Third and last installment on “White Fragility”: DiAngelo does an unusually good job of using the expansive space of a book to raise issues in great detail, with lists of responses and possible actions. I took the chapter “White Women’s Tears” particularly to heart and found hope in the last chapter, “Where Do We Go from Here,” since it acknowledges that there IS work I can do, even if I’m not in a good demographic to be marching, corona-wise, not that there is a good demographic to march, depending on where you are.
Then I took to reading every article I could find that took up DiAngelo’s argument or took issue with it. This resulted on my spending a lot of time reading all sorts essays on medium.com about all sorts of histories and issues I hadn’t gotten around to thinking enough about yet, or hadn’t known about, period. Maybe the best thing about having read DiAngelo is that she makes it very clear that educating ourselves is not only critical, but positive—it’s energizing and clarifying and INTERESTING. Happily, most writers on medium.com are working out their responses either as white people who take her work seriously, or black writers approaching her or any other of a range of subjects about racism from the perspective of their lived experience or buried histories.
I will admit that I have also been comforted by the book’s confirmation that I have managed, over the past few years, to make myself less fragile than I might have been before the roll call of the Murdered by Police made me start paying a new level of attention. I wanted this intellectual and emotional onslaught. It feels like my experience of the Civil Rights Movement was too brief and too slight, and that I hadn’t had a name for the absence I was only vaguely aware of until recently. And I appreciate the mixture of frustrated irritation and patience DiAngelo brings to her subject.
This is the part where I mention that one of the points Feminist, Anti-Racists, and Gay Rights activists have been trying to make forever, pacifists too, come to think of it, is that lived experience constitutes evidence. And DiAngelo, no matter how many sources she references and charts she uses, is writing from lived experience. In the parallel field in which I have the most experience and knowledge, Holocaust Lit (the subject of my dissertation), I have watched and read a nearly endless list of books and documentaries. But Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, Yael Hersonski’s A Film Unfinished, and the books of Primo Levi and Jean Amery, those are the works that sear themselves onto the heart and the mind–he testimonies of lived experience. There is never a replacement for that kind of witness, that kind of testimony. There is a reason that scholars call those documents and witnesses “primary” sources.
It doesn’t really matter what sort of credentials you bring to the discussion. Her over-arching point is that white people feel threatened by being asked to realize that being anti-racist is the only door out of the room/castle/shack/park our culture and history locked us into from the moment our fathers’ wigglers ran into our mothers’ eggs. White people do not want to give up being the normative standard for human. We wouldn’t cling to it so hard if we weren’t so horrified by what it might mean to not be white. Frightened people often behave badly. Cops in riot-gear in front of pellucidly peaceful demonstrations are one of the images of that profound fear becoming dangerously bad behavior. It’s an extreme example, but it’s certainly out there at the moment.
Anyway, here are a couple of the better things I’ve read that extend DiAngelo’s arguments:
medium.com has featured a lot of thoughtful, remarkably civil writing on race, and a number of essays particularly addressing DiAngelo. If there’s an convincing argument against the existence and dangers of White Fragility, I haven’t found it yet.
And then I started reading All American Boys, a YA novel about police brutality by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. I decided to read all the books on my 10-yr-old grandson’s summer reading list. He’s in a Montessori school, in a 4-5-6 classroom with teachers who clearly decided to aim high in terms of complexity of issues and depth of confrontation. This book the non-optional read. I was stunned. It focuses on 2 boys in high school, juniors, one white (Quinn, a gifted basketball player whose father was killed in Afghanistan), one black (ROTC, father former military, former cop). The white boy witnesses a cop brutally beat the black boy outside of a convenience store for all the usual reasons. The hook is that the cop is not only the older brother of one of Quinn’s best friends, but has been a steady father-figure to Quinn. So the Quinn comes to grips with one of those questions that never truly resolve—how good humans do completely unacceptable things. And he has to decide how to face or turn away from someone who has been a hero.
What do the two books have to do with each other, aside from Race? Quinn doesn’t just have to face his hero’s racism and capacity for violence, he has to face his own and come to grips with the ways in which his pretty normal unexamined relationship to race has made him fragile—nearly paralyzed him, in fact. It pretty much plays out DiAngelo’s whole argument in the lives of two boys. Rashad, the battered one, has his own issues with coming to understand the depths and realities of his blackness, too, not that he’s naïve at the beginning, just that he’s like most of us in not really examining things we know until they happen to our bodies. I was surprised that, while this is a coming-of-age story, it’s not specifically male, for all that it “gets” the boys. And it made DiAngelo’s points real in the way that literature can. I didn’t cry through DiAngelo’s last chapter—I just thought a lot about how I could re-construct my Intro to Poetry class this fall so that it covers The Canon decently and leaves me a big chunk of this already-weird semester to focus on African American poets, and about sending more money to the SPLC, and about the extraordinary level of privilege with which I am weathering the pandemic—a thing I can do very little about except make masks for the Navaho and masks for the homeless and masks for local schools. Nor do I think that giving up my privilege would address either systemic racism or white fragility. History changes much more slowly than we want it to, even when it seems as though it’s moving at light speed. Humans change very slowly, species-wide, and it looks an awful lot like we’re hard-wired as animals to identify and fear the other. The wonder is not that, but that so many of us work against that wiring, so often. The Nazis are less remarkable than the Righteous. Not less important, less remarkable.
It feels like I spent a lot of my late childhood and early adulthood thinking about what I would do if I were in Germany in the late 1930s. I was sure I’d join the Resistance, until I had children. Then I thought I’d send my children to safety and join the Resistance. Then I realized that I was incapable of knowing what I’d do, because I wasn’t ever going to be safely Aryan in 1930s Germany. For a while I thought that was the end of that internal discussion. Then I started studying Holocaust Literature after a 35th-year-crisis of identity. How did getting a PhD in that particular field change me? I still couldn’t tell you, really, except that both the degree (a promise my nerdy 6-year-old self had made) and the field made me feel more like myself—my authentic self.
I learned stories and facts from DiAngelo, but what reading the book really did was make me feel more like my authentic self. DiAngelo’s affirmation of issues and their manifestations that I had already been thinking about made me feel like part of a larger conversation I am grateful to join, and willing to fumble through. There are other such conversations that intersect, often uncomfortably, with the discourses of racism—2nd wave feminists seriously bungled the inclusion of women of color, the economics of Quarterly Capitalism demolish anything that gets in their way solely on the basis of the march toward useless and inconceivable monetary wealth, climate change is going to land most heavily on the backs of those who have fewer resources (which boils down, so much of the time, to people who are not white). None of this is revelatory. But acknowledging that white people are fragile about their whiteness and how it deletes non-white humans might help white people be more conscious. More conscious people are more alive. So, maybe I’m weird, but DeAngelo’s book made me happy.
Or, as Quinn says toward the end of All American Boys, “…racism is alive and real as shit. It was everywhere and all mixed up in everything, and the only people who said ‘Don’t talk about it.’ were white. Well, stop lying.” And then he makes hard choices and learns that those sorts of choices are the only way to feel alive to feel any true strength. DiAngelo isn’t trying to make white people feel bad, she’s trying to help us feel less frightened, be less fear-driven, less invisible to ourselves.
*Update: since I finished drafting this, an interview with linguist John McWhorter has appeared (https://www.npr.org/2020/07/20/892943728/professor-criticizes-book-white-fragility-as-dehumanizing-to-black-people?fbclid=IwAR3KdS3VP339gLhou25PhV_0wKmBflPYxtKmNyMehc1aQsZjpBN4fo2gvp0 ) in which he makes some thought-worthy points, though his points depend on readers taking the book rather differently than I have.
What an incredibly thoughtful piece. Brava!
Wonderful, thoughtful discussion. Thanks, Miriam. One comment: in 1960 -1970’s Miami, Florida my cohort of Second Wave Feminists did well in the inclusion of our black sisters and women of color. A great band of men participated in our local NOW and Women’s Political Caucus also. Good to look back in gratitude for those learning experiences.