurity to ubiquity has been neck-snappingly brief—and measurably lucrative for its leading lights. “My average fee for an event in 2018 was $6,200,” DiAngelo writes on her website’s “Accountability” page. “In 2019, it was $9,200. In 2020 (as of August), it has been $14,000.” In the book, she adds that she gives presentations on “whiteness and white fragility” on a “weekly basis.”
Taking those numbers at face value, that’s $728,000 a year just from speeches and workshops, to say nothing of book royalties and whatever the University of Washington is paying her. By most every yardstick, DiAngelo has achieved runaway success, lodging herself firmly in the top-earning 1 percent of the world’s richest country.
But Nice Racism is an unrelentingly sour book, depicting the fight against systemic oppression as a joyless, never-ending slog through minefields of potential missteps, while relying to a comical degree on DiAngelo’s exasperated encounters with people who have the temerity to disagree with her approach.
That latter description may sound uncharitable, but it’s not. In a chapter titled “We Aren’t Actually All That Nice,” DiAngelo belatedly berates a (white male) London cab driver for telling her that he was sick of being called a racist and that he feared a group of black men who hung around his neighborhood. “Also worthy of note was his typical white lack of racial curiosity or humility about the limits of his knowledge,” she snipped. “He had the author of a New York Times best-selling book who was in town to do interviews for the BBC in his cab, and he did not ask a single question about my thoughts on the matter.” The nerve!
If you are a white person who has challenged DiAngelo in one of her seminars the past couple of years, you are probably in this book. There’s “Sue and Bob,” who reacted to her eight-point talk on “What’s Problematic About Individualism?” by telling her that, no, they prefer treating people as individual human beings. “How could Sue and Bob have missed that forty-five minute presentation?” she huffed. “I was left wondering, yet again, what happens cognitively for so many white people in anti-racism education efforts that prevents them from actually hearing what is being presented.”
There was “David,” a white man who—after being asked to disclose his racial identity—chose an indigenous tribe he had just spent a few months living with. (“David held fast to his opening claim, which had a powerful impact on the seminar and which continued to direct our efforts and distract the group.”) There was a white woman who complained that a DiAngelo-led webinar was not “advanced” enough for those who’d been doing such work for years. (“This move demonstrates an inability to think strategically about our own role in anti-racist endeavors.”)
Then there were the white progressive participants of one presentation who, even after being told that “silence from a position of power is a power move,” nonetheless declined DiAngelo’s urgings to speak aloud about their experiences of “white socialization,” and then complained afterward. “Given that in the case of racism, the worst fear of most white progressives is that they be perceived as racist, and both myself and the BIPOC people in the room gave them direct feedback that the effect of their silence was racism, how could they continue to hold back? What was going on?”
There’s a palpable anxiety gnawing near the heart of DiAngelo’s project, one that gives me a bit of hope in our fraught racial times. Sure, people are buying her books, shelling out five figures for her appearances, and being confronted with her ideas at workplace seminars. But are they really getting it?
Clearly, many are not, even among the self-selected group of progressive knowledge-class workers with a professed interest in DiAngelo’s brand of anti-racism. (Lord help those in figurative flyover factories who are force-fed her enthusiasms for racially segregated “affinity groups,” among many other questionable ideas.) The selling proposition of Nice Racism is that DiAngelo can, by shaming those in her targeted demo who refuse to take their medicine, guilt enough of their cohort to double down on doing the work. And oh, is there so much work.
A subhed in a section near the end summarizes what’s required: “Lifelong Commitment.” “We must not ever consider our work toward racial justice to be finished,” DiAngelo admonishes. For those white people who deign to believe they have achieved true anti-racism, she offers an exhausting, impossible-to-achieve 21-point checklist, including such items as, “I use my position as a white ‘insider’ to share information with BIPOC people,” and “I have demonstrated that I am open to feedback on my own unaware racist patterns.”
Conclusion: “We must continuously educate ourselves through books, films, discussions, conferences, community groups, workbooks, and activism.” And she knows just the provider to help!
Much of Nice Racism consists of DiAngelo detecting racist patterns where others might instead observe people trying in their imperfect ways to be human. There is a whole section on white women’s tears, with the author criticizing some white mothers in one emotional session for empathetically crying with and consoling black mothers who described talking to their sons about racist cops.
The relentlessness of the tone-policing after a while makes your face numb: Don’t be too quick to show family photos of your BIPOC kids/grandkids, don’t be too “nice,” don’t “over-smile” to black people (I am not making that up). Don’t think that marrying a black man gives you a pass: “Sadly, many white women don’t demonstrate that their cross-racial relationships have provided a deeper understanding.”
There is a paradox at the center of this Miss Racial Manners stuff. DiAngelo’s starting point, fundamental to the anti-racist movement, is that just about every instrument and extrusion of society and government was born in racism and perpetuates racially unequal outcomes. You cannot secede from race; you’re soaking in it. Therefore, it is incumbent on all good people to consciously disrupt those systems.
But DiAngelo almost never talks about those systems.
There is a passing paraphrased assertion late in the book about how some state gun-rights law was somehow connected to racism. Yet any academically rigorous look at the connection between gun rights and racism will preponderantly show the opposite: The system of gun restrictions was originally created as a conscious effort to deprive black Americans of their Second Amendment rights, and the practical application of them to this day leads to tremendous racial disparities. Do the work, people!
There is almost no policy in Nice Racism. Perhaps that is for the best—at one point DiAngelo writes this whopper of a non-sequitur: “In discussing white people who define their politics as fiscally conservative but socially liberal, [Heather] McGhee notes that all poverty in the US could be eliminated by spending just 12 percent more than the cost of the 2017 Republican tax cuts.” That is not how either poverty or government spending works.
Applying the “systemic racism” analysis to actual systems requires understanding how said systems work, and having the humility—otherwise a DiAngelo-recommended virtue—to recognize that results are not the same as intent; that people who agree on ends will have heartfelt intellectual/policy disagreement about means. A fatal flaw coursing through the anti-racism set is a failure to acknowledge that people who are equally motivated by a desire to improve opportunities for historically disfavored populations may have different ideas about how to accomplish that. See the debates over charter schools, for example, or the minimum wage.
Tone-policing individual behavior, on the other hand, has a much more tangible call to action: Devote yourself to continuing education, participate in this seminar, and—of course—buy this book.
But will they read to the end? There are some people, I am sure, who have a taste for political self-flagellation, for being on the masochistic end of collective shaming, for being told that even the desire for forgiveness is untenably racist. But even among that unhappy subset, there surely are limits to consuming page after page of anxiety-wracked pessimism and an almost juvenile defensiveness over being challenged.
Toward the end of Nice Racism, DiAngelo quotes a 75-year-old man who has the gall to write an email criticizing her for making negative generalizations about old white people on NPR. The note runs all of 165 words. DiAngelo responds with a six-page rant, complete with enumeration of 10 “unspoken white racial ‘rules,'” blasting the correspondent’s “hostility and condescension.” It is a hilariously disproportionate and ungracious projection of the author’s by-now-evident personality traits.
“In addition, given that the writer is a white man chastising a white woman with more knowledge of the matter than he has, it also nicely illustrates the intersection of white and male arrogance: both whitesplaining and mansplaining,” she snarls.
Robin DiAngelo’s main contribution to racial discourse, for better and for worse, is prodding those of us with fair skin to be more cognizant that we benefit from a cultural and legal expectation that our immutable characteristics are the default “normal.” Those born different, she rightly points out, are too often denied individual agency and instead categorized negatively into a group identity.
But her response isn’t to confer that overdue individuality onto minority populations. It’s to enthusiastically commit the same category error with the largest category. When people recoil at the effort, well, that’s just their racism talking.
“There is deep racial resentment roiling just under the surface of many white people,” DiAngelo writes. Or at least under the surface of some successful white anti-racist educators.
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