Columbia Professor Calls White Fragility ‘Condescending’ to Black People

John H. McWhorter

by Christopher Paslay

John McWhorter, a Columbia professor and native of Philadelphia, says Robin DiAngelo’s book is “dehumanizing” and “deeply condescending to all proud Black people.”

Dr. John H. McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, and a native of Philadelphia.  A product of Friends Select School, his resume is quite impressive: he’s taught at Cornell University, the University of California, Berkeley, and has written for numerous publications, including TimeThe Wall Street JournalThe New York Times, and The Washington Post, among others.

Recently, he published an article in The Atlantic titled, “The Dehumanizing Condescension of White Fragility.”  He writes:

. . . DiAngelo has convinced university administrators, corporate human-resources offices, and no small part of the reading public that white Americans must embark on a self-critical project of looking inward to examine and work against racist biases that many have barely known they had.

I am not convinced. Rather, I have learned that one of America’s favorite advice books of the moment is actually a racist tract. Despite the sincere intentions of its author, the book diminishes Black people in the name of dignifying us. This is unintentional, of course, like the racism DiAngelo sees in all whites. Still, the book is pernicious because of the authority that its author has been granted over the way innocent readers think.

Reading white fragility is rather like attending a diversity seminar. DiAngelo patiently lays out a rationale for white readers to engage in a self-examination that, she notes, will be awkward and painful. Her chapters are shortish, as if each were a 45-minute session. DiAngelo seeks to instruct.

She operates from the now-familiar concern with white privilege, aware of the unintentional racism ever lurking inside of her that was inculcated from birth by the white supremacy on which America was founded. To atone for this original sin, she is devoted to endlessly exploring, acknowledging, and seeking to undo whites’ “complicity with and investment in” racism. To DiAngelo, any failure to do this “work,” as adherents of this paradigm often put it, renders one racist.

As such, a major bugbear for DiAngelo is the white American, often of modest education, who makes statements like I don’t see color or asks questions like How dare you call me “racist”? Her assumption that all people have a racist bias is reasonable—science has demonstrated it. The problem is what DiAngelo thinks must follow as the result of it.

DiAngelo has spent a very long time conducting diversity seminars in which whites, exposed to her catechism, regularly tell her—many while crying, yelling, or storming toward the exit—that she’s insulting them and being reductionist. Yet none of this seems to have led her to look inward. Rather, she sees herself as the bearer of an exalted wisdom that these objectors fail to perceive, blinded by their inner racism. DiAngelo is less a coach than a proselytizer.

When writers who are this sure of their convictions turn out to make a compelling case, it is genuinely exciting. This is sadly not one of those times, even though white guilt and politesse have apparently distracted many readers from the book’s numerous obvious flaws. . . .

For those interested in solid criticisms of White Fragility, McWhorter’s article is well worth reading, especially because it comes from the perspective of an African American (to continue reading, click here). Perhaps one day DiAngelo will debate McWhorter head-to-head, but I highly doubt it. I’m sure McWhorter would welcome the challenge. DiAngelo, on the other hand, probably wants to debate McWhorter as much as Joe Biden wants to debate President Trump.

Which is to say, he’d wipe the floor with her. 

10 Excellent Critiques of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility Theory

White Fragility author and scholar-activist Robin DiAngelo

by Christopher Paslay

These 10 resources, written by conservatives and liberals alike, provide a toolkit for understanding — and debunking — Robin DiAngelo’s toxic concepts.

Robin DiAngelo, whose white fragility theory has become one of the most influential ideas about racism in America, is a scholar-activist who has openly called for academic “revolution” as a means of de-centering whiteness in America and stopping so-called white supremacy and institutional racism.

As she writes in her seminal paper on white fragility, “Whiteness Studies begin with the premise that racism and white privilege exist in both traditional and modern forms, and rather than work to prove its existence, work to reveal it,” making it clear she’s more interested in forwarding her narrative about the oppressive nature of whiteness than in using the scientific method to prove it. In her Author’s Note to her bestselling book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, DiAngelo admits that it’s “unapologetically rooted in identity politics,” and that we as Americans “have yet to achieve our founding principle, but any gains we have made thus far have come from identity politics.”

DiAngelo’s progressive activism is rooted in ideas that lack sufficient support from social science research, and as a scholar-activist, she tends to put politics over science, making her work more about ideological preferences than rational inquiry. Her work lacks rigorous hypothesis testing and quantitative measurement; makes sweeping generalizations about entire groups of people without backing these assertions with the use of statistical analysis; relies too heavily on anecdotal observations and flawed implicit bias research; and arrogantly presents her theories as settled science rather than hypotheses to be tested and further explored.

Below is a list of 10 resources which thoroughly critique DiAngelo’s theories and the concepts that underpin them. 

1. Exploring White Fragility: Debating the Effects of Whiteness Studies on America’s Schools, Rowman & Littlefield Publications, by Christopher Paslay. This book, due out in April of 2021, uses both existing research and anecdotal classroom observations to examine the effects whiteness studies is having on America’s schools. (Click here to pre-order.) 

2. The Flaws in White Fragility Theory: A PrimerNew Discourses, by Helen Pluckrose and Jonathan Church. The title is self-explanatory: it’s a primer for understanding the major flaws in white fragility theory. Specifically, it analyses DiAngelo’s concept of “whiteness,” “white fragility,” and the shaky underlying concept of “implicit bias.” The article closes by illustrating how DiAngelo has constructed a house of cards full of logical fallacies.

3. White Fragility Theory Is a Bullying Rhetorical TacticThe Agonist, by Jonathan Church. Robin DiAngelo believes that whites must shut up and listen. This article highlights how she uses white fragility theory to shut down whites — and any and all conversation — when they try to question or offer alternative viewpoints.  

4. How ‘White Fragility’ Theory Turns Classrooms Into Race-Charged Power StrugglesThe Federalist, by Jonathan Church and Christopher Paslay, (discussed further on the Dan Proft radio show). This article, co-authored by Jonathan Church and myself, highlights the flaws in methodology in white fragility, as well as how the approach can provoke resentment among classroom teachers. 

5.  Psychology’s Favorite Tool for Measuring Racism Isn’t Up to the JobThe Cut, by Jesse Singal. This article exposes the fundamental flaws of the Implicit Association Test (IAT), and Harvard’s Project Implicit website, and how the IAT has both validity and reliability issues. Implicit bias, of course, is a concept that heavily underpins DiAngelo’s white fragility theory, as well as most approaches in the schools of whiteness studies and anti-racism.

6. Diversity Training Shouldn’t Be Based On Flawed Implicit Bias ResearchPhiladelphia Inquirer, by Christopher Paslay. This article highlights the problems with implicit bias research, and how mandatory implicit bias trainings can have unintended negative consequences on education and business, such as hurting teacher/manager morale and provoking resentment among faculty/colleagues.

7. The Theory of White Fragility: Scholarship or Proselytization? , Areo Magazine, by Jonathan Church. This article exposes the cult-like atmosphere surrounding DiAngelo and white fragility trainings, and how the workshops are based more in religious indoctrination than in education and rational inquiry. 

8. The Intellectual Fraud of Robin DiAngelo’s ‘White Fragility,’ The Logical Liberal, by David Edward Burke. Liberal activist and attorney David Edward Burke’s criticism of DiAngelo’s white fragility proves her questionable use of research and science is not simply a partisan issue. His article exposes how “Robin DiAngelo’s white fragility is snake oil masquerading as insight.” 

9. Are Micro-Aggressions Really A Thing ?The Good Men Project, by Jonathan Church. This article analyzes the scientific legitimacy of “microaggressions,” which like implicit bias, underpins much of whiteness studies, anti-racism, and white fragility theory.  

10. Whiteness Studies and the Theory of White Fragility Are Based on a Logical FallacyAreo Magazine, (discussed further in an interview and podcast with Benjamin Boyce), by Jonathan Church. This articles exposes DiAngelo’s flawed reasoning and the logical fallacies at the heart of white fragility theory and whiteness studies in general.  

Please subscribe to my growing YouTube channel, Inside White Fragility.

Debunking DiAngelo Episode #3: Does Niceness Perpetuate Racism?

According to Robin DiAngelo, niceness is not anti-racism. Whites must be blunt and actively call out the oppressiveness of “whiteness” in order to stop systemic racism. To be “less white,” DiAngelo states, “is to be less oppressive racially. To be less arrogant. To be less certain. To be less defense. To be less ignorant.” But is this zero-sum approach — disrupting and stereotyping one group in order to advance another — really the best way to go? Is an approach based on confrontation, provocation, and agitation the best way to bond with our students and colleagues? Is forgoing curtesy and “niceness” going to develop the kind of core principles and values our community needs to create an atmosphere of teamwork and synergy?

Please subscribe to my growing YouTube channel, Inside White Fragility. Thanks for watching!

How ‘White Fragility’ Theory Turns Classrooms Into Race-Charged Power Struggles

by Jonathan Church and Christopher Paslay

White fragility theory is counterproductive and divisive. White teachers should not be discounted, bullied, or shut down during anti-bias trainings in schools.

(Note: This article was first published in The Federalist on February 28, 2020. It was also discussed on the Dan Proft radio show.)

On Feb. 28, 2020, Dr. Robin DiAngelo delivers the keynote speech at the annual meeting of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education in Atlanta, Georgia. DiAngelo has become “perhaps the country’s most visible expert in anti-bias training.” She is also the author of a best-selling book on “why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism.”

The answer, she says, is “white fragility,” defined as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.” This “racial stress” is the direct result of “implicit bias,” which runs so strong in white people that it is a core reason racism persists in America. This claim is based on a worldview, advanced by an increasingly influential field called Whiteness Studies, that racism is inseparable from the reign of Whiteness.

Whiteness is seen as a central pillar of society. What is Whiteness? It is hard to say, but the basic idea is that all the institutions of society are “white”—made by white people, ruled by white people, and kept in place by white people to make sure that white people continue to benefit from “white privilege.” These institutions are infected by white supremacy, a result of the long arc of racism in American history. Whiteness works through implicit bias, which refers to a whole range of unconscious behaviors, speech, and beliefs that keep white supremacy in place.

It should not be surprising that many white people are not convinced. If so, DiAngelo says, they are experiencing “racial stress,” which gets in the way of dismantling Whiteness. In other words, they are exhibiting white fragility. It turns out, however, that white people have good reason to be skeptical.

What’s ‘Fragile’ Is DiAngelo’s Response to Criticism

One of us, Mr. Church, has written several essays about DiAngelo’s theory over the last year and a half. Among other topics, he has explained how the research on implicit bias does not give us reason to think that implicit bias predicts much of anything about how we think and behave. He has also pointed out many methodological flaws in her work. But his ultimate assessment is simple: “White fragility” is a phrase DiAngelo invented to delegitimize any disagreement with her views on what causes racial inequality.

DiAngelo is attempting to address one of the most important issues of our time. But she does so with an air of piety that presumes she knows all the answers. One of the main challenges in the analysis of Whiteness and white privilege is the deeply ambiguous nature of these terms (see herehere, and here). As historian Eric Arsenen wrote, “whiteness has become a blank screen onto which those who claim to analyze it can project their own meanings.” The inherent ambiguity in a term like Whiteness is likely one of the main reasons DiAngelo has encountered resistance over the years.

In response, she has doubled down, defining “one aspect of Whiteness and its effects, White Fragility,” as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves,” which “include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation,” all of which allegedly “function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.” In other words, disagreement is bad.

In effect, DiAngelo has pulled off a master stroke of rhetorical legerdemain. “White fragility” is a term that rhetorically delegitimizes in one stroke any “defensiveness” when confronted with DiAngelo’s views about racism and Whiteness. Unfortunately, this approach invariably leads to rampant speculation, rather than careful hypotheses, about what Whiteness is and how it causes racial disparities.

The inquisitional nature of this approach is so remarkably transparent that one is at a loss to explain how DiAngelo gets away with asserting incoherently that “[h]uman objectivity is not actually possible” given that such a claim is itself an objective statement that also confuses objectivity with neutrality. Instead, the act of pointing out this incoherence is reflexively treated as an act of heresy which must be “cancelled” or punished for allegedly accommodating white supremacy.

Schools Eat Up Incoherent ‘White Fragility’ Theory

One area in which this theory has become increasingly influential is education. Mr. Paslay has spent two decades in Philadelphia classrooms and teacher training workshops. He has found that white fragility—apart from raising awareness about structural inequality—is having some unintended side-effects on schools in America. Above all, the theory fosters intolerance from facilitators leading anti-bias trainings in educational settings, which can provoke resentment among teachers.

Dr. David W. Johnson, a co-director of the Cooperative Learning Center at the University of Minnesota, studies the benefit of cooperative learning, social interdependence, and constructive conflict. He offers eight guidelines for facilitating classroom discussions with students who are prone to challenge their professors, suggestions many educators leading the professional development workshops Mr. Paslay has attended have ignored.

The first is simply being respectful. Johnson writes of students who are overly critical of their professors, “Do not discount them as people or treat them impolitely (such as cutting them off or not calling on them).”

Yet Mr. Paslay has been cut off in the middle of speaking numerous times in anti-bias teacher trainings. DiAngelo freely admits to limiting the participation of whites in her workshops in favor of people who look different, and even talks of cutting off whites who try to defend themselves. Indeed, in one of her academic papers, she recommends denying “equal time to all narratives in our classrooms.”

Johnson also suggests that teachers should listen to their students carefully, and when disagreeing with them, the focus should be on the issue, not on the person commenting. Again, these are not approaches many facilitators have taken in teacher trainings Mr. Paslay has attended. These trainings are clearly influenced by the theory of white fragility.

In multiple circumstances, the workshop leaders half-listened in a perfunctory manner, knowing that what Mr. Paslay was saying deviated from the tendentious ideological script they had been assigned to deliver. When Mr. Paslay was finished offering his alternative perspective, if he had not been shut down or cut off, the facilitators often took issue with him personally—labeling him “racist” or “biased”— not the issue at hand.

Treating White People How She’d Never Treat Black People

DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” is a focused attack on the behaviors of white people, as opposed to placing the primary focus on particular issues. In an interview with Teaching Tolerance, DiAngelo explained that in her workshops, making generalizations about white people and the fact that they are complicit in systemic racism causes them great umbrage.

DiAngelo stated, “Right now, me saying ‘white people,’ as if our race had meaning, and as if I could know anything about somebody just because they’re white, will cause a lot of white people to erupt in defensiveness. And I think of it as a kind of weaponized defensiveness. Weaponized tears. Weaponized hurt feelings. And in that way, I think white fragility actually functions as a kind of white racial bullying.”

Incredibly, white people taking offense to being called fragile, racist, or reacting with tears or hurt feelings is racial bullying, according to DiAngelo. But all of DiAngelo’s name calling, personal judgements of character, and attacks are not? This amounts to a rhetorical bullying tactic in itself.

It is also a classic example of psychological projection, which is another way scholar-activists like DiAngelo can protect the presumed infallibility of white fragility theory while failing to consider perspectives that run counter to its ideology. Tragically, as research suggests, these workshops are a setback for diversity, and too often leave whites with a feeling of frustration or resentment.

How Anti-Bias Training Breeds Racism

In the world of education, this means white teachers go back to their classrooms feeling guilty, accused, and even more close-minded than before. The recent actions of New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza are a prime example. His use of anti-bias training to dismantle what he called “White Supremacy Culture” in schools sparked a major backlash, prompting administrators, teachers, and parents to call parts of the workshops “ugly and divisive.”

Specifically, teachers were told by diversity consultants to “focus on black children over white ones,” and one Jewish superintendent who described her family’s Holocaust tragedies “was scolded and humiliated.”  To make matters worse, four white New York City school district executives, who were demoted or stripped of duties under Carranza’s administrative reorganization, sued the city, insisting he had created “an environment which is hostile toward whites.”

In essence, white fragility theory boils down to Power vs. Force, a concept made popular by Dr. David R. Hawkins. It analyzes “the hidden determinants of human behavior.” While true power resides from within, force is applied through projection—an outside force trying to impose its will. Force can only work for so long; once it encounters true power, it immediately unravels.

Interestingly, many of the emotions DiAngelo cites as evidence of white fragility—such as anger, shame, guilt, and apathy—are listed by Hawkins as a reaction to force. Nowhere in white fragility theory or whiteness studies can one find positive responses related to true power, such as courage, love, joy, or enlightenment; everything tied to white fragility is zero-sum and is based on dichotomy rather than unity.

White fragility theory is counterproductive and divisive. White teachers should not be discounted, bullied, or shut down when presenting alternative perspectives during anti-bias trainings in schools. A tolerant, holistic approach to social equity in education must be achieved to bring about positive change, and to prevent the unintended perpetuation of racial stereotypes and low student expectations in America’s classrooms.

Jonathan Church is a government economist, CFA charter holder, and writer whose work has appeared in Quillette, Areo, Arc Digital, Merion, Agonist Journal, Good Men Project, and other places. You can follow him on Twitter @jondavidchurch. Christopher Paslay is a Philadelphia public schoolteacher and coach. His articles have appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, American Thinker, and Real Clear Politics, among other publications. You can follow him on Twitter @cspaslay.