Why "White Fragility" Is an Evil and Ridiculous Concept

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    I recently was having a conversation with a friend of mine, who is black, about trauma—this is common for me, since I have researched a lot about the concept. He gave me permission to share the details of this conversation on the podcast. The conversation turned political, and I expressed some of my misgivings about intersectionality politics and its misuse of the trauma framework to create arbitrary social hierarchies based on race, ethnicity, and sex, which has polarized American politics. He disagreed with me, and proposed that the reason I took issue with identity politics was because it threatened my white privilege, and compelled psychological defense mechanisms which produce denial of the intersectionality perspective. He was the first to introduce me to this psychological phenomenon, which is unique to whites, which the political left calls “white fragility.” 

    White fragility is a psychological mechanism predicated on a certain view about the status of white intellect, the psychiatry of the white mind, and the moral constitution of each white person. Here, we will seek to understand better what it is and what might be the appropriate, objective, thoughtful response to this race-specific claim about whites.

    The Modern “White Fragility” Formulation 

    Sociologist Robin J. DiAngelo writes in her book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, that white people are so dazzled by their whiteness that their own regular, normative, explicit and implicit practices of violence against racial minorities are camouflaged to them. But not only are they camouflaged—when these practices are brought under the stage light, diagnosed, highlighted, and challenged by minority culture, such that white culture’s enchantment with its own whiteness is threatened, they resort to denial tactics which refortify their enchantment with whiteness as the cultural center and norm, and minority ethnicity and culture as marginal and exotic. DiAngelo explains:

    “How can I say that if you are white, your opinions on racism are most likely ignorant, when I don’t even know you? I can say so because nothing in mainstream US culture gives us the information we need to have a nuanced understanding of arguably the most complex and enduring social dynamic of the last several hundred years. … When we try to talk openly and honestly about race, white fragility quickly emerges as we are so often met with silence, defensiveness, certitude, and other forms of pushback. These are not natural responses; they are social forces that prevent us from attaining the racial knowledge we need to engage more productively, and they function powerfully to hold the racial hierarchy in place.”[1] 

    Notice first that DiAngelo reduces all forms of disagreement with her to epistemological and moral deficiency — to ignorance and selfishness. Epistemology is the philosophical word for how we know—experience is an epistemology; logic is an epistemology; tradition can even be an epistemology. But if one is epistemologically blind to a certain object in the world, then they are scientifically handicapped. For DiAngelo, there is no possible world in which disagreement with her view could result from an intellectually honest and informed disagreement with her about the issues at hand—it must all be reduced to epistemological and moral self-sabotage by whites. But first, we must give credit to DiAngelo for nuancing her view—how does she specify her suggestion about whites in an attempt to fashion a more truthful version of her claim?   

    White people are, in the leftist perspective, philosophically and specularly handicapped by their own race.

    DiAngelo argues that three hierarchies exist between white people and racial minorities—epistemological, psychological, and ethical—in which white people are, de facto, at the bottom. It will be helpful for us to understand the logic by which DiAngelo constructs these hierarchies.

    First, DiAngelo argues that the difference between herself and her interlocutors is a matter of information, rather than interpretation. She argues that white people are so socialized by their whiteness that they cannot, without proper racial education, accurately perceive the extent to which their racist prejudice against minorities is baked into their worldview. White people are, in this presentation, philosophically and specularly handicapped by their own race. DiAngelo appeals to her own academic authority as a sociologist to fortify this claim—that whites are epistemologically handicapped, relative to other races.

    According to the leftist use of “racial bias testing,” if you’re a few milliseconds slow on distinguishing black faces, you’re a racist.

    It is on this assumption of white philosophical short-sightedness that programs such as racial bias training and implicit bias training have been suggested as cures to perceived racism among whites. This is how scientists have begun to quantify racial prejudice among whites—to give them a test that shows them several dozen black-and-white images of faces of various races on the screen, and classified an ability to distinguish between faces of the participants’ own race vs. faces of races to which the participant didn’t belong.[2] Any extended delay in the participants’ ability to distinguish between other-race faces was classified as “social stereotyping” and therefore a low score on what they call the “Affective Lexical Priming Score.” In other words, if you’re a few milliseconds slow on distinguishing black faces, you’re a racist.

    DiAngelo makes explicit and consistent appeal to this exact research as that about which whites are ignorant, which perpetuates racism. The psychological science is in fact settled that implicit bias scores do not predict discriminatory behavior, as demonstrated for example in the analysis published in the Journal of Applied Psychology by professors at Texas A&M (Hart Blanton) and the University of Pennsylvania (Philip Tetlock).[3]

    The strongest implication of this recent research is that the data from these implicit bias tests should never be used to judge an individual’s beliefs or predict their behavior—the model simply doesn’t predict that behavior; and, in this recent study, previous left-leaning research which construed the data as correlating with anti-black behavior actually correlates with pro-black behavior. 

    Second, DiAngelo argues, this intellectual handicap enables sociologists to diagnose so-called “white stress”[4] — which reduces all disagreement, after the facts about race are on the table, to a lack of psychological stamina. In other words, not only are whites who disagree with DiAngelo about race epistemologically handicapped, but they are in fact psychologically handicapped as well. She writes in a separate article in the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, that the problem of racism in America is a “an issue of stamina-building,” and that “it is critical that all white people build the stamina to sustain conscious and explicit engagement with race.”[5] She continues:

    “White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.  These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.”[6]

    In this way, DiAngelo construes all forms of disagreement as stress-induced avoidance, which would be a psychiatric explanation of white disagreement with her thesis. In other words, DiAngelo makes two simultaneous claims—(1) whites are peculiarly mentally weak, and (2) she is able to make individual psychiatric diagnoses of individual whites by using their race as a proxy. The notion that whites are particularly mentally weak, despite the fact that one would never survive making that claims about black people, is suspicious because (1) if true, it supports her larger thesis that white disagreement with intersectionality holds no academic credibility, and (2) it is unfalsifiable—there is no test which can represent the unconscious mind and draw strong correlatives between those representations and behavior significantly enough to make a credible version of that claim.   

    In the mind of the leftist ... the white person is intellectually, psychologically, and ethically inferior, and must begin every conversation about the topic by repenting of their whiteness.

    Third, on the basis of this epistemological and psychiatric superiority which DiAngelo claims that race-informed intellectuals have over white intellectuals, DiAngelo proposes a third deficiency of whiteness that builds on the first two—a moral deficiency. DiAngelo argues that whites who disagree with her about racial theory are actually culpable for the existence and effects of explicit and implicit racism in American culture.

    She argues that, in principle, the possibility of a genuine conversation about the facts is impossible, since white people are too occluded by their convenient self-blinding, weak, self-interested disposition. And in the mind of the leftist, this is the framework for all conversations about race between a leftist and a white person—the white person is intellectually, psychologically, and ethically inferior, and must begin every conversation about the topic by repenting of their whiteness.

    A Response to the “White Fragility” Concept

    We ought to make one observation about the concept of white fragility before we substantively respond. 

    White fragility presupposes the truthfulness of intersectionality politics. Intersectionality politics is a way of construing a hierarchy of moral obligation within the American populous in which certain social groups are granted statuses of entitlement or debt based on the number and kind of traumas they have experienced. These groups, measured along lines of victimhood, see whites as having the greatest amount of cultural debt and the smallest amount of cultural entitlement, which is why you will rarely hear of concepts like “black fragility” and “female fragility.” 

    Intersectionality, which views individuals primarily through their ethnic group lens relative to the majority culture in which they reside, has historically been critiqued as a very white idea.[7] In other words, the people who are most electrified by this idea of intersectionality—and those who have shaped it—are young, white, social justice-oriented progressives who are politically enthused.[8] It is important to make this observation so that we can take issue with the notion that American social groups are truly divided along intersectional lines—which sees people primarily in terms of their race or sex, rather than their individuality. Intersectionalists vs. non-intersectionalists is not a black vs. white matter, but a left vs. right matter.  

    Consequently, here are several of my responses to the white fragility concept.

    1. The “White Fragility” Concept is Racist

    First, the reason white fragility is an evil concept is that it is racist. It makes a race-specific generalization about the intellect, psychiatry, and morality of an entire ethnic group. Those who operationalize the concept of white fragility implicitly affirm the legitimacy of stereotyping white individuals as representatives of an inferior ethnic class, and consequently of denying them a voice in the conversation. These people have already construed their world of political discourse as one in which the most important consideration is the war of intersectional identities rather than the war of ideas. Politics ought to be a war of ideas. Politics ought to seek to elevate the dignity of every individual, not silence an entire race based on an imaginary psychiatric condition with no scientific evidence.

    2. The “White Fragility” Concept Is Anti-Intellectual

    Second, those who operationalize the term “white fragility” signify a staunch unwillingness to engage in conversation whatsoever. To the degree that my intellectual disagreement about politics is reduced by my interlocutors to some intellectual, psychiatric, and moral handicap to which I have no specular access, there can be no conversation. The political conversation becomes one in which whites not only can’t speak, but shouldn’t speak. This has manifested itself in conversations as an impulse to silence whites politically. I was having a conversation with a black colleague of mine when I taught philosophy at Moody Bible Institute, and I asked him: “How should I engage in dialogue about this issue?” He said: “Just listen. That’s all. Don’t speak.” This is, of course, an absurd suggestion. That’s not a dialogue—it’s a lecture. It’s pure submission and subjection. What happens if I do listen, and I still disagree? That’s where white fragility becomes so helpful—after you’re presented with all the data, and still refuse to become a leftist, they have a word for your condition. White fragility. The inability to cope with threats to your white privilege.

    3. The “White Fragility” Concept is Hypocritical

    Third, and following on this point about threats, it is important to understand the double-talk of leftism on this point. Leftists insist on seeing every political position as a power grab. This is a postmodern approach to politics—one in which all speech is an act of power, and therefore every act of speech is conceived as either an act of justice or an act of violence. For postmodern philosophers like Foucault, every speech-act is conceived as an act of punishment or exaltation. For Jacque Derrida, all speech is creation or destruction. For Jean-Paul Sartre, all speech mitigates scarcity and abundance, and therefore all speech either deprives or enriches personal capital, creating a balance or imbalance of equity. So, it is natural for intersectionality to construe the white pathology that they invent as obsessed with a “threat.” It fits too well with the tropes of common Marxist tales about the cultural bourgeois.

    the only way to overcome one’s white fragility is to drink the intersectionality Kool-Aid and to submit to the cultural demands of those lording the martyrdom of minority status as an epistemological advantage over whites.

    But the surprising irony of the leftist suggestion that whites are triggered by threats to their cultural privilege is that the function of the term white fragility actually threatens common cultural privileges in a way that is targeted specifically at whites. The implication of the concept of white fragility is that the only way to overcome one’s white fragility is to drink the intersectionality Kool-Aid and to submit to the cultural demands of those lording the martyrdom of minority status as an epistemological advantage over whites in particular. They invent the myth of the threat to white privilege so that they can target common priveleges among whites specifically, decrying any identification of this agenda as a real threat as paranoia, even while they openly practice these postmodern politics of speech-as-violence.

    4. The “White Fragility” Concept Makes The Same Arguments Against Whites that Hitler Makes Against Jews in Mein Kampf

    Fourth, identity politics has occasioned some of the most heinous violence in history. Most white people who disagree with leftist politics do so on the basis of principles which are neither racist nor psychotic. Identity politics got us the holocaust. We have allowed ourselves to indulge in an ethical position which encourages the corporate culpability of a single ethnicity for the ills of another ethnicity. Jews were not culpable for Germany’s economic failing, and yet identity politics allowed them to become target of cultural spite.

    This is, in fact, one of Hitler’s primary arguments in Mein Kampf. Hitler argues that the most important thing you need to know about a Jew is that he is a Jew. And no matter what he says, no matter what he does, he is not a trustworthy person—he will always, everywhere place his Zionistic agenda above the wellbeing of his Gentile neighbor, above the welfare of Germany, and would prioritize the expediency of the advancement of Judaism over against the general good of mankind. For Hitler, the Jewish self-interest was socially hardwired into every Jew, and it required a social and political penance by each member of the race. 

    Do not seek to erase or eradicate with theology that which God does not erase or eradicate from the lamb who was slain.

    In that regard, DiAngelo’s book reads line-for-line like a modern version of Mein Kampf, but applied to white people. Even the author’s hatred for white people feels very similar to Hitler’s putrid and palpable disdain for Jews. The argument is the same. As soon as your ethical model allows you to hold a certain race responsible for the ills of society, and that such a race deserves to be silenced and re-educated, you have gone too far. Your ideas no longer hold a legitimate seat at the table of ideas.

    A recent study in the International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education argues that instructors ought to cultivate in their white students a sense of guilt and blameworthiness for their whiteness. One of the questions asked of the students was whether they believed they practiced racial discrimination—if they denied they participated in this practice, this was classified as racial apathy or antipathy.[9] This is too far, and an inability to recognize this as abusive and inappropriate can no longer see that its ideology is spiteful and destructive for a society to adopt. 

    Conclusion 

    The white fragility concept is deeply morally objectionable. This concept is becoming a tool for great evil, because it is racist about the white intellect, it is harmfully unscientific in its psychiatric over-generalizations about white Americans and overreaching applications for white individuals, and it perpetuates racial polarization in America by silencing white voices on the basis of a moral inferiority based on a weak, white constitution. For these three reasons, the concept of white fragility as it has become popularly operationalized by leftists in modern political discourse is evil.

    The concept of white fragility conflicts with basic Christian principles of charity and human dignity. One recent book even entertains the question, “Can ‘White’ People Be Saved?” In this book, one author argues that the task of Christianity “in this new century is to overturn white subjectivity in all its modalities.”[10] This is hypocritical in that such a label toward other races would be forbidden—and it is immoral because the practice of denigrating individuals on the basis of a view of their racial inferiority is wrong, unchristian, hysteric, irrational, bullying, inconsistent, incoherent, and vile.

    We will now conclude with a clear case-study of  white fragility in practice. In a recent debate between Jordan Peterson and Michael Dyson, Peterson admitted that the right could go too far ideologically—when they became racist—and so he asked Dyson what would signify (ideologically) that the left had gone too far. Michael Dyson responded to Peterson: “Why the rage, bruh? You’re doing well, but you’re a mean, mad white man!”

    This is the current state of our political discourse. And we need to do better than the concept of “white fragility.” Decent people who enter into political dialogue in good faith are morally obligated not to seriously operationalize this term against whites.

    FOOTNOTES

    [1] Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018), 8.

    [2] Sophie Lebrecht, Lara J. Pierce, Michael J. Tarr, James W. Tanaka, “Perceptual Other-Race Training Reduces Implicit Racial Bias,” PLOS One, January 21, 2009.

    [3] Hart Blanton, James Jaccard, Jonathan Klick, Barbara Mitchell, Gregory Mitchell, and Philip E. Tetlock, “Strong Claims and Weak Evidence: Reassessing the Predictive Validity of the IAT,” Journal of Applied Psychology 94, no. 3 (2009): 567-582.

    [4] DiAngelo writes: “This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress.” Robin DiAngelo, “White Fragility,” International Journal of Critical Pedagogy 3, no. 3 (2011): 54-70.

    [5] Ibid., 66, 67.                                       

    [6] Ibid., 57.

    [7] Patricia Hill Collins and Valerie Chepp, “Intersectionality,” in The Oxford Handbook of Gender and Politics, edited by Georgia Waylen, Karen Cells, Johanna Kantola, and Laurel Weldon (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 57-87.

    [8] Stephen Hawkins, Daniel Yudkin, Miriam Juan-Torres, Tim Dixon, Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape (More in Common, 2018).

    [9] Fernando Estrada and Geneva Matthews, “Perceived Culpability in Critical Multicultural Education: Understanding and Responding to Race Informed Guilt and Shame to Further Learning Outcomes Among White American College Students,” International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education 28, no. 3 (2016): 314-325.

    [10] Ibid., 19.

     
     

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