DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” article was, in a sense, an epistemological exercise. It examined white not-knowing. When it was published in 2011 in The International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, it reached the publication’s niche audience. But three years later it was quoted in Seattle’s alternative newspaper The Stranger, during a fierce debate — with white defensiveness on full view — about the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s casting of white actors as Asians in a production of “The Mikado.” “That changed my life,” she said. The phrase “white fragility” went viral, and requests to speak started to soar; she expanded the article into a book and during the year preceding Covid-19 gave eight to 10 presentations a month, sometimes pro bono but mostly at up to $15,000 per event.
The language she coined caught on just weeks before Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, and just as Black Lives Matter gained momentum. White liberals were growing more determined to be allies in the cause of racial justice — or at least, as DiAngelo always cautions, to look and feel like allies: She has only tenuous faith that white people, whatever their politics, are genuinely willing to surrender their racialized rungs on society’s ladders. And then Trump’s election stoked white liberals into an even more heightened “receptivity,” she said, to the critique of their failings that she laid out in her book and workshops. Institutions, too, began to be desperate to prove good intentions. For almost everyone, she assumes, there is a mingling of motives, a wish for easy affirmation (“they can say they heard Robin DiAngelo speak”) and a measure of moral hunger.
Last September, I joined a two-day workshop, run by Singleton’s Courageous Conversation, for teachers, staff and administrators from four Connecticut school districts. From the front of a hotel conference room in Hartford, Marcus Moore, a Courageous Conversation trainer, said that his mother is a white woman from Germany, that his biological father was a Black man from Jamaica and that he identifies as Black. (The father who raised him, he let me know later, was a Black former sharecropper from Mississippi.) He projected a sequence of slides showing the persistence and degree of the academic achievement gap between Black and white students throughout the country, and asked us, at our racially mixed tables, to discuss the reasons behind these bar graphs.
At my table, Malik Pemberton, a Black racial-equity coach at a middle school, who had been a teenage father, wanted to talk, he said in the softest of voices, about “accountability,” about how “it starts inside the household in terms of how the child is going to interpret and value education,” about what can happen in schools “without consequences, where they can’t suspend.” He wasn’t suggesting this line of thought as the only explanation but as something to grapple with. One of Courageous Conversation’s “affiliate trainers,” stationed at the table, immediately rerouted the conversation, and minutes later Moore drew all eyes back to him and pronounced, “The cause of racial disparities is racism. If I show you data that’s about race, we need to be talking about racism. Don’t get caught up in detours.” He wasn’t referring to racism’s legacy. He meant that current systemic racism is the explanation for devastating differences in learning, that the prevailing white culture will not permit Black kids to succeed in school.
The theme of what white culture does not allow, of white society’s not only supreme but also almost-absolute power, is common to today’s antiracism teaching and runs throughout Singleton’s and DiAngelo’s programs. One of the varied ways DiAngelo imparts the lesson is through the story of Jackie Robinson. She tells her audiences — whether in person or, now, online — to alter the language of the narrative about the Brooklyn Dodgers star. Rather than “he broke through the color line,” a phrase that highlights Robinson’s triumph, we should say, “Jackie Robinson, the first Black man whites allowed to play major-league baseball.” Robinson fades, agency ablated; whiteness occupies the forefront.
Running slightly beneath or openly on the surface of DiAngelo’s and Singleton’s teaching is a set of related ideas about the essence and elements of white culture. For DiAngelo, the elements include the “ideology of individualism,” which insists that meritocracy is mostly real, that hard work and talent will be justly rewarded. White culture, for her, is all about habits of oppressive thought that are taken for granted and rarely perceived, let alone questioned. One “unnamed logic of Whiteness,” she wrote with her frequent co-author, the education professor Ozlem Sensoy, in a 2017 paper published in The Harvard Educational Review, “is the presumed neutrality of White European Enlightenment epistemology.” The paper is an attempt to persuade universities that if they want to diversify their faculties, they should put less weight on conventional hiring criteria. The modern university, it says, “with its ‘experts’ and its privileging of particular forms of knowledge over others (e.g., written over oral, history over memory, rationalism over wisdom)” has “validated and elevated positivistic, White Eurocentric knowledge over non-White, Indigenous and non-European knowledges.” Such academic prose isn’t the language of DiAngelo’s workshops or book, but the idea of a society rigged at its intellectual core underpins her lessons.
Singleton, who holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford, and who did stints in advertising and college admissions before founding what’s now known as Courageous Conversation in 1992, talks about white culture in similar ways. There is the myth of meritocracy. And valuing “written communication over other forms,” he told me, is “a hallmark of whiteness,” which leads to the denigration of Black children in school. Another “hallmark” is “scientific, linear thinking. Cause and effect.” He said, “There’s this whole group of people who are named the scientists. That’s where you get into this whole idea that if it’s not codified in scientific thought that it can’t be valid.” He spoke about how the ancient Egyptians had “ideas about how humanity works that never had that scientific-hypothesis construction” and so aren’t recognized. “This is a good way of dismissing people. And this,” he continued, shifting forward thousands of years, “is one of the challenges in the diversity-equity-inclusion space; folks keep asking for data. How do you quantify, in a way that is scientific — numbers and that kind of thing — what people feel when they’re feeling marginalized?” For Singleton, society’s primary intellectual values are bound up with this marginalization.