Sociologist Robin DiAngelo’s 2018 book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, became an emblem, in the Trump era, for liberal America’s soul-searching over the persistence of white supremacy and the re-emergence of explicit racism in mainstream politics.
To overcome systemic injustice, the title argued, racism needed to be recognised, not just in its overt form but at the level of unconscious bias too – the complicity, according to her, of all white people in the social codes and racial hierarchies on which American society is built. DiAngelo, a white woman, claimed that the failure to acknowledge this explained the endurance of racism. Irrespective of class, white people had been “socialised into a deeply internalised sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves”.
White Fragility was divisive. It split not only anti-racists from the nativist right, but also polarised anti-racists, who were divided between the sense that DiAngelo’s guilt-based framing encouraged self-reflection and the sense that it fostered racial essentialism (the idea that we might only ever be defined by our race or ethnicity).
On the face of it, the follow-up, Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm, sets out to answer that debate. DiAngelo suggests that the animosity of many progressives towards her first book underlines that fragility – a failure to own either the power or vulnerability inherent in racial privilege. “Progressive white people,” she argues, “are more likely to manifest aversive racism [a term coined by psychologist Joel Kovel]”, which “allows the person to enact racism while maintaining a positive self-image”. The phrase “I have lots of friends of colour,” for example, is a common signifier of behaviour that DiAngelo describes as “a subtle but insidious form” of bigotry, in which prejudice remains “suppressed from awareness because it conflicts with a consciously held belief in racial equality”.
This is her original premise rebooted to deflate the optimism of Joe Biden, whose own comments – “there’s not a racist bone in my body” – on the presidential campaign trail in 2019 serve as a paradigm, for DiAngelo, of how the professed anti-racism of white progressives can mask denialism. “Nice racism,” she explains, “results in personal complacency towards anti-racist efforts while upholding material consequences.”
The author’s style is to combine typically condescending accounts of her own encounters with white progressives (often while in the role of trainer and facilitator of anti-racist workshops across the US) with analytical exposition. Throughout the book, she assumes the role of an omniscient narrator of anti-racist truth, which grates. One third of Nice Racism is devoted to a single chapter, The Moves of White Progressives, in which DiAngelo calls time on “seeking absolution”/“the need to be racially forgiven”, “expecting BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) people to teach us about racism”, and “lecturing BIPOC people on the answer to racism”. All of these, she argues, serve as a way of displacing the burden of responsibility for tackling racism on to the victim, not the perpetrator.
Elsewhere, however, she describes situations in which she herself does all of these things and without any sense of irony or awareness. In a section headed Lapses in Humility, for example, she describes an occasion when she lectures a group of BIPOC people within a professional context, only to discover, at the end of the session, that her dismissive attitude towards an audience member has caused widespread offence.
In the passage that follows, she recognises her error, but then responds in a way that sits squarely within the playbook of “white moves” she has been at pains to denounce. “I felt like a fraud,” she writes, “exposed and chagrined at how disrespectfully I had treated the group and the leaders. A few hours later, I was immobilised with shame, wanting to go home and never talk about race again. But hiding in my house and remaining silent about racism for the rest of my life was not an option. Pushing through the powerful pull to avoid the discomfort of facing my [BIPOC] host, I scheduled a call with her to seek some closure and repair.”
There’s a sense of deep internal contradiction running through DiAngelo’s writing that emerges from such discrepancies and which is at odds with the wealth she has accrued as an authority on anti-racism. It points towards the limitations of a worldview that, however well intentioned, pushes us deeper into the silos of ethnic identity.