Not All White People Are Racist

With the concept of “white fragility,” Robin DiAngelo, who earned a Ph.D. in Multicultural Education from the University of Washington in Seattle and tenure at Westfield State University in Massachusetts, claims that all white people are racist, that they all enjoy white privilege, but only some of them can admit it. She is one of them. Her expertise is “Whiteness Studies.” She also works as an anti-racist consultant and diversity trainer.

“I grew up poor and white,” she writes. “While my class oppression has been relatively visible to me, my race privilege has not.  In my efforts to uncover how race has shaped my life, I have gained deeper insight by placing race in the center of my analysis…. I now make the distinction that I grew up poor and white, for my experience of poverty would have been different had I not been white.” How could she possibility know this having always been white?

In 2015, Robin DiAngelo told a radio audience, “Racism comes out of our pores as white people. It’s the way that we are.” Believing she possesses an extraordinary capacity to harm nonwhites because she is, as a white woman, intrinsically racist, she said of her antiracist work, “I’m really confident that I do less damage to people of color than I used to do.” (See “Why all white people are racist, but can’t handle being called racist the theory of white fragility.”) It seems her argument is actually about “black fragility.”

Sociologists have defined racism in two ways. The first defines the phenomenon as a typology sorting humanity into subpopulations based on phenotypic attributes (for example skin color), as well as ancestry, and arranging these types hierarchically into superior and inferior types. Membership in these subpopulations determines the ability and disposition of those identified as such, traits assumed to be present in all members of racial groupings. As such, racism is an ideology motivating or justifying unequal treatment along these line, either advantaging or disadvantaging groups. Physical anthropologists and geneticists agree that such sorting of humans into racial groups is fallacious; however, racism is a ideological power that uses the typology to predefine social groups according to a scheme that establishes dominate and subordinate groups and justifies law and policy perpetrating this hierarchy.

The second way defines racism as systematic race-based discrimination resulting from institutional arrangements or structural power. Here the absence of conscious racism does not prevent the ordering of society along historically defined racial groups. In this view, groups that do not have the power to impose race prejudice or what would be prejudice if recognized, cannot be racist. Blacks cannot be racist towards whites, for example, since they lack the power to impose their prejudices on the white population.

According to the first definition, a racist would be a person who subscribed to racist or racialist ideology. It might be said (as antiracist activist Tim Wise asserts) that socialization in a culture where the notion of racial inferiority is endemic or ubiquitous exists implicitly in ordinary consciousness. This would need to be supported by evidence, which is lacking. And if one can find any exceptions, then the claim that racism oozes from the pores of white people is false. The same could be said for Christianity, but it would not make everybody Christian. A racist is somebody who accepts the doctrine of racial inferiority. It is simply not true that all or even most white people accept this doctrine.

Tim Wise, antiracist activist who believes all whites are racist by conditioning.

Following the logic of the second definition, a white person who does not have the power to impose his race prejudice on black people is not a racist. A working class white man may be prejudiced against blacks, but if he does not organize with others to discriminate against them, then he does not possesses or does not exercise power to impose his prejudice. In the absence of legal machinery or political organization that imposes race prejudice, there is no mechanism for mobilizing white racial power in this way. Indeed, the entire legal and political apparatus of the United States is mobilized against the imposition of race prejudice against whites. The concepts of institutional and structural racism are deeply problematic abstractions.

Finally, there are non-prejudiced/non-discriminators, that is those who neither subscribe to racist doctrine nor treat people different on the basis of race. So even trying to get people both ways by accepting both definitions doesn’t make the claim “all white people are racist true. If you need an example, I present myself. And if you say I’m in denial or suffer from “white fragility,” then you will have simply committed a logical fallacy, that is the fallacy of the self-sealing argument. It’s like the claim that all behavior is selfish. It’s vacuous argument, which is to say it is not an argument at all, but an assertion.

And it’s a self-loathing assertion, one that reflects a need to signal virtue by confessing sin. The psychology behind this phenomenon is the esteem one derives from redemption-seeking. It’s a performative act, one that compels the sinner to convert others to his point of view. Wise and DiAngelo are, in effect, evangelicals who have “seen the light.” Everyone is a sinner and they’re on a self-righteous crusade to steer sinners from the path of transgression so that they, too, can enjoy the elation of redemption. One sees this psychology in the “coming out of [fill in the blank]” personal story. The narrative is a public act of consciousness-altering the subject hopes elevates his status. Indeed, it is what we call in anthropology and sociology a status elevation ceremony. It’s like baptism. Folks love their baptism stories. And, like baptism, it doesn’t really change anything. But it feels so good.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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