Re-inventing Race Part 2

Early on in White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo admits that the common definition of racism is “intentional acts of racial discrimination committed by immoral individuals” (p9), and that racists are “mean people who intentionally dislike others because of their race; racists are immoral. Therefore, if I am saying that my readers are racist or, even worse, that all white people are racist, I am saying something deeply offensive” (p13) “One of the greatest social fears for a white person is being told that something we have said or done is racially problematic.” (p4) 

However, she and her comrades do not abandon the terms in favour of ones more suited to their purpose[1]. This may seem an odd decision. After all, if I am trying to untighten a nut and my spanner turns out to be the wrong size, I change it for one that better fits my task.  

Instead, the social theorists set about altering the definition. Firstly, Professor DiAngelo derides the common understanding of the term, suggesting we have been mis-taught the meaning of a pre-existing term. She tells us that “we are taught to think about racism only as discrete acts committed by individual people” (p3) and “we are taught to define racism…”(my italics). She calls this definition of racism “simplistic” (p9), as if the concept of “racism” was a thing that existed before and outside language, and that the words “racism” and “racist” were generously gifted to us by a higher language authority, but we ignorantly misuse them or are intentionally misguided by the forces of evil.  

Then activists provide their own definitions. White Fragility is full of statements like, “To understand racism, we need to first distinguish it from mere prejudice and discrimination…” (p19), “when a racial group’s collective prejudice is backed by the power of legal authority and institutional control, it is transformed into racism.”(p20), “Racism is a structure, not an event”(p20), or “Racism is a system” (p21), “Racism is a society-wide dynamic that occurs at the group level.” (p22) and so on. 

It is unclear what gives her and colleagues the right to impose their new definitions on us and on our commonly owned language. I never agreed to it. Presumably it has something to do with being a former professor who is asked to speak at prestigious events and whose books are published by major publishing houses. In other words, they are exercising exactly the sort of hegemonic power that they are in the business of condemning. And, I suspect, they are being financed and thus enabled by sponsors who maintain and benefit from the most fundamental hierarchies of power and privilege, ones that underpin the statistical inequalities of race[2]: Business and Finance: Capitalism.

As an unconscious bias trainer, Professor DiAngelo was presumably paid by corporate interests to provide training to their staff, so that management can claim to have tackled the problem of bias in their organisation and thus can shift the blame entirely to their workforce.


[1] of identifying racialized assumptions and biased social structures that their readers are unaware of.

[2] Although not the individual incidences of race based personal antipathy.

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