John McWhorter’s hatchet job on Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility

I recently read Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. Then today I saw a review in the July 15 Atlantic. It is titled “The Dehumanizing Condescension of White Fragility.”

Its author is John McWhorter, a professor at Columbia University and a contributing writer at The Atlantic. As a Black man, MacWhorter is not the intended reader of White Fragility, so if it doesn’t do much for him, that’s OK. But there’s more going on here than that.

On the whole, the DiAngelo book struck me as fair and insightful. The fragility that she describes is real; I see it nearly every day. And she insists on it. Her insistence is uncomfortable. It provokes resistance. Isn’t that always the case with anyone who takes up the burden of any kind of moral reform? It’s so easy to come up with snide retorts to serious exhortation. The line between positive morality and repugnant moralizing coincides with the line between us and them.

Actually I wouldn’t characterize DiAngelo’s book as being aimed primarily at moral reform. It’s aimed more at helping people see things they’re not seeing. But that’s a closely related enterprise.

I feel myself mainly agreeing with DiAngelo but also resisting in places. What to do about the places where it feels like she’s pushing too hard? As I read I did encounter such places. One thing I learned in Clinical Pastoral Education years ago is that when I feel myself resisting someone else’s questions or insights into my behavior, I have a choice: I can either defend myself and learn nothing, or listen, reply honestly and openly rather than defensively, and maybe learn something.

I find myself wondering what could possibly motivate McWhorter to jump in and attack DiAngelo in his dramatic, exaggerated way. Why does he want to legitimize White resistance to anti-racist exhortation rather than help get the message across? Why does he think he should use his own exceptionally successful life to date as at a club with which to bludgeon DiAngelo?

He has managed to write a column on racism in America that acknowledges the existence of racism in America only in a quick brush-off way:

“In my life, racism has affected me now and then at the margins, in very occasional social ways, but has had no effect on my access to societal resources; if anything, it has made them more available to me than they would have been otherwise. Nor should anyone dismiss me as a rara avis. Being middle class, upwardly mobile, and Black has been quite common during my existence since the mid-1960s, and to deny this is to assert that affirmative action for Black people did not work.”

Imagine having the temerity to doubt that affirmative action obliterated the problem it was meant to address! And how about the comical irony of his spontaneously breaking into Latin precisely when he wants to make the point that he’s just regular folks, not a member of some kind of elite. It doesn’t take much searching to discover that McWhorter is John Hamilton McWhorter V, son of a college administrator and a college professor, raised in a mixed-race neighborhood, educated in prestigious mostly White private schools, holding a PhD from an elite university, and married to a White woman. Nothing wrong with any of that. But yeah, hes a rara avis in terra. As a Columbia professor he would qualify as a rara avis regardless of race. But he is a rarer bird yet: a Black man whose privilege leaves him fearing neither White racism nor the anger of Blacks who feel he is selling them down the river.

Given a platform from which he could surely have found some little thing to say on behalf of Black people killed on the streets by police or discriminated against in other ways, McWhorter declines to testify, prefers to attack the messengers who are trying to help White people achieve some kind of sympathetic insight. His message to White people: Don’t worry about racism, it’s not much of a problem. His message to DiAngelo: You’re not fighting racism: you’re promulgating a new variety of racism! Really? That’s what he says. Her book “is actually a racist tract.”

The mask definitively drops when McWhorter gets into his “If you do X, you’re a racist” coda. Nearly every resistant/oppositional white person I’ve heard caricaturing and denouncing the Black Lives Matter movement gets around to complaining bitterly that “You (or they) are calling me a racist!” McWhorter shows his true colors, so to speak, when, having decided to do a hatchet job on DiAngelo, he starts wildly swinging this particular hatchet. His charge that she is condescending is another revelatory stock trope. (“Dehumanizing condescension” is McWhorter’s own phrase, not a headline writer’s invention. Actually he ramps it up with a further dramatic flourish: “pitilessly dehumanizing condescension”).

The “you’re calling me a racist” hatchet is a poor choice on his part. It reveals that he read the book too fast to comprehend it, perhaps because he was interested mostly in mining for passages to ridicule. I read the book slowly, hoping to learn something. By the time I got through it, I was struck by the fact that DiAngelo does not divide the world, or the white race, into bad people, who are racists, and better people, who are not racists. She never even says that anyone is a racist. And this is not a subtly signaled, easily missed implication. She hammers on it. That was my recollection. But after reading McWhorter I searched the e-book edition to make sure. Result? The string “a racist” does not appear. At all.

So is MacWhorter an incompetent reader, or a dishonest critic, or both, or something else? Clearly he’s an intelligent man. And his article raises some questions that would be well worth discussion. But instead of offering constructive critique, he goes for the jugular and jumps the shark. (Yes, I thought a mixed metaphor was required to suggest the strange energy of his overreach.)

This was not the first example I have encountered of a critic of that book who seems not to have read the book, or not to have read it well. But it is the most strident and overdramatic. And, appearing in The Atlantic as it does, it is both prominent and sharply disappointing.

McWhorter says DiAngelo wants to shut white people up. In a sense that’s fair. I think part of the message of this book to White people is: shut up and listen. Not such a bad idea. We should all undertake a certain amount of silent, attentive, respectful listening as a regular discipline. I wish McWhorter would consider doing a bit of that when he encounters someone like DiAngelo. But I think what we have here is not someone who argues with you in hopes that both he and you may learn something, but a culture warrior. An assassin.

That’s my word. If you want an eyeful of what Black critics have said about McWhorter’s earlier forays in a Fox/Breitbart vein, search the internet for “McWhorter sellout” and read what you find.

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