Renouncing White Privilege: A Left Critique of Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility”

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

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.

For example: the county in which I live, and the surrounding counties, are 90% white. Our median income is almost $22,000 below the national median income. One-quarter of the kids who go to school here are on free or reduced lunch; 20% of the people here are on food stamps. And yet 70% of my county and the surrounding counties voted for Donald Trump, and, in election after election, have voted for law and order representatives whose contribution to our district’s welfare is to loudly champion the 2nd Amendment while industriously whittling away at food stamp allocations for families. And our poor white county votes for such elected officials because they have bought the notion that they are fundamentally different from and better than black people. We need these guns to protect ourselves from lawless black people; and they’re cutting food stamps because lazy black people are living the high life off of welfare and food stamps.

Talk to these people about their privilege and they will ignore you, laugh in your face, yell at you, spit at you, or stomp you. Millions of white people, here and around the country, lead hard and empty lives. They work long hours every week in jobs that have no meaning to them and for which they are paid very little. Many of them live but one or two paychecks or one medical crisis away from disaster. The dominant aspect of their lives is not that they live better than do black people, but that they live tremendously insecure lives themselves. We will reach these people – we will alter their understandings of who they are – not by telling them how privileged they are, but by acknowledging how hard their lives are, and by telling them, too, of how much fuller, and richer, and more meaningful are the lives they might lead, were they to embrace black people as their brothers and sisters instead of seeing them as their enemies.

I am coming to believe that when we discuss privilege on DiAngelo’s terms we are in fact advertising for white supremacy. If my life, as hard as it is, is easier than black people’s lives (and in the end, that’s all that white privilege is, that our lives are not so difficult as are the lives of black people) – then living here as I do, without any vision outside of this dog-eat-dog society, I’m going to defend that privilege. But if we understand privilege as a bribe to keep poor and working-class white people passive in the face of their own oppression, if we are able to articulate for them the vision of a just social and economic order, I think we are better able to take up the task that the young people in SNCC and the Panthers long ago asked of us: to challenge and transform our own white communities.

In fact, we can demonstrate the real nature of privilege historically, something DiAngelo attempts but really cannot do. DiAngelo presents this history – in only a few sentences scattered throughout White Fragility – in a characteristic way, in a way that obscures the meaning of privilege. “Race,” she writes, “is an evolving social idea that was created to legitimize racial inequality and protect white advantage” (17). “Race … was created…. to protect white advantage.” Grammatically, DiAngelo is writing in the passive voice, a construction that places in the grammatical subject position what is in reality the object of the sentence, the word “race.” Race, of course, can do nothing on its own. People, some distinct group of people, created the idea and the reality of race, and they did so for definite reasons. DiAngelo chooses this passive voice because the historical reality undercuts her basic thesis. She wants white people to be universally responsible for creating privilege. But that was not the reality.*

Poor whites did not play any role in initially creating race and racism in what would become the United States. On the contrary, the poor whites of Virginia in the mid-17th Century did not understand that they were superior to their darker skinned co-workers. Whites and blacks worked side-by-side with each other for the same cruel tobacco farmers; whites and blacks ran away from those masters together; they got drunk with each other; they slept with each other; and, in Bacon’s Rebellion and other, lesser rebellions, together they revolted against the rule of the rich. In response, Virginia’s great tobacco farmers, acting through the Virginia House of Burgesses, began to legislate racial division and racism in America’s first English colony. They began by penalizing those “Christians” and “English” (in the 1660s, the Burgesses had not yet invented the term “white”) who associated too closely with black people. For example, they doubled the penalty for the crime of fornication if the fornicators were black and white; they increased the penalty normally levied on a servant for the crime of running away from the plantation if a white servant chose to run away together with a black servant. Later, in order to further lend the poor whites incentive to disassociate themselves from black people, they began to “privilege” the poor whites. For example, by the end of the 17th Century, Virginia’s legislature mandated thirty stripes for any black person striking any white person for any reason. Eventually, the plantation owners authorized the poor whites, acting as overseers and slave patrollers, to brutalize, rape, and murder black women and men. By so doing the rich whites gave to the poor whites a safe outlet for the anger these poor whites felt in the face of their own poverty and social inferiority. In short, Virginia’s elite trained up the poor white in racism and racial division by penalizing whites for associating with black people, on the one hand, and privileging them for lording it over black people on the other.

We see here the beginnings of race and privilege. The poor whites had no part in passing this legislation “advantaging” them, and in fact their cooperation with blacks was the problem which the rich whites sought to end through such legislation. As described by historians Edmund Morgan, Ted Allen, and before them, W.E.B. Du Bois, Virginia’s great plantation owners created race, created a structure of white supremacy, not to benefit all white people, but in order to create a stable enslaved black workforce, on the one hand, and a poor white population to keep the slaves in their place, to police and contain that stable workforce, on the other.

This is our “racial contract”: the rich whites offer advantages, privileges, to the poor whites, placing them ever so slightly above their black peers. In return for this not-quite-as-difficult-as-it-might-otherwise-be life, the poor whites pledge to accept the rule of the rich, or what is the same thing, they pay for these privileges by ceding to the rich ultimate control over their own lives.

We pay dearly for our support of white supremacy then in all the terrible insecurities which shape our lives. But we pay, too, most importantly, in our spiritual impoverishment. From the moment we open our eyes we are told how wonderful it is to be an American – and of course, when we see “American” we see ourselves, we see white people. We live lives, however, that are far from wonderful. We know, then, that we have been lied to, the lie of white supremacy. Rather than confront that lie, however, we double down on it. For the three or four more years of life that we live beyond the life expectancy of our black peers – years which likely as not we spend warehoused in a senior care facility, tended to by underpaid black or Latinx workers – we cut ourselves off from our brothers and sisters in our own country, and in the world. And since we are in the wrong, and since we know we are in the wrong, we live in a constant state of denial and self-hatred which finds its issue in violence against racial others, against our own loved ones, and against our own selves. Alcohol, meth, domestic violence, bitterness, cynicism, and hypocrisy … this is what our white privilege has bought us.

James Baldwin has another term, a more accurate term, for the phenomena DiAngelo, and many others, call “privilege”: safety. Baldwin’s “safety” encompasses privilege, to be sure. But it goes beyond privilege to an understanding that DiAngelo never explores – we have a small refuge in the storm that is life in America. Safety, from the full harshness of life in a cruel and heartless society; safety, in the soul-crushing reality of day to day life in America; safety, an ability to know where we are in the chaos of our insecure lives, and know this by virtue of where we are not – the bottom, where black people are. So, yes, white fragility. But not because our “privilege” is threatened. No, we are fragile in the face of race because our safety is threatened, our very identity, the assuredness that as difficult as our lives may be, other people lead lives more difficult than we do.

Safety is a better word, too, in this respect: We know we are challenging our position in white supremacist society, we are violating our racial contract, when, and only when, we are risking our safety. We risk our safety not by loudly trumpeting our anti-racism, but by challenging the institutions within which we live and work. By naming names – the local District Attorney, for example, who refuses to prosecute the police murder of a black man, naming his name; or the leader of a local university who refuses to endorse a required class in African American History – this is challenging our privilege, this is asking us to risk something – our jobs, the status we have in our communities, the comfortable relationships we have with those in power – for the betterment of all people.

Imagine: taking on white supremacy and not risking a damned thing. Imagine creating a society just as cruel and heartless, and for the majority, as insecure as this one, with the single exception that black people will be represented proportionally in the upper and middle echelons of society. Congratulations. You’ve imagined the path laid out by Robin DiAngelo and White Fragility.

DiAngelo’s choices here are not at all surprising. She is, after all, a corporate diversity trainer. In that position DiAngelo comes into corporate workplaces “to help the members [should read: employees] of the organization understand why their workplace continues to remain white, why they are having so much trouble recruiting people of color, and/or why the people of color don’t stay”(116). In other words, DiAngelo must tell her workshop attendees that they themselves are the problem. People of color aren’t hired or can’t remain in these workplaces because of them, because of their white insensitivities. The folks bankrolling these workshops, of course, the corporate bosses, are not part of the problem, or, if they are, they are part of the problem as individuals, and not as corporate entities, not as having a structural role in the problems all people face in a white supremacist society, black people especially. To leave it at this, as DiAngelo practically does, is to let America’s white supremacist capitalism remain intact, continually replicating the norms of whiteness that our corporate diversity trainer is busy trying to repair in the workplace.

*DiAngelo uses passive voice elsewhere in her text, and for the same reason: to conceal the dual nature of the poor white identity – the recipient of privilege and the collaborator in one’s own oppression. “However, poor and working-class whites were eventually granted full entry into whiteness as a way to exploit labor” (19). The poor whites “were … granted full entry into whiteness…” The grantor to this kingdom of whiteness remains un-named. At times DiAngelo must address the reality more clearly. So, although white people as a whole are most often named as a monolithic bloc controlling America’s institutions, occasionally DiAngelo does acknowledge the white elite as controlling the white working and poor populations. For example, she writes: “that the people who control the economy and who have managed to concentrate more wealth into fewer (white) hands than ever before in human history are the white elite” (60). While DiAngelo makes these occasional acknowledgments of reality, nowhere does she explore white identity as having any content beyond privilege. If it’s true that the white elite, for example, directs “the white working class’s resentment [at globalization’s shrinking of white privilege] toward people of color,” (60) then white identity is not simply privilege, but also collaboration in its own exploitation. In any case, DiAngelo does not at all develop or explore the significance of class division among white people, beyond a sentence or two of text. Privilege as the defining characteristic for all white people, this is the concept DiAngelo relies on to drive her book and this is what she develops on every page of that book.

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.”