Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Robin DiAngelo and the specialness of whiteness

The name of the obnoxious Robin DiAngelo is still showing up in my social media feeds and so I've been forced to think about her again.

She included the incident of how she bullied a German woman named Eva in her book, which I discussed in this blog post and this struck me anew:
I was working with a small group of white participants when a woman I will refer to as Eva stated that because she grew up in Germany, where she said there were no black people, she had learned nothing about race and held no racism
I found this interesting because when I confronted a co-worker about her racist statements, a few years ago, the coworker said that I had to forgive her bigotry against African Americans because she grew up in Russia without black people. Which apparently was what made her racist.

DiAngelo continues:
I pushed back on this claim by asking her to reflect on the messages she had received from her childhood about people who lived in Africa. Surely she was aware of Africa and had some impressions of the people there? Had she ever watched American films? If so, what impression did she get about African Americans?
What I find interesting about DiAngelo's interrogation of the German woman is DiAngelo's assumption that just being made aware of African people or seeing American films with black people in them made Eva likely to be a racist. I don't see how that follows.

As far as American films, the biggest issue is the underrepresentation of black people. But when black people are portrayed they are often sympathetic figures - from Cleavon Little in "Blazing Saddles" to Danny Glover in the "Lethal Weapon" films to Samuel L. Jackson in "Pulp Fiction" to Morgan Freeman in "Shawshank Redemption."

Sure black people are sometimes portrayed as bad too, and the list of black leading characters I came up with off the top of my head doesn't include black women, but although black people are badly underrepresented in American media, when they do show up they are no more likely to be portrayed as bad, percentage-wise than white people.

Now that doesn't mean that growing up in Germany it was impossible that Eva felt superior to Africans or African Americans. But that's not a white thing - that's the human condition. People generally feel that their in-group, however they define their in-group and it's often on ethnic or nationalist terms, is the best.

This is an example of the "specialness of whiteness" that Thomas Chatterton Williams is talking about. DiAngelo apparently reckons that there is something associated with white skin that makes white people more likely to feel superior to the Other than people of any other skin color.

This is not supported by the data, but Robin DiAngelo isn't interested in data about this any more than she's interested in finding out what white people today actually think about the career of Jackie Robinson. DiAngelo says whatever she wants to say, and she is treated so deferentially by all who interview her that she will never be questioned about her more bizarre statements. 

And that's how Robin DiAngelo continues to have a successful career based on pushing extremist beliefs about the specialness of whiteness.