Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
At a time when violent radicals are attacking America and its institutions as fundamentally and irredeemably racist, Robin DiAngelo may well be the woman of the hour. A 63-year-old professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, she’s a big name in multicultural education and in the burgeoning field of Whiteness Studies, which, unlike other identity-group “studies,” exists not to exalt the group in question but to demonize it. In the words of National Post columnist Barbara Kay, Whiteness Studies teaches that to be white is to be “branded, literally in the flesh, with evidence of a kind of original sin. You can try to mitigate your evilness, but you can’t eradicate it. The goal…is to entrench permanent race consciousness in everyone – eternal victimhood for non-whites, eternal guilt for whites.”
DiAngelo, just so you know, is white.
In addition to being a professor, DiAngelo is a “workplace diversity trainer.” And she’s not just any “workplace diversity trainer.” As Kelefa Sanneh put it last year in the New Yorker, she’s “perhaps the country’s most visible expert in anti-bias training, a practice that is also an industry, and from all appearances a prospering one.” In these days when everything is suddenly about race and when pusillanimous corporate leaders are falling all over themselves pandering to Black Lives Matter, DiAngelo’s services as a “workplace diversity trainer” are surely more in demand than ever.
But DiAngelo isn’t just an academic and an anti-bias trainer. She’s also an author. Two years ago she published a book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism, that has been on the bestseller list ever since, making her an eagerly sought-after speaker. Just a few days ago, in the thick of the current race war, she was interviewed by an inanely fawning Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show. Her message: all whites are indeed eternally guilty, for they’re all racists, and all “people of color” are their eternal victims. Don’t think you can escape the racist label by saying “I judge people by what they do, not who they are” or “I don’t see color; I see people.” DiAngelo doesn’t buy into the idea of colorblindness. Nor does she have any patience for Martin Luther King’s sentiments about the content of one’s character. “Individual whites,” DiAngelo explains, “may be ‘against’ racism, but they still benefit from a system that privileges whites as a group,” and are consequently racists.
The flip side of this tenet is that blacks can’t ever be racists. “While a white person may have been picked on – even mercilessly – by being in the numerical minority in a specific context,” DiAngelo contends, “the individual was experiencing race prejudice and discrimination, not racism.” Hence, even though Barack Obama was president of the United States for two terms, he’s still structurally subordinate to some white guy in a shack in the Appalachians.
Don’t dare tell DiAngelo that “focusing on race is what divides us.” According to her, race in America is a constant existential crisis that we can only fairly address by focusing on it constantly. DiAngelo admits that race is continuously on her mind and that it’s ever been thus. “In virtually every situation or context deemed normal, neutral or prestigious in society, I belong racially,” she writes. “This belonging is a deep and ever-present feeling that has always been with me. Belonging has settled deep into my consciousness; it shapes my daily thoughts and concerns, what I reach for in life, and what I expect to find.” As far as DiAngelo is concerned, her obsession with racial identity isn’t weird but admirable, and her goal is to make her white readers, students, and diversity trainees as obsessed as she is with their place in “a system of racial inequality that benefits whites at the expense of people of color.”
But what, you ask, if you can’t think of circumstances under which you’ve actually benefited from your whiteness? When I was in high school in Queens, N.Y., the student body of about 5000 was roughly 20% white gentile, 20% black, 20% Asian, 20% Hispanic, and 20% Jewish. I don’t remember those labels mattering in the slightest; kids weren’t picked on because of their ethnic identities but because they were fat or short, nerds or sissies. Later, being black would’ve been a boon to me; as somebody who attended a state university for financial reasons, I know that if I’d been black, my SAT scores would’ve given me a free ride through the Ivy League college and grad school of my choice and swept me into any one of a number of lucrative career paths. No, I’m not saying I’ve been seriously stung by affirmative action; on the contrary, I’m glad to know I never got special treatment, and I wouldn’t have wanted to go to Harvard or Yale anyway. But there are plenty of whites – and Asians too – who’ve been royally screwed over by racial preferences.
Some would argue that currently recognized “victim groups” aren’t even those most affected by bigotry. The elderly can be made to feel invisible; ditto people with psychiatric disorders, chronic illnesses, or physical deformities. “You can never truly understand discrimination unless you’ve been ugly,” says stand-up comic Doug Stanhope in one brilliant routine. “Ugly people face discrimination more than any other minority group.” Then there’s comedian Adam Carolla, who in House testimony three years ago spoke sarcastically of his own “white privilege.” Decades earlier, fresh out of high school and living with his welfare-recipient mother, he’d applied for a job as a firefighter only to be told that because he wasn’t black, Latino, or female he’d be put on a waiting list. After seven years of “digging ditches and picking up garbage” for a living, he was summoned to take the fire department exam, and when he asked the woman of color in line behind him when she’d applied, she said, “Wednesday.”
DiAngelo knows that such things happen. Indeed, at the beginning of her book, she recalls her own encounter with a man who, like Carolla, refused to acknowledge his racial privilege:
I am a white woman. I am standing beside a black woman. We are facing a group of white people seated in front of us. We are in their workplace and have been hired by their employer to lead them in a dialogue about race. The room is filled with tension and charged with hostility. I have just presented a definition of racism that includes the acknowledgment that whites hold social and institutional power over people of color. A white man is pounding his fist on the table. As he pounds, he yells, “A white person can’t get a job anymore!” I look around the room and see forty employees, thirty-eight of whom are white. Why is this white man so angry? Why is he being so careless about the impact of his anger? Why doesn’t he notice the effect this outburst is having on the few people of color in the room? Why are all the other white people either sitting in silent agreement with him or tuning out? I have, after all, only articulated a definition of racism.
I’ve quoted this passage at length because I think it sheds a remarkable light into DiAngelo’s mind. Presumably she encounters people like that white man all the time. She knows – she has to know – that there’s truth in what he says. Affirmative action does put a lot of white people at an unfair disadvantage. That’s the experience of tens of millions of Americans. But when facts come up against ideology, a radical leftist will grasp onto ideology all the more fiercely.
Why, DiAngelo asks, is this man angry? My answer: he’s angry because, even though she knows nothing at all about him other than his sex and skin color, she’s presumed to tell him that he’s a racist. He’s angry because she’s insulted his intelligence by acting as if he doesn’t live in the real world and never noticed anything about it until she came along to instruct him. He’s angry because she’s shown no interest in learning from his or anyone else’s experiences: whatever she may claim, her goal isn’t to engage in a genuine dialogue but to indoctrinate. He’s angry because even though she’s accusing him and the other white people in her audience of possessing white power, she’s doing so in a context – a workplace seminar – in which she’s actually the one with the power.
Needless to say, DiAngelo doesn’t see things this way. In her view, that white man’s anger is a manifestation of an attribute that, she maintains, all white people exhibit when confronted with their racism. DiAngelo has called this attribute “white fragility,” a term that’s caught on widely in academia and elsewhere. In his foreword to DiAngelo’s book, Michael Eric Dyson has this to say about the concept: “White fragility is an idea whose time has come. It is an idea that registers the hurt feelings, shattered egos, fraught spirits, vexed bodies, and taxed emotions of white folk. In truth, their suffering comes from recognizing that they are white – that their whiteness has given them a big leg up in life while crushing others’ dreams….”
Let’s put aside the hysterical rhetoric (shattered, fraught, vexed, taxed, suffering, crushing), which is common in efforts to sell ludicrous leftist claptrap, and ask: do whites really experience psychological torture because they know they’ve crushed black dreams? Does this claim ring true for anybody? Is life this simple – this black and white – for anyone? For heaven’s sake, we’re all individuals with different histories and different sets of problems. Yes, many of us, not just blacks, have suffered because we belong to some group. I’ve experienced personal and professional reversals because I’m gay. But that was along ago, in what now feels like another world. I have no interest in nursing ancient grudges, let alone in constructing a grotesquely simplistic ideology that, ignoring the complexities of real life, divides humanity into gay victims and straight oppressors.
“Race,” Dyson avers, “is a condition. A disease. A card. A plague. Original sin.” One thing’s for sure: for Dyson, race is a meal ticket, a racket, a hustle, and a big, ugly, cynical lie. And for DiAngelo? I’m not sure. If her own testimony is to be believed, she’s a woman who’s monetized her own pathological obsession with race. Instead of seeking help for this sickness, she plays healer to the healthy. She might celebrate the fact that America is the world’s least racist country, that e pluribus unum is a remarkable, unprecedented reality; instead, the effect of her mischief is to help preserve and deepen whatever racial divisions do exist. Her grim ideology of race is crude, dehumanizing, insulting to black and white; it places us all, without regard to individual qualities or actions or accomplishments, into fixed categories of oppressor and oppressed; it condemns every last one of us to life sentences, alongside DiAngelo herself, in an exceedingly dreary prison of the mind. By all means, let DiAngelo keep to her cell, since, like some masochistic religious martyr, she seems to enjoy it so much; but for our colleges, corporations, and publishers to inflict her disorder upon the rest of us and to seek to make us fellow sufferers is sheer cruelty, damaging to our society and to our souls.