Our Endless Dinner With Robin DiAngelo
Suburban America's self-proclaimed racial oracle returns with a monumentally oblivious sequel to "White Fragility"
“The ideology of individualism is dependent on a denial of the past as relevant to the present… Individualism denies the significance of race.”
— Robin DiAngelo
“Individualism is for f*gs.”
Nice Racism, the booklike product just released by the “Vanilla Ice of Antiracism,” Robin DiAngelo, begins with an anecdote from the author’s past. She’s in college, gone out to a dinner party with her partner, where she discovers the other couple is, gasp, black. “I was excited and felt an immediate need to let them know I was not racist,” she explains, adding: “I proceeded to spend the evening telling them how racist my family was. I shared every racist joke, story, and comment I could remember my family ever making…”
Predictably, her behavior makes the couple uncomfortable, but, “I obliviously plowed ahead, ignoring their signals. I was having a great time regaling them with these anecdotes—the proverbial life of the party!” She goes on:
My progressive credentials were impeccable: I was a minority myself—a woman in a committed relationship with another woman…I knew how to talk about patriarchy and heterosexism. I was a cool white progressive, not an ignorant racist. Of course, what I was actually demonstrating was how completely oblivious I was.
No kidding. Instead of trying to amp down her racial anxiety out of basic decency, this author fed hers steroids and protein shakes, growing it to brontosaurus size before dressing it in neon diapers and parading it across America for years in a juggernaut of cringe that’s already secured a place as one of the great carnival grifts of all time. Nice Racism, the rare book that’s unreadable and morally disgusting but somehow also important, is the latest stop on the tour.
DiAngelo is a unique writer, being dishonest, dangerous, and moronic in magnificent quantities, probably in that order. If you’re trying, which she clearly isn’t, a good trade rule is, “If you’ve already written a book once, don’t write it again.” Nice Racism is the same book as the 2018 bestseller White Fragility, and by “the same” I don’t mean generally, but word-for-word, line-by-line, chapter-by-chapter the same, a thunderous, admirably brazen exercise in self-plagiarism. Can you guess which of these passages is from Nice Racism, and which from White Fragility?
a) Individualism… allows white people to exempt ourselves personally from race-based advantage.
b) To challenge the ideologies of racism such as individualism and color blindness, we as white people must suspend our perception of ourselves as unique and/or outside race.
c) Exploring our collective racial identity interrupts a key privilege of dominance—the ability to see oneself only as an individual.
d) We need to discuss white people as a group—even if doing so jars us—in order to disrupt our unracialized identities… Talking about race and racism in general terms such as white people is constructive for whites because it interrupts individualism.
The first is from Nice Racism, the rest from White Fragility. The last three actually comprise a paragraph that moves in full circle: “To challenge individualism, we must suspend individual perceptions by exploring our collective racial identity, which is good because by disrupting individual identities, we challenge individualism.” A rhetorical palindrome! This isn’t writing, but vomiting up mounds of sentences that mean the same thing and mopping them on the page. Because this author only has two or three ideas — I was going to make a list but I think it stops after “denying racism is evidence of racism” — the effect is disorienting across one book, let alone two.
Reading DiAngelo is like being strapped to an ice floe in a vast ocean while someone applies metronome hammer-strikes to the the same spot on your temporal bone over and over. You hear ideas repeated ten, twenty, a hundred times, losing track of which story is which. Are we at the workshop where Eva denies she’s a racist because she grew up in Germany, or the one where Bob and Sue deny they’re racist by claiming they think of themselves as individuals, or the one where the owning-class white woman erupts because no one will validate her claim that she’s not racist, because she’s from Canada?
You read a story in Chapter 1 of Nice Racism about people who approach DiAngelo after anti-racism workshops to say, “I sure wish so-and-so were here—they really need this!” One chapter later, you’re reading, “While we enjoy attending workshops and anti-racism lectures, when it comes time to ask questions, the first will invariably be ‘How do I tell so-and-so about their racism?’” You wonder: Am I high? Didn’t I just read that? And didn’t I read that in the last book also?
You did, because the rule, “If you wrote it, don’t write it again,” has an exception: “Unless it makes money, in which case write it as many times as the market will bear.” Telling affluent white progressives they’re racists and explaining they can buy absolution for $24.95 is fishing for cash with dynamite. DiAngelo is monetizing white guilt on a grand scale, and there’s an extraordinary irony in the fact that she’s got a home-field advantage in this game over someone like, say, Ibram Kendi, because she’s more accessible to people like herself, the same phenomenon she decries. Normally I’d salute the capitalist ingenuity. Unfortunately, like Donald Trump, DiAngelo is both too dim-witted and too terrific an entrepreneur to stop herself from upselling a truly psychotic movement into existence.
Nice Racism’s central message is that it’s a necessity to stop white people from seeing themselves as distinct people. “Insisting that each white person is different from every other white person,” DiAngelo writes, “enables us to distance ourselves from the actions of other white people.” She doesn’t see, or maybe she does, where this logic leads. If you tell people to abandon their individual identities and think of themselves as a group, they sooner or later will start to behave as a group. Short of something like selling anthrax spores or encouraging people to explore sexual feelings toward nine year-olds, is there a worse idea than suggesting — demanding — that people get in touch with their white identity?
If DiAngelo’s insistence that “I don’t feel guilty about racism,” reveling in scenes of making people experience and re-experience racial discomfort, and weird puffery in introducing herself by saying things like, “I am Robin and I am white” feel familiar, it’s because she’s hitting all the themes favored by Klansmen and identitarian loons of yore. Read a book like David Duke’s My Awakening (if you can stand it, you can find excerpts here) and you’ll encounter the same types of passages present in Nice Racism.
There’s the constant rejoicing in discomfiting people with clarity of racial insight (“Even though she taught biology… she became very uncomfortable equating differences in human races as compared with breeds of horses,” Duke notes), tirades against “We’re all just people” homilies (Duke decries “racial egalitarianism” while DiAngelo goes after individualism and universalism), and endless ruminations on various stereotypes (DiAngelo seems obsessed with black hair, while Duke’s giveaway line is about “prominent secondary sexual characteristics”). DiAngelo even borrows the revolting indentitarian concept of race traitors, including on a checklist of antiracist “skills”:
I use my position as a white “insider” to share information with BIPOC people.
Is this because DiAngelo is a demented racist, a Spencer of the suburbs, or because she’s a dunce? It feels like both. Her books are chock full of overt threats, using the language of the inquisitor. When she goes through the list of arguments people make in favor of the idea that they can or should exist beyond race, she concludes ominously, “None of these factors provides immunity.” The idea that “continually” availing oneself of DiAngeloid antiracist training is a requirement to remain above suspicion is an explicit warning. No other strategy is admissible; as she puts it, “Niceness is not antiracism.” Don’t be fooled by her Westminster Kennel Club show-Barbet hair. She writes like a cult leader or an NKVD Commissar, and if mass beheadings are in our future, expect her to hold a clipboard somewhere.
On the other hand, if obliviousness were a boat, this person would be a nuclear aircraft carrier. Head-slapping passages in Nice Racism range from, “82 percent of the activists of color they interviewed identified white racial justice activists as a major source of their burnout,” to deadpan denunciation of “fleeting, hollow, performative” thinking, to my personal favorite, a quote from writer Anika Nailah saying, “Being with white progressives is like being a driving instructor and having someone who does not know how to drive but thinks that they do get in the car with you.” There’s no hint that any of this registers with DiAngelo as ironic. Even her long hypothetical about stepping over an indigenous homeless person with a smile and forgetting about him once surrounded by the “delicious” products in Whole Foods feels more like involuntary confession than argument. She doesn’t know how to stop giving herself away.
Both her books are filled with scenes of people recoiling from her teaching, which despite voluminous passages decrying the lack of “humility” of people who think they have the “answers” on race, she never takes as a hint. Instead, she demands to know, “WHY CAN’T SUE AND BOB HEAR ME?” Dude: they do hear you, they just don’t want to. Because they think you’re insane, and repellent. Have you considered this?
No: DiAngelo’s brand of bourgeois Spencerism is ascendant, tipsy with itself and encouraged now by a Republican backlash. At this point there’s nothing we can do but hang on and wait for the dinner to be over, and God knows how long that will take.