White silence = violence (Photo by Kenny Brown/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

June 28, 2021   9 mins

How did an obscure diversity trainer from an impoverished background become one of the most influential thinkers in the world? Last summer, at the peak of the George Floyd protests, Robin DiAngelo’s slim volume White Fragility, which was already a bestseller in America, became the number one selling book on Amazon’s website: it sold so many copies it soon ran out of stock.

By June, every title in the top ten of the New York Times’s bestselling nonfiction list was an anti-racist book. Magazines, newspapers, Instagram influencers, book clubs and bookshops all encouraged readers to educate themselves about racism by reading an approved list of books. The same titles kept reappearing.

A new canon was soon established. It included, among others, Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Ijeoma Uluo’s So You Want To Talk About Race, Akala’s Natives, Layla F. Saad’s Me and White Supremacy and Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist. Never mind that these books differ from each other in content, style and genre; they constituted an integral wish-list for any aspiring anti-racist. And DiAngelo’s was top of the pack.

DiAngelo’s latest book, Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm, is released this week. The audience is, of course, progressive white people; she describes her intended “white progressive” readership as generally on the Left, but they can also be moderates, centrists and soft conservatives. They probably read The Root or the New York Times and “listen to NPR or the BBC as they commute to their job at a non-profit or tech company”.

Like so many of these recent books on race, Nice Racism is, quite explicitly, a self-help book rather than an anti-racist polemic.

Though she now has a very successful career, DiAngelo had a harrowing childhood. Her parents separated when she was young, and she moved apartments several times a year; her single mother couldn’t pay the rent. DiAngelo grew up without medical and dental care. She was called dirty at school and shunned by her peers. When she was ten, her mother died of cancer.

DiAngelo received her undergraduate degree in her mid-thirties at Seattle University, and her PhD, in the field of multicultural education, more than a decade later at the University of Washington. It was between the time of her degree and her doctorate that she became a diversity trainer, since when she has spent 20 years advising white-led businesses and organisations on how to positively interact with black and ethnic minority people. It was out of this work that she conceived the concept and title of her bestseller: white fragility.

White fragility is white people’s inability to discuss race and racism without being defensive and anxious. Whenever the vexed topic of race comes up, DiAngelo argues, white people bristle. This is because white people have been “socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves”. Everywhere you look you see white people in positions of political, economic, and cultural power; white standards of beauty are the norm; and black and ethnic minorities are presented throughout society as stupid, incompetent, and dangerous.

And all of this has been normalised to such an extent that, when such racial inequities are pointed out, “we become highly fragile in conversations about race”. Because the challenge to the “internalized superiority” of white people triggers a response of debilitating discomfort, anti-racist white people need to “build” their “racial stamina”— their ability to endure such conversations.

White fragility, however, is not benign: “it is a powerful means of white racial control and the protection of white advantage”. The genius of DiAngelo’s argument is that she can use any rejection of her thesis as evidence of its soundness. Condemn it out of hand and, well, you’re just suffering from white fragility.

What leads to white fragility, DiAngelo argues, is the belief that racism is individual actions committed by unkind people. This is an outdated view. Racism is instead deeply woven into the institutions of our society; every white person is socialised to be racist, and it is up to each individual white person to undo this socialisation.

This is why DiAngelo has no truck with individualism, meritocracy, and colour-blindness — they obscure the collective social fact of racism by suggesting we are unique individuals outside the matrix of race, or we can achieve social mobility without race, or that race doesn’t shape or influence how we perceive the world.

Even though DiAngelo explicitly disavows individualism, there is an essentially individualist mindset implicit in her argument: the individual who has to face up to her own socialisation in white supremacy. Individualism is bad because it suggests white people can escape from the forces of socialisation; but the only way to tackle white fragility, DiAngelo suggests, is by strengthening our individual capacity to sustain such conversations. White Fragility is not a utopian manifesto. It is not a Marxist polemic. It is a self-help book for white people who want to know how to confront racism.

Yet while many self-help books are about making you feel good, or at least providing you with the tools to feel better, this isn’t quite the same with DiAngelo’s work. There is a Lutheran-like emphasis on the need to purge yourself of racism. And there is a distinctly pessimistic strain: “Racism is so deeply woven into the fabric of our society”, DiAngelo writes, “that I do not see myself escaping from that continuum in my lifetime”.

The two books often bought alongside White Fragility, Saad’s Me and White Supremacy and Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist, encourage the reader to use a journal when reading the text – a confessional volume itemising their list of racial sins. Becoming an anti-racist is not a walk in the park.

In her 2001 book, Race Experts, Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn analysed the intersection between race and the vogue for individual self-improvement in the wake of America’s civil rights movement. “The race experts”, she argues, “moved in to fill a void created by the collapse of the civil rights coalition and the loss of the clarity of the early movement, capitalizing on a long-term trend in American culture toward reliance on experts for guidance in all aspects of public and personal life”.

The civil rights movement was characterised by a commitment to egalitarianism and a universal standard of moral conduct: “It rested”, Lasch-Quinn writes, “on historical truths about America’s pluralism and its racial crimes. It rested on moral truths about harmony and justice”. The rhetoric of the new race experts, by contrast, is characterised by an emphasis on racial difference and individual self-expression:  “The therapeutic notion of identity called for unlimited self-expression as a goal”, Lasch-Quinn writes, “instead of a collective rehabilitation aimed at the formation of a morally viable community”.

Nevertheless, underneath the seeming chaos of individual self-expression lurks the strictures of ritual: “Despite its ostensible commitment to baring all emotion and thought”, Lasch-Quinn writes, “it has its own rituals and forms that actually constrain certain kinds of expression, perhaps the kinds we as a public need the most”. We are encouraged to educate ourselves about racism, and what is lost in our vain attempt to make full sense of the complexities of race is compensated for by the security of race experts telling us what to do and think.

DiAngelo’s tone is earnest and straightforward. There is a charm to how briskly she addresses contentious issues. The world is confusing and she encourages humility in her readers. She has the charisma of a prim no-nonsense teacher.

Saad possesses a similar quality, but she is more explicit. Her book Me and White Supremacy began as a 28-day Instagram challenge. It then became a PDF workbook that was downloaded by over 100,000 people around the world.

It is written as a companion guide for white readers to unpack their complicity in white supremacy. Saad is our Virgil: with characteristic humility, she describes her work in the introduction as a “one-of-a-kind personal antiracism tool structured to help people with white privilege understand and take ownership of their participation in the oppressive system of white supremacy”.

That Saad was born in Britain and grew up there and in Qatar — where she currently lives — does not stop her from using a term like BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of colour) to refer to ethnic minority people. Like all successful self-help authors, she knows her own audience: they are either American or have internalised American culture to such an extent they can read about the marginalisation of “indigenous communities” without batting an eyelid.

At times Saad sounds like a boorish Italian-American boxing coach from the 1950s, or a barking Army general in a Stanley Kubrick epic: “There are no safety nets, no shortcuts, and no easier routes. You will want to close the book, run away, and pretend you never heard of me”, she instructs her reader: “You will want to blame me, rage at me, discredit me, and list all the reasons why you are a good person and why you don’t need to do this work. That is a normal, expected response. That is the response of the white fragility and anti-Blackness lying inside”.

But you can, of course, overcome this. She is more upbeat than DiAngelo. Like an old-fashioned textbook, there are questions at the end of each chapter to answer.

Kendi’s How to be Antiracist, by contrast, is distinct in one important way from many other contemporary anti-racist books: he believes black people can be racist to white people. As a college student, Kendi briefly thought white people were aliens. He no longer believes this. “Whenever someone classifies people of European descent as biologically, culturally, or behaviourally inferior”, he writes, “whenever someone says there is something wrong with White people as a group, someone is articulating a racist idea”.

In How to be an Antiracist, definitions are absolutely critical for Kendi. He wants clear and consistent definitions on the terms racist and anti-racist. A racist is someone “who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea”. And an anti-racist is someone “who is supporting an anti-racist policy through their actions or expressing an anti-racist idea”.

How to be an Antiracist is the most unnuanced book I have ever read; he splits everything down the middle. There is no such thing as a race-neutral policy: every policy is either producing or challenging racial inequities. “The opposite of ‘racist’”, Kendi writes, “isn’t non-racist. It is ‘anti-racist’. One who ‘believes problems are rooted in groups of people’ is a racist”. By contrast, one who “locates the roots of problems in power and policies is an anti-racist.”

But for Kendi, being a racist is not the worst thing in the world. “It is not the worst word in the English language; it is not the equivalent of a slur”, he writes. “It is descriptive, and the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it — and then dismantle it”.

Kendi, like DiAngelo with her concept of white fragility, is effectively saying: get over yourselves. Stop being squeamish about being called racist. This aggressively dispassionate style of reasoning, however, is opposed to the true emotional character of people — something earlier anti-racist activists appealed to rather than denied. How, for example, can we be animated to fight racial injustice if we strip racism of its moral content and treat it as simply an analytical tool? isn’t the fact we are upset by being called racist a good thing because it implies we have intuitively accepted the moral case for fighting racism? Of course, many evidently racist people deny they are racist because of the social stigma attached to being called racist. But it’s still possible to identify their dishonesty without diluting the moral content of the term. To do so would be to undermine the legacy of those who proscribed racial prejudice in polite society.

Ultimately, both Kendi and DiAngelo, despite themselves, fit established stereotypes about America. The individualism, the meritocracy (they are both now wealthy and distinguished public thinkers), the vigorous evangelical piety, and, perhaps the most American thing about them: the neurotic fascination with race.

In her latest book, Nice Racism, DiAngelo’s fixation with race reaches a new pitch of intensity. Among her practical solutions for confronting racism includes attending something called an affinity group. A white affinity group is white people meeting together to discuss their internalised superiority, implicit bias, confusion, and resentment — and doing this in a racially segregated space so as not to cause harm to “racialized people”.

Another thing she suggests is getting “accountability partners of colour”. This is a black person who has agreed to coach you, think with you, and challenge you on your inevitable racism. And you should pay them for this.

If you are inclined, you could also seek out white accountability partners. DiAngelo says she doesn’t offer to pay her white friends for this, but she generously informs us that “there are white people with strong analysis and deep experience who do offer professional aid coaching”.

Apart from the dangers of encouraging and retrenching racial segregation, there is something so intensely cringeworthy about all of this. An accountability partner? White affinity groups? DiAngelo’s prose, in this book, is deadening rather than enlivening, tedious rather than instructive. Her analysis and recommendations lack sophistication, original insights, sprightly sentences, and astute observations. It is like reading a HR manager’s attempt to write a bestseller.

How can we have constructive discussions about race when everything is so tightly scripted? How can we have genuine conversations when our emotions are disregarded rather than acknowledged?

DiAngelo evinces no curiosity about the lives of ethnic minority people: they come out of this book as shallow as a street puddle. There is no attempt to dig beneath the surface of oppression and marginalisation. How, exactly, can we build authentic cross-racial relationships on the basis of all of this?

But, as she reminds us in one passage, her book is not an attempt “to teach white people about Black people. I am seeking to teach white people about ourselves in relation to Black people and other people of color”. In the end, it is supposed to be about the individual white person overcoming a barrier to greater racial enlightenment. In truth, what is offered is not enlightenment but an emotionally and intellectually enervating form of narcissism.

Tomiwa Owolade is a freelance writer and the author of This is Not America, which will be published by Atlantic in June.