On the eve of the release of Robin DiAngelo’s new book, Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm (April 6, 2021), it has become fashionable to throw her and her work under the bus. The Washington Free Beacon wrote an article (July 25, 2020) about how Robin DiAngelo “got rich peddling” antiracism work. This article is now being recirculated on Twitter encouraging people to not buy DiAngelo’s upcoming work. On an Instagram live feed, Black women writers Austin Channing Brown (author of I’m Still Here) and Rachel Ricketts (Do Better!), spent an hour discussing DiAngelo and her work.
I, personally, have learned a lot from DiAngelo’s first book, Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Critical Social Justice Education and her journal article on White Fragility (2011), which is available for free. I am therefore concerned about the way she is being trivialized and dismissed. I’d like to take the space here to think through some of the claims made against her.
For starters, looking at DiAngelo’s behaviour, there are two things that definitely jump out as problematic and that Brown and Ricketts do a good job of explaining.
- First, DiAngelo is taking up space. As a white woman with her book on White Fragility on the best-seller list for years, the words and ideas of DiAngelo are taking up a lot of space. The painful irony of a white woman’s book being the “go to” resource in this time of Black Lives Matter resurgence is not lost on me. Someone in DiAngelo’s position with such immense structural and institutional power, needs to be making space for marginalized voices. That is part of what the work of anti-racism is. One way DiAngelo could have done this would have been to co-author her upcoming book with a BIPOC author, a suggestion by Brown and Ricketts. To be writing about anti-racism and not using your platform to elevate the voices of Black, Indigenous and People of Color is problematic and runs counter to the work set out in DiAngelo’s scholarship.
- Second, DiAngelo is making a lot of money off of this platform as an anti-racist educator. In the conversation, Ricketts claims that DiAngelo charges $20,000 for her speaking engagements. DiAngelo responds to those claims on her website in the Accountability section. In fact, DiAngelo, like most speakers, is paid a range of fees based on the context. Nonetheless, profiting through royalties and speaking fees off of anti-racist work as a white person is problematic. DiAngelo says that she puts 15% of her profit into donations and she lists this on her website. Ultimately though, making money, particularly in significant sums as a white person doing anti-racism work is clearly benefiting from racism.
The conversation between Brown and Rickets about their lived experiences as Black women and Black writers is really rich. This is a really great conversation and it is generous of them to share it so widely. However, the conversation was framed as a discussion about DiAngelo’s work and there are some serious complications with some of this critique.
One of Brown and Ricketts main issues with DiAngelo is her whiteness. They claim that DiAngelo can have no understanding of racism because she is white (11:08, 28:51). This idea that white people have no experience with racism is wrong. We, white people, have all sorts of experience with racism, as we live within the same structural and institutional racist systems as Black people. Our lives are imbued with racism. Yes, we don’t have experience as victims of racism, but we do have experience as benefactors and perpetuators of racism. This is important experience for the larger project of dismantling structures of racism.
DiAngelo writes on her website’s Accountability section: “As a white person who writes about race specifically to my fellow white people, I am not seeking to teach white people about Black people. I am seeking to teach white people about ourselves in relation to Black and other people of color… The bulk of our anti-racist education must come from BIPOC people who choose to educate us. At the same time, as an insider to these dynamic, I have a valuable perspective to offer that is different from and supports that of Black educators. I do not believe that white people can fully understand racism and our role in it if we only listen to BIPOC people.”
I want to be clear here: the voices and experiences of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour are indispensable for understanding racism. This is not debatable. I would add, though, that this does not mean that white people are incapable of having independent thoughts about systems of oppression that they benefit from. Our knowledge though, is always “partial” (Kumashiro, 2000).
I was visiting the Arc de Triomphe in Paris with my (very white and male) father. He always carries around a pocket knife, something that is expressly forbidden in these spaces. (France was and continues to be in a state of high alert for terrorism). Seeing the sign banning knives at the metal detector, my dad handed over his pocket knife. The white female security guard then took the knife AND HANDED IT OVER TO ME, telling me to keep it for my dad. Hello white privilege. Had I been a Muslim woman wearing a hijab, there is no way I would have been handed a knife going into a tourist attraction. The conflict I was in, in that moment, is something that only I, as a white woman can interrogate first-hand. No Black women were in the room. If we dismiss all white work on racism, we miss out on the aspects of racism that occur in white-only spaces.
Which brings me to the more bold assertion by Brown and Ricketts that DiAngelo, as a white woman, cannot have anything new to bring to the critique of racism because she is white… and therefore, she is just “translating” (10:55) or paraphrasing the work of Black women. They claim that DiAngelo’s work and the work of other white authors is simply the “white version of the words” (34:28) of Black people. This is a serious accusation. Unfortunately, this is not backed up by any concrete evidence. Ricketts admits to not having read White Fragility.
DiAngelo wrote her dissertation, “Whiteness in racial dialogue” in 2004 and has been doing anti-racism work ever since. That’s decades and decades of work. To say that she hasn’t had an original idea in all that time seems a little far-fetched. Scholarship, by design, is cumulative. So I don’t doubt, in fact I sincerely hope, that DiAngelo has read the work of Black Women and integrated their ideas and concepts into her own original analysis. And I hope that work is cited and referenced correctly. Taking her journal article as an example, she has two and a half page of references including bell hooks, Toni Morrison, Beverly Tatum and more. It doesn’t look to me that she is just “translating” the work Black women have done and passing it off as her own. It doesn’t look like she hasn’t added anything new to the discussion. If I am wrong, I hope someone will correct me.
One of the reasons I feel so strongly about defending DiAngelo’s work is because I think it is great entry-level reading. So many people that I know have begun to see structures of oppression after reading DiAnglelo’s books. These same people have gone on to read more nuanced and harder work by BIPOC authors, but they began with DiAngelo’s work.
Both Brown and Ricketts claim that if DiAngelo’s book hadn’t been published, people would be reading their books instead. They say that their books are being “skipped over” (24:00). This is an interesting idea but as Brown states “one thing that ain’t changing is white people buying white people’s books” (18:48). I imagine if DiAngelo hadn’t written White Fragility, white people would be buying other white people’s books. Just because DiAngelo’s book is on the best-seller list doesn’t mean that this is the reason why Ricketts and Brown’s books are not. In fact, I would argue the opposite, that DiAngelo’s books are actually gateways to books by BIPOC authors. At least they have been for myself and my friends. Perhaps the sale of DiAngelo’s books have increased the sale of BIPOC books. We don’t know. But there needs to be space for entry-level anti-racism books, that yes, aren’t super threatening. You have to start S-L-O-W. Racism is a lot to unpack.
I haven’t read Brown or Rickett’s books yet; they are on order (and full disclosure I have also ordered White Fragility). And once I have read all three, I’ll post again.
But going from the Instagram live conversation between Brown and Ricketts their work does not appear to be entry-level. In the space of an hour white women were referred to in the following ways:
- “you’re violent as fuck” (12:20)
- “we are done being your mules” (13:10)
- “you are harmful” (16:42)
- “we can’t tell you nothing” (16:45)
- “y’all are killing us” (21:40)
- “your not knowing is violent” (36:00)
- “all white women have a lot of fucking work to do” (51:00)
- “you have money that isn’t yours” (51:15)
I don’t disagree with any of these statements, but this was hard to hear. As a white woman who started reading bell hooks when I was 19 and has been interrogating my own racism for decades, I still had a hard time hearing these statements about myself. I’m not sure many white women could start their anti-racism journey by being told that they are “violent as fuck”. That’s a big ask. So I think there is an important place for DiAngelo’s work and work like it. We need to have entry-level resources. And THEN, ideally these entry-level resources point us to the harder work of BIPOC authors.
The reality is that I, as a white woman, can more easily tell another white person that they are racist. I can talk about my own racism, and I can model owning up to my own white privilege. The way that white people can work alongside other white people in a non-adversarial way makes the “heart work” of beginning to see the pain and suffering we have caused and continue to cause more possible. Owning the ways that I benefit from the suffering of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour is hard stuff. I get that people suffering under racist systems might not have a lot of patience for this, but I don’t think there is a way around doing this work slowly and carefully.
Ultimately, though, what is problematic about these attacks on DiAngelo is that they further the far-right agenda. The initial article discrediting DiAngelo was written by a white man, Charles Fain Lehman. DiAngelo claims that she was not interviewed for the piece and that much of it is conjecture and innuendo. The Washington Free Beacon is a far-right newspaper that has little time for discussions on racism. Some of their top stories today include: “Majority of Academics Support Discriminating Against Conservatives, Study Shows”, “Senators Push for Answers on Amazon Book Ban” and “Los Angeles DA Hires Anti-Cop Activist for Top Prosecutor Job”. By using far-right narratives to discredit the work of anti-racist educators, everyone working for a more just world loses out.
This is what I propose. I think we need to accept that there is space for DiAngelo and her work in the deconstruction of racism. I think we also need to a be constantly pushing to make space and more space for BIPOC voices. Finally, we need to continue to be mindful of the ways that we as white people benefit from anti-racism work and we need to “spend” our privilege in ways that work to dismantle systems of oppression. We need to work together. If that means Black women are “choreographing” and white women are “dancing” (12:45), so be it, but it might take us a few white books to get us there.
Brown, A. C. (2018). I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. Convergent Books.
Brown, A. C. & Ricketts, R. (March 2, 2021) Instagram Live Feed.
DiAngelo, R. (2011). White Fragility. International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 3(3), pp.54-79.
DiAngelo, R. (2018). White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People To Talk About Racism. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Kumashiro, K. (2000). Toward a theory of anti-oppressive education. Review of Educational Research. 70(1), 25-53.
Ricketts, R. (2021). Do Better: Spiritual Activism for Fighting and Healing from White Supremacy. Atria Books.