The NY Times has published a lengthy feature titled “‘White Fragility’ Is Everywhere. But Does Antiracism Training Work?” That title is misleading in some ways because the piece only briefly touches on the question of whether training sessions held by people like Robin DiAngelo (author of White Fragility) work. The answer to that question is that there’s no real evidence they do and maybe some evidence that they are likely to create a backlash. But none of that research seems to penetrate the bubble in which people like DiAngelo thrive.
What’s much more interesting about the piece is it’s gradual focus on what it is the anti-racism trainers identify was the fundamentals of white supremacy. As the piece argues, these anti-racism sessions, run by DiAngelo and a competitor of sorts named Glenn Singleton, aren’t just about forcing white people to interrogate their own history and privilege, they are ultimately about taking on some pretty fundamental ideas that are seen as ultimately hostile to racial progress. One of those is science or more broadly, rationalism and the concept of objectivity:
Running slightly beneath or openly on the surface of DiAngelo’s and Singleton’s teaching is a set of related ideas about the essence and elements of white culture. For DiAngelo, the elements include the “ideology of individualism,” which insists that meritocracy is mostly real, that hard work and talent will be justly rewarded. White culture, for her, is all about habits of oppressive thought that are taken for granted and rarely perceived, let alone questioned. One “unnamed logic of Whiteness,” she wrote with her frequent co-author, the education professor Ozlem Sensoy, in a 2017 paper published in The Harvard Educational Review, “is the presumed neutrality of White European Enlightenment epistemology.” The paper is an attempt to persuade universities that if they want to diversify their faculties, they should put less weight on conventional hiring criteria. The modern university, it says, “with its ‘experts’ and its privileging of particular forms of knowledge over others (e.g., written over oral, history over memory, rationalism over wisdom)” has “validated and elevated positivistic, White Eurocentric knowledge over non-White, Indigenous and non-European knowledges.” Such academic prose isn’t the language of DiAngelo’s workshops or book, but the idea of a society rigged at its intellectual core underpins her lessons.
Singleton, who holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford, and who did stints in advertising and college admissions before founding what’s now known as Courageous Conversation in 1992, talks about white culture in similar ways. There is the myth of meritocracy. And valuing “written communication over other forms,” he told me, is “a hallmark of whiteness,” which leads to the denigration of Black children in school. Another “hallmark” is “scientific, linear thinking. Cause and effect.” He said, “There’s this whole group of people who are named the scientists. That’s where you get into this whole idea that if it’s not codified in scientific thought that it can’t be valid.” He spoke about how the ancient Egyptians had “ideas about how humanity works that never had that scientific-hypothesis construction” and so aren’t recognized. “This is a good way of dismissing people. And this,” he continued, shifting forward thousands of years, “is one of the challenges in the diversity-equity-inclusion space; folks keep asking for data. How do you quantify, in a way that is scientific — numbers and that kind of thing — what people feel when they’re feeling marginalized?” For Singleton, society’s primary intellectual values are bound up with this marginalization.
Another antiracism trainer named Marcus Moore who works for Singleton’s company even cites clocks and “mechanical time” as part of white supremacy:
In Hartford, Moore directed us to a page in our training booklets: a list of white values. Along with “ ‘The King’s English’ rules,” “objective, rational, linear thinking” and “quantitative emphasis,” there was “work before play,” “plan for future” and “adherence to rigid time schedules.” Moore expounded that white culture is obsessed with “mechanical time” — clock time — and punishes students for lateness. This, he said, is but one example of how whiteness undercuts Black kids. “The problems come when we say this way of being is the way to be.” In school and on into the working world, he lectured, tremendous harm is done by the pervasive rule that Black children and adults must “bend to whiteness, in substance, style and format.”
Behind a lot of this talk is the awareness of the achievement gap in schools between white kids and black kids. The fundamental question is whether this gap exists because black kids are less well prepared to succeed or because the game is somehow rigged by white people. DiAngelo and her comrades have fully embraced the latter view.
But there are unavoidable outcomes of that view. The Times’ piece takes a detour to consider the story of Leslie Chislett a white woman who has worked in different education departments trying to expand the number of minority kids in gifted and talented programs and to make sure every school offered AP classes to help raise expectations.
“The availability of A.P. classes,” she told me, “communicates to kids that it is possible for them to exceed the regular curriculum and can help teachers see that many kids have the potential to succeed at college-level course work. It’s about creating a culture of high expectations.”
But the value of individual academic excellence isn’t shared by antiracism trainers. Chislett wound up in an antiracism training course run by Darnisa Amante-Jackson. She recorded some of what Amante-Jackson said, which the Times admits is “anti-intellectual by mainstream standards.”
During a training in January 2019 run by Amante-Jackson, which Chislett recorded, Amante-Jackson sounded notes that were anti-intellectual by mainstream standards, declaring that “this culture says you have to be most expert; you have to be perfect; it has to be said perfectly.” She continued, “The more degrees you have, the more expert you are. I think back — the most brilliant people in my life don’t even have diplomas from middle school. But we have been taught that you can only value people when they’ve got letters behind their name. All of that is coming from the water” — the water of white supremacy. “Eighty-eight percent of the entire world are people of color,” she claimed earlier in the session, “but 96 percent of the world’s historical content is white.” She went on to present “some characteristics of whiteness,” prominent among them “an obsession with the written word. If it’s not written down, it doesn’t exist.”
Obviously if you’re teaching people that proper English, rational thought, the written word and even clocks are all ways in which white supremacy operates to hold minorities back you’re not going to be terribly interested in seeing students pursue excellence in schools that focus on reading, writing and arithmetic. Chislett pointed to the obvious absurdity of people with these views being involved in an “Advanced Placement for All” effort at schools:
“It’s absurd,” she said about much of the training she’s been through. “The city has tens of millions invested in A.P. for All, so my team can give kids access to A.P. classes and help them prepare for A.P. exams that will help them get college degrees, and we’re all supposed to think that writing and data are white values? How do all these people not see how inconsistent this is?”
The author of the Times’ piece asked Robin DiAngelo about this apparently inconsistency and her reaction was interesting. At first she retreated into metaphor but when pressed, she suggested the real problem was capitalism, i.e. a system where rationalism and excellence matters:
With DiAngelo, my worries led us to discuss her Harvard Educational Review paper, which cited “rationalism” as a white criterion for hiring, a white qualification that should be reconsidered. Shouldn’t we be hiring faculty, I asked her, who fully possess, prize and can impart strong reasoning skills to students, because students will need these abilities as a requirement for high-paying, high-status jobs?
In answering, she returned to the theme of unconscious white privilege, comparing it to the way right-handed people are unaware of how frequently the world favors right-handedness. I pulled us away from the metaphorical, giving the example of corporate law as a lucrative profession in which being hired depends on acute reasoning. She replied that if a criterion “consistently and measurably leads to certain people” being excluded, then we have to “challenge” the criterion. “It’s the outcome,” she emphasized; the result indicated the racism.
Then she said abruptly, “Capitalism is so bound up with racism. I avoid critiquing capitalism — I don’t need to give people reasons to dismiss me. But capitalism is dependent on inequality, on an underclass. If the model is profit over everything else, you’re not going to look at your policies to see what is most racially equitable.” While I was asking about whether her thinking is conducive to helping Black people displace white people on high rungs and achieve something much closer to equality in our badly flawed world, it seemed that she, even as she gave workshops on the brutal hierarchies of here and now, was entertaining an alternate and even revolutionary reality. She talked about top law firms hiring for “resiliency and compassion.”
DiAngelo’s fellow antiracism trainers became positively utopian when asked the same question. Singleton “invoked, instead, a journey toward ‘a new world, a world, first and foremost, where we have elevated the consciousness, where we pay attention to the human being.'” And Amante-Jackson described her idea of a better education system “built around students’ ‘telling their stories and listening to the stories of others’ and creating ‘in us the feeling that we belong to each other as people.'”
This is utopian bulls**t and allowing this to takeover the public schools would be a disaster for students and for society as a whole. Do you want to be treated by a doctor who spent a lifetime learning that science and rationalism are white supremacist values? Do you want to be represented at a trial by someone hired for their resiliency and compassion rather than their familiarity with the law?
The author eventually quotes a black economist from Harvard named Ron Ferguson who chuckled at the ideas being presented by the antiracism trainers. “You can try to be competitive by equipping yourself to run the race that’s already scheduled, or you can try to change the race. There may be some things about the race I’d like to change, but my priority is to get people prepared to run the race that’s already scheduled,” he said.
DiAngelo it seems wasn’t asked to explicitly respond to that idea but it’s not hard to imagine what her response would be. I wouldn’t be surprised if she were to suggest that Ferguson was himself propagating white supremacy.
I recommend reading the entire piece which is overall quite warm toward Robin DiAngelo and her project. But the examination of what DiAngelo and the other antiracism trainers have in common is thorough enough that it reveals some of the worrisome underlying values they share. Those should be of concern to everyone currently jumping on the White Fragility bandwagon.