I was rather late in reading this book. I had been aware of its good reviews, and status at the top of the bestsellers lists for some time, but it was only last week that I got around to reading it. I guess, prompted by the Black Lives Matter protests and recent news headlines, this seemed a good book to broaden my knowledge and awareness of the problems of racism. It is always a problem with books that generate a buzz and hype; that they do not live up to expectation and essentially disappoint. This was certainly the case with this book.
Although it is written by an academic (she is a tenured professor of education) it is aimed very squarely at the mass market. Thankfully, therefore it is relatively free of the some of the awful jargon that can accompany works in this area of research. However, in addition to having a simplified style it also has a very simplified content. In essence this is “dumbed down” and there is very little data or analysis beyond a few anecdotes from the authors own experience. I would wager that someone wishing to understand more about racism, particularly the societal aspects (how it is generated and maintained), will know no more after reading this book than before.
By the second half of the book it starts to be peppered by bullet lists which are clearly the PowerPoint presentations she uses in her consultancy work. The sense of ennui that these types of presentation cause when you sit and stare at them on a screen is carried over into the book. Some of the anecdotes are interesting, and illustrative of problems that exist, but sometimes the dialogue is toe-curlingly contrived and unbelievable. It is possible an American audience will derive more from this book than a European one. However, it is rather disappointing that a book about something as global a problem as racism pays no heed to differing cultures and is so parochial.
My initial feelings of disappointment, and of a missed opportunity, gradually changed towards one of more distress and annoyance (probably confirming my fragility) as I realised that this book will do nothing to reduce racism but might, counter-productively, increase it. The author of this book believes that we are prisoners of our skin colour. She can tell our motives and intentions by simply looking at our complexions. This book lumps everyone, black or white or other, into specific racial groups and treats them all as ciphers; nothing more than signifiers of that race, doomed by their skin colour to the collective guilt or victimhood they inherit from their ancestors. The differences between cultures, the powerful effects of important heroic individuals, and the changes seen in societies as attitudes to racism are tackled, are all ignored. Though possibly less malign than curent racist thinking, this is also a racialist agenda and it is a backward step. I fear that this effect is starting to be seen, when I watch the media or talk to my neighbours, it seems race-relations have taken a backward step rather than improve following recent events. Racialised thinking, suspicion and anger are now more prevalent rather then less. It is a sad and sorry tale.
I was glad therefore to see an open letter in The Spectator attacking this increase in racial division. The co-signatories, from a variety of different political and cultural backgrounds, recognise the dangers that following this route can have. Unfortunately the author of White Fragility is not working with the angels in this case and is possibly promoting future problems. I think that this is important enough that I should finish with the text of the open letter here :-
Dear fellow citizens,
In the wake of the horrifying and brutal killing of George Floyd, many in the UK expressed heartfelt solidarity; widespread protests showed a genuine commitment to opposing racism. Since then, however, activists, corporations and institutions seem to have seized the opportunity to exploit Floyd’s death to promote an ideological agenda that threatens to undermine British race relations.
The power of this ideology lies in the fear it inspires in those who would otherwise speak out, whatever their ethnicity. But speak out we must. We must oppose and expose the racial division being sown in the name of anti-racism.
The consequences of this toxic, racialised agenda are counter-productive and serious. We are all being divided by tactics and narratives many of us know to be untrue:
- By splitting society into black lives or white lives, racial identity is being used to define who we all are and how we should fight injustice, as opposed to building a united movement to improve life for everyone.
- Those who favour the identity-based politics of grievance and academic critical race theory are redefining racism. The achievements of civil rights movements in the past – that effected positive material impacts on the lives of ethnic minorities and increased equal treatment – are now being denied and undermined by those who claim racism is on the rise.
- Demands that millions of people accept uncritically a prescriptive ‘white privilege’ agenda or be dubbed ignorant, racist or in denial is creating new tensions.
- Under soulless acronyms such as BAME and POC, all ethnic minorities are robbed of individual agency, and assumed to be victims of injustice.
- Free speech is being eroded by a McCarthyite culture of conformity in which to question the new dogma means to risk one’s livelihood and reputation.
- Calls for the wholesale destruction of historical statues, symbols and works of art are fuelling an unhealthy war against the past and stirring up culture wars in the present.
- An obsessive focus on the impact of colonialism threatens to turn history into a morality tale, rather than a complex, three-dimensional understanding of the past.
- The common conflation of the issue of race in the US with the UK (in relation to criminal justice, for example) is unhelpful as it makes it difficult to discuss our specific historical circumstances and the contemporary challenges we face.
We are committed to supporting open-minded, fact-based investigation into the roots of our many social problems but reject simplistic explanations that reduce all injustice to racial factors.
We are dismayed at the moral cowardice of political and cultural institutions that refuse to speak out in defence of tolerant citizens who are being targeted as though their skin colour is synonymous with ‘unconscious’ bigotry.
We oppose the notion of collective guilt, and support the goals of those who have struggled to ensure that individuals are judged by the content of the character and not the colour of their skin.
We reject the proposition that the UK is inherently racist in 2020, with racial prejudice embedded into our educational, cultural and legal institutions. We salute the struggles of earlier generations of civil rights activists and the progress they made in defeating racist discrimination and attitudes.
We want a genuine movement to fight for equality of treatment. Where racism exists, it should be unapologetically challenged. We oppose those ideologues who seek to irrevocably damage our society by hijacking this important cause. We also oppose the opportunistic far right groups who are already exploiting this new climate of fear and disunity.
We will not be divided – by reactionary racists or culture warriors – who refuse to see us as individuals beyond our skin colour.
We call on people to share their insights and experiences (@DontDivideUsNow on Twitter and Instagram) and join us in challenging these regressive trends.