One of the readers of Miriam’s Well pointed out this article to me in response to my here’s-the-context first blog on reading White Fragility: https://arcdigital.media/dear-white-people-please-do-not-read-robin-diangelos-white-fragility-7e735712ee1b She also apologized for giving me homework, but it was useful homework. The author of the article, Jonathan Church, is an economist with a background in philosophy, and the article above is one of three he’s written for on line outlets bringing to bear his understanding of logic and research (for instance, the pretty important fact that police in the U.S. kill at least as many white humans as black) on DiAngelo’s arguments in WF. Most notably, he accuses her of the logical faults of unobserved heterogeneity or omitted variable bias (in other words, circular reasoning), and of leaning too heavily on her own (and others’) approach to the white/Western values of individualism and objectivity. He bemoans the confusion and fuzziness inherent in White Studies scholarship. And he believes that discussions like DiAngelo’s muddy the waters of social discourse more than they move them forward.
He has points, but his tone is, forgive me, professorial in the not-best sense—he wants to haul out old clubs to beat new discussions into submission. This is not the place to get into the enormous subject of Western Individualism and its crimes and virtues. Hundreds of pages of back and forth are both necessary and important for that one. But I will take on his clinging to the idea of Objectivity. Like many critical notions, this one has driven Very Good Things—mostly lots and lots of real scientific standards and progresses—but it is a profoundly flawed concept simply because humans aren’t capable of it. Much of 20th century philosophy and literary theory (oh, boy, am I generalizing here) led to the conclusion that objectivity was a false god, even if it did give birth to critical ideas about intellectual and scientific rigor. Speaking purely on a personal/confessional basis, I don’t believe that I have had an objective—that is, un-agenda-ed—thought in my life, and I don’t believe anyone else has, either. No matter how we try, we all bring ourselves to whatever we think, study, make, engineer, along with the cultural and social circumstances of all that thinking, studying, making, engineering.
So, whether or not DiAngelo is guilty of all the faults Church accuses her of, he still comes across as the intellectually competent version of the white guy at a corporate diversity session in which there are 38 white people and 2 black. The white guy is pounding the table and yelling about it being impossible for white people to get jobs any longer. This story opens the Introduction. I suspect, because this sort of corporate training is DiAngelo’s field, that the story is either one of many, or a composite of many such she can tell. Admittedly, this is anecdotal evidence, experiential. The Introduction is the part of the book where I was muttering “yeah, yeah, yeah, know that guy, related to that guy, argued with that uncle…” What Church may be forgetting is that we study things because we experience them, either encountering them by chance (reading Homer in translation, learning Ancient Greek in order to read Homer in the original, ending up writing a dissertation on some small element of a dead language) or by direct experience (switching from a career in nuclear physics to one at NIH studying nano-particulate delivery systems for cancer drugs after losing family members to cancer). Real study requires passion and doggedness. Neither is a result of objectivity. So when DiAngelo says something that does appear to be a circular argument like “I could see the power of the belief that only bad people were racist…allowed white people to exempt themselves…I could see we are taught to think of racism only as discrete acts rather than as a …system,” I might also have rolled my eyes and thought about “good” family members’ nearly autonomic racism. An anecdotal, experiential response.
Then Chapter One opens with the subtitle “We Don’t See Ourselves in Racial Terms” and I started to settle in. Because I have been thinking for the past few years about the fact that I have moved through most of my life thinking that the word “race” only applied, truly, to people who weren’t white. After all, the only people I’ve ever spent time with (intellectually) who thought about whiteness as race were eugenicists and Nazis. I have a profound investment in thinking of them as OTHER, even as I acknowledge that history more than demonstrates that humans of all sorts and conditions are capable of being those others, or complicit with those others. It’s not comfortable knowledge, nor should it be. Maybe I was beginning to be relieved by her saying things about the human capacity for (sometimes unknowing) complicity in evil that I have only associated with genocides. Maybe it is a relief to see DiAngelo’s book going hand-to-hand and mind-to-mind saying things I know only in the context of the Holocaust, but carry with me through daily life—this stuff is systemic. Now Church would probably say that this is me being the intellectual opposite of rigorous. But I don’t think the purpose of WF is scholarly rigor. It means to cause discomfort, to make us LOOK and question our socialization, our very human desire for a binary (simple) understanding of an ugly issue in which we can call our whiteness neutral. Admittedly, thinking about whiteness/Aryan-ness has historically had remarkably horrible consequences. But thinking that you are not “like them (Nazis, King Ludwig of Belgium, Andrew Jackson)” just lets you off the hook of thinking about what you are, and whether what you are has consequences or implications, whether it is a function of a system.
Maybe I’m weird in being made happy by seeing that in print, in a book that is sold out on Amazon, by a woman who spends her life trying to dismantle a system from within. But I think it’s not that weird. I think it’s a relief. DiAngelo doesn’t have to get everything right in order to help her readers move themselves more deeply into what it means to be human, to live in societies and cultures that have, as far as we know, spent all of history declaring other societies, cultures, and individuals as others in spite of efforts by philosophers, spiritual leaders, and storytellers to teach us otherwise.
We know (scientifically, as objectively as possible, and convincingly) that race is a false construct.
I ran into another article against WF this week (https://medium.com/@thelogicalliberal/the-intellectual-fraud-of-robin-diangelos-white-fragility-e98197d16eb1). Its author, lawyer and activist David Burke makes many of the same points Church makes, calling DiAngelo’s supposed logical fallacy a “Kafkatrap,” which is valid, but part of the very difficult point DiAngelo is working to make with her book—the whole system of White Supremacy is so entangled in Western culture that it is an Ouroboros, a snake eating its own tail, a not-linear equation. I am going to look around to see if there a re any critiques of the book by non-Right-Wing women, because it’s striking that the two I’ve read are by men, but two is not a sufficient sample, even if it is thought-provoking.
When I was 8 and we lived in El Paso, my father carefully explained that Mexicans were lazy even as we had a Mexican maid who worked harder than I could keep track of for so little money that we could afford her even when we were poor because of my father’s dental school debt-load. That was a non-linear, illogical, fallacious argument, but he believed it, and I never forgot it. Some social structure a kid thinks about from that age onward is a system. It may be more than that, or other things as well, but it’s a system, and I think that 8-year-old is the part of me happy. I knew he was making an unsupportable assertion then DiAngelo is telling that 8-year-old that my father’s failure of logic was not a specific betrayals, and that my thinking my own thoughts were not betrayals of my father and the country he so clearly wanted me to revere. I think the first chapter of WF is making me happy because it is winning a fight I never had the language to have with my father before he died, even though I kept trying to have it that argument in one form or another. Maybe that’s why I had such a visceral reaction to Jonathan Church’s argument against the book—it felt like Daddy-splaining.