“I’m not a racist,” Donald Trump proclaimed a year into his presidency. “I am the least racist person.” He was addressing reports that during bipartisan immigration discussions in the Oval Office he had questioned why the United States admits people from “shithole” African and Latin American countries rather than places such as Norway. Trump’s comments were condemned in most quarters – the 55-nation African Union was “frankly alarmed” while former Mexican president Vicente Fox tweeted back “your mouth is the foulest shithole in the world” – but echoed the wider concerns of his anxious support base, which is feeling under demographic threat. Population projections have indicated that in 25 years America may no longer be a majority-white nation. As once-marginalised communities mobilise and become more visible in public life, historically dominant groups – white, male, Christian, able-bodied, straight – believe themselves to be increasingly oppressed and outnumbered.
This sense of majority grievance goes some way to explain why nativist populists are gaining support among Western electorates, and the hysterical responses of some public intellectuals to the perceived dominance of identity politics in contemporary discourse. The American political scientist Mark Lilla credits widespread “moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity” with blocking Hillary Clinton’s entry to the White House (a view he shares with Jordan Peterson); Francis Fukuyama assures us that identity politics “poses a threat to free speech”; Michael Ignatieff goes as far as saying that it is “pulling modern democracy apart”. These coarse-grained pronouncements have traction this side of the Atlantic – within think tanks, where David Goodhart has been carving British society into artificial but competing tribes for the best part of 15 years (“Anywheres” versus “Somewheres”); and in parliament, where Michael Gove has taken aim and Tim Farron (no “intellectual” but like Ignatieff a failed leader of his country’s Liberal party) has described the politics of identity as “insidious, irrational”; a “poison in our national life”.
Facing up to hostility from the Anglosphere establishment, American sociologist Robin DiAngelo argues that in fact all social progress – from women’s suffrage to disability rights and gay equality legislation – has been accomplished through identity politics. Her book White Fragility is devoted to better understanding her country’s racial divide, exploring how the president’s nostalgic call to “Make America Great Again” works powerfully upon the white majority.
Harnessing racial solidarity to successfully power a white supremacist to the presidency is a worryingly familiar practice going back to the birth of the nation. In its Declaration of Independence, principally authored by Thomas Jefferson, the divinely-endowed republic decreed that “all Men are created equal”. Yet the noble idea of equality jarred with a brutal and bloody push for economic prosperity, reliant on displacement and genocide (of Natives) and abduction and enslavement (of Africans). Jefferson, like fellow Founding Fathers George Washington and James Madison, owned slaves, considered to be worth three-fifths of the value of free people in America’s first census of 1790 (indigenous people were left uncounted). Over the next two and a half centuries, the developing Anglo-Protestant culture would struggle to classify waves of migrants arriving from across the globe, despite a broad willingness from newcomers to adopt American customs.
Being granted whiteness was the only guaranteed path to US citizenship, prompting bizarre shifts in racial categorisation. Many southern and central Europeans, from countries including Italy, Hungary and Poland, were initially deemed non-white and denied their legal rights. Into the early 20th century, scientists were successfully deployed to argue in favour of Armenians being reclassified as white because they were “Caucasian”, and yet “scientifically Caucasian” Asian Indians were denied citizenship for not being white, a fate that also befell Japanese people described as “Mongoloid” (the classification which previously applied to the northern European Finns and Levantine Syrians before they were allowed to live in America as “whites”). The nation’s black population saw slavery abolished in 1865 but had to wait a further century – in the shadows of Jim Crow, the lynch mob and mass political disenfranchisement – to be seen as equal in the eyes of the law.
The present-day school curriculum, public initiatives such as Black History Month and aspects of African American (popular and academic) culture have educated a new generation about its country’s fraught and violent racial past. Unlike in Britain, where the crimes of empire and post-colonial legacies rarely register in the national consciousness, the period from slavery to civil rights has become a central part of the American story.
Yet, DiAngelo argues in her book (“intended for us, for white progressives”), many citizens retain a deep-rooted belief that “racism is not a white problem” – it impacts solely upon people of colour. Whiteness is considered universal, the norm: “They – not we – have race.” Taking her cue from black writers such as WEB Du Bois and James Baldwin who understood that white people must “turn their attention on to themselves”, the author issues a useful corrective for post-racial utopians insulating themselves from the advantages of membership of the dominant racial group.
In the face of “ongoing institutional white control” and systemic injustice against blacks – yawning health and wealth gaps; barriers to good work or housing; a discriminatory criminal justice system – unequal power relations are treated as unremarkable and left unchallenged. White supremacy is thus rendered invisible, unnamed or denied. DiAngelo earnestly argues that, rather than examining a “deeply embedded historical system of institutional power”, many would prefer to clinch to a naive view of racism as “simple, isolated, and extreme acts of prejudice” – an issue of morality where you are only culpable if you happen to be “beating blacks at lunch counters” or “bombing black churches”. Following the civil rights struggle, “to be a good, moral person and to be complicit with racism became mutually exclusive”. Recognising themselves as on the non-racist side of the divide frees white people from the responsibility of having to think critically about racism and participating in “systems of inequity and domination” – a freedom never afforded to people of colour.
Denying the benefits of white privilege, DiAngelo contends, “allows us to maintain our sense of ourselves as unique individuals, outside collective socialisation and group experience”. As a former “diversity trainer” working to “raise the racial consciousness of whites”, she has seen first-hand participants in her workshops become highly fragile in conversations about racism. She confesses to a “major effort” getting “whites to acknowledge that our race gives us advantages”, often triggering protective and predictable responses – anger, withdrawal or argumentation. The tales from her professional life included in White Fragility are refreshingly honest – office workers and teachers furious or deeply offended, many workshops ending in tears and conflict.
Dismissing any claims of the existence of “reverse racism” (white people being victims of racial injustice) as “profoundly petty and delusional”, the author saves her harshest words for “white progressives” who, she believes, cause “the most daily damage” to people of colour. At least, she writes, self-professed racists are aware of their own biases. Whether you claim not to see race – or even if you “marched in the 1960s” – the author believes you are not exempt from lifelong self-reflection. Indeed, she opens up about her own frailties (“Seeking to avoid conflict and wanting to be liked, I have chosen silence all too often”). DiAngelo deftly highlights how reliant we all are on “flimsy evidence to certify ourselves as racism-free” for example having a multiracial work environment, living in a “diverse” community, or maintaining non-white relationships, reminding us that just because you and your black friend don’t talk about racism, that “does not mean it isn’t at play”.
That the United States is deeply shaped by racial segregation is undeniable – indeed, as DiAngelo writes, it is observable from birth: “The very context in which I entered the world was organised hierarchically by race,” she comments, noting the likelihood that those who cleaned her mother’s homogeneously white maternity ward were people of colour. “Bewildering manifestations of anti-blackness” across society are laid bare: from the compassion shown towards white people addicted to opiates compared with the mandatory sentencing of black crack users, to problematic racial narratives in Hollywood films, and enduring white resentment against mythic “welfare queens”, affirmative action schemes, NFL stars taking the knee and Black Lives Matter (the objection being that “all lives matter”).
White Fragility is a clear-sighted, methodical guide seeking to help readers “navigate the roiling racial waters of daily life”, though stops short of prescribing any concrete solutions. Instead, DiAngelo proffers useful, if rather curt, advice on what not to do: don’t depend on people of colour for racial education; refrain from crying over racism as tears are “impotent reflexes that don’t lead to constructive action”; men, stop playing devil’s advocate or offering simplistic proclamations of “the answer” to racism. The author’s overarching aim is not for her readers to feel guilty about their white identity. Rather it is to encourage them to understand that there will be no change if they are just “really nice… smile at people of colour… go to lunch together on occasion”. “Niceness” achieves nothing, she argues. “Interrupting racism takes courage.”
K Biswas is a critic and co-chair of the Race Beat, a new network for people of colour in the media
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism
Penguin, 192pp, £9.99