Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility, has written another book. This one is called Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm (Boston: Beacon Press, 2021). She titles the second chapter of the new book, “Why It’s OK to Generalize About White People.”
DiAngelo notes that one of the most consistent complaints she gets in her work is that she is generalizing about White people. She gets accused of stereotyping White people rather than treating them as “individuals.” The accusation might even lead in some settings to accusations (although DiAngelo doesn’t mention this at this point) of “reverse racism.”
Why do I mention this here? I mention it because the pushback DiAngelo receives strikes me as a White supremacist variety of the self-serving bias. The complaint she receives is that she is not treating White people as the discrete and unique individuals they really are. All those “other people” may be guilty of racist actions, language, and thinking. But you don’t know me, as an individual White person. You don’t know my heart as an individual White heart. So, don’t go making broad generalizations and then lumping me into the mix as a generic White person.
I’m different. I’m an individual, as opposed to all those other people.
Central to the narrative of White supremacy, according to DiAngelo and other scholars, is the ideology of individualism. American society lives with an irreconcilable tension. On the one hand, our political ideology says that all people are created equal. On the other hand, DiAngelo writes, “we each occupy distinct raced (and gendered, classed, etc.) positions that profoundly shape our life chances in ways that are not voluntary or random” (pages 22-23). The narrative of individualism is the way we White people manage this tension.
This narrative of individualism “posits that there are no intrinsic barriers to individual success and that failure is not a consequence of a systemic structure but of individual character. Individualism,” DiAngelo continues, “claims that success is independent of position, that one succeeds through individual effort alone, and that there are no favored starting positions that provide competitive advantage” (page 23). That sounds a great deal like the interior dimension of the self-serving bias.
We all know this argument. Other people may have had help from their family, their birth, their zip code, their education, their friendship network, their gender, their language, their looks, and dumb luck. I, on the other hand, have pulled myself up by my own bootstraps. I have succeeded through hard work, intelligence, and good choices. No one has given me anything. I earned it all. I was just as disadvantaged as the next person, and I succeeded anyway. So, stop all the whining about systemic bias and institutional injustice.
Most people realize that it makes no sense to argue that I’ve done it my way, but everyone else is a victim of systems and circumstances. This is the “they are worse sinners than me” argument. Therefore, everyone must be an individual if I am to maintain my mythology of personal accomplishment. If everyone is an individual – completely unaffected by external and societal constraints – then the fact that you’re having some trouble is just your own damn fault.
Do you think those other people are sinners and you’re not? Best not to bring that one up with Jesus, especially before he’s had his morning whatever.
If the ideology of individualism is part of the narrative underpinning of White supremacy, as DiAngelo and others argue that it is, then it’s much more serious than just a thing that makes your arrogant neighbor such a pain in the ass. She writes that the ideology of individualism is one of the common barriers that keeps us White people from seeing our own racism. DiAngelo “is not denying that we are all individuals in general.” Instead, she seeks “to demonstrate how white insistence on individualism in discussions of racism in particular prevents cross-racial understanding and denies the salience of race in our lives” (page 23).
In order to interrogate the ideology of individualism in more detail, DiAngelo asks the important critical question. How does this ideology “function”? That is, what does the narrative of individualism do for those who benefit from that narrative? She argues that individualism “denies the significance of race and the advantages of being white” (page 25). The narrative removes us history and its messy stories of responsibility, and it makes whiteness the universal standard for normalcy.
In addition, the ideology of individualism allows us White people to deny that there is a social hierarchy that helps to determine the distribution and acquisition of power. “If we insist that group membership is insignificant,” DiAngelo argues, “social inequity and its consequences become personally irrelevant. So too,” she continues, “does any imperative to change inequity” (page 33). As individuals we aren’t responsible for the bad actions of other White people. We aren’t responsible for the misfortune of BIPOC members of our society. In fact, we aren’t responsible for anyone but ourselves.
In that narrative, DiAngelo notes, we all end up in our “natural” places. If we are powerful, privileged, positioned, and propertied – and if all of that is the result of our individual initiative – then things are just as they “should” be. The fact that White people are ten times more likely to be those privileged people is either a statistical accident or because White people are just better at everything. Individualism results, DiAngelo notes, in a system that asserts meritocracy, Social Darwinism, and White superiority. How else can one explain the “individual” differences of outcome?
Now DiAngelo arrives at the answer to the chapter’s overall question. Why is it OK to generalize about White people (and not about BIPOC people)? It’s about the outcomes. If individualism is only granted to White people, then whatever is “wrong” with a particular Black person, for example, is “wrong” with all Black persons. White individualism results in White superiority and supremacy.
If, on the other hand, individualism is granted to Black people, the dynamic is reversed. “Granting Black people individuality,” DiAngelo writes, “interrupts a racist dynamic within a culture that has denied their individuality. Conversely,” she concludes, “suspending individuality for white people is a necessary interruption to our denial of collective advantage” (page 35). We can’t claim individual merit and ignore that this only seems to work for White people. But that’s what White superiority seeks to do.
DiAngelo offers an exercise to thoughtful White people who want to do some critical reasoning here. “A simple question can be applied to any exception white people offer up as evidence that they are free from racial conditioning,” she suggests, “How does being white shape how you experience that exception?” (page 36).
Let me try a church-y example. I think many of our “nice racist” ELCA congregations wonder why more people of color don’t sit in our pews and join our congregations. One of many answers to that wondering is that our traditional worship style is not attractive to people from other worship cultures. If we’re honest, we nice racist Christians wonder why people from other worship cultures can’t see that “our” worship is the “right” kind of worship – liturgically correct, historically accurate, theologically appropriate, aesthetically pleasing. We resist questioning that assumption because that questioning will produce civil war in the Whites only pews.
But how does being White shape our experience here? Either we think that our personal preferences are more important than those on the outside, or we think that our way of doing things is better than the ways of others. So, we either put ourselves and our preferences first, or we assert that the preferences of others are deficient (or both!). We nice racist Christians can’t stand to do either of those things (theoretically). So, we ignore the issue and wonder why those outside don’t “get it.” I like my worship my way. Why can’t you?
We White Christians have been conditioned to being in charge. We have been conditioned to believe that our way is always the best, the superior way. We have been conditioned to assume that we are at the center of the culture, the Church, and the universe. We have been conditioned to assume that being comfortable in church is not only our privilege but our birthright. Anyone who challenges that conditioning is spoiling for a fight and is likely to lose – especially if that anyone is some meddlesome pastor who can certainly be moved on with little fuss or muss.
“We [White people] receive plenty of reinforcement on what makes us special,” DiAngelo writes. “We have likely offered up our exceptions countless times when the conversation is on race. Let’s try stretching in a new direction,” she urges. “One day, we may treat every person as a unique individual, but it is precisely because that day is not here that the insistence on individualism is so pernicious” (page 36).
The Lukan account is known for an emphasis on the “Great Reversal.” We have one of those Great Reversal verses in Luke 13:30, a small conclusion to this section of the gospel. Perhaps we could read the Great Reversal this way. Those who have had the power to pretend to be individuals will no longer have that power. And those who have been relegated to a featureless mass of identity will be seen by God for who they are (for example, look at how this works in Luke 16:19-31).
If that’s the case (and I would argue that it is), then we nice, racist, White, liberal Christians have some deep thinking and praying and repenting to keep on doing.
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