Why Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility Theory is Poorly Founded

I want to preface this by saying that I am by no means an expert or someone that can speak on behalf of white or black people.

I only wish to share what I’ve learnt. As part of the recent wave of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, I’ve seen a lot of people recommending Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility in good faith, often without having read it, trusting that it is a well-researched resource. It is not. There are many better resources out there, some of which I’ve listed in my more recent post.

All these points come from Jonathan Church’s article in Areo Magazine.

why-white-fragility-is-flawed-dtj-cover
Photo by Umberto on Unsplash

1. Robin DiAngelo Claims She Is a Sociologist

She claims that “As a sociologist, I am quite comfortable generalizing” when in fact sociologists are typically wary of generalisations.

Her astonishing claims include making sweeping generalisations, reading only from scholarship in her profession that has led her to making some inaccurate readings of history, and what she believes is going on in our unconscious biases based on our ‘race’.

Unfortunately, especially in the social sciences, such things are very difficult to prove. Robin DiAngelo presents these generalisations as indisputable facts (explored in point 2), which is something that sociologists generally try to avoid even when they have good data to suggest that their hypothesis is correct.

Which brings me to my next point (explored further in point 3): she bases her claims on her “clinical experience with inter-group and intra-group dialogues on racism in formal settings—focus groups, case studies, workshops, seminars and talks—in which she has served as a mediator, facilitator or speaker.” (Jonathan Church)

In essence, she uses anecdotes to support her astonishing claims – and these anecdotes are highly unlikely to represent real life, because the settings tend to be where she is leading a formal workshop.

2. DiAngelo’s Generalisations are Formulated as Doctrines

These sweeping generalisations are not presented as hypotheses to be tested – this means that they cannot be falsified.

Church summarises her arguments thus:

In general, DiAngelo argues that societal forces such as segregation, ideological attachments to ideas about individualism and universalism, a deep-rooted sense of entitlement to racial comfort, racial arrogance, racial belonging and racial othering are fundamental causes of racism, and that, collectively, they function organically as an interrelated set of ongoing dynamic norms and practices that underlie a society characterized by racism, i.e. the internalization of supremacy among whites and the internalization of coercion among people of color.

Jonathan Church, The Epistemological Problem of White Fragility Theory

Essentially, DiAngelo says that white people have internalised white supremacy whilst people of colour have internalised that they are inferior. This happens because society has perpetuated the ideas of ‘racial belonging’ and ‘racial othering’ through “norms and practices”.

These are absolutely huge claims. They might seem intuitive given the amount of systemic racism, but jumping from that to implicit bias from internalisation is not well backed-up with science.

Church links to this study that finds that the data indicates pro-black bias, rather than anti-black bias. It is difficult to come to a conclusion that implicit bias produces systemic racism.

Photo by ev on Unsplash

Church goes even further to suggest that Robin DiAngelo uses white fragility as a rhetorical device that invalidates any contrary voices and cannot be disproved. She herself writes “rather than work to prove its existence, work to reveal it.” This is the starting point for her paper on White Fragility, which immediately shows that she doesn’t really care to try to disprove her own arguments. She also discourages debate in her workshops, which is a healthy sign of academic discourse.

When such all-encompassing claims are presented as unfalsifiable, this is no longer science. As I’m sure you will already know, Karl Popper framed a scientific theory as one that can never be proven, but can be falsified. DiAngelo presents herself as a scientist, while White Fragility is the unfalsifiable result of her findings – this basically makes White Fragility pseudoscience.

3. Robin DiAngelo Doesn’t Back Up Her Claims with Statistics

She doesn’t collect data proportionate to her claims, relying only on her own experiences and anecdotal observations as an educator. The sociologist’s number 1 tool should be statistics: these are notably absent in her justifications.

Church goes into detail about the importance of statistics in the social and human sciences – I will not replicate that here, but it seems obvious to me as a science student that any kind of claim must be backed up with evidence.

Photo by Luke Chesser on Unsplash

Scientists in general understand that their claims are only as good as the data and the statistical analysis that they perform on it, and are hesitant to infer too much from the data. This restraint produces results that are insightful, well-balanced and suggestive, but never definitive. There is always more work and research to be done.

DiAngelo, on the other hand, does the opposite. She is convinced she’s found ‘the answers’ to why systemic racism exists and proudly proclaims it everywhere she goes (building up her career and income along the way).

As Church points out, she does bring attention to certain aspects that are worthy of study, but she does so in a pseudo-pious way that comes across as omniscient and indisputable (else it shows you have succumbed to ‘white fragility’ too).

4. DiAngelo Confuses Objectivity with Neutrality

Robin DiAngelo has said that “There is no objective, neutral reality.” As Church writes, “This dismisses objectivity as an ideological obstruction to knowledge.” Essentially, this is another tool in her toolbox to discourage debate about her White Fragility theory, and excuses the absence of rigorous statistical analysis in her justifications.

I think Church really hits the nail on the head in his analysis.

Regardless of what one thinks about the possibility of neutrality, objectivity is something different. To insist on objectivity is to insist on the gathering of facts, data and other evidence in pursuit of an argument, which can be tested in accordance with rigorous standards of measurement. If objectivity is impossible, so is measurement. You can’t measure social outcomes in a way that achieves consensus (except, I suppose, by coercion). Truth becomes relative. Battles over ideas become battles over power.

Jonathan Church, The Epistemological Problem of White Fragility Theory

Essentially, social sciences may not be ‘neutral’, but they are more ‘objective’ because they use facts and data to justify their claims. Their claims are measurable, even if the data show disparity. Social outcomes are not based on consensus – if they were, that would mean that the truth is based on who has power.

Although this sounds like something that supports DiAngelo’s theory, it actually delegitimises it. The very statement that “[h]uman objectivity is not actually possible” is an objective one, and yet she does not turn to objective data to support this claim.

Here is a fantastic short article that explains the difference between objectivity and neutrality.

Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

Conclusion

White Fragility is a term that DiAngelo has come up with to delegitimise any criticism as ‘defensiveness’. She has built up an incredible career from pushing this theory, and while I’m sure this has done a lot of good for the world, it is also concerning that any criticism of it is immediately treated almost as heresy.

Not only this, but DiAngelo often treats white people in a way she would never treat black people. She also treats white fragility and racial empowerment as zero-sum, full of dichotomy rather than unity – nowhere in white fragility or whiteness studies is there any positive responses to true power, like joy, courage, love and excitement. Please give this article a read that summarises these further arguments.

There are better resources than Robin DiAngelo out there. Listening still means thinking.

If you’d like to read more essays concerning the fragility of DiAngelo’s claims, please read this article that links to more.

6 thoughts on “Why Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility Theory is Poorly Founded

  1. Jess, I’m sorry, but I don’t agree with you. I have taught in one of the most racist counties in the USA for almost twenty years and I can attest that “white fragility” is indeed a thing. I have witnessed this fragility from my white in-laws and in the beginning of the relationship with my husband, co-workers, friends that have come and gone. The theory may be flawed as you have presented based on the way science is structured, but it doesn’t mean that the entire premise is trash and worth throwing away. Likewise, there are so many things that science just can’t prove or support. Here are some examples:
    1. Science doesn’t make moral judgments.
    2. Science doesn’t make aesthetic judgments.
    3. Science doesn’t tell you how to use scientific knowledge.
    4. Science doesn’t draw conclusions about supernatural explanations.
    How many people (aside from white nationalists) will openly admit their racist ideologies for a study? How many people are even aware of their own biases and are actively trying to destroy them? That said, what was your purpose for writing this with so little background knowledge and context? You even mention that as an introduction to your post. What’s going on? Here’s what is going on in a little slice of my world. You’re always welcome to visit: https://adaratrosclair.wordpress.com/2020/05/30/am-i-your-beard/

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment. I completely agree with you in that science doesn’t make aesthetic or moral judgements, although I would argue that it is an important tool for figuring out what methods are best for fixing a problem – but this is outside the scope of this post.

      I can also understand that White Fragility resonates with a lot of people, including myself, and their experiences, and has raised people’s awareness to their implicit biases so that they can start to actively work to unlearn them. This is inextricably tied with DiAngelo’s success as a writer and educator.

      You are also right in that people will likely not openly admit their racist ideologies for a study. However, DiAngelo’s theory is that all white people are implicitly biased, with no exceptions. This is something that would be able to be studied, and has been studied; and the science is still hugely inconclusive (I have linked to the review in my post).

      I would also argue that it is misleading for DiAngelo to try and present her theory as a scientific result, instead of openly just basing it on her own experiences. This is what I have the biggest issue with, as a scientist of colour. It is important to be honest and rigorous if you are to present a scientific theory, especially if it is in a social science.

      Further to this, my purpose is to remind people that it is important to listen and understand others’ experiences, but it is also important to think critically about any ‘scientific’ arguments. As I said earlier, I think DiAngelo’s theory would be much better positioned if she openly based it on her experiences rather than as ‘science’.

      I would be interested to read your thoughts on this!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Monique L. Desir and commented:
    Though I don’t agree with this post. I’m open to discussions. I’m simply copying and pasting my comments to the author. Jess, I’m sorry, but I don’t agree with you. I have taught in one of the most racist counties in the USA for almost twenty years and I can attest that “white fragility” is indeed a thing. I have witnessed this fragility from my white in-laws and in the beginning of the relationship with my husband, co-workers, friends that have come and gone. The theory may be flawed as you have presented based on the way science is structured, but it doesn’t mean that the entire premise is trash and worth throwing away. Likewise, there are so many things that science just can’t prove or support. Here are some examples:
    1. Science doesn’t make moral judgments.
    2. Science doesn’t make aesthetic judgments.
    3. Science doesn’t tell you how to use scientific knowledge.
    4. Science doesn’t draw conclusions about supernatural explanations.
    How many people (aside from white nationalists) will openly admit their racist ideologies for a study? How many people are even aware of their own biases and are actively trying to destroy them? That said, what was your purpose for writing this with so little background knowledge and context? You even mention that as an introduction to your post. What’s going on? Here’s what is going on in a little slice of my world. You’re always welcome to visit: https://adaratrosclair.wordpress.com/2020/05/30/am-i-your-beard/

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fantastic article, Jess. To me, it seems evident and indisputable that “White Fragility” is anti-liberal, anti-free speech, and preaches a racist subversive dogma that will divide, not unite. Where instinct for many is to decry this danger, you do a great job in putting facts and mature consideration into a flammable topic. Great work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you very much for your comment. I think it is almost too ‘liberal’ in the sense that it has gone so far to defend black people as to label all white people racist – we may all have our own implicit biases but it would be unfair to say that all white people are racist. For sure, it’s not enough to be non-racist: you have to be anti-racist to really stop racism from happening; but by saying ‘white people are racist’ according to what they look like is precisely racism. What happens if you’re mixed-race (e.g. half white, half black) – does this make you half-racist?

      Don’t get me wrong, this racism towards white people (and even Asian people like me) is almost trivial compared to the racism that black people experience, but surely the whole point is to end all racism: to do that it is important to take down the structures in society that are racist, rather than blaming the individual. As I have said before, you have to take a good hard look at yourself and your biases, but the biggest change will be achieved by removing the self-propagating institutionalised racism.

      Like

  4. Pingback: How To Support BLM From Your Sofa | Daring To Jess

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