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I haven’t said much about the current nationwide discussion on race that arose in the wake of the George Floyd killing. I did post a recent blog on Robin DiAngelo’s critique of white fragility, given that her book has taken on an enlarged role in this discussion of late. So I am now going to say a few more things — but mainly about Professor John McWhorter’s reaction to DiAngelo. To me, McWhorter maps out a road to reason, something quite welcome in these not-very-well-reasoned times.

I first became interested in American racial issues as a senior in high school, 2 years after the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I have written on the matter of racial relations a fair amount in this blog. I can’t say that I’ve devoted my life to social justice, but I did get involved with a handful of related organizations and causes over the past 40 years. Yes, you can find various traces of white fragility and privilege and implicit bias in me. I’m not perfect, I don’t pretend to be. But I can say that I am concerned, and have been for a long time.

To be honest, I haven’t been all that interested in writings and literature by white authors about “the white problem” regarding race. I have listened a bit to voices like TaNeshi Coates and more recently, Ibram X. Kendi; but as to Robin DiAngelo, I scarcely knew who she was until just a few weeks ago. And that was only because I was reading a reaction to her writings by a black author — the indomitable John McWhorter.

Here’s my attempt to summarize and paraphrase Prof. McWhorter on Robin DiAngelo and her book on White Fragility:

In sum: African Americans are a strong people regardless of whatever terrible things that whites have done to them and will continue to do to them. In some discussions, progressive whites take an attitude of pity towards blacks, they assume that the black community has been crippled by whites. It cannot be denied that whites have done and continue to do all sorts of awful things to blacks. But progressive whites tend to over-estimate just how badly their race has damaged those of color in America. Why? Perhaps this implicitly builds up the importance of the white culture that these progressives hail from. Yes, even amidst the “woke”, there are some “implicit” things going on. Too much is never enough when you need to broadcast virtue signals.

Per McWhorter himself, on why Black people allegedly need to be treated by whites the way DiAngelo assumes that they do:

The very assumption is deeply condescending to all proud Black people. In my life, racism has affected me now and then at the margins, in very occasional social ways, but has had no effect on my access to societal resources; if anything, it has made them more available to me than they would have been otherwise. Nor should anyone dismiss me as a rara avis. Being middle class, upwardly mobile, and Black has been quite common during my existence since the mid-1960s, and to deny this is to assert that affirmative action for Black people did not work.

In 2020—as opposed to 1920—I neither need nor want anyone to muse on how whiteness privileges them over me. Nor do I need wider society to undergo teachings in how to be exquisitely sensitive about my feelings. I see no connection between DiAngelo’s brand of reeducation and vigorous, constructive activism in the real world on issues of import to the Black community. And I cannot imagine that any Black readers could willingly submit themselves to DiAngelo’s ideas while considering themselves adults of ordinary self-regard and strength. Few books about race have more openly infantilized Black people than this supposedly authoritative tome.

White Fragility is, in the end, a book about how to make certain educated white readers feel better about themselves. DiAngelo’s outlook rests upon a depiction of Black people as endlessly delicate poster children within this self-gratifying fantasy about how white America needs to think—or, better, stop thinking. Her answer to white fragility, in other words, entails an elaborate and pitilessly dehumanizing condescension toward Black people.


I recall witnessing something akin to the progressive paternalism that McWhorter cites in the Zen center where I enjoy going and sharing quiet time with fellow meditators. Soon after the election of Donald Trump in 2016, our group was encouraged to sit through three hours of lectures on implicit racism, given by some well versed and well intentioned white progressives from our group. In attendance was a female college student named Anny (name changed to protect privacy). At some point, Anny tried to disagree with the fervent descriptions of the great damage that whites have done to blacks. Anny certainly couldn’t and didn’t disagree about the brutality of slavery and the Ku Klux Klan and the sheriffs and police who unleashed dogs and water canons at civil rights marchers. But she did wish to take exception with the presenters’ descriptions regarding how white oppression today entirely prevents blacks from significant economic and social achievement. As soon as one of the presenters finished a statement, Anny interjected “that’s so not true”.

Well, every one in the room was shocked (except me; most everyone in attendance was white). Finally, our “sensei” (teacher / leader) told Anny that she was breaking a rule of discussion at the zendo, talking out of order. OK, there are rules of discussion for our group, although usually things are informal enough not to require them. This sudden enforcement did the job; Anny was effectively “cancelled”. She never returned to the zendo after that day. Our Sensei could instead have said “Anny, you are out of order. We would like to hear what you have to say, but please wait your turn”. But no, it was quite clear that Anny was being told to shut up, that we weren’t open to hearing her point of view. I’m sure that Robin Di Angelo would be proud of our Sensei and his acolytes.

If McWhorter is right and much white progressive angst and remorse over racism involves a desire for self-purification and feeling better about ones self, then perhaps it is actually best for those white people to help preserve some form of black disadvantage, despite their pleas to eliminate it, given that it allows them to blame “other whites” and thus feel good about themselves for supposedly having the courage and self-integrity to indict those of their own race. I know this sounds incredible, but after that day at the zendo, I have to wonder.

As I said in my post, there are plenty of real-world policies and causes and actions that can address structural racism and that can be specifically discussed and are subject to real world reformation. Some examples: 1.) police violence; 2.) suppression of voting rights; 3.) the lingering economic burdens remaining from slavery and more than a century of apartheid and oppression. Again, I recommend that talk of policy reformations and political action is a better avenue for those who are concerned than of never-ending intra-white discussion of how racist we all are.

A few years ago I posted another blog about Prof McWhorter, and I have become more of a fan of his than ever. As to what Dr. McWhorter might say about Ibram X. Kendi and his notions of “anti-racism” . . . ah yes, McWhorter does discuss Mr. Kendi right here: Conversations With Coleman, McWhorter on “Anti Racism, A New Religion?” And also here is a recent article by McWhorter in The Atlantic on “anti-racism”. The article title is “The Virtue Signalers Won’t Change the World”.

PS, let me offer my mea culpa — I am not a virtue signaler, but I have not changed the world either. But this is my blog and I am interested in the subject and sympathetic to the dreams of a better world where race is no longer the great divider of people. So I’m going to share some thoughts on all of this — while quite aware of my own failures of virtue.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:41 pm      

  1. I am not knowledgeable about the writings of Prof. McWhorter or for that matter Robin DiAngelo, but most black people I have known would desire white people (including enlightened whites) to be MORE reflective about racial bias and racism. I am sure that most blacks I know would NOT agree with Prof. McWhorter. Even at my UU Church – which is among the most liberal major religions in the country – there has been criticism from black members that the church has a culture of “white supremacy”. Obviously, being accused of white supremacy is very insulting to Unitarians, who have often been extremely active in the fight for racial justice. While I strongly object to the term “white supremacy” to characterize the largely white denomination, there have been clearly times when we could have shown more sensitivity and awareness to black people. I suppose there might be some people who talk about racism because they subconsciously just want to feel better about themselves, but I also feel that the vast vast majority of “enlightened” whites recognize that they are not entirely blameless for the racism of this country. It is often uncomfortable for blacks to talk to their allies about racism, just as it is often difficult for gays to talk to their allies about homophobia. In a way, it is easier for whites to talk to other whites about racism. And shouldn’t we strive to be more enlightened and better people? In my opinion, that is largely what our religion is and should be about.

    Comment by Zreebs — November 29, 2020 @ 5:16 am

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