Newsletter 377

Published February 15, 2021
White Fragility - for those who crave a little more guilt in their lives

As the US Senate goes through the motions of a second Trump impeachment I finally got around to reading the “New York Times # 1 Bestseller”, Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. It reinforces the impression that America today is just as crazy on the left as on the right.

Allowing for the fact that DiAngelo’s book is written with all the eloquence and charm of an instruction manual, the book manages to patronise both white and black people in equal measure. Are “people of colour” so delicate, so easily offended that they are ready to suffer agonies every time a white person says some dumb thing? To achieve anything in a competitive society you’ve got to be more than a lifelong victim – or at least that used to be the case before victimhood became a career option.

So laser-focussed is the author in weeding out examples of incorrect behaviour among well-meaning whites who swear they are not racist and get offended at the very suggestion, she is indulgent with extremists. Self-avowed racists, we learn, are “actually more aware of, and more honest about, their biases than those of us who consider ourselves open-minded yet who have rarely thought critically about the biases we inevitably hold or how we may be expressing them.”

This makes self-avowed racists sound like models of sound, well-adjusted mental health compared to the hypocritical and conflicted liberals who refuse to admit to the “implicit bias” that “inevitably” influences all their behaviour. One imagines it would be much easier for a “person of colour” to meet a bunch of “honest” Klansmen in a dark alley than a group of wet liberals in a seminar.

OK, I’m sure she didn’t mean it like that, but for page after page, DiAngelo returns to the same theme: to be white is to be racist, there is no escape. Furthermore, only whites can be racist although other races may practice “racial discrimination”, which is apparently something different.

The result is rather like Calvinism or Jansenism, which argued we are all damned no matter what we do. Anybody who took DiAngelo’s view seriously would be condemned to walking round in a bubble of perpetual guilt, looking out for the slightest hint of racist speech or behaviour. Once we detected any transgression in ourselves we should seek out the nearest person of colour and confess our sins, in the hope of absolution.

Perhaps the one thing she says that seems irrefutable is that it’s impossible to be entirely free from prejudice of one sort or another. To be human is to judge. We all feel our differences from people of other races, creeds and cultures. The important point is not to feel threatened or hostile in relation to those differences. The best we can hope for is to judge people by their actions, not by the assumption of “implicit bias” – ie. biases we don’t even know we have. Anything else is simply unworkable. DiAngelo is contemptuous of those whites who say they try and treat everyone equally, but what’s wrong with that? Isn’t that an eminently reasonable position?  Apparently not, because it denies our white privilege, meaning that all our relations with other races will be tainted by unequal power relations.

Is there no solution? Well yes. Even though damnation is certain one can ameliorate the pain by paying Robin DiAngelo, or another “white awareness” facilitator, to come and lecture to your department, etc. on how to recognise one’s “white fragility”. Afterwards you can bask in a warm glow of satisfaction that the thousands of dollars you’ve just handed to Robin was money well spent.

Like all self-help books, White Fragility plays on the perceived need of its readership to have someone else tell them how to live their lives correctly. Most of these books merely recycle commonsense for those who have lost touch with this concept. In DiAngelo’s case there is a much nastier aspect. The book reads like a document from the Cultural Revolution, calling for constant self-accusations as one confesses to crimes that may not have been apparent until now. After you’ve submitted to the process the next step is to become an accuser of those who resist admitting their own “inevitable” racism. This leads to the surging intolerance one witnesses on American campuses for anything that deviates from the orthodoxy of professional victimhood. It leads to Cancel Culture, which is only the other side of the coin to the crazed conspiracy theorists and anti-democratic mobs now flexing their muscles.

Accepting that we are flawed beings, the wisest philosophers have counselled moderation in all things, but instead we seem to have a pathological need to wallow in guilt, anger and indignation. Surely the best that any of us can do is to strive to be a decent person. It should, in theory, be a lot easier – and a lot less stressful – than constantly examining one’s implicit racism or planning to march on the capitol.

This week’s art column looks – at last! – at the NGV Triennial. The paper has been sitting on this piece for weeks, until there was some stability in border restrictions between NSW and Victoria. Ironically, just as the review was lined up for the weekend section, Dan Andrews announced another five days of total lockdown, which means the interstate shutters have gone back up. It’s impossible to predict this stuff from one week to the next. For the record the NGV Triennial is a pretty amazing show, so if it’s at all possible to get to Melbourne – let alone the NGV – I’d recommend a visit.

The film being reviewed is Another Round, the story of a group of Danish schoolteachers who try the experiment of going to work with a few shots under their belt every day. At first it seems to improve the quality of their teaching, but we know there’s a reckoning in store. Nevertheless Thomas Vinterberg’s film is by no means as cut-and-dried on the issue as one might think. On the evidence of this movie any school woud be better off hiring a cheerful drunk than someone obsessed with examining their own white fragility.