Renouncing White Privilege: A Left Critique of Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility”Roundup
tags: racism, books, multiculturalism, antiracism, Whiteness
David Barber is a Professor of History at the University of Tennessee at Martin and is the author of A Hard Rain Fell: SDS and Why it Failed. His most recent essay is “The Failure of Higher Education: A Tale of Two Diplomas.”
Whatever may have been her intentions, Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility is only of very limited value in helping us understand racism and actually conceals and defends our American white supremacist system of capitalism. Even a casual look at White Fragility demonstrates this. DiAngelo’s final chapter, “Where Do We Go From Here,” – her prescription for well-meaning whites – deals exclusively with inter-racial relations at the level of individuals, and not at all with challenging our white supremacist socio-economic structure. We can be nice and understanding and empathetic to black people and, especially, self-aware of our own white privilege, while the white supremacist structures of American society – housing, health care, education, jobs, policing – continue to keep black people down. DiAngelo is a white liberal and, consciously or subconsciously, she posits a comfortable anti-racism, a kinder and gentler racism, leaving intact the white supremacist socio-economic order in which white “safety” lies.
Behind her failure to deal with America’s white supremacist structure lies DiAngelo’s fundamental misunderstanding of white privilege and white identity, terms she herself makes synonymous. She writes, for example, of the importance of studying whiteness: “Instead of the typical focus on how racism hurts people of color, to examine whiteness is to focus on how racism elevates white people” (25). Or again:
To say that whiteness is a location of structural advantage is to recognize that to be white is to be in a privileged position within society and its institutions …. This position automatically bestows unearned advantages. Whites control all major institutions of society and set the policies and practices that others must live by (27).
Racism “elevates white people” and privilege is the defining element of white identity, so DiAngelo argues. But DiAngelo, in focusing on privilege here, obscures one whole side of the meaning of white supremacy. White supremacy is not only white over black, it is also the small number of rich whites over the much larger number of poor and working class whites. In return for a guarantee that the latter group of whites will suffer the many calamities of life afflicting working people in a capitalist society less intensely and less frequently than do black people and people of color, the poor and working class whites will not challenge the rule of the rich. Privilege is the bribe our elite white rulers have offered us, historically and in the present, in return for our silent assent to their rule, rule over black people, and rule over own selves.
The dominant aspect of the contradiction of white supremacy for poor and working class whites is not that white supremacy advantages us, but that it ties us to our own oppression. Or, to put it in another way: far more than “elevating” us, racism unites us with our own oppression.