"There are only two ways of telling the complete truth—anonymously and posthumously."Thomas Sowell

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

White Fragility reconsidered

In her article White Fragility[1] Robin DiAngelo uses the term habitus to describe the context that white people reside inhabit that explains their racism. She argues that whites are racists by default. In her work, she wants them to recognize they are racists and that they perpetuate a racist culture. Until they recognise they are racists they cannot address racism within the United States of America.

Whiteness scholars define racism as encompassing economic, political, social, and cultural structures, actions, and beliefs that systematize and perpetuate an unequal distribution of privileges, resources and power between white people and people of color (Hilliard, 1992). This unequal distribution benefits whites and disadvantages people of color overall and as a group. Racism is not fluid in the U.S.; it does not flow back and forth, one day benefiting whites and another day (or even era) benefiting people of color. The direction of power between whites and people of color is historic, traditional, normalized, and deeply embedded in the fabric of U.S. society (Mills, 1999; Feagin, 2006).[2]

In particular, she wants to change whites’ habitus so they will understand they are racists as the first step to change America's racist society which exists by default and design. Her approach has three difficulties. The first is how a white person demonstrates they are no longer a racist since they cannot prove they have stopped being a racist. They remain racists as long as someone considers them a racist. 

Since all individuals who live within a racist system are enmeshed in its relations, this means that all are responsible for either perpetuating or transforming that system. However, although all individuals play a role in keeping the system active, the responsibility for change is not equally shared. White racism is ultimately a white problem and the burden for interrupting it belongs to white people.[3]

Even if they do not display any racist behaviour or support any racist ideology, they are racists by default. By this standard, a white person is unable to be anything but a racist for as long as they live. As long as someone says they are racist, no matter how unreasonable the claim, they are a racist since there is no objective standard by which to determine someone is or is not a racist. The accused cannot demonstrate any behaviour in the public domain, such as obeying the law or applying the law equally, that would allow them to defend themselves against the charge. In effect, the idea of political equality, which is necessary for the American community to survive, no longer exists. There are only supremacists and those that resist supremacists. In a strange reversal, a white person can only be cleared of being a supremacist if no one considers them to be a supremacist. 

The second problem is that the habitus is a totalitarian concept. The desire to change habitus is not to change the political context, it is to change the person. 

As such, habitus only exists in, through and because of the practices of actors and their interaction with each other and with the rest of their environment.[4]

The habitus, according to DiAngelo, is the individual’s creation as they interact with others. How whites' behaviour, their practices, create the white fragility. The white supremacist position is also one of fragility. However, leaving aside that inherent contradiction, the most powerful all-embracing ideology—the one that sets the whole moral, social, political context for every person and all institutions---is the most fragile, we have the problem of what is required to change the habitus.[5]

As Omar Lizardo explains that to change the habitus means to reject the person. The individual is rejected entirely and a new one created.

Insofar as the habitus encompasses that which is most essentially a person's self, any rejection or transformation of the things that we do as second nature is in effect a rejection or a transformation of what a person “is" in the most fundamental sense.[6]

DiAngelo, like all totalitarians, will destroy the individual to remake them according the ideal standard. The individual, in this case every American who cannot demonstrate that they are not a racist, must be rejected and changed. 

Since all individuals who live within a racist system are enmeshed in its relations, this means that all are responsible for either perpetuating or transforming that system.[7]

Following from DiAngelo's argument, human nature, and by extension the political community, is completely malleable, without an intrinsic nature that is beyond manipulation. The person and community will be remade to meet DiAngelo's vision of racial justice as defined by the arbitrary opinion of someone’s feelings. No one else is to go through such a change. Society will not change; it is not enough to create equality before the law as the measure of success. Until all whites admit they are racists, reject who and what they were, they cannot be transformed into non-racists. They can only make this journey if they develop the racial stamina needed to discuss their racism and accept that they are white supremacists. 

So-called progressive whites may not respond with anger, but may still insulate themselves via claims that they are beyond the need for engaging with the content because they “already had a class on this” or “already know this.” These reactions are often seen in anti-racist education endeavors as forms of resistance to the challenge of internalized dominance (Whitehead & Wittig, 2005; Horton & Scott, 2004; McGowan, 2000, O’Donnell, 1998). These reactions do indeed function as resistance, but it may be useful to also conceptualize them as the result of the reduced psychosocial stamina that racial insulation inculcates. I call this lack of racial stamina,“White Fragility". [8][emphasis added]

In the above, we are reminded of Marx-influenced "false consciousness" theories. The whites have a false consciousness about political equality for the equality they propose is simply supremacy. DiAngelo knows this, because whites lack the racial stamina to admit and discuss their white supremacy. The more they deny that they are racists the more they show they need their habitus change.  Like previous totalitarian regimes the individual’s intrinsic nature must be changed or manipulated until it serves the historical process. In this case, the historical process is racial equality as determined by the arbitrary opinion of any person of colour. So long as someone believes there are racists, there are racists. In effect, racism or anti-racism become the religion if not the god that determines how we are to live. We are to be remade until we fit that religion. More importantly, there is no idols like political equality, natural rights, wisdom that can be put before this jealous god who will determine the right way to live. All behaviour will be judged by the god of anti-racism.

The third problem is in DiAngelo’s terms—she relies on terms that are from discredited eugenics thinking. The term "racial stamina" was used by eugenicists in the 1930s. The Japanese eugenicist Pan Guangdan said Han Chinese lacked racial stamina and the forced migration from the Japanese invasion would improve it.[9] . These beliefs justified the Japanese cruelty against the Chinese. The Japanese engaged in barbarity that ranged from brutal torture to mass murder. Chinese inferiority was “confirmed”  by eugenicist theories so as to justify any act against them. Totalitarian regimes rely on eugenicist beliefs because they want to control the individual completely so even their genetic structure can be manipulated to fit the state's design. The individual has no identity, no intrinsic worth, beyond what the state gives them. The regime will tell them what to think and to think otherwise will be punished. Nazi Germany was not interested in changing people they simply exterminated people for racial inferiority. 

Another eugenicist, Margaret Sanger, spoke of the racial stamina in her Plan for Peace. She explained that immigration must be kept limited lest it dilute the racial "stamina."

c. to keep the doors of immigration closed to the entrance of certain aliens whose condition is known to be detrimental to the stamina of the race, such as feebleminded, idiots, morons, insane, syphilitic, epileptic, criminal, professional prostitutes, and others in this class barred by the immigration laws of 1924.[10]

Do we want to promote such ideas? Is this really what we want when we talk of racial equality in America? We will purify the American race of any racist thought, behaviour, or genetic basis?
What is problematic for DiAngelo’s work is that it can be applied to any group. She wants to use it on Whites, yet it could apply to any ethnic group should they happen to display racist behaviours or beliefs. There is no reason, within DiAngelo’s work why racial stamina could not be used to require blacks to be re-educated or Jews, or any ethnic minority that does not conform to what the majority demand. In her vision, the minority only exists by what the majority decides. Any group will be re-educated about their racist thoughts and beliefs. In this she wants to destroy their habitus for she knows what the correct habitus must be. Yet, that correct habitus is based on the arbitrary decision of a group. There is no objective or reasonable standard for that group except the opinion that someone is a racist. We have already seen this approach and it ends with genocide. The Khmer Rouge used the same approach. They murdered their political opponents because they refused to accept and admit their thinking and beliefs were counter-revolutionary. 

In an effort to create a society without competition, in which people worked for the common good, the Khmer Rouge placed people in collective living arrangements — or communes — and enacted “re-education” programs to encourage the commune lifestyle. People were divided into categories that reflected the trust that the Khmer Rouge had for them; the most trustworthy were called “old citizens.” The pro-West and city dwellers began as “new citizens” and could move up to “deportees,” then “candidates” and finally “full rights citizens”; however, most citizens never moved up. Those who refused re-education were killed in the fields surrounding the commune or at the infamous prison camp Tuol Sleng Centre, known as S-21. Over four years, the Khmer Rouge killed more than 1.7 million people through work, starvation and torture.[11]

The victims had no way to prove they were innocent for the Khmer Rouge alone would decide who had the correct beliefs. No one had an objective or reasonable standard to decide. Unlike the United States, the Khmer Rouge did not believe that everyone was equal before the law. Only those with the correct ideology, those with the appropriate racial stamina, would avoid re-education. The totalitarian beliefs about the lack “racial stamina” ended with genocide. Yet, DiAngelo seems unaware of the term’s origins. If she is unaware of the historical context for her term “racial stamina” it betrays poor scholarship. If she is aware of the term, it suggests that she is comfortable with genocidal practices that follow from genocidal beliefs created by eugenicist theories.

In her quest to create racial equality, DiAngelo would become a supremacist. She has the truth of racial equality, defined arbitrarily, and she will impose it. To resist her is to demonstrate a racist ideology and betrays white supremacist thinking. In this light, we have to question those who support this thinking and promote her work as explaining American politics: To quote her work uncritically suggests a dangerous superficiality of thought.

We can see Jamelle Bouie is Slate’s chief political correspondent quote DiAngelo approvingly and uncritically.[12] Bouie's superficiality is not surprising since he would find anything that fits his narrative appropriate. When the only criteria for success is conformity to the prevailing ideology and not the truth, then any idea, even one that suggests a totalitarian genocide, would be acceptable. What is only surprising is that those who benefit from America’s founding in equality, the great experiment in self-government, would betray it so that they could impose their arbitrary “equality” on those that refuse to accept that they are racists for they still believe in the idea of political equality.

[1] http://libjournal.uncg.edu/ijcp/article/viewFile/249/116 International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol 3 (3) (2011) pp 54-70
[2] P56

[3] DiAngelo p. 66
[4] DiAngelo p.58 in this work she relies on Bourdieu, P. (1993). The Field of Cultural Production. New York: Columbia University Press
[5] What DiAngelo never explores is why the supposedly all embracing racist practices are unstable. If everyone is born, bred, and educated into these practices it seems strange they would ever be questioned. Yet, the American founding is exactly that something that challenges these believes. The same Americans who argued that some men were not born booted and spurred to ride others by the grace of God were the same ones who promoted the idea of political equality as a founding principle. https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/jefferson/214.html one would be excused from believing that such ideas and thoughts simply did not exist or permeate the American experience based on DiAngelo’s work.
[7] DiAngelo p.66
[8] DiAngelo p.56
[10]  (A Plan for Peace, Margaret Sanger) was published in Birth Control Review (April 1932, pp. 107-108): A Plan for Peace by MARGARET SANGER  http://www.spectacle.org/997/richmond.html


Tom Van Dyke said...

Whiteness scholars

We call it Western Civilization. It's why you're reading this. On a computer.

D. said...

I've stopped listening to what a communist says. I watch what they do.