DiAngelo on White Privilege

Someone recommended to me a 2017 talk by Robin DiAngelo on “white privilege.” She begins with some good points about how many white people make light of racism through dismissive language. She especially doesn’t like the phrase, “I don’t care if people are white, black, pink, purple, or polka-dotted.” People don’t really come in those other colors, she says, so such languages ignores the very real history of racial tensions. Okay, point taken.

I’m leery of her insistence of the universality of “implicit bias.” The evidentiary standards for demonstrating that someone has such bias seem to be on par with the evidentiary standards of convicting witches (an analogy others have used). “The fact that you loudly proclaim that you are not a witch only demonstrates that you are one.” I’m not claiming that there is no such thing as implicit (unconscious) bias. I’m just saying that, if there’s literally nothing that one could even conceivably say or point to to show that implicit bias is not at work in a given case, that’s a problem. So I think the right approach here is, “Let’s dig into the evidence for implicit bias and see where it is actually at work, not begin the discussion by assuming it is omnipresent.”

Just a quick note here about objectivity: DiAngelo claims that no one is objective due to their biases. But that’s just the wrong way to think about objectivity. It is either the case—that is, an objective fact—that someone is affected by some bias at some time, or it is not the case. To reject objectivity is to dismiss all of one’s own claims as unreliably subjective. Objectivity, properly understood, does not mean assuming an unreal person with no biases. It means (in part) understanding what biases are so that we can work to overcome them.

DiAngelo also rejects “individualism” on the grounds that it assumes a person is “unique and outside of socialization.” But that’s not what individualism means. It is true that each person is unique—even identical twins are very different in myriad details—so DiAngelo is mispackaging her concepts. But obviously it is not true that anyone is outside of socialization. No one thinks that, and individualism properly understood embraces the fact. What individualism means is that each person matters, each person has moral worth, each person has unique thoughts and goals and values.

DiAngelo does not outright dismiss universalism—the idea that we “are all one” in some important sense—but she claims it doesn’t reflect the reality in which we live. Again she misunderstands the concept. Universalism in this sense does not imply that everyone is the same or has the same experiences. It means that, in certain important ways, we are all alike. We are all human beings. We all deserve to be treated with basic respect by our fellows and with fairness and equality under the law. It is simultaneously true that we are all unique individuals in important ways and all alike in important ways. A universalist (properly understood) anticipates a truly post-racial world, in which a person’s skin color simply does not matter, any more than a person’s hair color or height matters (aside from highly specialized contexts, such as certain gene-specific medical issues). There is a huge difference between the position, “Race matters, it is fundamental, and it will always matter,” and the position, “Race matters now for historical reasons, and we should strive for a world in which it doesn’t matter.” That second position is both the proper individualist and universalist aim.

DiAngelo sees “racism as the very fabric of our society.” I think that’s a serious overstatement. I fear that DiAngelo is reinforcing tribalistic thinking, when our aim should be to overcome it.

DiAngelo discusses the problems with the schools. I agree, the government-run school system is a disaster, especially for minorities (although some students do well in them). We all know that wealthier people tend to buy pricey houses as a way to get their kids into good schools, a process that often excludes the less-wealthy. “Privilege” is fundamentally a legal concept, and the laws around schooling do privilege some people over others (which is to say, disadvantage some people more than others), no doubt. But DiAngelo’s claim that all discussion of “good schools” and “bad schools” is racial coding is just ludicrous. Some schools are, by any objective measure you care to check, better than others. It is not racist for parents (of any color) to want to send their students to better schools.

DiAngelo makes the same claim regarding talk of “good” and “bad” neighborhoods. But some neighborhoods, objectively, have higher crime than others. No rational person would, other things equal, choose to live in a higher-crime neighborhood over a lower-crime neighborhood. There’s nothing racist about that. Now, of course, we can and should talk about why some neighborhoods have radically higher crime than others. Here, too, I largely blame horrible government policies, starting with the drug war and the mass-incarceration disproportionately of minority people. So, yes, we can and should talk about what is keeping some neighborhoods trapped in crime and poverty. But it is not racist not to want to live in a poor, high-crime neighborhood. Indeed, from what I see, parents who live in such neighborhoods typically want their children to grow up and leave them. Are those parents “racist” too?

My main concern about DiAngelo’s treatment of “white privilege” is the vagueness of it. Let’s talk specifics! Let’s talk about how the drug war damages neighborhoods, finances violent gangs, and drives the mass-incarceration (largely) of black men. Let’s talk about the laws that often make police unaccountable for their abuses of power. Let’s talk about how the teachers’ unions entrench today’s government schools that so often fail minority students. Let’s talk about how zoning laws often create enclaves for the wealthy white. Let’s talk about how the restrictive immigration laws horribly harm many people born outside (and inside) the country. And so on. DiAngelo’s emphasis seems to be on convincing “white” people that they’re racists. I think the proper emphasis is on figuring out what, specifically, is wrong with our society at an institutional level, and working to fix those problems. Convincing everyone they’re racist fixes nothing (and isn’t true). Convincing people that certain institutions are flawed and can be fixed in specific ways offers a path to actually improving people’s lives, whatever their color.

DiAngelo ends with a great point that white people should strive not to be defensive if accused of doing something racist. Sometimes that criticism is well-founded. My worry is about accusations not based in fact. Again, someone accused of witchcraft, back when people were murdered for being “witches,” probably reacted defensively when accused of witchcraft. If we start with the presumption that all accusations along a certain line are true, we set ourselves up for the sort of social-media mob “justice” and “cancel culture” we are now seeing all around us. Some people obviously are racist. Some people explicitly tell us they are, and some people (Donald Trump) repeatedly say and do racist things. But when we’re talking about things like “micro-aggressions” and relatively minor sleights, I think the way to go is to argue, “I think this particular expression or action is racist, here’s why, and here’s the harm it does.” That’s well and good. Obviously racism is not like witchcraft in that racism actually exists and some people actually are racists and say and do racist things.

Although I take issue with a number of things that DiAngelo says, her talk is well worth watching, not only to better-understand her position, but as a spur to think more seriously about how racism continues to plague our society a century and a half after the abolition of slavery.

Incidentally, DiAngelo also has a longer 2018 talk about “white fragility.”

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