As I have argued elsewhere (see here, here, and here), the theory of white fragility is based on the dubious premise of implicit bias, relies on research methodology that is underwhelming at best and makes claims about white racial illiteracy that avoid statistical analysis. Underlying each of these criticisms is a fundamental conviction that Robin DiAngelo, who introduced the theory of white fragility, does not know as much as she claims to know about white racial literacy, the causes of racial disparities and the nature of racism.
There is a striking contrast between DiAngelo’s presumption of omniscience about racism and the zeal with which she implores white people to show humility when attempting to learn about the problem. In her many years of studying racism, DiAngelo has encountered much resistance from white people, resistance which led her to coin the term white fragility—a condition in which “even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.” DiAngelo presumes to approach the problem of racism from the standpoint of someone who has worked over several years not only to learn about the causes and effects of racism in America, but to build the stamina necessary to come to terms with her own inherent racism as a white person.
DiAngelo posits that white fragility stems from a misunderstanding of what racism is and how it works. Racism, according to DiAngelo, is inextricably tied to the powerful grip that white people have on the levers of institutional control, a grip that will remain ironclad until white people learn to let go of their biases and allow DiAngelo and her ilk to explain to them how everything they say and do is racist—i.e. functions as a scaffold of socialization on which white supremacy survives, against the gravitational pull of social justice activists, who seek to bring about its collapse.
Admittedly, DiAngelo draws upon a vast corpus of Whiteness Studies literature, has many years of experience in antiracist and multicultural education and has several publications to her name. Unfortunately, however, she also avoids debate, is reluctant to consider conflicting evidence and, most importantly, has a propensity to present her claims as doctrines to be instilled, rather than as hypotheses, which can be rigorously evaluated.
In her work, DiAngelo expresses skepticism about objectivity, the scientific method and what she calls Enlightenment epistemology. She does, however, place a lot of weight on theory. In a book she co-authored with Ozlem Sensoy, Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, she begins with a brief overview of critical theory, a “body of scholarship that examines how society works” and “a tradition that emerged in the early part of the twentieth century from a group of scholars at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany.” She proceeds to explain that “theory can be conceptualized as the internal ‘maps’ we follow to ‘navigate’ and make sense of our lives and new things we encounter.” In short, “[e]verything we do in the world (our actions) is guided by a worldview (our theory).”
For a sociologist, however, DiAngelo betrays surprising misconceptions of theory and praxis in social science research. When she invokes “Emile Durkheim’s research questioning the infallibility of the scientific method,” she does not appear to realize that scientists do not think of the scientific method as a Holy Grail of truth. The scientific method, as its name suggests, is about method, not content. Moreover, there is an underlying humility in the scientific method, given its insistence on rigorous hypothesis testing. In the scientific literature, and in the academic seminars where working papers undergo scrutiny before they become published papers, one typically observes an atmosphere of healthy and contentious debate—an indicator not only of interest in a topic, but also of how scientists, researchers and scholars incessantly weigh and consider evidence that supports or conflicts with theory and results from specific studies. The ultimate aim of scholarship is to learn.
No serious thinker would claim that the search for truth is a mechanical exercise of abiding by a ready-made formula otherwise known as the scientific method. Moreover, few would dispute the suggestion that egos, perverse incentives and institutional motives can tarnish studies conducted under a patina of dispassionate objectivity. In fact, one of the strengths of the scientific method is that its emphasis on methodological rigor is a robust defense against any presumption of infallibility. The scientific method, at heart, proceeds from the Socratic premise that wisdom is the recognition of one’s ignorance. That is why it encourages debate, logic, hypothesis testing and empirical verification. If there is a persona non grata among scientists, it is the person who, in the belief that his or her theory is unassailable, refuses to weigh and consider conflicting views and evidence, avoids debate and presumes to know more than rigorous critique would allow.
Theory is a framework for guiding the pursuit of knowledge. In science, theory is typically conceived in the form of a quantitative model, which attempts to isolate the pertinent explanatory factors as parsimoniously as possible. Mathematics is not a Rosetta Stone, but it does have the virtues of simplicity (which is not necessarily the same as ease of understanding), clarity and rigor. With a model in hand, one can go about evaluating how realistic and useful the model is in explaining some feature of the world. This is often done by testing the model, using data and statistical techniques.
In saying that “theory can be conceptualized as the internal ‘maps’ we follow to ‘navigate’ and make sense of our lives and new things we encounter,” DiAngelo seems to confuse theory with a mental scheme of biases and stereotypes about how the world works, which we imbibe through cultural conditioning. This makes sense given that theoretical critique of prevailing ideologies is a primary concern of the Frankfurt School philosophers (Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and others), whom DiAngelo credits as having inspired her own work in particular and social justice education in general. She is correct that theory involves framing and conceptualizing our study of how the world works. But, in her academic and practical work, DiAngelo invariably presents theory as a rigid metaphysical paradigm, rather than a flexible conceptual framework. She seems to equate theory with dogma.
This is seen most clearly in how she relegates the scientific method (which she equates with positivism, without making it clear if she is referring to logical positivism, the bane of the Frankfurt School) to a normative dogma associated with “Enlightenment epistemology,” rather than a praxis of scientific inquiry which—however much the nature of inquiry might be influenced by the consensus regimes of Kuhnian paradigms—insists on rigorous standards of proof. For example, to illustrate a point about how socialization leads to cultural conformity, which then leads to systemic discrimination, DiAngelo might argue—not unreasonably given research on resume callbacks—that white people, who presumably constitute the majority of hiring recruiters in many industries, will implicitly use black names as a signal to identify and ignore supposedly unqualified candidates, which leads to socioeconomic outcomes that sustain racial inequality. In her book, Is Everyone Really Equal?, she cites research on resume callbacks and concludes that the human resource workers who screened these resumes “were likely not aware they were discriminating, and would probably have vigorously (and sincerely) denied any suggestion to the contrary.” In their denial, they exhibit white fragility and thus maintain the status quo of racial inequality.
This is what theory is supposed to do: isolate the most pertinent explanatory factors. But is DiAngelo right about the implications of research on callbacks? Are these findings sufficient to show a systemic relationship between racial disparities and socialization (which DiAngelo somewhat amorphously defines as “the process of learning the meanings and practices that enable us to make sense of and behave appropriately in that culture”)? Is she right that racism is structural, and we cannot solve the problem of systemic discrimination until we eradicate every socialized norm (e.g. white fragility) upholding the status quo? Not necessarily. There may be other factors to consider. Unfortunately, DiAngelo is so wedded to her theory that she does not consider them.
Compare this approach with that of a 2004 paper published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics by Steve Levitt and Roland G. Fryer Jr., two John Bates Clarke Medal-winning economists, who document a conspicuous uptrend in parents giving distinctively black names to black children since the Black Power movement of the late 1960s. The data they examine also lead them to conclude that distinctively black names are strong predictors of socioeconomic status, a result that does not conflict with DiAngelo’s claims. However, Levitt and Fryer also conclude that black names do not have a causal impact on adult life outcomes, a result they are able to reconcile with findings from audit studies that “repeatedly have found that resumes with traditional names are substantially more likely to lead to job interviews than are identical resumes with distinctively minority-sounding names.”
They begin with a dataset “drawn from the Birth Statistical Master File maintained by the Office of Vital Records in the California Department of Health Services,” which provides “information drawn from birth certificates for all children born in California over the period 1961–2000—over sixteen million births.” After scrupulously reviewing the composition of the data (trend breaks, typographical errors, missing observations, summary statistics), Levitt and Fryer plot the probabilities that white, black, Hispanic and Asian children are given names considered white, black, Hispanic or Asian (using an index, which quantifies whether a name is white, black, Hispanic or Asian). The distributions demonstrate that it is more likely for black children to be given black names than white children to be given white names, with plots for Hispanic and Asian children deployed to control for the possibility that their plot of black names reflects an “artifact of how we construct our measure of Black names using the observed empirical distribution” (they also limit the sample to “names that appear at least twenty times in the data” to avoid susceptibility to outlier names, which “does little to change the picture”). They also explore patterns in the names given to babies in black and white hospitals, as well as patterns in distinctively black names versus uniquely black names.
Next, they employ regression techniques to quantify the relationship between distinctively black names and an array of background, hospital and county-level characteristics obtained from the birth certificates. Their results imply that: (1) “variables associated with low socioeconomic status are also associated with Blacker names,” and “the link between low socioeconomic status and Black names becomes much stronger over time”; (2) the distinctiveness of black names has increased over time; and (3) after 1989 (when a richer dataset becomes available), “Blacker names are associated with lower income zip codes, lower levels of parental education, not having private insurance, and having a mother who herself has a Blacker name.” The results are somewhat muted when accounting for a mother’s situation across multiple births, though there is still “a great degree of continuity in the names mothers choose for their children, implying that person-specific tastes are quite important determinants of name choice.”
Explaining their results, they apply a model from identity economics, which posits that “our conception of who we are and who we want to be may shape our economic lives more than any other factor.” Dismissing three alternative models as inconsistent with their results, they conclude that an identity model, in which black names are a means of defining what it means to be black, is most consistent with patterns they observe in the data. The rise of the Black Power movement in the late 1960s was a “shock” to the black community, in which new “identity prescriptions” for what it means to be black emerged. The movement encouraged blacks “to accentuate and affirm Black culture and fight the claims of Black inferiority,” leading to “widespread changes in hairstyles and the rising popularity of afro-centric clothing between 1968–1975.” Moreover, a further increase in distinctively black names in the 1990s maps onto a black cultural movement, exemplified by Jesse Jackson and others demanding to be called African-American, a rise in enrollment at historically black colleges and the emergence of politically motivated popular music. In this context, the increased adoption of distinctively black names makes sense.
Finally, Levitt and Fryer employ additional regression techniques to examine the relationship between names and adult life outcomes, linking “information from a woman’s own birth certificate to her adult circumstances as reflected in the information on the birth certificates of her children at the time she gives birth.” This allows them to predict “adult life outcomes as a function of everything known about a woman and her parents at the time of her own birth, including her name.” They acknowledge that their approach could be compromised if unobserved characteristics of the woman are correlated with both life outcomes and her name. As they explain: “[g]iven that Black names are associated with lower socioeconomic status on observable measures, one would expect that Black names are also likely to be positively correlated with omitted variables that predict worse life outcomes, leading our estimates to exaggerate the true relationship between a woman’s name and her life outcomes, although one can also construct scenarios in which the opposite bias could arise.”
Proceeding with caution, they arrive at three main results: (1) “[i]n the absence of controls for background characteristics, Blacker names are uniformly associated with worse adult outcomes,” which is expected given “the correlation between Black names, growing up in segregated neighborhoods, and more difficult home environments”; (2) despite the concern that omitted variable bias might exaggerate the effect of names, they find that the impact of a woman’s name on her life outcomes (they focus their analysis on women born in 1973 and 1974) is limited “once we control for other factors that are present at the time of her birth”; and (3) there are “systematic differences in outcomes for Blacks and Whites with otherwise similar observable characteristics at birth,” such as differences in birth weight, marital status, racial composition of mother’s neighborhood, per capita income in their neighborhoods and likelihood of having private insurance. On (3), they argue that “[t]hese systematic racial differences may reflect either discrimination or unmeasured differences between Blacks and Whites; we have no power to distinguish between these competing hypotheses.”
Levitt and Fryer scrupulously examine a nuanced dataset, use indexing and plots to illustrate trends in the data, develop equations to quantify relationships between black names and socioeconomic status, employ regression techniques to conduct an empirical test of their model, and then interpret the results ex post (as opposed to imposing theory on the data ex ante) by analyzing the consistency of observed trends with four alternative models, which might explain the trends. They also test hypotheses about the correlation between distinctively black names and adult life outcomes, explaining the challenges of their estimation techniques and the caveats associated with their conclusions. Finally, they situate their paper within an emerging literature on how black culture relates to socioeconomic outcomes, without offering sweeping generalizations about the role of black culture in socioeconomic outcomes. Most impressively, they exhibit great care in the restraint with which they interpret their results, and in the use of rigorous techniques to analyze a vast dataset.
Contrast the care with which Levitt and Fryer weigh and consider evidence with the approach DiAngelo takes when confronted with criticism of, or questions about, her theory of white fragility. In a thoughtful overview of the theory of white fragility for the Australian Financial Review, Matt Teffer, multi-media editor at the Sydney Morning Herald, incorporates an interview with DiAngelo. Her remarks are telling.
“I think most people would agree that there is racial inequality,” DiAngelo says, “[a]n individualist-libertarian viewpoint would say ‘Each individual is responsible for their condition.’ But I’m coming from a framework that says society is structured in ways that some groups have more opportunities than others.” Again, her definition of racism is structuralist. “This is where it gets hard,” she goes on, “because they [her critics] don’t start with the premise that their positions as white men have anything to do with it.” She does not appear willing to consider, or at least take seriously, the possibility that they do not start from that premise because they have good reason not to, whereas she presumes it to be true from the outset.
But then DiAngelo makes a startling, and revealing, remark: “I’m just asking people to grapple with a different paradigm, try it on, and take it or leave it, really.” Rightly, Teffer asks: “[a]nd what happens if they do grapple, and still disagree?” DiAngelo responds that it is “less relevant to me whether we agree or disagree … I don’t really need everyone to agree with me,” because “[Malcolm Gladwell’s] tipping point theory says you just need 30 per cent to change culture.” In other words, DiAngelo is less concerned with proving she is right than she is with gaining adherents.
“DiAngelo,” Teffer writes, “says that white people recognizing their own role in maintaining the racial status quo is just the first step in a long, painful and uncomfortable journey in overcoming racism, similar to that faced by the suffragettes of the early twentieth century.” He lets DiAngelo conclude: “‘Get to work trying to figure out what racism looks like in your life, rather than defending, deflecting and denying,’ she says. ‘It’s actually liberating.’” Having reviewed her academic papers and published books, I would argue that this interview is typical of how DiAngelo handles debate and disagreement. Don’t ask questions. Liberate yourself. Which leads one to wonder: is she a scholar or a proselytizer?
A related short documentary by Mike Nayna.