I want to preface this by saying that I am by no means an expert or someone that can speak on behalf of white or black people.
I only wish to share what I’ve learnt. As part of the recent wave of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, I’ve seen a lot of people recommending Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility in good faith, often without having read it, trusting that it is a well-researched resource. It is not. There are many better resources out there, some of which I’ve listed in my more recent post.
All these points come from Jonathan Church’s article in Areo Magazine.
1. Robin DiAngelo Claims She Is a Sociologist
She claims that “As a sociologist, I am quite comfortable generalizing” when in fact sociologists are typically wary of generalisations.
Her astonishing claims include making sweeping generalisations, reading only from scholarship in her profession that has led her to making some inaccurate readings of history, and what she believes is going on in our unconscious biases based on our ‘race’.
Unfortunately, especially in the social sciences, such things are very difficult to prove. Robin DiAngelo presents these generalisations as indisputable facts (explored in point 2), which is something that sociologists generally try to avoid even when they have good data to suggest that their hypothesis is correct.
Which brings me to my next point (explored further in point 3): she bases her claims on her “clinical experience with inter-group and intra-group dialogues on racism in formal settings—focus groups, case studies, workshops, seminars and talks—in which she has served as a mediator, facilitator or speaker.” (Jonathan Church)
In essence, she uses anecdotes to support her astonishing claims – and these anecdotes are highly unlikely to represent real life, because the settings tend to be where she is leading a formal workshop.
2. DiAngelo’s Generalisations are Formulated as Doctrines
These sweeping generalisations are not presented as hypotheses to be tested – this means that they cannot be falsified.
Church summarises her arguments thus:
In general, DiAngelo argues that societal forces such as segregation, ideological attachments to ideas about individualism and universalism, a deep-rooted sense of entitlement to racial comfort, racial arrogance, racial belonging and racial othering are fundamental causes of racism, and that, collectively, they function organically as an interrelated set of ongoing dynamic norms and practices that underlie a society characterized by racism, i.e. the internalization of supremacy among whites and the internalization of coercion among people of color.Jonathan Church, The Epistemological Problem of White Fragility Theory
Essentially, DiAngelo says that white people have internalised white supremacy whilst people of colour have internalised that they are inferior. This happens because society has perpetuated the ideas of ‘racial belonging’ and ‘racial othering’ through “norms and practices”.
These are absolutely huge claims. They might seem intuitive given the amount of systemic racism, but jumping from that to implicit bias from internalisation is not well backed-up with science.
Church links to this study that finds that the data indicates pro-black bias, rather than anti-black bias. It is difficult to come to a conclusion that implicit bias produces systemic racism.
Church goes even further to suggest that Robin DiAngelo uses white fragility as a rhetorical device that invalidates any contrary voices and cannot be disproved. She herself writes “rather than work to prove its existence, work to reveal it.” This is the starting point for her paper on White Fragility, which immediately shows that she doesn’t really care to try to disprove her own arguments. She also discourages debate in her workshops, which is a healthy sign of academic discourse.
When such all-encompassing claims are presented as unfalsifiable, this is no longer science. As I’m sure you will already know, Karl Popper framed a scientific theory as one that can never be proven, but can be falsified. DiAngelo presents herself as a scientist, while White Fragility is the unfalsifiable result of her findings – this basically makes White Fragility pseudoscience.
3. Robin DiAngelo Doesn’t Back Up Her Claims with Statistics
She doesn’t collect data proportionate to her claims, relying only on her own experiences and anecdotal observations as an educator. The sociologist’s number 1 tool should be statistics: these are notably absent in her justifications.
Church goes into detail about the importance of statistics in the social and human sciences – I will not replicate that here, but it seems obvious to me as a science student that any kind of claim must be backed up with evidence.
Scientists in general understand that their claims are only as good as the data and the statistical analysis that they perform on it, and are hesitant to infer too much from the data. This restraint produces results that are insightful, well-balanced and suggestive, but never definitive. There is always more work and research to be done.
DiAngelo, on the other hand, does the opposite. She is convinced she’s found ‘the answers’ to why systemic racism exists and proudly proclaims it everywhere she goes (building up her career and income along the way).
As Church points out, she does bring attention to certain aspects that are worthy of study, but she does so in a pseudo-pious way that comes across as omniscient and indisputable (else it shows you have succumbed to ‘white fragility’ too).
4. DiAngelo Confuses Objectivity with Neutrality
Robin DiAngelo has said that “There is no objective, neutral reality.” As Church writes, “This dismisses objectivity as an ideological obstruction to knowledge.” Essentially, this is another tool in her toolbox to discourage debate about her White Fragility theory, and excuses the absence of rigorous statistical analysis in her justifications.
I think Church really hits the nail on the head in his analysis.
Regardless of what one thinks about the possibility of neutrality, objectivity is something different. To insist on objectivity is to insist on the gathering of facts, data and other evidence in pursuit of an argument, which can be tested in accordance with rigorous standards of measurement. If objectivity is impossible, so is measurement. You can’t measure social outcomes in a way that achieves consensus (except, I suppose, by coercion). Truth becomes relative. Battles over ideas become battles over power.Jonathan Church, The Epistemological Problem of White Fragility Theory
Essentially, social sciences may not be ‘neutral’, but they are more ‘objective’ because they use facts and data to justify their claims. Their claims are measurable, even if the data show disparity. Social outcomes are not based on consensus – if they were, that would mean that the truth is based on who has power.
Although this sounds like something that supports DiAngelo’s theory, it actually delegitimises it. The very statement that “[h]uman objectivity is not actually possible” is an objective one, and yet she does not turn to objective data to support this claim.
Here is a fantastic short article that explains the difference between objectivity and neutrality.
White Fragility is a term that DiAngelo has come up with to delegitimise any criticism as ‘defensiveness’. She has built up an incredible career from pushing this theory, and while I’m sure this has done a lot of good for the world, it is also concerning that any criticism of it is immediately treated almost as heresy.
Not only this, but DiAngelo often treats white people in a way she would never treat black people. She also treats white fragility and racial empowerment as zero-sum, full of dichotomy rather than unity – nowhere in white fragility or whiteness studies is there any positive responses to true power, like joy, courage, love and excitement. Please give this article a read that summarises these further arguments.
If you’d like to read more essays concerning the fragility of DiAngelo’s claims, please read this article that links to more.