being antiracist – addendum

a mystical möbius — curating facts, ideas, text, and media to create a contemplative space.

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Image by Edgar Chaparro on Unsplash || CC0

—Addendum to: being antiracist

Opening the backstory

I hope a mystical möbius readers are mostly looking for things to think about, maybe different ways to think about things, and maybe not so much about proof of a particular thought. Still, writing my weekly missive to be read within a three minute window often requires that I make assertions without really spelling out much of the evidence behind them. I do try to link sources for reader follow-up to some of what I’m reading/watching/listening-to about a topic. I imagine my writing works best for those who are able to trust me to some degree.

This week, I feel fairness demands that I actually unpack the background material. I feel it could be helpful, hopefully also instructive; and, so, for any who are interested, I’m curating and writing this addendum piece to go with my regular missive. I hope I’m able to show my work, i.e., spell out my thoughts and reasoning on an issue, even though I usually don’t. This time, I will.

—This doesn’t fit within a three minute window. However, I do hope you’ll find it useful.  

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John McWhorter: concerns over “White Fragility”

OK, I cite it in the piece this week, so let’s take a bit closer listen to an interview from NPR in the summer of 2020 entitled:Linguist John McWhorter Says ‘White Fragility’ Is Condescending Toward Black People.We’ll break it all down in clips along with my responses; but first, here’s the seven-minute interview in its entirety for those inclined to begin with the primary source:

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I note that it’s a curious thing that McWhorter doesn’t really have any disagreement with DiAngelo’s central contentions about racism—i.e., racism is pervasive and often unconscious:

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Rather, McWhorter seems to take exception to the approach of the person who, over the past few years, may well be one of the most pronounced antiracism voices of a white ally that we have on the issues of confronting and dealing with White supremacist systemic racism in the twenty-first century.

So, let’s see what McWhorter says troubles him. 

OK, the NPR editing of the story places this clip as McWhorter’s opening concern:

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A rather ungenerous reductionist summary by McWhorter that really unfairly mischaracterizes DiAngelo’s antiracism work. Does McWhorter actually think that DiAngelo would be OK with that cartoonish description of her work?

Then, Steve Inskeep asks McWhorter what specific problems he found in DiAngelo’s book and seminars. McWhorter begins with some generosity but grows much less generous as he makes his point, when he responds:

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Well, I guess that’s one rather ungracious way to summarize DiAngelo. Does McWhorter really believe that’s what DiAngelo wants to be the takeaway? He went from generous to seriously ungenerous in short order:

“But my question is, is it necessary for every good white person to walk around feeling uncomfortable about themselves as abstractly complicit in a racist system before we see political change?”

My question here is why does McWhorter feel the need to reduce this to a binary with that straw man? This is not a binary, and DiAngelo is not trying to make it one. Why is McWhorter? We can do both, i.e., turn back denial by raising consciousness and work tangibly to dismantle the artifacts of White supremacist ideology. The former catalyzes the latter. Sadly, this reductionistic move becomes a pattern in McWhorter’s argument.

McWhorter’s argument becomes overly strained in the next section of the interview, imhv:

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So, ungenerosity has ascended to “muzzled” and “this Orwellian indoctrination program.” If you buy that hyperbolic mischaracterization of DiAngelo’s work, then I have a bridge to sell you. We talked a couple of weeks ago about confirmation bias. Good time for a review excursus:

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So, McWhorter talked about the “can’t say” problem with DiAngelo’s approach. Excuse me, what? I can’t help thinking that McWhorter could have asked almost anyone who had read the book and they would have said, “That’s not how it works. That’s not how any of this works,” because “can’t say” meant as a “muzzling” is not what DiAngelo has in mind here. 

DiAngelo is not forbidding anything. She is saying that it is not appropriate for one to use these personal anecdotes—as true as they may be in any particular instance—as a way to deny and dismiss the ongoing effects of systemic racism. DiAngelo calls out and resists the erroneous idea that far too many white people seriously entertain, i.e., that racism has ended, with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Martin Luther King, and Barack Obama as final proof. [McWhorter appears to entertain the same notion when he refers to what he sees as the big changes that occurred fifty years ago. We’ve literally just spent over fifty years testing the ‘We’ll just ignore it, and it will go away’ approach. Didn’t work.]

DiAngelo is not wanting to “muzzle” people; she wants people to be aware that there is more to it, a more holistic way to think about systemic racism and the defenses white people use to maintain their claims regarding their own (I AM NOT A RACIST) absence of racism. —Side note, an exception of which I’m aware that fits McWhorter’s misreading: DiAngelo does like to say people should immediately stop using the trope “I don’t care if you’re pink, purple, or polka dot” in the context of the race discourse; and, I think for obvious enough reasons in that instance, I fully agree.

McWhorter agrees that much of racism is in the form of unconscious bias. DiAngelo is working to surface and contextualize unconscious bias and racism in the experience of white people who see only part of the picture, i.e., ‘I may live in a racist system that benefits white people, but I am not racist.’ This is where the slogan, “Good intentions are not enough,” comes in with regard to the issue of antiracism. It’s called ‘consciousness raising’ work for good reason, i.e., it raises shadow (dark/blind) material into consciousness (light/recognition).

Inskeep is pretty good at saying to McWhorter: “Well, you may say there’s a debate there, but there isn’t really, is there?” Example here:

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Of course, McWhorter has to relent on the point and tries to minimize it by acting as though it’s not a problem. McWhorter deflects, and, again, makes it plain that he does not understand why this needs to happen:

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A distraction?

So, McWhorter spells it out this way:

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“Idle?” Did he just call DiAngelo’s project, “idle?” That is some rudely condescending $#1+ right there! I wonder, could someone who failed to understand DiAngelo’s book so completely really be that arrogant? 

So, it’s not enough that McWhorter’s argument is reductionistic, seeking to make a binary out of everything. Here in this theme, McWhorter appears to lose the thread completely: 

  • “Why do we need to do this now?”
  • “But Steve, this is the problem. Why do we need to fix that person in order to have progress?”
  • “But the question will always be: Why don’t you just go out and change the structures, and why do you think you couldn’t until doing this?” 

Um, perhaps because, for instance, “that person” is named ‘Mike Pence?’

Perhaps because DJT denies systemic racism, and his MAGA cult-followers are in lock step with him? —Note, I do not mean every Trump supporter. I mean particularly those who are ‘cult-followers’ in terms of their mindless support of ‘everything DJT.’ However, I think it would be rather difficult to argue that it’s just a coincidence that many in the MAGA coalition appreciate DJT‘s protection from DiAngelo or anything like a truth and reconciliation process for the issue of White supremacist ideology and its artifacts in America, both historical and extant.

Here’s a brief clip of ‘Fox and Friends’ from January 8, 2021, two days after an angry mob, that included militant White supremacists, White segregationists, and White Christian Nationalists, had stormed the Capitol as proxy for DJT and MAGA. The insurrectionists paraded Trump and Confederate flags through the building:

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I don’t know what Tucker Carlson said in the clip that Ainsley Earhardt was setting up, but Carlson had been busy for months/years denying White supremacist racism was even a thing, and at every opportunity saying that neither White supremacy, nor systemic racism, had anything to do with January, 6, 2021. In a WaPo story from this March, “Tucker Carlson: Capitol riot wasn’t racist! FBI: Uh, wrong,” we read:

“Whatever you thought about what happened yesterday, what was racist about it? Well, nothing, of course. There’s nothing racist about it,” said Carlson on Jan. 7. 

This The Hill story predates January 6 by eighteen months, but Carlson never recanted: Tucker Carlson: White supremacy is a ‘hoax’ and ‘not a real problem.’ So, yeah.

Bound by a binary

There’s one binary to which we are pretty much bound, as no problem will ever be truly faced and solutions found until it is acknowledged. One (or many) simply cannot solve a national systemic problem that is out-rightly-denied by half the nation. 

Until people become aware of some of these realities that DiAngelo raises into their awareness, they can’t even see systemic racism. They deny it. It’s “a myth.” Here’s a July, 2020, CNN clip that reports on Tucker Carlson’s “White supremacy is a hoax” claim mentioned above—note, video is cued to begin at the appropriate spot (e.g., 00:23-00:55):

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That’s not helping, especially when political technologies exploit it for cynical political posturing and immorally obtaining/maintaining power. It’spast time for America to discard the left-wing myth of systemic racism,” said Pence recently.

Is Earth I / Earth II operative?

So, what planet is McWhorter living on? I imagine it’s just a coincidence that, since DJT and MAGA have entered the scene, there has been a tremendous demand for schemes to avoid dealing with systemic racism. So, Mr. McWhorter, perhaps you’ve noticed that post-DJT, a whole systemic racism denial industry has spontaneously sprung up to support and protect folks against DiAngelo’s “idle” work?

So, McWhorter’s, “Why don’t you just go out and change the structures, and why do you think you couldn’t until doing this?” will probably “always be the question” for those who feel some compulsion to reduce everything to cartoonish binaries. 

Dehumanizes Blacks?

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Well, one would need to misunderstand the essential point of DiAngelo’s book precisely the way McWhorter does in order to draw such a seriously errant conclusion. This is an inference vs. standpoint epistemology problem for McWhorter. I’ve written previously about what Jesus’ stories teach on this topic (see here: Truth is broken). 

DiAngelo is not teaching white people how to talk to Black people or how to talk when they are around Black people. She is addressing the ways white people talk among themselves as a group, to each other as individuals, one-on-one, and to themselves internally as individuals (i.e., group, inter-self, and intra-self dialogues in a white group context).

DiAngelo is intentionally using her standpoint epistemology as a white person in a White supremacist racist system to talk to other white people about their shared standpoint epistemology. As I pointed out in the blog piece, McWhorter totally overlooks this fact and is inappropriately inserting his concern into a space he does not sharea space that is not treating the issue in the way that he has misunderstood the case.

DiAngelo is fearlessly telling white people what they have not wanted to hear, something many/most/all Black people have long known all too well. In a video DiAngelo made for the United Methodist Church, she reports this plain fact—note, video is cued to begin at the appropriate spot (e.g., 18:05-18:50):

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To the heart of McWhorter’s error

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While I feel that clip demonstrates that McWhorter does, indeed, understand the narrative dynamic with which DiAngelo’s book and project seeks to partner, it still begs the question. While his language is a little bit off, McWhorter is correct about his analogy that compares antiracism with repentance. So, first, for me, a good question to McWhorter would be: ‘Is your problem with DiAngelo’s approach to antiracism, or with Christianity itself?’

In a recent conversation a colleague very clearly expressed White supremacist ideology and its artifacts (i.e., systemic racism) as America’s original sin in this way:

“We have inherited something broken, and while it is not our ‘fault,’ it does CAUSE us to fault and it IS our responsibility.” —B.P.

McWhorter’s remark regarding ‘devout Christians’ lacks any such nuance or understanding. 

When in this context McWhorter said, “…in the same way a devout Christian explores the extent to which they are a sinner,” McWhorter is conflating willful bigoted racism (sin) with systemic racism (original sin). The former includes/indicates volition. My colleague’s quote (above) exposes McWhorter’s reductionist error.

I guess we can’t blame McWhorter for collapsing and understanding the language there incorrectlywait, isn’t he a linguist?

So, the comparison of a person examining themselves for the effects of systemic racism on and in their life, as DiAngelo recommends, would compare favorably to a Christian who examines her own life in relation to the effects of original sin (the structural and cultural brokenness that we inherit). Examining oneself for sin in general is another matter that would compare with exploring one’s internal thoughts and beliefs for willful, intentional bigotry based on a literal understanding that one’s own racial-identity group is superior to others. 

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I would counter McWhorter in the strongest terms here, and I do so completely aside from the existence of G-d. McWhorter seems to miss the fact that the religious narrative of ‘original sin‘ is an extremely helpful way of making relatable the notion of systemic racism for people whose chief concern seems to be in making sure everyone else knows: I AM NOT A RACIST!—DiAngelo’s “good-bad binary.” 

—If they repeat it, it’s important. If they repeat it: “We have inherited something broken, and while it is not our ‘fault,’ it does CAUSE us to fault and it IS our responsibility.”

CRT—by showing that everyone is included in systemic racism—takes the tribal power (see fascinating article on “Escaping Tribalism”) out of the equation and brings the system into focus (original sin) rather than the willful prejudices of individuals (sin). DiAngelo’s project helps in surfacing bias and sorting out the shadows that systemic racism creates in persons and groups—internalized Systemic Racism [iSR]. Again, it’s not a binary; both projects are crucially important to a holistic approach to racial and social justice. Both projects, i.e, dismantling artifacts and raising consciousness, form a loving and compassionate synergy to meet our challenge to achieve moral inclusivity.

I mean, seriously!?!

So, I just have to imagine, because I do not know. But if McWhorter did really read DiAngelo’s book, including the Introduction, then, I just have to wonder. Before embarking on his campaign of disgruntlement, what did he say to himself in relation to the amazing Introduction to the book written by Michael Eric Dyson? Probably something like: “Dyson obviously just missed what I’m going to say.”

I suppose that to McWhorter, Dyson’s Introduction is “idle,” too. An excerpt:

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What is most breathtaking for me is that McWhorter’s argument totally overlooks trauma and its place in the ongoing discourse on race in America. He keeps asking, ‘Why do we need to do this now?’ The simple reason is, ‘Because we have never done it; and because, even though we’ve had the opportunity since the 1964 Civil Rights Act, we haven’t done it for the past 55 years.’ Why now? ‘Because it must be done sometime, and there is no time like the present.’ The post-George Floyd era is ripe for truth, reconciliation, and making space for healing.

tl;dr

Peoples’ inclination to be influenced by what McWhorter argues is most certainly affected by confirmation bias. ‘Lemesee, it’s almost as though if we were to take seriously what DiAngelo has written, then there might be several white people beyond DJT who would very much like someone to tell them that DiAngelo is full of it.’ Of course, McWhorter isn’t really saying DiAngelo is full of it; it only sounds like it to those who want it to.

There’s the obvious standpoint epistemology problem; but methinks that McWhorter’s real target in his discourse on race is Christianity, not DiAngelo’s book. 

I’ve said that our failure to genuinely reckon with our history, especially since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, has resulted in the issues of race in America being buried in our collective and personal shadows. Robin DiAngelo’s book, White Fragility, very helpfully surfaces, unpacks, and nuances that shadow dynamic. 

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Next week: more post-truth. Come and see.  [this addendum post approx. 2,775 words (about a 12 min. read + media)]

Your thoughts? 

I never know what I’ve said until I hear the response. What did you hear me say?

Bonus video 

I mean, what could we possibly gain from a genuinely multi-cultural view anyway.
 
“To dance the Bamba,
  To dance the Bamba,
  It takes a little grace.
  A little grace for me for you.
  Up and up
  And up and up, for you to be [?],
  for you to be [?].
  for you to be [?].
  …”
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2 thoughts on “being antiracist – addendum

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