Is Liberal Humanism the Enemy of Social Justice?

Racial Justice advocates seem to realise that humanists pose a greater challenge to their world view than do traditional white racists. Robin DiAngelo claims, in White Fragility  (2019, London: Penguin), “White progressives cause the most daily damage to people of colour” and “White progressives can be the most difficult for people of colour.” (p5) without properly explaining how. In fact, throughout that (in many ways excellent) book, Ms. DiAngelo never fully explains the mechanisms, the practical negative impacts, by which liberals’ unconscious attitudes oppress people of colour.

 I’m sure some self-proclaimed progressives are anything but, and this seems to be particularly the case in America, where attitudes to race are deeply entrenched. However, I suspect white progressives cause most trouble not to people of colour, but to Robin DiAngelo herself, by resisting her analysis of society and thus not letting her win the argument. 

The liberal humanist belief in the sanctity of the individual, and its quest for self-fulfilment is the most passionately held article of faith in the Western democratic consumer-capitalist canon. Objections to Critical Race theory, on these grounds, will be the most potent and threatening, and thus need to be dealt with most severely. Robin DiAngelo’s new book is called Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm. (2021, London: Allen Lane)

In White Fragility, Robin Diangelo expresses exasperation at people who claim not to experience racial tension, or who do not wish to experience it. She rejects the idea that individuals may be able to rise above such prejudice. It is only possible, she claims, if you do not encounter people of colour, because “everyone has prejudice and everyone discriminates.” (p20). Anyone who does not feel racial friction is living in blissful ignorance of the reality of race relations. The privilege of being able to do so is what she means by white privilege. She even goes so far as to suggest that it is healthy for white people to experience racial tension (xi). 

This seems a surprisingly deterministic perspective for a diversity trainer. It suggests that we are incapable of change and are wholly incompatible. I agree that everyone is prejudiced, and we should accept that and be vigilant, so we can identify and defeat it in ourselves. However, surrendering to Ms DiAngelo’s gloomy prognosis seems designed to drive a wedge between racial groups, to heighten racial tension and make it more, not less, difficult to overcome our differences and to celebrate what we have in common. 

Perhaps these opinions say more about Ms DiAngelo herself and her upbringing in white, “working-class” California, in the 50s and 60s than it does about modern American, British or European society. In the introduction to Nice Racism, Ms DiAngelo celebrates being able to maintain an “inter-racial friendship”, as if that were a difficult thing to do, and, in White Fragility, she admits to being brought up to feel superior to Black people. This book also includes an astonishing example of racial oversensitivity, when a moment of brusqueness by Ms. DiAngelo, in conversation with a colleague of colour, leads to a gratuitous accusation of racism and a lengthy and elaborate dance of reconciliation. This is presented to us as a successful racial interaction, rather than a time-wasting and unnecessary pantomime caused by people who have weaponised their touchiness and then attributed such behaviour to the rest of us. 

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