White Fragility Theory Mistakes Correlation for Causation

As I have noted before, Robin DiAngelo, the sociologist and critical race theorist who authored the bestselling book White Fragility, does not hold the “presumed neutrality of White European enlightenment epistemology” in high regard. She notes that her work is motivated in part by a subversive campaign that seeks the “decolonization” of modern universities and an interrogation of whiteness as manifested in the “presumed neutrality” of Enlightenment epistemology. As I have also noted, when she invokes “Emile Durkheim’s research questioning the infallibility of the scientific method”—a pillar of the Enlightenment—she does not appear to realize that scientists do not think of the scientific method as a Holy Grail of truth. In fact, one of the strengths of the scientific method is its emphasis on methodological rigor as a robust defense against any presumption of infallibility.

But it might come as a surprise to DiAngelo that it is the paradigmatic Enlightenment philosopher David Hume who gave us what is perhaps the greatest reason to doubt the supposed “infallibility of the scientific method.” Hume’s analysis of our understanding of causality was so incisive that it has stimulated debate among philosophers about the limits of knowledge ever since. As for white fragility, Hume’s empiricist skepticism also gives us serious reason to doubt the presumption of infallibility.

In the first chapter of her bestselling book on “why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism,” DiAngelo writes: “[w]hen I talk to white people about racism, their responses are so predictable I sometimes feel as though we are reciting lines from a shared script,” and “on some level,” she continues, “we are, because we are actors in a shared culture,” and “[a] significant aspect of the white script derives from our seeing ourselves as both objective and unique.” She insists, however, that this script will lead us astray if we want to understand racism: “we have to begin to understand why we cannot fully be either; we must understand the forces of socialization.”

DiAngelo posits that “[w]e make sense of perceptions and experiences through our particular cultural lens,” which is “neither universal nor objective, and without it, a person could not function in any human society.” But “exploring these [cultural] frameworks can be particularly challenging in Western culture precisely because of two key Western ideologies: individualism [which she says is the belief that ‘we are each unique and stand apart from others, even those within our social groups’] and objectivity [which she describes as the belief that ‘it is possible to be free of all bias’].” These two “ideologies” conspire to “make it very difficult for white people to explore the collective aspects of the white experience.”

She thus challenges the idea of individualism as an impediment to appreciating how groups and group identity (e.g. rich and poor, able-bodied and disabled, heterosexual and gay) matter. Groups matter because we are “socialized into these groups collectively”: “watching and comparing ourselves to others,” while receiving “the same messages about what these groups mean, why being in one group is a different experience from being in another,” as filtered through the cultural media of “television, movies, news items, song lyrics, magazines, textbooks, schools, religion, literature, stories, jokes, traditions and practices, history, and so on.” In addition, she says, we are taught to “know that it is ‘better’ to be in one of these groups than to be in its opposite—for example, to be young rather than old, able-bodied rather than have a disability, rich rather than poor.”

In challenging the ideology of individualism, DiAngelo aims to persuade us that “tackling group identity also challenges our belief in objectivity,” because “[i]f group membership is relevant, then we don’t see the world from the universal human perspective but from the perspective of a particular kind of human.” This is “particularly challenging for many white people, because we are taught that to have a racial viewpoint is to be biased,” which only serves to protect bias, “because denying that we have them ensures that we won’t examine or change them.” It is not, however, that they “matter naturally, as we are often taught to believe.” Instead, “we are taught that they matter, and the social meaning ascribed to these groups creates a difference in lived experience.” Apparently, then, we are taught that groups matter naturally and socially, but we should only take the latter seriously.

DiAngelo predicts that her reader will probably think “of all the ways that [she is] different from other white people” in an attempt to argue that she is not racist—a “common reflex” she has witnessed “countless times in my work.” She concludes with a startling claim to omniscience: “I can predict that many readers will make … claims of exception precisely because we are products of our culture, not separate from it” (emphasis mine). This is a generalization she is “quite comfortable” making because, as a sociologist, she understands that “social life is patterned and predictable in measurable ways” and, in spite of exceptions, “patterns are recognized as such precisely because they are recurring and predictable.”

As I have noted elsewhere, DiAngelo confuses objectivity with neutrality. Moreover, in dismissing objectivity as ideological, she takes a stance that is inconsistent with her claim that she is “quite comfortable” making generalizations because “social life is patterned and predictable in measurable ways”—a statement that only carries weight as a substantive claim if it is understood as an objective assessment (her objective assessment, because to be objective is not necessarily to be neutral) of data and evidence obtained from social science research aimed at making generalizations about society that hold up under the scrutiny of rigorous (i.e. objective) evaluation.

I have already discussed this epistemological problem. Another epistemological shortcoming also emerges in the discussion above—namely, the philosophical leap DiAngelo makes about causality, which bypasses a famously profound problem known as Hume’s fork. Hume’s fork is a position of epistemic skepticism that refers to a fundamental distinction between correlation and causation.

DiAngelo claims that the “common reflex” among white people to insist on their differences when discussing the nature of racism is a necessary result of being socialized to believe in the “ideology” of individualism (which she equates with uniqueness). Thus, she is drawing an inference about causality—that “socialization” is the causal instrument by which her assertion that group identity matters (a challenge to individualism) instigates the “common reflex” she observes in white people (to insist on uniqueness) when she has conversations with them about racism. She not only observes what Hume called a “constant conjunction” between one event (challenge to individualism) and another event (insistence on uniqueness), but also presumes to know why this “constant conjunction” occurs as a matter of necessity: i.e. that “socialization” causes white people to react as they do when she asserts that groups matter (and thus presents a challenge to the supposed ideology of individualism).

But David Hume’s investigations into the nature of causality give us reason to doubt whether this epistemic leap can ever be made with sufficient confidence. In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume devotes extensive consideration to the notion that people infer causality from a “constant conjunction” of events. Given the observation that event B frequently occurs after event A, people infer that event A caused event B. Hume, however, claims that all one can say with confidence is that event B frequently follows event A—i.e. that event A and event B are constantly conjoined. The presumption that events A and B are causally connected, however, is an inductive inference, and involves the formation of an idea about how events A and B are connected as a matter of necessity. It is, for example, to invoke “socialization” as the causal force by which DiAngelo’s assertion that groups matter necessarily leads white people to react by explaining how their experiences are unique and not dependent on a collective white identity.

But philosophers, Hume writes in the Enquiry,

who carry their scrutiny a little farther, immediately perceive, that, even in the most familiar events, the energy of the cause is as unintelligible as in the most unusual, and that we only learn by experience the frequent CONJUNCTION of objects, without being ever able to comprehend anything like CONNEXION between them.

All one can perceive is that “[o]ne event follows another; but we never can observe any tie between them.”

Hume continues:

They seem conjoined, but never connected. And as we can have no idea of anything, which never appeared to our outward sense or inward sentiment, the necessary conclusion seems to be, that we have no idea of connexion or power at all, and that these words are absolutely without any meaning, when employed either in philosophical reasonings, or common life.

Further:

Our idea, therefore, of necessity and causation arises entirely from the uniformity, observable in the operations of nature; where similar objects are constantly conjoined together, and the mind is determined by custom to infer the one from the appearance of the other. These two circumstances form the whole of that necessity, which we ascribe to matter. Beyond the constant conjunction of similar objects, and the consequent inference from one to the other, we have no notion of any necessity, or connexion.

As summarized here, Hume thus explains how the necessity of connection implied in causation is “grounded in our observation of constant conjunction” between events A (e.g. DiAngelo’s claim that group identity matters) and B (e.g. white people insisting on unique experiences). But “this is to say that (B) is grounded in (A).” Hume, however, argues that (A) by itself gives us no predictive power, and thus we have “merely pushed the question back one more step and must now ask with Hume, ‘What is the foundation of all conclusions from experience?’” This gives rise to the problem of induction, admirably summarized here:

We use direct observation to draw conclusions about unobserved states of affairs. But this is just to once more assert that (B) is grounded in (A). The more interesting question therefore becomes how we do this. What lets us reason from (A) to (B)?  The only apparent answer is the assumption of some version of the Principle of the Uniformity of Nature (PUN), the doctrine that nature is always uniform, so unobserved instances of phenomena will resemble the observed. This is called an assumption since we have not, as yet, established that we are justified in holding such a principle. Once more, it cannot be known a priori, as we assert no contradiction by maintaining its falsity. A sporadic, random universe is perfectly conceivable. Therefore, knowledge of the PUN must be a matter of fact. But the principle is predictive and not directly observed. This means that the PUN is an instance of (B), but we were invoking the PUN as the grounds for moving from beliefs of type (A) to beliefs of type (B), thus creating a vicious circle when attempting to justify type (B) matters of fact. We use knowledge of (B) as a justification for our knowledge of (B). The bottom line for Hume’s problem of induction seems to be that there is no clear way to rationally justify any causal reasoning (and therefore no inductive inference) whatsoever. We have no ground that allows us to move from (A) to (B), to move beyond sensation and memory, so any matter of fact knowledge beyond these becomes suspect.

In other words, DiAngelo’s prediction that readers may react to her assertion that group identity matters (event A) by “thinking of all the ways that you are different from other white people” (event B) may often turn out to be true, but she predicates this prediction not only on the “constant conjunction” she observes between her challenge to individualism and the way white people react, but also on the claim that “socialization” is the causal instrument by which A and B are constantly conjoined. But this claim rests on the assumption that “socialization” is a uniformly observed societal force and that it is uniformly operative in human society, so that, if she challenges individualism, white people will invoke their uniqueness in response (though she does allow for the possibility of exceptions, i.e. that some white people will not react as such), because they have been socialized to react as such in response to DiAngelo’s challenge. Though if, as DiAngelo argues, socialization is a reflection of group-based experience, a contradiction emerges between DiAngelo’s view that “socialization” is a uniformly operative aspect of human experience and her insistence that “we don’t see the world from the universal human perspective but from the perspective of a particular kind of human [i.e. group].”

Hume’s skepticism has long been a source of profound debate among philosophers: for example, it awakened Immanuel Kant from his “dogmatic slumber” and thus galvanized the development of Kant’s famous critical philosophy. One can read more here about the complexity and nuances of Hume’s skepticism and how it has been debated over the centuries (for example, whether his skepticism is ontological or epistemic in nature), but the basic point is that correlation is not the same as causation. DiAngelo’s presumed omniscience about why white people react the way they do when she asserts that group identity matters should be met with the skepticism it deserves.

In fairness, DiAngelo concludes this section of her book in a way that suggests that she does not believe that individualism is devoid of significance, but only that it serves as an impediment to understanding racism. Thus, “[s]etting aside your sense of uniqueness is a critical skill that will allow you to see the big picture of the society in which we live.” She exhorts her readers to “try to let go of your individual narrative and grapple with the collective messages we all receive as members of a larger shared culture.” This is not bad advice. But it is also not dispositive. If we cannot know for certain that “socialization” is the sole, or primary, reason why white people invoke their differences when she challenges the ideology of individualism, we might consider that they are right, rather than wrong, to do so, and that white fragility is not as central a concept to addressing racism as she argues that it is.

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18 comments

  1. I read these articles because I like to be reminded of the hard work of philosophy. However, they are in a way just so much noise to me.

    White Fragility, DiAngelo — the fact that these phrases are metonymously the sum total both of the literal and projected ideology of the author represents to me at once her success as an author and her failure as a philosopher. I say these articles are noise because they are critical of the philosophical underpinnings of an ideological work: they are technically interesting, but cannot overcome the impedence mismatch. In short, no one cares who didn’t already. There’s an almost Calvinist sensibility in even arguing the point. I say DiAngelo is a philosophical failure because she has generated yet another ideological framework to solve a philosophical problem, and as such is not subject to philosophical criticism; it is like a dog biting a car.

    Chesterton once observed that “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” It is much the same with philosophy (it’s probably not even as difficult.) White Fragility (the book) is a bestseller, which means exactly nothing about the ideas within it. White Fragility (the ideology) is as impervious to reason as it is unhelpful to society because people will not do the hard work of philosophy. They will buy a book, as though anyone believed people read books.

    It’s not without irony that this article’s author observes, “This is not bad advice. But it is also not dispositive.” Considering the genealogy of critical theory, who can be surprised?

  2. It is quite clear that white fragility is racism based on an obvious logical fallacy – All whites are racist because they deny being racists.

    The idea that whole groups or classes of people cann be understood and categorised as morally deficient as a group. Is incredibly dangerous once this is accepted it is just a small step to ethnic cleansing, and genocide precisely because the targetted group can be thougth of as a group, which is morally deficient and not as a collection of individuals just like everyone else.

    I fther eis anything valid to what is being said it is that there is a cultural baseline and expectation that is set partly by the majority and partly by the history of the culture. This is inevitable. I have ginger hair and come form the north of england those characteristics stand out from the norm in London. Do the majorty suffer from non-ginger fragility?

  3. Let’s decriminalize ‘racism’ and farting too. Since everyone does both and really can’t help it. I lived in a black culture for three years. They were Black Supremacists, and why wouldn’t they be? It was their country, I was a guest and I made it my business to try to fit in and not make any trouble. Happiest years of my life. It wouldn’t occur to the Bajans that they should agonize over the fact that their culture is organized around themselves. Who else? The USA was founded by English Protestants and built by Europeans. It is not a problem if they want to keep their identity and even their ‘Supremacy’. Things can’t be too horrible tho, since the USA is overwhelmingly the world’s preferred destination for refugees. Whitey hasn’t done such a bad job if the truth be told. I hope he keeps control.

  4. Reply to Emerald City: I read DiAngelo’s book. I even wrote a review of it, although I haven’t posted that anywhere. I think you are technically accurate in your defense of her, but not telling the whole story. I agree DiAngelo is raising some good points, however there are still very large and unacknowledged problems with her theses, and the series by Church is doing well to elucidate them. Moreover, the sense of anti-white bias forms an undercurrent that cannot be ignored. I think DiAngelo may be one of the most racially biased authors I have ever read, and that includes Ta Nehisi Coates.

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  5. Those who talk about what white people are like, and what they get nervous about, are just disgusting as any racist talking about another race, proud of being racist. No, you don’t know, and no you’re not woke, smarter, or better than others, you’re just another racist.

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  6. Having worked alongside Robin, it’s very…interesting to see how hated she is in certain spheres. If one were to assess her based solely on things writers here and at Quillette say about her, one would believe she’s a rabid anti-white racist. The more pushback I see, the more inclined I am to believe she was onto something, particularly since the crux of her talks isn’t that every white person is a violent racist, but rather an exhortation to examine the fact that white people are not the race-neutral default people from which all other people are derivative. Her message is essentially “White people are racialized too, but when pressed to examine that and its implications, they balk and retreat to individualism.” Her target is not white people, it is white-ness as a constructed racial identity that masquerades as “normal” or “default,” and the negative traits and assumptions that flow from that, e.g. Whiteness instills a belief, to varying degrees, that white people are individuals while People of Color are fungible instances of their racial group.

    I agree with the author that “you do this because you are white” might be a jump too far, but I have my doubts that qualifiers would dampen the criticism she receives, on the contrary it would give white people an easy out to say “this doesn’t apply to me” and disengage. Even if you disagree with Robin’s premise that there is a causal relationship between whiteness and fragility, she makes good points about the assumptions and biases that many white people share. I disagree with her on some things, particularly her views on Jews and whiteness, but she still has valuable things to say.

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    1. If you point the finger at a black person, an Asian man or woman, someone First Nations, or a white person, if you accuse someone by race, then you are racist. So is anyone who fails to understand that and claims their racism isn’t racist. So you think someone who is obviously racist should not be accused of being racist. Emerald City, you write just like a member of the KKK. They also object to being called racist “when all they say is what’s obvious”. It only seems obvious to you because being racism is normal for you. The rest of us do not go telling people of other race what their race feels life because we don’t know, and neither do you.

      1. I’m not telling anyone of “other race” anything. I’m white and I criticize other white people for being unable and/or unwilling to accept that A) we view the world through a racialized lens just like everyone else and B) that has implications of which most people are not conscious

        As for your KKK reference, that’s incredibly weak. Don’t be a coward and hide behind ad hominem nonsense.

        1. I disagree with Robin because she assumes that all white people are similarly socialized. We are not. Some of us do not identify with a racial group because we have been more likely to be attacked by members of our own racial group than by those of other groups. She assumes that race is of primary importance in social relationships. Ideally, it is no more important than right- or left-handedness. I identify far more with others of similar political belief, or even fans of the same sports team, than I do with many members of my race. I am far from alone in this respect.

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          1. Yes, Marian, I miss the 1960s Left, in which black, white, male, female, gay, straight all joined together to fight a battle across ideological lines (we identified with each other based on ideology and shared vision, not based on race or gender) rather that today’s Left, which prefers to draw battle lines between races and genders.

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    2. > Her message is essentially “White people are racialized too, but when pressed to examine that and its implications, they balk and retreat to individualism.”

      That’s just a plain old Kafkatrap. Of course people will reject accusations that are structured to be impossible to refute.

      > Whiteness instills a belief, to varying degrees, that white people are individuals while People of Color are fungible instances of their racial group.

      That’s just an opinion, not fact. I can’t say I’ve met any white people who think this way or at least it certainly wasn’t obvious.

      The word “whiteness” is chosen carefully to inflict maximum rhetorical language, which is why the motte-and-bailey routine is properly met with a gigantic eyeroll.

  7. “The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those that speak it.”

    ― George Orwell

    1. Unfortunately, that quote, and Orwell writ large, is used as rhetoric on both ‘sides’ in order to bolster their respective claims

  8. Excellent piece. I’ve always recoiled from DiAngelo’s dogma, because I recognize that “whiteness” is a self-evidently racist concept, and never felt the desire to dig into the muck of her deeper contradictions. Glad someone else is willing to do the dirty work.

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  9. Hmm. So DiAngelo’s argument seems to be, “Whenever I call white people racists, they reflexively deny being racists, which is proof of their racism.” Something circular about that argument, but it could spawn many amusing corollaries: “Whenever I tell people in group x they are poor because they are lazy, they deny being lazy, which proves they are lazy but have been socialized to overlook their own laziness,” etc. Moreover, even with the socialization factor in play, the “reflexive” reaction might still be true. If someone calls me a man-hating feminist, I might deny the charge because my socialization (1) has not led me to the viewpoint of which I am charged and (2) has led me to resist the social stigma of the charge. So is my denial evidence that I am a man-hating feminist? Such would seem to be DiAngelo’s logic.

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    1. Whenever I tell people they have monkey tails, they reflexively deny it, which is proof they have monkey tails but have been socialized not to see them. Etc.

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