As I have written time and again, Robin DiAngelo’s theory of white fragility is defective on so many fronts that it is a wonder people take it seriously. But they do. The theory is so influential that Kelefa Sanneh of the New Yorker has described DiAngelo as “perhaps the country’s most visible expert in anti-bias training, a practice that is also an industry, and from all appearances a prospering one.” DiAngelo has written a bestselling book and was able to charge the University of Kentucky “$12,000, not counting travel expenses, housing accommodations, and meals, for a two-hour ‘Racial Justice Keynote and breakout session’ in March .” After the horrific death of George Floyd, her book rocketed to the top of the Amazon and New York Times bestseller lists and at least one university department and perhaps much of corporate America organized a Zoom lunch discussion of DiAngelo’s book.
So what kind of bang for the buck does a two-hour “Racial Justice Keynote and breakout session” with Robin DiAngelo get you? What you get is an in-your-face lesson in Orwellian newspeak tailored for audiences eager to be indoctrinated into her gospel of “critical social justice” and her theory of white fragility. As Matt Taibbi writes,
DiAngelo’s writing style is pure pain … [with a] lexicon favored by intersectional theorists … built around the same principles as Orwell’s Newspeak: it banishes ambiguity, nuance and feeling and structures itself around sterile word pairs, like racist and antiracist, platform and deplatform, center and silence, that reduce all thinking to a series of binary choices.
Though DiAngelo’s mulish insularity is transparent in White Fragility, her totalitarian streak has been as consistent as it has been inflexible over the years, as the academic publications made available through links on her website demonstrate: including her seminal 2011 paper on white fragility. To get to the root of her thought, however, one should start with her PhD dissertation.
The dissertation runs to over two hundred pages, scrutinizing how thirteen people talk about race in four two-hour sessions of inter-racial dialogue. Parsing almost every word and phrase for evidence of racially problematic discourse, DiAngelo is astonishingly unequivocal in her embrace of a blunt illiberalism, which she promotes under the anti-racist guise of monitoring what she calls the discourses of whiteness.
Consider a discussion toward the end of chapter four, the second of two long chapters of “data analysis,” in which DiAngelo relentlessly and myopically interprets everything the white participants do and say as moves of whiteness. In a penultimate section entitled “White Fragility: I’m Leaving,” DiAngelo explains how “white fragility” is “propped up by white privilege” by describing an exchange which begins when a white woman named Courtney asks a woman of color named Malena “a rhetorical question.”
“Can I ask you something?” Courtney asks. “Do you want White people to progress in their ideas about how they are racist?” The ensuing exchange illustrates that a moment of tension was already in the works. Courtney claims to hear “contradicting things,” while Malena asks, “how am I contradicting that?” Courtney is reluctant to engage in a “personal argument,” but Malena insists that Courtney “go ahead.” Courtney decides “to pass.” A white woman called Becca then asks: “How do you think your social identity ties into the fact that, when things are getting really hot right here and you’re faced with the stuff you don’t want to look at, you want to leave?”
Is it the case that Courtney simply does not want to face the music about her “social identity”? Not necessarily. Courtney “had something really important to go to tonight that [she] missed to be here.” Thus, “part of what’s going through [Courtney’s] head” is the all too human impatience of someone who had to cancel other plans to keep her commitment to the session, which she did because she “felt bad about” missing a session the previous week, “so I, you know, missed the thing tonight to come here. So, that’s where I’m coming from right now.” Malena notes that Courtney could have left earlier, but only decided to leave once confronted with “this difficult conversation.” Courtney responds that she has wanted to leave the whole night. Knowing that she “can be a fiery person,” she fears that she is “going to say a lot of things that aren’t going to lead to really good discussions in this group,” and bows out before saying something rash.
Should we commend Courtney for attempting to check her anger? If so, we would be overlooking Courtney’s failure to check her white privilege, automatically making us complicit in Courtney’s problematic behavior. This exchange seems almost akin to a marital altercation gone badly awry: Courtney complains about having missed an important event, and Malena asks, “So, this isn’t important?” DiAngelo, however, observes “that a state of White fragility has been reached,” causing Courtney to retreat rather than “face a racial challenge.” As Courtney is about to exit the scene, a white woman called Becca attempts to intervene, recalling that “[o]ne of the things we talked about earlier was White people not calling other White people out.” Courtney’s response: “Yeah. Call me out. Anyone—before I leave, call me out.”
If it sounds as if Courtney is ready to storm out, DiAngelo hears otherwise: “[w]hen Becca appeals to the White participants to call [Courtney] out, Courtney agrees and asks to be called out,” seemingly receptive to appeals from white participants. A woman named Ruth “rises to this challenge, but … Ruth’s White social position has ill prepared her to articulate a coherent counter argument, and her attempt is futile.” Malena makes one final attempt to convince Courtney “to stay and to trust the facilitator’s decision that it is acceptable for them to work through this moment.” Courtney “overrules the facilitators by stating, ‘It’s not OK with me,’ and leaves.”
This whole scene allows for a variety of interpretations, but DiAngelo offers only one: Courtney held the cards the whole time because she is white, relented a little when another white person attempted to intervene, and then threw the book at everyone, storming out when a white woman was unable to persuade her to stay because the woman’s whiteness left her ill-prepared to succeed. In sum, whiteness raised its ugly head, pounded its gavel, clamped down on all confrontation, and left the scene.
Any white person should be motivated to build “racial stamina” and resist the kind of “white fragility” that was on display. We cannot safely forgive Courtney for her impertinence. To accommodate her frustrations would be to accommodate Courtney as an individual who is upset about her cancelled plans rather than as a white person resisting racial confrontation. In other words, we would be accommodating “individualism” as a discourse of whiteness, failing to see how “Courtney’s actions demonstrate both White privilege and White fragility.” We must learn to see Courtney as an embodiment of fragile whiteness, not as a “fiery person” hesitant about saying something rash and dismayed because she had to cancel other plans.
For DiAngelo, “White privilege is demonstrated in [Courtney’s] domination of the discussion, her direct challenge to the credibility of a woman of color in a leadership position, and her threat to leave if things don’t go her way.” Courtney “demonstrates White privilege through her lack of racial humility” and by “refusing to take direction from a woman of color who holds leadership in the group” and “her very literal exit in the face of racial discomfort is also an indicator of White privilege and a powerful message to the people of color in the group.”
Nothing can distract DiAngelo from filtering all experience through the lens of the whiteness paradigm.
The implication is that, if DiAngelo had her way, pedagogical techniques like “progressive stacking” and perhaps even “punishing white male college students for historical slavery by asking them to sit in silence in the floor in chains during class” would be far from unwelcome.
In her dissertation, DiAngelo analyzes whiteness “as a set of racialized relations that are historically, socially, politically and culturally produced,” resulting “in White domination of people of color.” As a result, “whiteness is a function of racism, and refers to the dimensions of racism that serve to elevate Whites” through discourse: the ways in which white people talk, act and perform in their daily interactions with each other and with people of color. DiAngelo insists on whiteness as dominant discourse that “is dynamic, relational and operating at all times and on myriad levels.” Courtney lost patience not because missing an important event made her more sensitive than usual. It is because she had an interest, however unwittingly, in maintaining white supremacy.
DiAngelo’s dissertation is a study of whiteness, so she invariably arrives at her interpretations with an eye to discerning alleged manifestations of whiteness. As she states, “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.” But the worrying thing is that, for DiAngelo, “The question is not Did racism take place? But rather How did racism manifest in that situation?”
This question is the foundation of white fragility theory and anti-racism and critical social justice more broadly. At its heart is a deep skepticism of what DiAngelo calls the “two master discourses of whiteness in practice: individualism and universalism.” For DiAngelo, “[i]ndividualism posits that Whites are first and foremost individuals who have earned their place in society on their own merit,” while “[u]niversalism posits that White interests and perspectives are objective and representative of all groups.”
We must regard any inclination to judge Courtney as an individual as also reinforcing white supremacy by succumbing to the discourse of individualism and universalism (objectivity). Moreover, these two “master discourses” tie in with other “white” discourses, such as the discourse of personal experience and the discourse of meritocracy.
All these discourses are problematic, according to DiAngelo, because they work “to deny that Whites benefit from their racial group memberships.” As she writes elsewhere, “[t]hose at the top are [seen as] merely a collection of individuals who rose under their own individual merits, and those at the bottom are there due to individual lack,” and therefore “[g]roup membership is thereby rendered inoperative and racial disparities are seen as essential, rather than structural.”
The punchline: “Thus the discourse of individuality is not only connected to the discourse of meritocracy, but also with the Darwinism of the ‘bell curve.’” One might raise an eyebrow at the suggestion that all white people are ardent libertarians. But, even granting this, does this equate to essentialism? Are a belief in individualism and a willingness to acknowledge structural impediments mutually exclusive? Does belief in individualism imply belief in group essentialism? Does seeing yourself as an individual mean that you see group disparities as a kind of natural order?
Of course not.
DiAngelo assumes that a belief in “individualism” is also a belief in a perfect meritocracy in which one “makes it” or does not “make it” purely as a function of one’s merits (rather than a spectrum where the circumstances determine the extent of meritocracy). Moreover, she does not appear to recognize that “individualism” means only that intra-group variation matters as much as inter-group variation, or even if intra-group variation matters less than inter-group variation, it still matters. Individualism does not imply essentialism.
For DiAngelo, these kinds of questions are incompatible with a commitment to anti-racism. In 1984, Orwell describes a concept called crimestop:
the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought … the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction.
Similarly, DiAngelo recommends not partaking in “danger discourse,” examples of which include “I grew up in a really sheltered neighborhood so I’m scared to do my placement there” and “Oh, I used to live in New Haven where I heard gunshots at the dance club, so Springfield doesn’t scare me.” These statements all have a racial undertone, she argues, “that specifically positions people of color as inherently dangerous, while simultaneously positioning whites as inherently innocent,” which “has material consequences in the larger society,” because “[h]ow we think and speak about people of color is a fundamental foundation for how we treat people of color.”
It is wrong to believe a casual statement about hearing gunshots in New Orleans is innocuous, DiAngelo insists. If you object and say, in DiAngelo’s words, “You mean I have to watch everything I say?,” you are “rejecting the politics of language” and failing to “consider our ability to adapt to changes in language as an indicator that we are growing in our critical social justice literacy.” Any mention of “political correctness,” or expression of frustration, such “people just need to light up” or “I didn’t mean it that way” is “invalidating claims of oppression as over-sensitivity.” Complaining about political correctness is one of the many masks of whiteness.
Similar warnings pop up all over her work. In Is Everyone Really Equal?, she discusses the “invisibility of oppression” in “discourses” of sexism in advertising, movies and music videos. Her recommendation:
Just as we might find ourselves laughing at a racist joke, we might find ourselves enjoying a film that reproduces sexism. Indeed, it’s likely that due to how normalized these narratives are, we won’t see them as sexist at all. Yet the more a narrative appeals to us (especially if we are women), the more important it is for us to be able to think critically about it so that we can resist its effects. Recall the concept of internalized oppression and that minoritized groups often collude with dominant ideology. Thus, no socially constructed text can or should be off-limits to a critical analysis, regardless of how popular or ‘enjoyable’ it is.
One wonders if we will ever be allowed to simply relax and enjoy a movie again. Sprinkled throughout Is Everyone Really Equal? are sidebars beginning with “STOP!” and directives on how to think about various issues of social justice. Examples include:
- STOP: Remember that we are simultaneously members of multiple social groups. While in one domain we may be oppressed (e.g. as women), in another domain we may enact dominance (e.g. as White women). These identities don’t cancel each other out; rather, they interact in complex ways.
- STOP: When we use the term White supremacy, we are not referring to extreme hate groups or ‘bad racists.’ We use the term to capture the all-encompassing dimensions of White privilege, dominance, and assumed superiority in mainstream society.
The implication of these imperatives is: if you think otherwise, you are engaging in thought crime. If you grant that intersectionality provides important insights but do not acquiesce that the liberal individual must be abandoned as politically unhelpful; if you think lived experience is more intricate and nuanced than an aggregated compilation of intersecting identities associated with various marginalized social groups; if you believe in a universal human nature that transcends identity politics; if the phrase “all-encompassing dimensions of White privilege, dominance, and assumed superiority in mainstream society” strikes you as vague: if any of these thought crimes cross your mind, you undermine social justice. At best, you should be ignored, at worst, cancelled. Nursing a capacity for crimestop is, then, the de facto goal of white fragility theory. Di Angelo’s corpus of work presents a dense minefield of white people tripping over their “fragility” when DiAngelo attempts to point out their penchant for thought crimes, euphemistically called “racially problematic” discourse.
As in 1984, crimestop is not enough. There is also doublethink. One of the staple tenets of DiAngelo’s work on white fragility and anti-racist activism is that “there is no objective, neutral reality.” The “white racial frame” cannot possibly be neutral or objective. As she states in White Fragility, this “deep and extensive” frame “views whites as superior in culture and achievement” while “people of color are seen as inferior to whites in the making and keeping of the nation.” Aside from conflating objectivity and neutrality, DiAngelo seems to hope we will fail to notice that asserting the impossibility of arriving at objective reality is the same thing as asserting that there is an objective reality. In other words, DiAngelo engages in Orwellian doublethink, demonstrating, in the words of George Orwell, “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously and accepting both of them.”
DiAngelo’s disavowal of objectivity can be traced at least as far back as her dissertation, in which she analyzes whiteness “as a set of racialized relations that are historically, socially, politically and culturally produced,” resulting “in White domination of people of color.” As a result, “whiteness is a function of racism, and refers to the dimensions of racism that serve to elevate Whites.”
As defined by DiAngelo, whiteness is “a set of locations that are historically, socially, politically and culturally produced, and which are intrinsically linked to dynamic relations of domination.” In referring to a “set of locations,” DiAngelo is invoking Ruth Frankenberg’s 1993 book The Social Construction of Whiteness: White Women, Race Matters, in which Frankenberg defines whiteness as (1) “a location of structural advantage, of race privilege”; (2) “a ‘standpoint,’ a place from which White people look at ourselves, at others, and at society”; and (3) “a set of cultural practices that are usually unmarked and unnamed.” For DiAngelo and other whiteness scholars, then:
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.
In previous work, I have pointed out that, in beginning “with the premise that racism and white privilege exist in both traditional and modern forms, and rather than work[ing] to prove its existence, work[ing] to reveal it,” Whiteness Studies indulges in circular reasoning.
Logical validity, however, is not DiAngelo’s concern. What matters is identity politics. As DiAngelo writes, her bestselling book “is unapologetically rooted in identity politics.” For purposes of anti-racist activism, the book undertakes a “critical examination of white identity.” In “addressing [the] common white dynamic” of “white fragility,” DiAngelo is “writing to a white audience,” and, in using “the terms us and we, [she] is referring to the white collective.” DiAngelo urges white people to examine themselves not as individuals, but as a “racialized” group of people who share an interest, however unwittingly, in the preservation of power and privilege in a “white” society. As she writes in her dissertation, white people must see themselves as embodiments of whiteness, which “refers to the dimensions of racism that serve to elevate Whites.”
In practice, what this means is that a noble end justifies an insidious means. Namely, it means picking part the discourses by which white people keep whiteness in place as a centripetal force organizing all aspects of society around itself. For DiAngelo and other whiteness scholars, any approach that does not dismantle whiteness keeps marginalized groups on the margins and whites in the center. The key idea driving the pedagogical practices of anti-racist activism is that whiteness is a discourse that incessantly works to keep white supremacy alive.
DiAngelo conducts a “discourse analysis” that takes aim at how whites, always unwittingly, replicate the ideologies of whiteness, and thus white supremacy, by means of everyday language. The ways they talk, act and perform in social interactions give perpetual rebirth to the “constellation of processes and practices” as well as the “rights, values, beliefs, perspectives, and experiences” which undergird a culture of white supremacy. The only path to “equity” among groups is to dissect the “discourses” that perpetuate, deliberately or unwittingly, the marginalization of non-whites.
This approach is inspired by several strands of twentieth-century postmodern and poststructuralist thought that are centrally concerned with the power of language to create reality. There is merit in that tradition, but also peril, as anyone familiar with 1984 or Alice in Wonderland can appreciate. DiAngelo’s dissertation is a quintessential display of the kind of dystopian language policing against which such literary works warn.
The Whiteness Paradigm
DiAngelo begins her dissertation by describing whiteness broadly, capaciously and thus ambiguously as the “dimensions of racism that serve to elevate White people over people of color.” Her study “focuses on the White end of the hierarchy of racism,” using “the terms White and whiteness to describe a social process operating in U.S. society at large.” Whiteness, DiAngelo writes, “is both ‘empty,’ in that it is normalized and thus typically unmarked, and content laden or ‘full,’ in that it generates norms and reference points, ways of conceptualizing the world, and ways of thinking about oneself and others, regardless of where one is positioned relationally within it.”
Whiteness is thus a reification of social relations, in which “the interpretation and consequences of whiteness vary depending on who is interacting and in what context.” The upshot is that “whiteness can be conceptualized as the context that creates, authorizes, and maintains racist relations.” It “is a socially constructed and interactive process,” which “counters the representation of racism as isolated in discrete incidents in which some individuals may or may not perpetuate, and goes deeper than naming specific privileges.” White people “are actively shaped through their racialization, and their individual and collective consciousness are racially informed.”
This racialization into whiteness results in a “relationship of dominance between Whites and people of color,” which “is enacted moment by moment on individual, interpersonal, cultural, and institutional levels.” If only we could rely on “a relational definition of whiteness and racism, students and teachers [could] explore their own relationship to racism and [would be] less likely to focus on specific incidences, a focus that makes a personal, interpersonal, cultural, historical, and structural analysis difficult.”
“The ideology of whiteness,” then, “becomes actualized and normalized for White people to the point of invisibility by way of language, media, and schooling.” To interrupt whiteness, it is thus essential to “explicat[e] the operation of whiteness.” For white people to learn about racism, they must begin a process of “reeducation” that “force[s] them to examine White privilege and [plan] long-term learning experiences that anticipate the various strategies White people use to avoid and reinterpret education about race.” As she indicates in one paper, the consciousness-raising of whites is the aim.
For DiAngelo, whiteness is a complex, ever-evolving system of meanings, defined by the way in which white people discursively avoid responsibility for racism and keep white supremacy in place. Her dissertation is full of phrases like “variability of racial discourses,” “set of complex and changeable meanings” and “dynamic interconnections between representational practices and discourses of ‘race.’”
The point is that “[i]t isn’t enough for educators to be aware that whiteness does operate inter-relationally.” It is also necessary to “understand how it operates in ways that are familiar and recognizable.” This, DiAngelo writes, “is what I describe in this study.” She aims to “contribute to White teachers’ ability to bridge theory and practice by providing concrete and familiar examples of the ways that whiteness is enacted in social interaction.” Then, before “positioning” herself as a white person who is “also implicated in racist relations with people of color,” she runs through an explanation of terms used throughout the study, such as contest, discourse and feeling-states.
The key term, however, is move, defined as “a discursive (linguistic) strategy used to support or challenge current power relations.” Moves “can range from eye-rolling and interrupting a speaker, to silence, debate, or invoking dominant ideologies.” DiAngelo serves as the arbitrator who, in the course of four two-hour sessions on inter-racial dialogue, will interpret these “moves” (of whiteness) and determine how they “support or challenge current power relations.”
As arbitrator, DiAngelo’s interpretations are not entirely arbitrary. The compass that guides her is the thoroughly postmodern idea that knowledge is socially constructed. People do not discover knowledge, they create it, a distinction that is supposed to illuminate the ways in which knowledge is inseparable from how people experience oppression in the context of power relations between social groups. In other words, knowledge is never neutral or objective. Whiteness scholars thus “seek to unravel the racialized intersection between social position, knowledge construction, and power.”
It is not enough for white teachers to understand that marginalized students might be underprivileged. White teachers must also examine their own privilege and how it is inherently designed to isolate nonwhite others. Focusing on lack of privilege “reifies” privilege in a way that keeps racialized “others” on the margins. It is another way in which “whiteness draws much of its power from the absence” of discourse that seeks to break up “the un-naming of whiteness” that “serves to secure its privileged location.” This idea of othering is another core precept of whiteness Studies.
The aim of discourse analysis, then, is to figure out all the ways in which white people maintain the dominance of whiteness and the marginalization of nonwhite “others.” Discourse analysis, or what DiAngelo calls “the study of language and the making of meaning in action and in social contexts,” seeks to disrupt the language in which white people have been “socialized” to unwittingly believe in their own superiority, and then maintain that superiority as the norm by use of language.
This all might seem profound, but, as we have begun to see, it often simply reduces racism to a matter of hair-splitting semantics examined with such single-minded and peremptory discipline that DiAngelo ends up enforcing Orwellian doublethink whereby double standards for conduct by white people and people of color are not double standards because of purported power imbalances. DiAngelo’s dissertation proceeds from a view that racism is a discursive relation between dominant whites and marginalized non-whites. As DiAngelo writes, “in being a White U.S. student, one is positioned in relation to, not separate from, immigrants and students of color.”
Moreover, “because race is negotiated, rather than fixed, it is also unstable and susceptible to acts of resistance and contestation.” This makes the “over-arching goal” of DiAngelo’s dissertation “to surface and describe the processes by which White participants negotiated their racial positions in four, two-sessions of inter-racial dialogue among white and nonwhite participants.”
Confirmation, Not Falsification
For her dissertation, DiAngelo conducted four two-hour sessions on inter-racial dialogue with only thirteen participants—a very small sample from which to derive wide-ranging interpretations about things like whiteness and racism. But that is par for the course in fields like Whiteness Studies and Critical Race Theory. As one paper argues, “many critical race scholars are fundamentally skeptical of (if not simply opposed to) quantitative data and techniques to begin with.” For DiAngelo, “[l]ess than 10 participants would not have provided a wide enough range of discourses. More than 18 would have allowed too many participants to be inactive in the dialogue.” This is fair enough in terms of trying to have a manageable classroom, but, while in her book White Fragility she says that she is “quite comfortable generalizing,” in this case she excuses her study’s limitations with a reference to the literature that “recognize[s] that generalizability is never completely answerable and accept[s] the truism that generalization is never fully justified logically.”
Nonetheless, DiAngelo “support[s] the generalizability of [her] study by using the considerable literature on what constitutes White privilege across a range of settings.” She “use[s] that literature to develop a set of coding criteria” and “had others review these criteria” while remaining “open to emergent strategies that [she] had not included in [her] coding.” In effect, this means that her focus is on “discourse analysis.” In this framework, interpretation is guided by a monomaniacal focus on confirming the whiteness paradigm, rather than posing hypotheses that can be tested. Indeed, DiAngelo’s “primary measure of generalizability was [her] ability to tie the discourses documented in this study to the larger body of research in the whiteness literature.”
Alternatively, one might rely on signal detection theory to examine the extent to which DiAngelo sets such a low bar for designating behavior as a “move” of whiteness that a sizable number of these alleged “moves” of whiteness are false positives, rather than genuine strategic moves by white people to avoid coming to terms with their complicity in white supremacy. In other words, the whole point of white fragility theory is to confirm, not verify (i.e. withstand falsification). DiAngelo eschews the scientific method because the scientific method is supposedly regarded as infallible, rather than as a robust methodology designed to guard against any presumption of its own infallibility. “Generalizability,” she writes, “is not constituted in discourse analysis by arguing that an analysis reflects reality and therefore can be generalized.” Instead, “[d]iscourse analysts recognize that humans construct their social reality, although this construction interacts with and is constrained by physical reality.”
With this in mind, DiAngelo discusses how she “coded” the dialogue. She begins with “racial demographics,” coding “conversational patterns racially,” examining “the literature to identify how the racialized location of the speaker gives particular social meaning to what is said.” The point is that “what someone says has different social significance based on his or her racial identification.” Having “coded the self-identified race of all participants and facilitators,” DiAngelo “also noted when they spoke, for how long, how often, under what circumstances, and with what perceived emotional valence.”
Participants in the dialogues were thus monitored to determine who controlled the flow of the conversation, what topics were discussed, when the conversation was “White dominated,” when the conversation “was dominated by people of color,” and whether there were “particular moves that were more likely to elicit dominant discourses.” DiAngelo “observed the types of discourse strategies the participants of color used to center their interests and experiences, and/or to counter White strategies, and the responses of the White participants to these strategies.” In particular, she kept a keen eye on “non-verbal discursive practices, such as body positioning and eye contract,” as well as on “how silence was used, by whom, for how long, and under what conditions.”
She was “also interested in how agreement functioned because agreement is a significant strategy in discursive power negotiations.” Emotions also did not escape her attention, as “[d]iscourse analysis conceptualizes emotions as socially constructed and addresses how people talk about emotions, whether claiming or avowing their own or ascribing them to others, and how they use emotional categories in discourse.” These categories of emotion, DiAngelo claims, “are used in assigning causes and motives, including blaming, excusing, and accounting.” Moreover, “emotional work” is “often ‘assigned’ to marginalized rather than privileged groups,” and is thus “a site of struggle.”
The underlying aim, which connects her “proposed methodology to the wider body of post-structuralist research on whiteness,” is to comb through the dialogue for any hint of “whiteness” in action. This means analyzing every “move” of whiteness as a “move” that positions whites to maintain their dominance. This is reminiscent of the description of Winston standing in his flat in the first few pages of 1984:
Behind Winston’s back the voice from the telescreen was still babbling away about pig iron and the overfulfillment of the Ninth Three-Year Plan. The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.
“Moves” of Whiteness
For DiAngelo, discursive analysis examines “moves” of whiteness in an attempt not to determine whether whiteness manifests in any given situation, but how it manifests. As she writes, her study set out “to test an already established hypothesis: that whiteness does manifest in this type of setting and to describe how it manifests.” This poses the implicitly oxymoronic claim that a hypothesis has already been established as a truth (an idea that also contradicts her claim that “there is no objective, neutral reality”). The central aim of Critical Race Theory and Whiteness Studies is not to determine whether racism is at work in a situation but how. They set out to fix the problem before attempting to identify it because, for whiteness scholars, racism is anywhere and everywhere.
If there is a disparity or tension of any kind, we must assume that it is a manifestation of racism and simply find out where the racism lurks in order to pluck it out. In her dissertation, DiAngelo attempts to do this by identifying and describing the “moves” of whiteness that allegedly keep white supremacy in place. Beginning in chapter three, DiAngelo “describes[s] key discourses obtained from the data and discuss[es] the meaning and implications of these discourses within the context of interrupting whiteness.” She “analyze[s] specific discursive moves used by participants in the dialogue and their impact in the immediate context.”
These moves are “acts of conversational performance that include the use of silence, statements of confusion, rebuttal, nodding in agreement, emotional affect, and invocation of rules.” The “moves draw from major discourses such as meritocracy, the universal human, and official knowledge.” She links these moves “to larger scholarly discussions of how whiteness functions.” Ironically enough for someone who claims to challenge oppression by speaking truth to power, this results in a transparent power play.
DiAngelo controls the interpretations of every “move” of whiteness. She states upfront she is deliberately interpreting “moves” through a specific theoretical lens, namely “group-as-a-whole theory” which “posits that group behavior is organic, with individual members taking up roles on behalf of the whole group.” In this framework, “individuals perform in microcosm the dynamics that operate in the macrocosm or larger society.”
DiAngelo intentionally “theorizes” the “performances” of individuals “as representative of common White enactments” rather than “as unique or individual personalities.” Individuals are thus conceptualized “as composite representatives of whiteness who are simply amplifying and making visible many common White moves.” Even individuals “who may seem less visible in the transcripts or analysis are conceptualized as simply acting out more submerged, but equally critical, performances of whiteness.” In other words, white people are embodiments of whiteness.
As I have written elsewhere, this is the reification fallacy in action. Reification is the idea that an abstraction like whiteness can take on material existence, in the form, for example, of white people strategically enacting “moves” of whiteness as a way of reinstating and reinforcing white supremacy. DiAngelo spends the rest of her dissertation interpreting such alleged “moves” of whiteness as:
- “I am not White” (failing to recognize whiteness as a social identity with harmful ramifications);
- “Meritocracy: They Worked Hard” (positing “that opportunity is equal in the United States, and that people achieve based solely on their own merit”);
- “That’s Just My Personal Experience” (which “posits the participant’s interpretations as the product of a discrete individual, outside of socialization factors, rather than the product of multidimensional social interaction,” as if she had a “‘private mind’ in the Cartesian sense”); and
- Rules of engagement, such as the expectation that, in a professional setting, one ought to act professionally.
Do white people actually not see themselves as white? Do white people actually believe they live in a perfect meritocracy? Do white people really confuse the Cartesian subject with solipsism?
For DiAngelo, asking such questions reflects a racist failure to adequately cultivate crimestop, or “stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought,” e.g. doubting that these “moves” of whiteness are, in fact, real-life enactments of whiteness weaving its thread through all dimensions of social life in ways that elevate whites at the expense of non-whites. As Orwell wrote, crimestop is the “power” of “failing to perceive logical errors.”
Here is one of the more egregious examples of how DiAngelo deals with “rules of engagement,” (I’ve written more about this here):
During a break, two white participants are having a conversation while a person of color gets a drink of water. The person of color notices that the cup sizes are small. She jokes, “Good thing I’m not thirsty.” The two white participants keep talking to each other, apparently failing to appreciate the joke. The person of color then cracks, “That’s just like white people to ignore a person of color.” One of the white participants hears this remark and chokes on her water, spitting it up, which prompts a reply from the person of color, “Now the white people are spitting on me.”
When everyone returns to the dialogue, the white participants express their dismay. The found these actions unfair and professional. DiAngelo interprets these remarks as “moves” of whiteness, which “position” whites as “professional” or which invoke “fair=same” discourse to obscure the power relations between whites and blacks. These moves “reestablish White dominance of the proceedings.” Examples abound throughout the dissertation of alleged “moves” of whiteness. In sum, dismantling “whiteness” means seeing racism in everything white people do and say, then rooting it out.
Failing to laugh at a joke and being perturbed at the insinuation that choking on water is the equivalent of spitting on a person of color are manifestations of white supremacy. Disagree? Then you are complicit in white supremacy because you fail to contextualize such interactions as indications of the social power with which white people are endowed, thereby further contributing to the reification of whiteness.
Sentence First, Verdict Afterwards
These discourses all tie into what DiAngelo considers the two “master discourses” of whiteness: individualism and universalism. At one point, in a dispute about whether racism is not as bad as it used to be because you don’t hear younger generations “openly talking about stereotypes,” Courtney objects to the idea that it is permissible for “someone coming from the outside and telling another White person, Well, you really—you shouldn’t feel that way, you know, it’s like what does that mean. Because my feelings are not about you.” In this case, Courtney has no right to resent being told that she should not be allowed to feel the way she feels, or that she “has the right to think and feel whatever she wants.” Because, according to DiAngelo, Courtney “draws not only on a Cartesian discourse but also a deeply individual one” which “presents her feelings as standing alone, or outside, social processes, rather than as the function of social processes,” which makes her feelings “independent of the social, political or historical context in which she is embedded.” As a result, Courtney positions “herself as an individual” and “closes her position off from others.” In conversation, “this is a blocking move that ends any challenge to her perceptions.” Because she “defends her position,” Courtney “negates Becca’s, and closes off further exploration” of “why Becca, as a White facilitator with experience in dialogues about race, feels frustrated that racism has been relegated to the past.”
It is not exactly clear that Courtney relegates racism to the past when she says that, in her own experience, race relations have improved. She explicitly says she “just want[s] to put that out there” and that there should be some “interplay” allowed whereby someone can express a view that racism is “generational” and that it is upsetting to hear someone suggest that this view is unfair. It seems that all Courtney wants to say is that she should be allowed her point of view. For DiAngelo, however, that would be a mistake.
The only point of view allowed is the point of view of whiteness scholars such as DiAngelo. They have it all figured out, and thus can be excused from the humility they urge the rest of us to embrace. All that stands in the way of truth and justice is the failure of white people to embrace anti-racism as articulated by the sermonizers of critical social justice. Sure, DiAngelo says, white people always have an opinion, but it is necessarily ill-informed, even it has come from a public school teacher with a master’s degree in multicultural education and years of experience in urban schools. White people need to accept their irredeemable complicity in a society fundamentally rooted in white supremacy. They must start learning to come to grips with it and make amends. “Sentence first, verdict afterwards,” as the Queen of Hearts says in Alice in Wonderland.