As I have argued elsewhere (see here, here, here and here), the theory of white fragility suffers from numerous flaws. First, it relies on the premise of implicit bias, despite inconclusiveness in the psychological literature on what implicit bias is (e.g. see here) and how it relates to systemic outcomes. Moreover, it confuses objectivity with neutrality; dismisses objectivity as an ideological obstacle to knowledge; relies entirely on qualitative distillations of anecdotal observations; and, most critically, suffers from a complete absence of rigorous hypothesis testing and quantitative measurement, blithely ignoring the principle of falsification which lies at the heart of sound scientific inquiry. Robin DiAngelo, the sociologist responsible for introducing the notion of white fragility into the progressive discourse on racism, even misconstrues aspects of the philosophical tradition that inspired her work in Social Justice activism in general, and on the theory of white fragility in particular. As if all of this were not bad enough, DiAngelo gets some of the most basic facts about history wrong, claiming, for example, that the US economy at the time of the nation’s formation was based in part on the annexation of Mexican lands, when, in fact, the Texas and New Mexico territories only came into the possession of the United States a half-century later, as part of a negotiated purchase, after the Mexican War of the 1840s.
She also argues that the subtext underlying the narrative that Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball is that “no black athlete before him was strong enough to compete at that level,” which ignores the “competition between Negro League greats Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson and rookie Robinson to be the first to cross baseball’s color line,” while also giving short shrift to the “steady stream of black players [who entered] into organized baseball” immediately after Robinson (they totaled 150 players by 1952, only five years after Robinson entered the Major Leagues, and included such greats as Roy Campanella and Willie Mays). To be fair, DiAngelo’s broader aim is to reframe the narrative in order to emphasize that we (white people) had to approve his entry in the first place. This certainly illuminates the valid, though obvious, point that white people were the gatekeepers of mainstream professional baseball. But it also conceals the appalling and relentless racial adversity Robinson overcame throughout his life (as depicted in this documentary, this 1950 movie starring Jackie Robinson himself and this biography of Jackie Robinson by Arnold Rampersad) in high school, college, the Army, and, ultimately, professional baseball, to which he was recruited by Branch Rickey, who, “[a]nticipating the harsh treatment that Robinson would receive from fans and opposing players,” told Robinson he was looking for a man who “had guts enough not to fight back”—advice Robinson followed “with remarkable restraint … [a]midst racial slurs, objects thrown at him from the crowd and even death threats.”
In short, the theory of white fragility is so superficial—and so laden with bugs, glitches, defects and factual errors—that it is a wonder it has not yet self-destructed. But, alas, it is alive and well, marching through the culture like a naked emperor. And there is another problem with the theory of white fragility. The theory of white fragility, as a derivative of Whiteness Studies, is based on a logical fallacy: the fallacy of reification, otherwise known as concretism, hypostatization and fallacy of misplaced concreteness.
Whiteness Studies is devoted to the study of Whiteness as a centripetal ideology (ideology and discourse function similarly here) that supports and upholds white supremacy (i.e. institutional racism). It thus treats the de-centering of Whiteness as a key objective in the critical evaluation of social norms and institutions. But this means that Whiteness Studies—and thus the theory of white fragility—asserts that whiteness is reified in society. Reification involves treating an abstraction—Whiteness—as if it had a material existence. Thus, as was made explicit in two recent articles on how white people must save themselves from whiteness and how library collections continue to promote and proliferate whiteness with their very existence and the fact that they are physically taking up space in our libraries, to be white is to embody the ideology of Whiteness by “physically taking up space” or simply engaging in social activities, all of which unavoidably institutionalize habits, norms and mores that reinforce white supremacy. Immersed in the ideological oblivion of their privileged and historicized status in society, white people must eschew fragility and embrace responsibility for the ongoing reification of whiteness in society.
In this essay, I argue that Whiteness Studies, does not seem to realize that reification, while metaphorically vivid, is a logical fallacy. Thus, Whiteness Studies, and the theory of white fragility, collapse as a matter of logic.
Section 1: The Reification of Whiteness
In a recent article for the Paris Review, “White People Must Save Themselves from Whiteness,” Venita Blackburn, assistant professor of creative writing at California State University, Fresno, contends that “America was born in cardiac arrest” and that “[t]he cognitive dissonance necessary to profit off of gruesome human suffering and yet remain happy is too great.” She ponders whether “all civilization works this way, in a state of eternal adjustment,” but laments, “when every attempt at a correction is met with deviation and denial, implosion is very much a possibility.”
She concludes that “[w]hite people must save themselves from whiteness … [and] must meet every test of whiteness with more than silence or a plea for civility.” Perhaps unwittingly, however, Blackburn inserts a clincher to her article that exposes a fundamental, maybe fatal, flaw in the theory of white fragility, the theory which seems to motivate Blackburn’s entreaty for white people to cease their denials: “[t]o do so is to awake fully into one’s body for the first time.”
The theory of white fragility asserts that racial inequality is synonymous with racism, and it cannot be undone until a culture anchored on Whiteness, and the white privilege to which it gives rise, is entirely deconstructed. Any hesitancy or reluctance to accept, and fully internalize, this claim as indisputable—even from skepticism or curiosity as to whether its post-structuralist premises and overall reasoning are sound—is a manifestation of white fragility, defined by Robin DiAngelo (who coined the phrase) as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.”
White fragility, DiAngelo explains, is “one aspect” of Whiteness, which, according to pioneering Whiteness scholar Ruth Frankenberg, is (1) a location of structural advantage, of race privilege; (2) a standpoint, a place from which white people look at themselves, at others, and at society; and (3) a set of cultural practices that are usually unmarked and unnamed. According to DiAngelo:
Whiteness is thus conceptualized as a constellation of processes and practices rather than as a discrete entity (i.e. skin color). Whiteness is dynamic, relational, and operating at all times and on myriad levels. These processes and practices include basic rights, values, beliefs, perspectives and experiences purported to be commonly shared by all but which are actually only consistently afforded to white people. 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.
Given that Whiteness Studies assumes what it seeks to reveal, it falls prey to circular reasoning, though we should acknowledge the post-structuralist ideas (however much they may misconstrue the later Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language, or corrode into crude historicism) which undergird its premise. But there is another fallacy at work. Whiteness scholars assert that whiteness is reified in society—i.e. to be white is to embody the ideology of Whiteness and thus—while Blackburn states that “a white person is not whiteness itself”—to awake “fully into one’s body for the first time” as a white person is to eschew fragility and begin the work of undoing Whiteness by plumbing the depths of one’s unconscious mind into which a heap of racial implicit biases have been piling since birth (or removing books from libraries because they embody Whiteness and take up physical space on the bookshelves). The reification proposition fails logically, and conflates the impact of racism’s legacy with the nature of racism itself.
In the words of Ruth Frankenberg: “To speak of the ‘social construction of whiteness’ asserts that there are locations, discourses, and material relations to which the term ‘whiteness’ applies.” Whiteness thus “refers to a set of locations that are historically, socially, politically, and culturally produced and, moreover, are intrinsically linked to unfolding relations of domination,” and “[n]aming ‘whiteness’ displaces it from the unmarked, unnamed status that is itself an effect of its dominance”—which is imperative given that one of “the effects on white people both of race privilege and of the dominance of whiteness are their seeming normativity, their structured invisibility.”
Thus, “[t]o look at the social construction of whiteness … is to look head-on at a site of dominance … [and] [t]o speak of whiteness is, I think, to assign everyone a place in the relations of racism.” Racism, she emphasizes, “is not merely an option for white people.” It “shapes [their] lives and identities in a way that is inseparable from other facets of daily life.” It follows that, as Frankenberg writes, “[e]xamining the co-construction of whiteness and other racial identities is useful because it may help lead white activists (and also … activists of color) away from the incorporation of ‘old’ discursive elements into ‘new’ strategies.” For example, Frankenberg has “argued that we need to displace the colonial construction of whiteness as an ‘empty’ cultural space, in part by refiguring it as constructed and dominant rather than as norm.” Otherwise, “we run the risk of reifying and dehistoricizing all cultural practices, valorizing or romanticizing some while discounting others as not cultural at all.”
White people must be convinced to eschew fragility and embrace responsibility for the ongoing reification of Whiteness in society. In other words, Blackburn claims that white people must awake fully into their bodies for the first time, by awakening to the reality that they embody whiteness (or, as Sofia Leung says, that the books they read in libraries embody whiteness, by recording its ideology—or discourse—in print for white people to imbibe)—and that silence, pleas for civility, or any other act or thought that does not acknowledge Whiteness, and thus motivate them to deconstruct (or check) their privilege, makes them complicit in the survival of Whiteness, which is synonymous with racism—i.e. systemic, or structural, racial inequality.
To be white is not simply to have white skin. It is to be a racist: not simply that white people have racial bias (all people have racial bias, DiAngelo asserts in one paper), but that they are the beneficiaries of advantages in a society characterized by white supremacy, i.e. racial inequality (as measured by systemic outcomes). The only escape from racism is to undergo a kind of lifelong (some might say, Maoist) struggle session—i.e. to renounce Whiteness and resist fragility as an impediment to the dissection and decoding of the implicit biases one inherits as a white person enriched by “unearned assets [one] can count on cashing in each day” in a culture denominated in the currency of white supremacy. See this video (at around 13:15), in which University of Michigan School of Social Work graduate and therapist Andy Horning lectures on “White Fragility: The New Racism, and More Effective Steps to Undoing Racism.” Horning claims that “fragility is everywhere … if you run from that, you’re never free,” though he doesn’t clarify what you’re supposed to be free of—it can’t be racial injustice since DiAngelo (and co-author Ozlem Sensoy) write in one paper that a “basic premise of antiracist education is that it is lifelong work; the process of identifying and challenging patterns of racism is always evolving and never finished.” He advises the audience that the “antidote to fragility” is to “[g]o toward struggle, not away,” subsequently couching this in gentler, self-help terms by recommending M. Scott Peck’s book, The Road Less Travelled and invoking the book’s famous, though banal, opening line: “life is difficult” (neglecting to note the irony that confronting white fragility seems a road more travelled these days).
While not exactly the kind of essentialist thinking that helps explain how racism became endemic in American society in the first place (as I explain here), the progressive view of racism is that racism is still pervasive in our society, and can be located in the centripetal discourse of Whiteness. Frankenberg explicitly says in the epilogue of her book that “Whiteness changes over time and space and is in no way a transhistorical essence,” and DiAngelo writes in her seminal paper that “[w]hiteness is thus conceptualized as a constellation of processes and practices rather than as a discrete entity (i.e. skin color alone).” Moreover, Blackburn states that “whiteness is not personal”—i.e. “a white person is not whiteness itself” (because “whiteness is institutional”).
Nonetheless, Frankenberg writes that “the range of possible ways of living whiteness, for an individual white woman in a particular time and place, is delimited by the relations of racism at that moment and in that place.” The white—i.e. dominant—perspective centers every aspect of societal relationships around itself, and functions as a filter of historicized discourses rooted in implicit biases that all white people possess by virtue of growing up white. Implicit bias refers to attitudes and beliefs that make white people blind to, and complicit in, the ways in which the white perspective influences every aspect of social relationships, i.e. the ways in which society remains erected on the foundational pillar of Whiteness and white privilege. If typological thinking led to a social construct defined by institutional inequalities (in which, for centuries, white America believed that white and black were distinct biological types that could not be reconciled, and that black was associated with an inferiority that rationalized the submission of African-Americans, and white was associated with a superiority that validated white supremacy), then deconstructing institutional inequalities by addressing unconscious prejudice which others marginalized groups is both necessary and sufficient to fully eradicate the typological thinking that led to institutional racism in the first place.
This admirable contrapositive relies, however, on the belief that there is, in fact, a dominant ideology called Whiteness to which all white people helplessly and implicitly subscribe, and which effectively serves, as James Baldwin declared (repeated by Blackburn), as the price of a ticket for entry into America. In the attempt to deconstruct it, one must focus on correcting the beliefs and attitudes, and unmasking the fragility, of people with white skin. Strictly speaking, this argument is not a carbon copy of typological reasoning that assumes biological uniformity (or inferiority) as a function of race (i.e. skin color), but, in practice, it perceives a cultural, or psycho-social, uniformity about white people that runs parallel to the typological thinking that presumed to divine a biological uniformity about black people. In short, Whiteness is reified, in the sense used by György Lukács in History and Class Consciousness, it is “a relation between people [that] takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a ‘phantom objectivity,’ an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people.” White fragility is a kind of bourgeois complacency that keeps the wheels of reified Whiteness churning in full gear. But while this may work as metaphor, it does not work as logic.
Section 2: Reifying Whiteness, Redefining Racism
Blackburn’s metaphor of an America born in cardiac arrest vividly illustrates the undeniable crucible of contradictions inherent in a society whose original generation of political leaders enshrined the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in its Declaration of Independence, while simultaneously denying the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to a significant segment of its population on the basis of skin color. Yet the implication that “every attempt at a correction is met with deviation and denial” is a curious assessment of a nation that was already trying to end slavery at its conception (see this book by Sean Wilentz), fought a devastating Civil War when constitutional contradictions in the “peculiar institution” became too great to bear, struck down a century of Jim Crow with transformative Civil Rights legislation, and, over the last half-century, has undergone a massive shift in attitudes on such issues as miscegenation, legal protections for minority groups and the importance of diversity and inclusion.
Undoubtedly, the legacy of racism, slavery and Jim Crow has marred the reputation of a country that boasts impressive accomplishments. Moreover, deep racial inequalities persist. This history has played a part in the blighting of inner cities, the segregation of whole communities from opportunity, and fostered gulfs between racial communities that militate against a more harmonious blend of our diverse society. Yet, as Coleman Hughes argues in an insightful essay on the racism treadmill, “the data take a clear side in [the] debate” about whether there has been significant progress in the fight against racism. America has elected a black president, the N word is regarded as hate speech, the law is on the side of anti-discrimination, social media erupts at any hint of racial insensitivity by a person of influence and racist remarks can disrupt, if not destroy, careers (as when Don Imus was deservedly fired for saying that Rutgers women’s basketball players looked like “nappy-headed hoes”). In spite of all this, however, “[t]he prevailing view among progressives today,” Hughes observes, “is that America hasn’t made much progress on racism.” Hughes suggests that cognitive errors in reasoning—e.g. availability bias and negativity bias—partly account for this “progressophobia,” but also declares that “our denialism about racial progress calls for a deeper explanation—an explanation in terms of widely-held beliefs about race and inequality.”
While he eventually delves into “black culture” as a meaningful factor to consider in attempting to explain racial inequality, Hughes initially examines the “belief … that disparities between blacks and whites—in income, housing, employment, etc.—are caused by systemic racism,” and argues that the progressive view on racism exemplifies what he calls the disparity fallacy, which, he writes, “holds that unequal outcomes between two groups must be caused primarily by discrimination, whether overt or systemic.” He unpacks the inadequate reasoning underlying this argument, such as the tendency to apply the fallacy too narrowly rather than too broadly (e.g. “[a]ny instance of whites outperforming blacks is adduced as evidence of discrimination. But when a disparity runs the other way—that is, blacks outperforming whites—discrimination is never invoked as a causal factor.”)
But Hughes’s ultimate point is that “[t]he disparity fallacy and the denial of [black] cultural factors conspire to create a dynamic that I call the Racism Treadmill: as long as cultural differences continue to cause disparities between racial groups, and as long as progressives imagine that systemic racism lies behind every disparity, then no amount of progress in reducing systemic racism, however large or concrete, will ever look like progress to progressives.” We are left with “a Sisyphean politics; an agitated march to nowhere in particular.” The implication, Mr. Hughes submits, is that “[t]here’s no reason to think that the definition of racism will stop expanding any time soon” (as DiAngelo and Ozlem Sensoy put it, “racial justice learning is ongoing and our learning is never finished”). In addition, Hughes surmises, “there’s no reason to think that progressives will ever stop demanding institutional reforms to fix racism—up to and including attempts to reform our subconscious minds with such things as mandatory implicit bias trainings.” He then cites the acclaimed poet Benjamin Zephaniah, who writes, “laws can control people’s actions, but they can’t control people’s thoughts. As racism becomes more subtle, we need to keep pressuring our institutions to change.”
Implicit bias is, in fact, the central premise of the theory of white fragility and its underlying worldview that racism is a systemic, or structural, phenomenon. DiAngelo explains that implicit bias is at the heart of why it’s so hard to talk to white people about racism: white people have been “[s]ocialized” to live with “a deeply internalized sense of superiority and entitlement” but they aren’t consciously aware of it. Racism, she claims, is not so much about explicit beliefs white people consciously hold about people of color, but about implicit—or unconscious—biases that sustain institutional inequities in the distribution of societal resources across different racial groups.
The problem, however, is that the nature of implicit bias and its effects are not as evident and well-understood as DiAngelo and Whiteness scholars believe. The Implicit Association Test and the Micro-aggression Research Program (I write more about the concept of micro-aggressions here) are prominent examples of how research on unconscious prejudice and its relevance to systemic outcomes is embryonic at best. Papers like this one and this one raise serious concerns about “psychometric flaws” in the “elusive construct of unconscious prejudice” and find “little evidence of positive impacts” of the Implicit Association Test.
Though absence of evidence does not imply evidence of absence, to the extent that implicit bias does exert influence, cognitive missteps like confirmation bias, the availability heuristic, omitted-variable bias and base-rate neglect can lead one to overweight the effect of implicit bias on specific empirical outcomes. It is also conceivable that Whiteness scholars are susceptible to implicit biases when they examine race-related scenarios—e.g. confirmation bias, as I argue in an essay on white privilege in which I break down an interview with sociologist Michael Eric Dyson, in which he unwittingly calls attention to what I call a “two-pronged ambiguity” in the concept of white privilege, while recalling his astonishment upon realizing that a drunk white kid harassing police outside Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street in the wee hours one night in Washington, D.C. would not be shot by a police officer (as he assumes a drunk black kid would).
The upshot is that Whiteness Studies appears to have helped precipitate a dramatic transformation in the definition of racism. In 1991, in the wake of nomination hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, eminent Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson wrote that “the sociological truths are that America … is now the least racist white-majority society in the world” because “it has a better record of legal protection of minorities than any other society, white or black; offers more opportunities to a greater number of black persons than any other society, including all those of Africa; and has gone through a dramatic change in its attitude toward miscegenation over the past 25 years.”
Whiteness scholars, however, would likely disagree, and not simply as a function of “progressophobia” or as a matter of “prevalence-induced concept change in human judgment.” (The latter concept is the subject of a 2018 paper on how the definition of a concept can change as the frequency of incidents to which it applies declines: “[w]hen blue dots became rare, purple dots began to look blue; when threatening faces became rare, neutral faces began to appear threatening; and when unethical research proposals became rare, ambiguous research proposals began to seem unethical”—or alternatively, “why sexism and racism never diminish—even when everyone becomes less sexist and racist.”)
Instead, the transformation in the definition of racism which Whiteness Studies has helped to precipitate is so profoundly metamorphic that adducing evidence of progress is seen as a shrewd, self-congratulatory sleight of hand. In chapter six of her book White Fragility, DiAngelo writes that the “most effective adaptation of racism in recent history” is “the good/bad binary.” In the wake of successes of the Civil Rights movement, and the marked improvement in race relations, “racism first needed to be reduced to simple, isolated, and extreme acts of prejudice” which are “intentional, malicious, and based on conscious dislike of someone because of race.” DiAngelo asserts (she rarely, if ever, argues) that this “adaptation” of racism disguises the “true” nature of racism. Attitudes about miscegenation or legal protections for minorities may be positive developments, but they do not mean America is less racist. To claim otherwise is to define racism as a belief in a set of pernicious stereotypes, thereby confusing racism with bigotry and obscuring the fundamentally systemic, or structural, nature of racism. She quotes Omowale Akintunde (an African-American scholar and filmmaker):
Racism is a systemic, societal, institutional, omnipresent, and epistemologically embedded phenomenon that pervades every vestige of our reality. For most whites, however, racism is like murder: the concept exists, but someone has to commit it in order for it to happen. This limited view of such a multilayered syndrome cultivates the sinister nature of racism and, in fact, perpetuates racist phenomena rather than eradicates them.
If this is the narrative, then Patterson’s 1991 opinion on racism in America was an example of invoking the good/bad binary and overlooking the central role of Whiteness in the obfuscation and preservation, of the structural scaffold of racism in American society, which, according to one Whiteness-oriented perspective, manifested as tokenism in the nomination hearings for Justice Thomas that prompted Patterson’s op-ed. Maybe Patterson should have known better since, according to Barbara Applebaum, “scholars of color … [such as] Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Franz Fanon have [long] maintained that whiteness lies at the center of the problem of racism.”
But perhaps Whiteness scholars can forgive Patterson since “[i]t is only relatively recently that the critical study of whiteness has become an academic field, committed to disrupting racism by problematizing whiteness as a corrective to the traditional exclusive focus on the racialized ‘other.’” Indeed, Patterson’s op-ed was written approximately two years before Ruth Frankenberg published her book—White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness—which this paper by John T. Warren in The Urban Review describes as “one of the most influential works in whiteness research,” and which DiAngelo repeatedly quotes and references in her own academic publications, including her influential paper on the theory of white fragility, and her best-selling book on white fragility.
Based on interviews with thirty white women (hardly a viable sample size from which to draw sweeping theoretical generalizations about racism in society), Frankenberg delineates, according to Warren, “four ways that these women went about ‘thinking about race’ in their everyday lives,” and in so doing, “advance[d] a compelling discussion of how race and racial oppression are enacted and constituted through social interaction,” while “claiming that those who can understand their implication in oppressive racial systems of power and work to enact antiracist agendas are leading the way toward a better social world.” In his review of the literature, Warren elaborates on how scholars have examined Whiteness “through the institutional location of the classroom,” as well as in literature, cinema, and scholarship. He describes this direction in the research as a focus on “rhetorical location”—citing one paper which explains that the research attempts to link the ways “individuals and groups construct identity, administer power, and make sense of their everyday lives.” The goal “is not to claim an essentialized white subject,” but to explore “what power is embedded within the rhetorical location of whiteness.”
For example, Warren writes, Toni Morrison “examines the way ‘virtually all of American fiction [has] positioned [the reader] as white.’” This has major implications for multicultural education: “[r]ather than making the center bigger, including more voices and more cultures, whiteness studies demands a critical examination of the center in the hope that the center will fall apart.” According to Warren, “[m]ulticultural education will be more than glances outward and will also include critical and focused attention inward toward the powerful center of racial privilege,” thus shedding “light on the invisible power behind the center, which will work toward dismantling the system of racial inequality at the core.”
To illustrate the importance of this approach, Warren draws our attention to the so-called white gaze, a notion one finds in work by Michael E. Staub on “how whiteness was represented in the Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill hearings,” in which “Congress specifically represented whiteness as a complete ignorance of black culture, which then allowed Thomas to serve ‘as the expert on anything relating to blackness’ … [a] framing of Thomas … [which] allowed his lack of qualifications for the Supreme Court to go unchallenged by the Congress.” In other words, Congress treated Thomas as a token black man who could speak for blackness, which serves as a potent example of the kind of othering which is examined in the work of scholars like UC Berkeley professor John Powell, thereby illustrating the importance of de-centering Whiteness. The nomination and confirmation of Justice Thomas, then, was not a landmark achievement in the fight against racism, but a quintessential example of the ongoing reification of Whiteness, and thus the continuation of racism.
Section 3: The Fallacy of Reification
The galvanizing force of Whiteness Studies is its insistence on the structural nature of racism, and that racial inequality will remain systemic so long as the centripetal force of Whiteness continues to draw everything and everyone to its own center of cultural power, conferring privilege on anyone who is white, while othering anyone who is not white. The spectacular flaw in this assumption, however, is that it asserts the reification of Whiteness in American culture without seeming to recognize that reification is a logical fallacy. Reification mistakes an abstract idea, i.e. Whiteness, for a concrete reality, i.e. institutional relations between people of color and white people, the latter having failed, to quote Blackburn, to awaken fully into their bodies and realize that their fragility imprisons them in false consciousness—i.e. implicit biases that make them complicit in sustaining Whiteness in the social norms and institutions which confer white privilege onto white people. It is not that white people embody Whiteness simply because they have white skin per se, but because “being white” effectively reifies Whiteness every time they participate in the “racialized” society into which they have been socialized, rather than “go toward struggle” in the work to de-center Whiteness and thus deconstruct systemic racism.
None of this is to deny that the legacy of racism in America has contributed to racial inequality. UC Berkeley professor John Powell has written thoughtfully and informatively on how cumulative intertemporal patterns in housing policies and credit securitization—e.g. redlining and subprime mortgages—have been, to put it mildly, systemically unhelpful to the African-American community (though his discourse couches the analysis in terms reminiscent of the historical materialism associated with run-of-the-mill Marxist economic thought), and his point that we should not assume that racial neutrality in the design of policy necessarily leads to racial neutrality in the effects of policy is well taken (though the idea that policy intent and policy effects can diverge is certainly not unique to race policy).
Moreover, as I have written in an essay on the puzzling irony of a high school deciding to censor Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, racism unlike anything we know today was a pillar of American society in the nineteenth century, but we cannot understand the racism of today without understanding the racism of yesterday. This idea of the long arc of racism helps motivate the discussion around topics like white privilege, institutional racism and the ongoing disempowerment of minority communities in America. Attitudes of the nineteenth century shaped attitudes in the twentieth century, which shaped attitudes in the twenty-first century. In the context of American racism, this means that stereotypes, caricatures, and prejudices about race have insidiously burrowed into the consciousness of Americans and become ingrained in innumerable subtle ways that are often mysterious to white Americans but nevertheless reinforce socioeconomic disparities many white Americans would consider to be unjust.
But, while legacy matters, so does progress. The ascendance of Whiteness Studies, however, lends credence to Hughes’s point that “as long as progressives imagine that systemic racism lies behind every disparity, then no amount of progress in reducing systemic racism, however large or concrete, will ever look like progress to progressives.” In a paper on interrogating white racial privilege and how it contributes to the othering of marginalized groups, Powell argues that, “[t]he recently popular but subsequently disfavored term ‘underprivileged’ functions problematically as a linguistic companion to privilege; it reifies the notion of privilege as normal and unquestionable.” In other words, the recognition that there are many people who are underprivileged is not a sign of progress in our understanding of disempowerment and disenfranchisement in society, but a further reification of privilege which re-centers Whiteness. It is not the blind spots of progressives unable to perceive or acknowledge progress that are problematic, but the blindness of whites who exhibit white fragility if they dare to wonder why the term underprivileged is problematic (since, after all, as even Peggy McIntosh recognizes, some privileges are morally worth having and should be expanded to the underprivileged, while others are not). Such blindness must be confronted if we are to achieve progress in fighting institutionalized racism.
Given this backdrop, it should not come as a surprise that a central theme in progressive discourse and scholarship on racism is that one can’t be racist toward white people. Racism is not about bigotry per se. It is about inter-group power structures that elevate whites at the expense of people of color. Systemic racial inequality in the allocation of societal resources is synonymous with racism, or as the progressive lexicon would have it, racism is structural—institutionalized, or rather, reified, by social norms that inexorably re-center Whiteness and the white privilege to which it gives rise.
The refrain admittedly seems intuitive when one considers the raw data showing deep and persistent inequalities between whites and people of color. For example, there are wide discrepancies between whites and blacks in terms of unemployment rates, earnings and other measures such as wealth, poverty, educational attainment and homeownership. Moreover, white males largely hold sway in terms of leadership and influence in politics, Silicon Valley, business, university faculties and the media.
At first glance, it seems straightforward to suggest that when the odds are so heavily slanted in favor of white people, and white males in particular, then Whiteness has been unquestionably reified (and white people need to stop pretending reverse racism is real—or as DiAngelo and Sensoy write: “racism is not fluid and cannot be wielded by individuals regardless of their racial positions; thus, reverse racism does not exist.”) Implicit bias thus incriminates society as a racist system, which continues to foster white supremacy, and white people are complicit. But, while this may seem like a bracing idea, it does not, in fact, necessarily follow that racial disparity is the mirror image of implicit bias and socialization, as I argue here in reviewing a paper on the socioeconomic consequences of a rise in black names and its relevance to research on resume callbacks.
While reification is not a valid idea, it is also not a new idea. Ever since calling for revolution against the owners of the means of production, Karl Marx and his descendants have reduced all matters of conscience to an analysis of power, particularly the history of how those in power have marshaled the resources of privilege at the expense of people who have been excluded from power. From Edward Said’s Orientalism to Antonio Gramsci’s cultural hegemony to the Frankfurt School’s obsession with the culture industry, to various strands of Continental philosophy such as post-structuralism, the specter of Marxism has haunted the ideas of progressive intellectuals for generations (as well as the contemporary Social Justice movement, as I argue here).
The fundamental insight which gets rehashed over and over again can be found in the words of Marx himself, discussing the principle that guided his analysis of the “legal and political superstructure” that underlies exploitation: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” Similarly, in Whiteness Studies, as explained by DiAngelo: “[w]hites are theorized as actively shaped, affected, defined, and elevated through their racialization and the individual and collective consciousness formed within it.” Fragility, an inherent “aspect” of Whiteness, disguises what the Marxist tradition would call false consciousness—except that, in this case, it is not the false consciousness of the oppressed (the proletariat) but rather, the false consciousness (or in Marxist terms, bourgeois complacency) of the (unwitting) oppressors (white people) that prevents acknowledgement of what Barbara Applebaum would call white moral responsibility, or “agency under complicity.”
Rooted in the idea of reification, which is neither valid nor new, Whiteness Studies has nonetheless given rise to a vast literature exemplified by verbiage like groupals, social constructivism, emancipated subject, and postmodern deconstruction. At the heart of this literature, however, is the metaphorically vivid, but logically fallacious, idea of reification, which has precipitated a systemic change in how we are supposed to understand the nature of racism.
As a metaphor, positing the reification of Whiteness as the reason for systemic racial inequality provides us with a vivid and compelling blueprint for how to frame and interpret purportedly systemic, oppressive social relations between white people and people of color. However, the problem is, as explained succinctly here, that “hypostatization or reification is really just the use of metaphor,” and “[t]hese metaphors become fallacies when they are taken too far and conclusions are formed on the basis of the metaphor.” Of course, “[i]t can be very useful to employ metaphors and abstractions in what we write, but they carry a danger in that we can begin to believe, without realizing it, that our abstract entities have the concrete attributes we metaphorically ascribe to them.”
People may be repositories of ideology, but they are not stand-ins for ideology. Their lives are complex and contingent, not one-dimensionally, or even primarily, shaped by notions of racialization conceived in the ivory tower. For example, as I have written elsewhere, Peggy McIntosh claims that one example of white privilege is that “[w]hen I am told about our national heritage or about ‘civilization’, I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.” Putting aside thorny questions about what exactly it means to say that people of a certain color made a national heritage, suppose a white male student in a history class argued that Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States should not be on the curriculum because it is bad history. A teacher schooled in white privilege analysis might have a knee-jerk inclination to try to convince him that his objection is a symptom of white fragility—i.e. the objection to Zinn’s retelling of American history stems from a privileged expectation that an account of history should reflect a dominant narrative written by white oppressors rather than a narrative written from the perspective of the historically disenfranchised.
But maybe the classroom provocateur simply believes that Zinn’s People’s History is not good history, and has no objection to books written from the perspective of the historically disenfranchised so long as they are rigorous, not prone to polemical agendas, do not (as historian Michael Kazin writes) reduce the past to a Manichean fable, and are objective (which, as Princeton historian Sean Wilentz notes, is not the same as neutral) in the marshaling of evidence in support of a historical thesis. The white male student may also derive little or no comfort from the mere fact that white people made his national heritage or civilization. White privilege is a red herring when it comes to explaining his objection to Zinn’s People’s History. To insist that white privilege is at work in this situation is to reify Whiteness into an institutional rigidity embodied in white people who exhibit so-called white fragility, which can only be deconstructed by effectively ordering the student to stop whitesplaining, or as DiAngelo would say, stop exhibiting white fragility and recognize his complicity in racism—e.g. when resisting the idea that Zinn’s book presents a viable alternative to dominant narratives. But this deliberately ignores the basic truth that Zinn’s People’s History is merely being dismissed as bad history. If white fragility is the habitual accusation in this scenario, then we are left with an imperious and anti-intellectual proselytizer like DiAngelo, rather than a thoughtful, if misguided, scholar like UC Berkeley professor John Powell.
Similarly, when students at the University of Pennsylvania removed a large Shakespeare portrait from a staircase that students and faculty members in the English department walk by every day, and “put up a photograph of Audre Lorde, the black feminist poet who died in 1992,” students “said the action reflects their interest in reading a more diverse range of voices than has been the case in the past, and sending a message that study of literature isn’t just about the traditionally revered authors.” Maybe the point was not to call into question the legitimacy of the literary canon, or the genius of Shakespeare, but the influence of Whiteness Studies—which is prone to reframing the narrative of timeless Great Books as a kind of ideological universalism, which reflects how color-blind ideology reifies Whiteness as a literary norm—was apparent.
This is unfortunate. One should be encouraged to read Audre Lorde, but it is not a display of white fragility to emphasize that “[t]raditionally revered authors” are revered because their explorations of the human condition have stood the test of time, rather than merely having sated the fickle appetites of nefarious imperial magnates. Shakespeare’s portrait on the wall does not center Whiteness but simply represents his status as the greatest playwright who ever lived. Removing the portrait as a political act brings to mind DiAngelo’s chillingly political and anti-intellectual admission that she denies “equal time to all narratives in our classrooms” in order “to correct the existing power imbalances by turning down the volume on dominant narratives” because hearing out “dominant narratives” in the interest of fairness “assumes that these imbalances don’t already exist or that equality of airtime is all that is needed to correct them.” DiAngelo (and her co-author Sensoy) thus “believe that restricting dominant narratives is actually more equalizing.” In short, the point of education is not to examine whether dominant narratives are right or wrong, but to resist dominant narratives as such because this facilitates the work of undoing inequality between groups.
Of course, DiAngelo’s unstated assumption is that she can single-handedly identify when a narrative is dominant. While her paper challenges the rubric of respecting differences in the context of “challenging the common guidelines of social justice education,” these ideas easily permeate other academic and cultural contexts, and, ironically, sabotage the elevation of alternative voices, including some that DiAngelo’s followers would probably champion.
For example, one may be inclined to read the writings of Frederick Douglass or Toni Morrison as a political act of de-centering Whiteness rather than as an intellectual pursuit involving literary exploration of the human condition. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass may be about Douglass’s ascendance from slavery to freedom, but Douglass’s autobiography is not merely a polemical diary or political narrative, but a work of literary genius that masterfully guides us through the intellectual maturation of a former slave in spite of the nearly insurmountable challenges of being a black man in a profoundly racist society. Reading literature with the primary intent of de-centering Whiteness relegates one’s study of the human condition, and the brilliance of a mind like Douglass’s, that would shed light on it, to the domain of political polemics, a mere attempt to illuminate what is ultimately a logical fallacy—the reification of Whiteness.
Similarly, to read Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon as a mere counter-narrative in literary history is to sadly diminish its aesthetic glory as a complex intra- and inter-generational, family drama about an ambivalent character named Macon Dead III, who seeks to unravel the mysterious history of the fissures between members of his family, from whom he feels estranged, in interplay with Jim Crow America rather than as a mere instrument to illustrate the injustices of Jim Crow America (although it also does so mercilessly). Inclusion should not be about diversity for the sake of reaching out from the center of Whiteness, i.e. tokenism, but diversity for sake of deepening our understanding of the human condition. Universalism is not always and everywhere a reification of Whiteness. Iago was not a racist. He was a dramatically conceived incarnation of evil—or, in the words of Harold Bloom, “heroic villainy”—who, “among all literary villains … [is] raised to a bad eminence that seems unsurpassable.”
For modern progressives inspired by Whiteness Studies, one can only arrive at the truth about white moral responsibility in our society by understanding Whiteness, and recognizing that nuances in the experiences of individual white people can be understood primarily in terms of Whiteness. In a compelling critique of Whiteness Studies and its historiographical application to the study of labor history, historian Eric Arsenen writes that the field “suffers from a number of potentially fatal methodological and conceptual flaws,” one of which is that “whiteness has become a blank screen onto which those who claim to analyze it can project their own meanings.” In other words, the situational intricacies of white people’s lived experience can easily get sucked into the vacuum of an abstraction conceived in the ivory tower of progressive ideology.
One might be inclined to condone the practice of issuing unproven generalizations about white people because white people largely sit atop the institutional pillars of society. But it is fallacious to do so. Moreover, reification gives rise to pernicious stereotypes about white people that can spark the kind of typological attributions characteristic of nineteenth-century biological racism. This article about the controversy that erupted over virulent anti-white tweets by journalist Sarah Jeong, who claimed she posted them in response to “torrents of online hate,” succinctly illustrates the point: “If you want to respond to trolls by trolling them, you respond to them directly. You don’t post slurs about an entire race of people (the overwhelming majority of whom are not trolls) on an open-forum website like Twitter.” To do so assumes that all white people are complicit in the actions of the trolls who apparently provoked Jeong’s slurs when they posted hateful comments on her Twitter profile—posts, we should add, that most white people would recognize as repugnant, immoral and intolerable. While progressives may dismiss the example of Jeong’s tweets as extreme or unrepresentative, the point is relevant to any instance in which progressives make generalizations about white people (e.g. explaining away all objections by white people on matters of racism as manifestations of white fragility), or in which students of Whiteness may absurdly insinuate that a normal white person’s designation of vicious trolling as repugnant is self-serving in that it allows him to register his moral integrity in a way that further reifies the taboo against any open discussion of the subliminal biases that, in a world of Whiteness, make such explicit trolling possible.
Section 4: The Reification Proposition Conflates the Nature of Racism with the Legacy of Racism
Whiteness scholars often assert that we should not confuse racism with bigotry. But this transformation in how we are supposed to understand racism illustrates one of the serious pitfalls of positing the reification of Whiteness. Instead of serving to alleviate racial tensions, the focus on reified Whiteness, and the diversity trainings motivated by this structuralist paradigm, may actually make things worse. Grievance studies are an inevitable consequence of such tribalistic ramifications. In an essay on “[t]he Influence of Anti-Racist Scholarship-Activism on Evergreen College,” Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay note: “While surveys show a rapid decrease in racist attitudes throughout white populations in the US over the last few decades, diversity training, which seeks to make people more aware of racial issues, actually seems to make them worse.”
This makes sense. DiAngelo states at the very beginning of her book that her work is unapologetically rooted in identity politics. The study of race thus comes down to the study of tribal conflicts that arise from intersectional classifications, obscuring the nuances and situational intricacies of individual experience in favor of a puritanical focus on the group-based characteristics of both white people and people of color. Group affiliation is the essential feature of one’s existence whenever “social justice” activism turns its attention to racial oppression and marginalization.
For white people, identity politics means being challenged for invariably sharing in the privileges of dominance that Whiteness confers upon them. This is in spite of ambiguities inherent in the notion of white privilege that even proponents of white privilege analysis, such as philosopher Lawrence Blum, have conceded. Blum agrees with Lewis Gordon that privileges should not be confused with rights, and, in agreement with Peggy McIntosh, makes the distinction between “privileges that are morally not worth having” and “privileges that are worth having but that everyone should have,” or, in the words of McIntosh herself: “[w]e might at least start by distinguishing between positive advantages that we can work to spread … and negative types of advantage that … reinforce our present hierarchies.”
For people of color, identity politics means challenging a society in which they are perpetually unable to escape the centripetal ideological pull of Whiteness, or, as Blackburn colorfully describes it, “watch [their] bodies wrecked for the economic and sadistic benefit of whiteness [while their] screams are silenced through disbelief.” Unless Whiteness is decimated with the full and willing participation of white people themselves, racism will be with us until kingdom come, unless, of course, progressives find another way to redefine racism, which, given all we have discussed, is not unlikely.
In a paper on the moral asymmetries of discrimination, philosopher Lawrence Blum emphasizes that “discrimination against blacks” is not morally equivalent to “discrimination against whites” because race “has a social and historical meaning” that transcends skin color and is rooted in the historical injustices of slavery, Jim Crow and violent disenfranchisement. This is true. Power and privilege as a function of past racism do matter. But differences in how racism’s legacy has disproportionately impacted different racial communities is a separate issue from the occurrence of racism itself. Racism is about typological reductionism, i.e. the denigration or essentializing of all members of a population by assuming they invariably exhibit whatever one identifies as the mean characteristics of the population, while ignoring variation within the population. The impact of racism’s legacy should not be confused with racism itself.
The central argument of Whiteness scholarship, and thus the theory of white fragility—that racism is about systemic power disparities reinforced by the reification of Whiteness, rather than about bigotry—assumes that abstractions conceived in the ivory tower can be seamlessly applied to the granularities of lived experience, either of white people, or of people of color. But it crucially forgets that such reification is a fallacy.