Debunking the Debunker

The racist, determinist, and anti-individualist mythology behind Robin DiAngelo’s “most common myths white people believe about race”

Robin DiAngelo has suddenly gotten very well-known and much wealthier because of her tapping by cultural and educational elites as one of the “experts” on white racism and concomitant non-white suffering. The university at which I am employed lists her “groundbreaking” book White Fragility on its page of antiracism resources. All of us, we are told, would do well to consult her writings or, better still, to hire her to come preach to us face-to-face on our college campus. Her knowledge does not come cheap. An hour-long keynote address will run you in the vicinity of $30,000, a half-day antiracist retreat upward of $40,000.

I have not had the opportunity to attend one of these enlightening events, but I did indeed find it instructional to go through a brief video DiAngelo did for NBC News in which she succinctly “debunk[s] the most common myths white people believe about race.” What I discovered is that the real mythology has more to do with the questionable and often straightforwardly untrue things DiAngelo believes than about what she imagines “white people” do.

She begins with a dogmatic statement, axiomatically true for her: “To be white is to be raised to be functionally illiterate on race…to see oneself as outside of race, exempt from the forces of socialization.”

What could it mean to be “illiterate on race”? That whites cannot ably use race as an imperfect but perfectly functional way of categorizing people according to phenotypical characteristics and familial descent? I have never met a person of any race illiterate in this way. Do whites think they are “outside of race”? If white people exist who believe that only other people can be fit into a racial identity box and that whites magically levitate somewhere outside the categories, I have yet to run into any of them. Do whites believe they are “exempt from the forces of socialization”? Again, in my more than a half-century on the planet, I am still waiting to discover my first white person who doubts that he has been shaped significantly by his family, his community, and his experiences, just like any non-white person.

With each of these claims, it turns out, DiAngelo is not offering any useful commentary on whether or not whites have accurate beliefs about how racial categorization and identity work in societies like ours. She is simply lamenting what she considers the unfortunate fact that there exist at least some white people who do not share her ideas on race and how it works.

Her racial “literacy” consists, at bottom, in the belief that racial hierarchies can be overcome and individuals freed from the imposition of racial categories only by…accepting a racial hierarchy and our inevitable, determined place in it. Her distress at the fact that not all whites accept this view leads her to invent a fictional “white person” who does not exist, a person ignorant of basic realities of the world, so that she may beat up this effigy with her morally self-righteous posturing.

[Related: “A Visit to the Woke Bookstore”]

It would be easier to understand DiAngelo if she simply said what she means: “it’s utterly maddening that there are still people who don’t share my views on this topic.”

Now, what of her “myths”?

The first one is “I don’t see color.” For DiAngelo, this translates to “I refuse to acknowledge your reality.” “Acknowledging the reality” of Woke people with extravagant and frequently fictional grievance claims unrelated to their actual lives is an important element of the everyday goings-on in Woke circles. As a member of the Woke cult, you are required to accept the claims of victimization made to you by non-white persons—ultimately, that all or nearly all the negative things that have happened to them during their lives are the fault of white racism—or you are a racist.

This conveniently puts the claim about the grievances outside of the realm of argument and evidence. None is necessary. The claim must be accepted. QED.

But what if the “reality” of the aggrieved victim is mostly or entirely fictional, unconnected to any empirically demonstrable causes that have kept that person down? What if the “reality” of those who are not where they want to be is, at least in some cases, largely about their failure to have put in the work to get where they think they ought to be? I am told to accept your “reality,” but you have no burden to prove that your “reality” is based in something beyond your Woke ideology. This is irrational.

It turns out that “I don’t see color” is in fact the best practical mechanism for engaging with people one does not know. Assume they are a person without any group characteristics worthy of note, at least preliminary of evidence to the contrary, and treat them as you would anyone else. Social life would be much easier if more people did this.

What DiAngelo wants, however, is a world dominated by racial presumptions. If a white person meets a black person she doesn’t know, she should assume that this black person is a victim suffering under the burdens of monstrous oppression. Moreover, she must accept that she—the white person—is a significant part of the cause of the black person’s suffering, even though the two of them have never previously met. The black person in turn should assume that the white person is a recipient of unearned privilege and that any status she has attained is due not to her talents but to that unearned privilege.

In other words, we’re to begin our relationships with strangers by placing them in prefabricated and hyper-simplistic moral categories. What a recipe for unproductive and conflict-laden interaction. And how is this different from the way racists see the world, other than the flipping of the prefabricated moral categories?

Myth #2 is “I have black friends,” and therefore, I cannot be racist. DiAngelo thinks she disproves this by noting that racists are perfectly capable of being “in proximity” to blacks. Her response inadvertently reveals something that the people she calls her friends will be interested to know. Being someone’s friend is not at all the same thing as just being in the proximity of someone. You are in the proximity of people who you do not know and who therefore, by definition, cannot be your friends every day that you go outside your home to public places.

Having a black friend is not at all comparable to merely being in the same building as black people. One hopes that DiAngelo knows this. If she doesn’t, she is admitting that her friends are merely people around whom she spends some time and that she fails to distinguish them from strangers on the metro, people at the next table at the restaurant, or the guy that she sees in the office cafeteria a few times a week.

DiAngelo bluntly claims that “you cannot talk about any issue without talking about how race informs that issue.” Really? How about math? Or the structure of the atom? Or the beauty of the natural world? Or the joy of watching children play? Or the fear we all have of death? Or our desire to know why we are here and where we are ultimately headed? How does race usefully inform and transform these topics?

[Related: “On the Death Penalty, Race, Elite Opinion, and the New Social Desirability Bias”]

Myth #3 is “It’s not about race, but class.” In DiAngelo’s crisp denunciation of this claim, she asserts that “talking about class is a way to get race off the table.” Why? Does she imagine it is non-relevant to the life experiences of two people—and the relevant amounts of suffering they are likely to endure based on those experiences—if one is born the child of Barack and Michelle Obama and the other is born to a white single mother on welfare in Appalachia? An accurate translation of DiAngelo’s statement would be something like “taking class off the table is a way to keep my simplistic, reality-distorting racial binary neatly intact.”

Myth #4 is ”Focusing on race is what divides us.” We’re already divided by race, DiAngelo claims, and it’s refusing to grapple with “how race shapes virtually everything” that keeps us apart. Did you catch that? The secret to undoing racial division is to accept the view that everything we can imagine is a product of racism and the racial system, that all people are inexorably members of racial groups in a perfectly determined hierarchy and nothing we might try to do to escape that destiny can possibly succeed. Our only hope of freedom is to accept the eternal, inescapable trap in which we find ourselves. Up is Down, Good is Bad, and Freedom is Total Determinism by The Structure.

DiAngelo concludes the video with a reiteration of her confused view on freedom and individualism. No white person can say “I’m not racist,” according to her system. We cannot even hedge with “If I’m racist. . .” The correct way for whites to engage the topic is by asking the following questions: “How have I been shaped by the forces of racism? How is it manifesting in my life?” DiAngelo declares that “none of us can be exempt from [racism’s] forces” because it  “circulates 24/7/365.” Amid this total determinism, astonishingly, DiAngelo states: “This is where individualism can come in [!]. I have a particular story, but that story didn’t exempt me. How did all the things I see as unique about me set me up into the overall racist structure? Because it did.” “Individualism,” under DiAngelo’s view, means recognizing that my individual identity is a fully determined consequence of my necessary position in a racist structure.

Of course, that’s not individualism. Quite the opposite. It’s determinism by racial identity. And where have we heard that idea before? In the simplistic racism that DiAngelo somehow thinks she is opposing but is in fact carefully shadowing.

If you are disturbed by the fact that this person with this risibly wrong worldview is spreading her fallacies to untold numbers of young people on campuses around the country, here’s something more optimistic to consider.

YouTube recently changed its policy on tallying dislikes so that only the creator of videos can see the total. Thus, you cannot see how many dislikes this video has gotten, though a glance at the comments section indicates the imbalance is in the direction of dislikes.

Why did YouTube make this change? Here they explain. They claim “groups of people” were just clicking the dislike button to express their dislike for “the creator and what they stand for.” But what if some of those people just think the ideas aren’t any good? And why would positive votes not be hidden for the same reason? How many of those who clicked “like” on this video didn’t even watch it and just liked the general idea of bashing white people? Many, undoubtedly. The comments on this video prove that there is still hope in America, because clearly many people are not having any of Robin DiAngelo’s nonsense.

And nonsense it is. This is not only a misguided ideological position. It is fantastically, laughably incompatible with reality. The fact that elite educational and media circles are trying to foist this breathtaking, malevolent stupidity on the rest of us reflects how poorly they think of us.


Image: JasonPToews, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Alexander Riley

Alexander Riley is professor of sociology at Bucknell University and a senior fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization. His writing can be found at https://alexanderriley.substack.com/.

12 thoughts on “Debunking the Debunker

  1. The author did a great job at interrogating one of the great “academic” frauds of our time. Robin DiAngelo is one of those self-righteous charlatans that enriches herself via the gullible, using race as a wedge issue. She has absolutely zero credibility.

  2. Well, a quick and easy and even lazy answer might be the collective memory of such a things as a Third Reich. That is one hell of a deterrent. Encouraging a pendulum swing way over in the opposite direction.
    Less useful but still having a bit of traction in the matter, is that long history of colonialism – the White Man’s burden, don’t you know.
    Moving straight on and into collectivized wealth (some but not all, the product of the aforementioned colonial adventures).
    But more to the point: if the vast majority of these societies had to struggle in various conditions of 3rd world manner, then there would be a whole lot less time and opportunity to stand before that hall of mirrors looking anxiously for flaws and blemishes that parade on into the future.
    It is a peculiar thing all right. That as racism subsides, descends, weakens, all due to what is obviously some kind of social evolution in these western and European societies, whatever is left of it is now declared as a thing never before so malicious, delicious, precocious and atrocious, deplorable and adorable, and beyond the vernacular of mere rhymes.
    Wise persons everywhere, and of all colors and stripes, know that it is not the racism itself that is measurably accountable for the upheaval in these countries. It is the incredible vulnerability to its indictment. Much as a ringing fire alarm in some slumlord apartment building still has to summon a fire department, even though the alarm itself is known beforehand to be a false one. A prank.
    These weaknesses and pathologies have been quietly fossilizing themselves like peat moss beneath the surface for enough time to now actually be incendiary. It never was a good idea to be ashamed of one’s culture, without having the means to sort through and dispense of the chaff, while keeping the wheat. Otherwise, we starve.

    1. Do not forget that the American Eugenics movement of a century ago was the intellectual underpinning of the National Socialists concept of racial purity.

      As to false fire alarms, the University of Maine at Machias lost most of its library in the 1980s because there has been so many false fire alarms that the fire department responded quite nonchalantly to what happened to be a working fire and it was too late to save much when they finally arrived.

      What scares me is that if everything is racism, nothing is racism and actual racism will be ignored. Just like the actual fire alarm was ignored.

  3. Much like a Henry Ford, or a Bill Gates, or a Steve Jobs, or a Thomas Edison – racism has become a bundle of raw materials to process, better than spuds or cheese. A nickel’s worth becomes a dollar of profit. And so on.
    The aforementioned entrepreneurs launched their empires and gave us all something useful, at least.
    DiAngelo is as fascinating as a roiling nest of speckled bands. (Read Arthur Conan Doyle). Best viewed from a safe and comfortable distance. I cannot quite remember another book that so many have taken upon themselves the trouble to ‘unpack’, disassemble, analyze and otherwise pick apart, whose autopsy is performed in order that we may all examine the corpse.
    Fascination, no less, with the fact that the damned thing has sold like hot cakes. As if its advent were foretold in scripture, much less lecture. A kind of Mein Kampf for the 21st Century. Sort of.
    I must admit, she lost me right there with the idea that heads mean she wins, and tails mean I lose. I expect that from a 5 year-old schoolyard bully. But a self-professed intellectualized goddess of gloom, not so much.

    But as an historian, and having studied much, and wallowed in obsessive focus on eyewitness accounts of massive dysphoric meltdowns such as the quivering mess of Maoist China, for example, there are curious examples of easily recognizable borrowings, when it comes to mass oppression.

    The obvious one is the great reveal (almost a holy grail of sorts) of yet again another R word. With Mao, of course, it was Rightism (opposed, apparently to leftist Marxian ideologies, Chinese style) but also Running dogs – (often preceded again by the word Capitalist) and finally, to get to the point, Capitalist Roader. Meaning that one was apparently on the road to hell. Or some such perdition. Replace all these “R”s with “R”acism, and there you have it.
    If this racism were only a little thing, a rare thing, a quickly vanishing thing, or a thing somewhat resembling a threatened species, almost extinct but not quite…
    or if it appeared in any real or measurable way to be headed in that direction, then one might think this might be good cause for celebration. Apparently not. Much wailing, gnashing of teeth, hueing and crying, moaning and just plain acting out accompanies such a course of events.

    The beast is what it is. It has been around a long time. The question has never been whether it exists or not, or impacts or not, or is a bad thing or not, or any other concept capable of deep understanding by mere children.
    The question is and always has been, what to do about it? And along comes a DiAngelo, riding into town like a High Plains Drifter. I can almost smell that half-chewed brown cigarillo. Spot those narrowed and shifty eyes in the deep shadow beneath the hat brim. The pause. While the nation holds its collective breath. The unmistakable sound of a soaring hawk. Cut and print.

    As if we are in the presence of some great savior, arrived in order to deliver us from ourselves. Only it never was that difficult, nor is it necessarily that easy. It always did, does now, and always will, require some real and actual work. Done best in the climate of autonomous analysis, healthy skepticism, individualized and personalized digging around and random conversations with one’s own conscience. Just for starters.

    While Robin was robbin’ us blind, a bunch of us realized we had been awake all along. So awake in fact, we never could be just simply woke. And yeah. For a real good time, have a boo at how the likes of the esteemed John McWhorter does his level best to at least be polite about it. I am the rank amateur. He is the true professional. Reminding me that if it is possible for me to feel even and at least insulted by the methodologies of CRT, there are others who are far more damaged by it.

  4. You gotta admire the woman. She has found a way to turn trash into gold. If she is careful with her money, she will accumulate a fortune in short order. In a couple of years when this fad passes just like the hula hoop did, she will retire to her beach house on Maui and spend her days drinking mai tais and laughing at the morons who made her rich.

  5. This is all over twitter- why isn’t anyone dunking on you yet? Opposition to the Revolution is racism- we all know that.

  6. Charlatans like DiAngelo and Kendi will continue to exist and prosper so long as woke university administrators and corporate executive continue to shell out $30,000 for a one hour talk. Funny how universities can always come up with money for these talks, but never seem to have money to upgrade laboratory equipment or purchase new STEM books for the library.

    1. Patti -answer honestly -when was the last time that the users of STEM resources stormed the admin bld and terrorized all the secretaries? Starting with the guns at Cornell, we have had 50 years of terrorism.

  7. This is an inadequate response to DiAngelo. Rather than dignifying her with a response, by trying to falsify her claims empirically, one should start by asking, what is it about Northern European societies which, uniquely, produces self-loathing? Why do the least racist societies which have ever existed, and becoming less and less so, increasingly accuse themselves of racism? What is the Western weakness, the pathology, which allows its enemies to prosper, and how can it be cured?

    1. on the contrary, slightly… not being a student of DiAngelo (in any sense), I found the essay to be informative. Perhaps it’s not intended to be a “response” to her, since it’s unlikely that she’d read it anyway – so the audience may very well be people like me?
      Your questions for elaboration are not exclusive to the CRT paradigm, but instead warrant a separate essay. Have at it!

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