Reading White Fragility

I’ve been reading White Fragility by Robin Diangelo (Penguin, 2019, in the British edition), a wise, perceptive and compassionate book that expresses the author’s sincere desire to teach us all to be better people. It’s eye-opening stuff, when it comes to US culture and society, a country that seems catastrophically divided along racial lines. I hope to god Britain and Ireland (and Europe) aren’t as bad, although Diangelo attempts to attribute US style discrimination and inequality to “the Western context, generally” (p51) and to associate the term “white” with “European”.  One of the myriad injustices of the British empire was that it outsourced its racial tension and guilt, by establishing a slave trade and agrarian economies that depended on it, and then piously abolishing that trade[1], leaving America to pick up the pieces. 

I’m reluctant to accept all the conclusions she comes to, though, precisely because of this tendency to overgeneralise and to simplify everything to single causes. By doing so, she creates crimes of categorisation. In other words, how she categorises social phenomena allows her to blame particular actors in those situations. 

Injustices that result from multiple causes are misfortunes because no one is directly to blame. But if there is a single cause, racism, sexism, misogyny, transphobia is infused with agency. It becomes discrimination by individuals’ decisions, and that is criminal; inexcusable. 

Robin Diangelo is eager to persuade us to join a just cause. It is very easy, if racism is a misfortune visited on other people, to just sit on our arses, ruefully shaking our heads and doing nothing. However, if her model of society is applied to Britain, it presents such an inaccurately simplified picture that she gives the far-right an opportunity to wholly reject what she has to say and carry on as normal. The UK has a largely white, largely conservative, moderately patriotic population. Telling them they are racist scum is unlikely to persuade them to change.

[1] It’s unfair, though, to talk about this issue as if the empire made voluntary decisions, and thus to blame all its millions of subjects equally. The slavers, their supporters and the abolitionists all made their own decisions, as far as they were able, within the context and limitations of British imperial culture. The abolitionists fought hard and long in a just cause against powerful opponents. 

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