What’s So Bad About Robin DiAngelo

The anti-racism educator encourages white people to “look inward” and focus on self-improvement. But it would be much better if they looked outward and joined a movement that could actually accomplish something.

At this point, it’s difficult not to have heard about Robin DiAngelo, the sociologist and consultant who specializes in anti-racism training. Her book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard to Talk To White People About Racism has been a bestseller. The New York Times calls her “a phenomenon.” As of the time of this writing, she has given a talk to 184 Democratic members of Congress, been on The Tonight Show, and made a lot of money giving anti-racism workshops at America’s largest corporations such as Google, Amazon, and Microsoft.

DiAngelo is detested by many on the right, the center, and some on the left. The New York Post says she is the “P.T. Barnum of American race relations” perpetrating a “racial con job.” Matt Taibbi is harshly critical of DiAngelo for “urging us to put race even more at the center of our identities, and fetishize the unbridgeable nature of our differences.” Jonathan Chait of New York magazine says she has pioneered “a business model spreading kooky, harmful, and outright racist ideas.” Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara was equally critical, arguing that inclusivity seminars like the ones she runs protect power rather than challenging it. 

So what’s really so bad about Robin DiAngelo? Is her model of anti-racism training a helpful way to make American society less racist? Or is she, as her most vicious critics say, a huckster who has found a way to make money off making white people feel bad about racism? 

There is, as I see it, one core problem with DiAngelo’s work, a problem that ultimately makes it more harmful than helpful. To examine it, let’s look at the last chapter of the book, titled “Where Do We Go From Here?” Interestingly—and probably not coincidentally—this is also the name of Martin Luther King’s final book, published in 1967. In it, King advocated a guaranteed income, the abolition of poverty, and the organizing of a broad, multiracial labor movement. DiAngelo’s “Where Do We Go From Here?” is very different in its prescriptions. She begins the chapter with an anecdote about a time when she accidentally offended a Black woman by making a joke that did not land, and discusses how she offered to “repair the racism I perpetrated toward you.” She then discusses the ways we can manage our feelings when told that we have done something racist. She suggests ways to “interrupt racism” including:

  • Minimize our defensiveness
  • Demonstrate our vulnerability
  • Demonstrate our curiosity and humility
  • Allow for growth
  • Stretch our worldview
  • Ensure action
  • Demonstrate that we practice what we profess to value
  • Build authentic relationships and trust
  • Interrupt privilege-protecting comfort
  • Interrupt internalized superiority 

Her “Where Do We Go From Here?” does not mention the racial injustices that concerned King, such as the confining of large numbers of African Americans to neighborhoods that lacked adequate jobs, housing, and public services. The “we” in her “where do we go from here” is white people, and what we apparently need to do most of all is be “willing to tolerate the discomfort associated with an honest appraisal and discussion of our internalized superiority and racial privilege” and “work with one another on our white fragility.” DiAngelo says directly: “In answer to the question “where do we go from here, I offer that we must never consider ourselves finished with our learning.” Her strategy of anti-racist practice leans heavily on the internal transformation and self-improvement of white people, who must overcome their internalized racism. 

DiAngelo’s error is that she focuses excessively on interpersonal interactions between white people and people of color, and therefore sees fixing racism as more about perfecting those interactions rather than eliminating large-scale racial inequities like the Black-white wealth gap, the racial gap in school quality/healthcare, and mass incarceration. White Fragility is not especially interested in structural problems, or at least not in structural solutions to those problems: the source of American racial inequality, as far as DiAngelo seems to be concerned, is the psychology of white people. But despite DiAngelo’s lack of interest in a wider material-political understanding of racism, much of her analysis actually has something to it—the core thesis of her book, that there is a white tendency to react with extreme hostility and defensiveness toward any suggestion that white people are racist, does indeed capture a real social phenomenon. In fact, the problem with DiAngelo’s work is far more about what she doesn’t say than what she does.

When it comes to what DiAngelo does say, she is frankly correct that white people tend to have a lot of internalized racism, and that the small unconsciously racist acts that have been labeled “microaggressions” are quite real. DiAngelo’s new book, Nice Racism, argues that many white progressives who consider themselves good and decent and non-racist can, in fact, be racist. It’s a point that King made, too; his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” expresses his exasperation with those who claim to be sympathetic to his cause but do not take the time to understand what he is saying, and he concludes that “shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” DiAngelo does a service when she tries to help other white people understand why saying things like “I don’t see color” and “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” is oblivious. 

But at the same time, it’s very strange to have an anti-racist handbook that doesn’t encourage people to take any political action that would address the many existing racial inequities that still exist in the contemporary United States. White people’s job, in White Fragility, is to examine themselves (or, to phrase it more uncharitably, to navel-gaze), rather than to actually join movements that would make this a less racially unequal country. The Movement For Black Lives (M4BL) has put out a comprehensive agenda to this end that includes: ending racial profiling, ending qualified immunity for police, reducing deportation, ending the school-to-prison pipeline, and reducing racial disparities in maternal health. It’s also generally focused on investing in equal public transit, education, and healthcare in Black communities, often by investing in universal programs. The healthcare portion of the agenda, for instance, demands that the U.S.:

Pass legislation to expand public health care to all U.S. residents without conditions, including citizenship or work requirements, covering the full range of health care needs, including comprehensive contraception, abortion, and reproductive health care and technologies, maternal health care, comprehensive coverage of health care needs of trans, intersex and gender nonconforming people, elders, people living with the full spectrum of disabilities, and HIV, mental wellness treatment, no cost cancer screening, dental and eye care, interpreters and patient advocates, and coverage of allopathic and homeopathic care,  through accessible, patient-centered, and comprehensive health care, including neighborhood-based health centers and home-based care.

Universal programs such as Medicare For All would technically be “race neutral” (in the sense that they would cover “all U.S. residents without conditions”) but they would nevertheless reduce racial gaps in healthcare quality. The sort of political actions that would actually address the most severe forms of racial injustice are often universal programs: many of those require a lot of new spending and are politically radical. Keeping communities safe without using police and prisons is a difficult and potentially costly project, and rearranging society on this level might require some level of financial sacrifice that would hit rich white people quite hard.

But Robin DiAngelo’s proposals in White Fragility are not of this kind, and there is some indication that she considers the improvement of interpersonal interactions and representational diversity simply more important (or more possible) than addressing deeper structural inequalities. Consider this recent interview with Isaac Chotiner of the New Yorker, headlined “Robin DiAngelo Wants White Progressives to Look Inward.” DiAngelo tells Chotiner that “all white people have absorbed racist ideology, and it shapes the way we see the world and the way we see ourselves in the world, and it comes out in the policies and practices that we make and that we set up.” Chotiner asks her in return: “what needs to change structurally?” DiAngelo responds:

Well, the homogeneity alone at the top guarantees that advantage would be built into those systems and structures by the people in the position to build them in. This doesn’t have to be conscious or intentional, but, if significant experiences and perspectives are missing from the table, they’re not going to be included. If a group of architects is around a table designing a building and all of them are able-bodied, they’re simply going to design a building that accommodates the way they move through the world. It’s not an intentional exclusion, but it will result in the exclusion of people who move differently. You have to have multiple perspectives at those tables, and you can’t just take the additive approach, like, “Oh, well, we included some more diversity,” if you don’t also address power. That’s what I wanted to say. You can have policies that appear to be neutral, but, because we don’t account for just centuries of social discrimination, the impact of those policies will not be neutral.

I certainly agree with DiAngelo that if you exclude people who have certain perspectives from making policies, the resulting policies will have blind spots. However: it is telling that DiAngelo’s first instinct, when she is asked how to fix structural racism, is to make sure that “at the top” there is less “homogeneity.” Consider Amazon, a company that DiAngelo has advised, which has had a very serious diversity problem at the top. Of 48 top executives, only four were women and none were African Americans. (There were nearly as many white guys named Jeff as women—three including Bezos.) This year, Amazon has reported a massive expansion in the diversity of its executives—in part because it fiddled the statistics to reclassify those formerly deemed “mid-level managers” as executives

But even if Amazon had not cheated on its executive diversity numbers, diversifying its executive ranks does not fundamentally change the ways that Amazon harms people of color. Most of the people of color who work at Amazon work in its warehouses. In 2015, while only 5 percent of Amazon’s white collar workforce was Black, 24 percent of its laborer workforce was Black. We know that conditions for Amazon’s warehouse workers and delivery drivers are intolerable, and that the company is happy to brazenly lie about these conditions. But if we ask ourselves the same question that Chotiner asked DiAngelo—what needs to change structurally—we can see that there are a couple of different possible answers. One answer is that Amazon’s executive ranks should reflect the racial demographics of its workforce as a whole, so that these diversity disparities cease to exist. A leftist approach, however, would say that the job is not to have Black and brown people running the exploitation machine that crushes Black and brown workers, but to eliminate the exploitation. The best thing for the multi-racial workforce that toils away in Amazon’s warehouses is not to have a few people from the same ethnic groups (but probably not the same class group) hired away from Google and Facebook. Hiring more executives of color would benefit those individuals and Amazon’s public image but not change the fundamental reality of working life for those at the bottom. Instead, warehouse employees need to be able to work in healthy, humane conditions and their labor needs to be valued more highly. This is not to say that, so long as there is a “top,” the top should not be diverse, but that the best way to fight racial injustice is to look at what is actually being done to people of color and fight to stop it from happening, through universal programs or other large-scale structural changes. The alternative is a kind of trickle-down racial justice whereby we hope that diversity at the top will somehow ultimately benefit people of color at the bottom. DiAngelo does hint that “power” matters, and at the need for “addressing centuries of social discrimination.” But she is vague on what this entails, and the answer matters. Can Amazon ever be “anti-racist” unless it stops exploiting its (multiracial) warehouse workforce and is instead democratically managed by that workforce? That is the question, and I would say the answer is an obvious no.

This is why Sunkara responds to DiAngelo’s work by saying that the most productive way to fight racism is actually through union organizing. Not only do unions deliver tangible benefits to the Black and brown people who make up a major part of the American working class, but when white people struggle on the picket lines alongside coworkers of color, they often start to shed the prejudices, assumptions, and blind spots that DiAngelo wants them to get rid of through introspection. As Sunkara writes:  

We do know, for example, of a tool far more useful than unconscious bias trainings in creating respect and equality: unions. Recent work in the American Journal of Political Science notes that union membership reduced racial resentment among white workers and made them more likely to support policies that benefit black Americans. Where writers like DiAngelo focus on the privilege that all whites, including the poorest, have, unions offer the prospect for multiracial organizing and the pursuit of collective gains. The greatest beneficiaries of these gains are brown and black workers, particularly women, but they’re widely felt. Including both wages and benefits, unionized workers earn about 28 percent more than their non-union peers and have far greater job security. The approach of generations of labor organizers hasn’t been to deny privilege, but to bind people together in a common project.

We can see why DiAngelo’s trainings work well in corporate settings. Nothing she says suggests that profits need to be sacrificed, and White Fragility does not demand that white people participate in a political movement that will readjust the balance of wealth and power in this country. This means that rather than fighting the racial status quo, it ends up supporting it, by encouraging changes of “hearts and minds” that will make the country feel less racist without really addressing the worst existing racial disparities in who owns or controls what. These changes can happen. Passing the union-supporting PRO Act, for instance, would be immensely beneficial to Black and brown workers, who have little bargaining power in the labor market. But, because a unionized workforce has better pay and benefits and is therefore more expensive, it would also cost U.S. corporations a lot of money. It would require sacrifices beyond the kind of introspection DiAngelo calls for, sacrifices that might hit the financial bottom lines of the rich. (DiAngelo has explicitly said that she “avoid[s] critiquing capitalism” because “I don’t need to give people reasons to dismiss me.” Dismiss her they probably would, because she would be asking for a much more substantive and radical reevaluation of our country’s core values.) 

The problem, then, is that she is not radical enough, meaning that the criticisms which portray her as too radical miss the mark. Some of her critics suggest that the problem with her work is that it paints all white people with one brush and exaggerates the importance of race. I do not think this criticism is fair. There is actually a good reason to discuss “white people” as a group, because the moment you say “well, of course, there are some exceptions” everyone thinks they’re the exception. The generalization is meant to force every white person to examine themselves, and again it’s something that Martin Luther King himself did, writing:

Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to re-educate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn. 

DiAngelo differs from King not in her harshness toward white people—King, despite his public misremembrance as someone with color-free dreams, could be very, very scathing about white people as a group. She differs from him in that she is not a political radical, but someone whose prescriptions can be implemented without changing much about existing elite institutions. The white board members of Amazon may become more reflective on the ways that their behavior might offend non-white colleagues, but they are still going to be running hideous exploitative warehouses that squeeze every possible ounce of labor out of Black and brown workers. 

White people do tend to be touchy about race. (The over-the-top reaction of many of DiAngelo’s critics proves her thesis.) Nice, good progressives can indeed be reactionary obstacles to progress. But white indifference is a bigger problem than white fragility. For instance: here is a story about how unbearable climate change is making the lives of agricultural workers, who have to suffer in unprecedented heat in order to do the low-paid work that feeds the country. The farmworkers in the story are, of course, not white or wealthy, and I do not see much public protest from this country’s white majority on behalf of the farmworkers. 

This is why Robin DiAngelo’s work makes me positively angry. It encourages white people to spend time thinking about themselves instead of fixing the central problem, which is that they do not care enough about other people’s lives to try to fix the system that destroys those lives. As the New Yorker says, DiAngelo encourages white progressives to “look inward.” But inward is precisely where they already look too much. Instead, they need to look outward. Study the literature, history, and politics of groups different from themselves. Start caring about the ways that the healthcare system, immigration system, and education system disadvantage people who are not white, and instead of just committing yourself to learning and growing in your interpersonal life (by not making awkward racial jokes like DiAngelo did), commit yourself to lending your support to those who are trying to change the situation. Any time spent making phone calls for Nina Turner, so that she can get us a step closer to the kind of universal healthcare that will address our racially unfair distribution of medical services, is far better “anti-racist praxis” than time spent engaging in transformative self-reflection of the kind DiAngelo promotes. 

Again, many of the problems DiAngelo identifies are quite real. White people are constantly saying and doing racially insensitive things that they are unaware of. Interpersonal microaggressions exist, and they may have negative effects on the health of the people of color on the receiving end of them. But we cannot address only the microaggressions and lose sight of the macro-aggressions that make the United States a racist country to begin with. DiAngelo might perfectly well agree that the wealth gap, the health gap, criminal punishment, etc. are unfair, but her emphasis is on “solutions” that address none of this. That’s unconscionable, because it means the end result here is that she does indeed make a pile of money helping white people learn to take steps that make them feel like they are doing “anti-racism” while steering them away from the actual work of anti-racism. And that’s a shame, because that work can be done; we can fix a lot more than hearts and minds. 

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