At the time of writing this, Nice Racism by Robin DiAngelo came out yesterday, and I just finished it. Since her first book White Fragility, Robin is a pretty polarizing person, and I wanted to understand why. Not only have I seen people form extremely strong opinions about the book when they clearly didn’t read it, but I’ve also seen quite a few people who I highly respect have these strong opinions as well, but they lack any nuance with their criticisms.
Within hours of the new book launching, I saw people once again having strong opinions about the book when it was physically impossible to have read it yet. I listen to audiobooks at 2x speed, and even I couldn’t read the book that fast. I’m also a YouTube creator, and there’s nothing worse than someone in the comments arguing with me on a 20 minute video that’s only been up for 30 seconds.
So, now that I’ve finished the book, I wanted to give an honest, nuanced review of Nice Racism by Robin DiAngelo.
I believe I understand some of the criticisms of Robin DiAngelo, and I also happen to agree with many of them. But I also hope to offer some reasons as to why some of the criticisms are also ridiculous.
Time for Credentialling
Something Robin discusses in this new book is “credentialling”, which is a white person’s need to prove they aren’t racist by talking about how they grew up in a Black neighborhood, have a Black friend, posted a Black square on Instagram, or anything else to signal they aren’t racist. While Robin may deem what I’m about to do as “credentialling”, I like to call it signaling.
(and speaking of people named Robin, to learn more about our hidden motives and signaling, you should read The Elephant in the Brainby Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler.)
I’m half Black but “white passing”. My father is Black, and he raised me on his own for the most part. Seeing as how I’m half Black and half of my family is Black, like many others, 2020 made me want to do something. After the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery (as well as countless others throughout the years), I wanted to understand why this was happening. So, I read a ton of books, which included White Fragility.
Politically, I’m pretty liberal/progressive, and I wish Bernie Sanders was the president. I’m also a huge advocate for free speech, mature debate, and the exchanging of ideas. Some of my favorite books are The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt as well as the books from Jon Rauch like his new book The Constitution of Knowledge. I’m also currently reading by Nadine Strossen, which is a phenomenal book about how we should resist hate speech with free speech.
Why did I feel the need to give you some information about me? Well, in a world of skimmers and people who form opinions without reading books, I know how easy it is to be taken out of context and labeled as an SJW or a member of the alt-right. But hopefully, now that you know a little about me, you trust that’s not the case.
Two Things I Hate
Lastly, before diving into the criticisms of Robin DiAngelo, I want to share two things I loathe with all of my being.
- As mentioned above, people who form strong opinions about books they haven’t read
- Reducing a book down to a single thought or idea without nuance
It’s bad enough that thousands or millions of people can become outraged over a headline without reading the article. But what’s even worse is an author taking months or years of their lives to research and write a book, and then have people judge it without reading it.
I get it. We’re all busy and turn to trusted people for their opinions, but to form such a strong opinion about a person without doing your own research is silly and lazy. Instead, I think most of us would be better off by saying, “Well, if that’s true, I don’t like it, but I’ll hold off on having a strong opinion until I do my own research.”
Next, reducing a book down to a single idea or a sentence makes me want to scream in a secluded area until my head explodes.
I have a personal philosophy to reserve judgement of a person until I read their book. This isn’t Twitter. Books give a person hundreds of pages and thousands of words to express their thoughts and ideas. I believe this is the only fair way to truly judge someone’s views. Because if they can’t present a strong argument within a book, that’s their fault, and they should work on that.
I respect that more people are getting into long-form podcasts, but even a three-hour Joe Rogan episode doesn’t give someone nearly enough time to get into every nook and cranny they discuss in their book.
I often see people reduce White Fragility down to one sentence in bad faith: “ White Fragility says all white people are racist, and they’ll always be racist.”
Perception is an interesting thing. And suppose I had a gun to my head and had to give a one-sentence summary of White Fragility. In that case, it’d be the following: “It’s human nature to be terrible at taking criticism, and this happens to a lot of white people during discussions about race.”
But like I said, I’d never reduce a book down to a single sentence, so if you want to form a better opinion, read the book. As I read the book, I disagreed with a lot of it, but I thought the “big idea” made sense.
Although I didn’t agree with everything in Robin’s first book, I saw that people were far angrier than I was, and I wanted to understand why. So, I’ve broken the rest down into sections of what I feel are me legitimate criticisms of Robin DiAngelo’s work. Though there’s plenty of criticisms, I’ve saved the most important part for last, which I think is one of the primary ways we should judge people and their views.
The No-Win Scenario
I truly believe that the #1 reason Robin DiAngelo pisses so many people off is that she puts you in a no-win scenario. Throughout the book, she explains things white progressives do that may be considered racist, but then she also says that if you do the opposite of that thing, you may also be racist.
There are numerous examples throughout the book, but here are a few:
- If you stay silent, you’re racist. If you speak up, you’re racist.
- If you don’t do racism training at your work or school, you’re racist. If you do, you’re probably racist.
- If you don’t empathize with Black people, you might be racist. But if you do try to empathize with them, that may also be a sign that you’re racist.
My background is in mental health, and I’ve worked with hundreds of people with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) as well as their families. This is one of the most stigmatized mental illnesses out there, and it leaves families feeling helpless. Why? Because many people with BPD put loved ones in no-win scenarios.
A primary example is threats of self-harm or suicide. If you do nothing, it’s a sign you don’t care. If you try to get them help, it’s a sign you think they’re crazy or are trying to hurt them in some other way.
The way Robin presents her arguments makes the reader feel absolutely powerless. I imagine a white person picking up her book with the intention of becoming a better ally and quickly getting a case of the “fuck its”.
I’m a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, and I’ve worked with many addicts since getting sober in 2012. If you make an addict feel like there’s nothing they can do to change or that life won’t get better, it usually increases the chance of relapse, or they won’t even try to get sober. And this isn’t limited to addicts, either.
This is human nature. Learned helplessness is real, and if you tell people they’re going to be racist no matter what, you’ve left them with 0 incentive to change.
The BIPOC Community is Immune to Cognitive Distortions
Throughout both books, Robin tells you that all white people should take the Black experience at face value and never question it. This is a very tricky subject to navigate in racism, sexual assault, abuse, and many other areas, so please forgive me if any of this comes off in the wrong way.
The issue with this statement is that in order for Robin’s view on this to be true, we’d have to also say all people BIPOC community are immune to cognitive distortions, biases, and irrationality. This is a silly idea because nobody is exempt from these types of thinking errors. I spend a lot of time reading books about cognitive psychology and human irrationality, so I think Robin’s lack of nuance in this area can really ruffle some feathers.
A long time ago, I realized that I saw the world through a very distorted lens. Due to mental illness and a screwed up childhood, I had a lot of cognitive distortions. Through years of sobriety, therapy, and personal growth, it’s 1000x better, but I’m not immune either.
On top of that, mental illness runs in my family. I have Black family members who struggle with mental illness (some treated and some not), and I’ve worked with Black patients while working in a treatment center. To say that it’s impossible for someone of color to never perceive something incorrectly is a silly premise that no intelligent person would take seriously.
Do systemic racism and individual incidents of racism exist? Based on the data, I believe that this is undeniable. If you want to argue to what extent, I’m up for the debate. But if you want to argue the existence, I think you’re in denial. With that being said, for Robin to neglect that a person of color can ever misconstrue a situation is a terrible argument.
I think Lukianoff and Haidt laid it out the best in The Coddling of the American Mind when they relate it to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. No therapist worth their salt would feed into cognitive distortions and never ask someone to question their beliefs and perceptions.
Should Robin’s Books Exist?
Now, before you say, “But Chris, earlier you said a book is the best way to get someone’s full thoughts and arguments on a subject,” I’m torn on this one. I personally don’t know if Robin’s thesis can work in this format, and I think it’s something we should all think about deeply.
White Fragility started as an article with the idea that I mentioned earlier: we suck at taking criticism, including when it comes to racial conversations.
But I feel like when you take that idea and stretch it out to the length of a book, it’s extremely difficult or near impossible to avoid some of the issues we’ve discussed above such as putting people in a lose-lose situation. Personally, I’m a much bigger fan of books like by Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt or even The New Jim Crow because both are rooted in data and research.
To write a whole book like this is difficult, and I think the best you’ll get is by taking the philosophical angle. I recently interviewed David L. Smith, an author and philosopher,who wrote On Inhumanity and other great books.
Robin DiAngelo interjects some data as well as quotes from like-minded individuals, but most of the book is opinions and personal anecdotes. I’m not sure if data exists to back Robin’s arguments, but without it, I can see why people don’t like the way she presents her case. The philosophical angle may be possible in a book format, but I’m not sure.
Again, if I had a gun to my head and had to write this book, I’d write it with a blend of work research Dr. Eberhardt as well as a ton of studies about biases, heuristics, and irrationality. Most of all, I’d present all of the research around why it’s so difficult for us to take criticism and change our beliefs.
Lastly, not only am I not sure if White Fragility should be an entire book, I really don’t think Nice Racism needed a book. This book didn’t seem to add much from the original book aside from Robin’s personal experiences since the popularity of the first book.
There are plenty of authors who write multiple books and are able to make each one feel unique, even if there are some overlapping topics. But when they’re unable to do that (and this is just personal opinion), it feels like a cash grab. But, research shows that we’re terrible at judging the motives and intentions of other people, so I’d never accuse Robin of this. She may have felt this book was much different, or maybe she had pressure to write this book. Who knows.
And speaking of intent, that’s a great segue into the final section of this review.
As a free speech advocate, I’m a firm believer that intent matters. Should Huckleberry Finn be banned for having the N-word? Or should Django Unchained spark outrage for the excessive use of the slur? I don’t think so. Both are works of historical fiction, so the intent was historical accuracy.
Now, should a person be able to run around dropping N-bombs as a way to degrade Black people? Personally, I think you’re a dick if you do that, but there are free speech intellectuals who can debate that because I’m still trying to learn more about these arguments. I’m about halfway through Hate from Nadine Strossen, and it’s probably some of the strongest arguments for allowing hate speech that I’ve read.
But getting back to the point, intent matters. So, when I assess a person and their views, I ask myself what I think their intent is. Is their intent to help or harm? Call me an optimist, but I think most people have the intent of helping, and that includes Robin DiAngelo. Could she present her arguments better? Absolutely, but I don’t think she’s a bad person based on what I know about her.
There are a ton of valid criticisms about these books, but I still think the big idea is on point.
The reason I’m so interested in the debates around Robin’s work is that I interpret it as people saying, “No! I take criticism very well!” I know that’s bullshit, and so do you. All of us can do better at taking criticism because our ego defenses go bonkers.
Personally, I’d love to have Robin on the podcast to get some clarity on some of her views because, as you’ve read, I can see why it upsets people. A major aspect of science and scientific thinking is falsifiability, and Robin doesn’t provide any way for a white person to not be racist. You’re going to struggle severely with getting people to come to agree with your views when you put them in a lose-lose scenario.
Also, I’m always open for a discussion, and if you think I’m wrong, I’m happy to chat about it. My DMs are open @TheRewiredSoul on Instagram or Twitter, or you can email me at TheRewiredSoul@gmail.com.