The Fragile White People Are All Around You
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, by Robin DiAngelo (Beacon Press: 2020), 192 pages.
The confession that I am about to make is so radical that I am going to have to be placed in the Witness Protection Program, beyond the reach of my friends and former colleagues at various right-of-center periodicals: I believe in white fragility.
What do I mean by that phrase? Probably not what proponents of so-called “critical race theory” have in mind, though as it happens I am sympathetic to Dr. Aruna Khilanani, who in a talk at Yale Medical School recently described upper-middle-class white women as “passive aggressive” and mocked their feigned gluten allergies after pointing out that for most of human history wars have been fought over access to grain. During the same event Khilanani also confessed her apparent fantasies of shooting white people with a revolver. For this reason, most of what she said will be understandably ignored.
But if “white fragility” simply means that in addition to being passive aggressive, members of our professional class tend to be emotionally unstable, coddled to the point that even their most absurd fantasies are acknowledged as real by doctors, obsessed with health and safety, driven by careerism and social status, and above all convinced that their wealth and privilege are uniformly well-deserved rewards for their hard work and innate virtue, I am firmly in agreement. It’s hard to see why it took a professor to come up with it. Much of it reminds me of “Stuff White People Like,” a hilarious comedy blog from the last decade later adapted into a series of popular coffee table books, or of old stand-up routines by Dave Chapelle and Richard Pryor.
In my experience, the vast majority of the white Americans Khilanani and other critical race theorists are likely to have encountered are in fact like this. They are hilariously risk-averse health fanatics who have anxiety fits at the idea of their neighbors not masking outdoors or their dogs not accompanying them on airplanes. They listen to podcasts and speak in NPR voice (either the affectless lisp of Ira Glass or the condescending smugness of Robert Siegel). They are full of progressive cant, but they don’t want to lose the state and local tax deductions that make their lifestyles possible. Nor do they spend much time around the poor immigrants they pretend to welcome, unless of course it’s a Guatemalan woman raising their children for them.
You can see white fragility at work in the way these people struggle with things like why a GrubHub driver making negative $3 an hour might not be as worked up as they are about a virus whose average victim is older than the American life expectancy. You see it when “birthing person” and “chestfeeding” become actual words that appear in medical textbooks. You see it whenever a black celebrity gets in trouble, especially Michael Vick, whose 30 for 30 special on ESPN was full of grayed-out video footage that made his old dog kennels look like a Soviet prison camp docudrama. (To this day I cannot think of an act more likely to upset a room full of well-to-do suburban women than wearing a Vick jersey, not even saying that you think the Supreme Court was as wrong in Griswold as it was in Roe.) You see it too in the way that, whenever BLM protestors show up at Whole Foods, white women devote an inordinate amount of energy to questions that basically add up to, “Will no one think of the Veganic Sprouted Ancient Maize Flakes? Those thugs!”
They love saying the T-word, by the way. They relish it in a way that I can only compare to the way an acquaintance of mine whose wife disapproves of smoking enjoys his tobacco privileges when he is mowing the lawn. (“At least she doesn’t make me double mask,” my buddy explains.)
I knew this review was going to be difficult to write for any number of reasons. One is that I could spend hours trying to capture the exact facial expression of a Georgetown shopper reacting to your unlit cigarette glimpsed from the other side of the street, with a strong wind blowing in the opposite direction, as she prepares to spend 30 seconds fake coughing. Hundreds of thousands of words could be spent trying to make sense of the psychology of people who accept it as blinkeringly obvious that the police can kneel on a guy’s neck for longer than the duration of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” because he maybe used a fake $20 bill, or choke him to death because he sold some loosies from a pack with no tax stamp.
If critical race theory simply meant drawing attention to these realities, it would get three cheers from me. But in practice what proponents and detractors alike refer to as “CRT” (do we really need another acronym?) is pernicious for two reasons.
The first is that it obfuscates the truth that these tendencies are simply elite ones. There are plenty of non-white people who also believe that getting high SAT scores and attending an elite university are the most important things in life, who obsess about masking and share their pronouns and support cannabis legalization. Meanwhile there are also working-class Americans of every race who exhibit none of these vices. Go to a barbecue at any public park, from San Francisco to Alexandria, Virginia, and you will find normal, decent people who are relaxed about their careers, tolerant, gregarious, free of racial and social anxiety about status, on easy and familiar terms with their neighbors, and not especially concerned about their health and safety.
The second is that critical race theory also lets our elites off the hook. Feel guilty about earning six figures using spreadsheets to justify firing people in Middle America and replacing them with Muslim wage slaves in China? Listen to our Zoom seminar (and take a Xanax: You deserve it!). CRT doesn’t ask people to do anything with their guilt except luxuriate in it, the same way that shampoo and chocolate ads induce women to “indulge.”
I seem to have written some 1,000 words about white fragility without saying anything about White Fragility. These pages suggest that Robin DiAngelo is very familiar with her subject, at least as I define and understand it, which is no bad thing in an author.
Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp magazine and a contributing editor at The American Conservative.