View from Rue Saint-Georges

Skin Deep

You can’t fight like with like

By Thomas Chatterton Williams | April 24, 2019
National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund/Flickr
National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund/Flickr

The paradox of thinking in terms of race—and, inevitably, thinking in terms of racism, whether promoting it or trying to eschew its implications and effects—is that doing so can warp even the best of intentions. The scholar Robin DiAngelo, coiner of the now ubiquitous term “white fragility” and the author of a best-selling book of the same name, holds that an over-simplistic “colorblindness” on the part of whites uninterested in genuinely thinking through the nuances of inequality has the effect of reinforcing a historically unjust status quo. Some white members of my extended family exemplify this tendency. They use the excuse “I don’t see color” as a means of avoiding having to contemplate why a 12-year-old black boy with a toy pistol can be shot dead within two seconds of a police officer’s arrival on the scene.

But DiAngelo’s solution—which she summarized in a recent lecture entitled “What Does it Mean to Be White?” (delivered at Boston University, Martin Luther King Jr.’s alma mater)—is a cure potentially worse than the disease. She argues that people should encounter each other not as individuals making good-faith attempts to treat each other on equal terms but solely as representatives of enormous, abstract racial categories. “I want to be clear that as I stand up here with authority and a voice on this topic, I’m reinforcing whiteness and the centrality of the white view,” she said. “I’d like to be a little less white, which means a little less oppressive, oblivious, defensive, ignorant, and arrogant.” But such an approach reinforces the racial stigma attached to nonwhites as powerless nonagents upon whom whites alone may act. Yes, whites need to be a little less white, but only insofar as we all must find ways to disavow race, full stop.

No matter how seductive it may seem, in the long term the hair of the dog can only ever make the hangover more intense. Likewise, we will not transcend the inhumanity of racism while doubling down on the fiction of race.

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