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Nattrass and Seekings article on Robin DiAngelo is itself a demonstration of ‘white fragility’

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Edwin Cleophas is Managing Director of the Social Justice Agency. He works with Robin DiAngelo as her South African partner when she engages audiences locally. He holds several degrees and is currently working on his PhD in Educational Psychology. The SJA collaborates with various organisations that include, among others, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, Anti-Racism Network and their partners, University of Pretoria, UCT, CPUT and SU.

The Daily Maverick article by Professors Nicoli Nattrass and Jeremy Seekings on Robin DiAngelo and UCT fails to take into account that people of all races and backgrounds across the world accept Dr DiAngelo’s work as truth, based on their lived experience. Their article speaks of one perspective and specifically those of two white individuals, which, one can argue, is a response to their own white fragility.

I write in response to the article of 25 September 2020 in Daily Maverick, “UCT ‘says no to non-racialism’: A Freudian slip, or an embracing of the cult of ‘anti-racism’?” by Professors Nicoli Nattrass and Jeremy Seekings.

This is a case of two white people collaborating to expose an ally of black people in the form of Dr Robin DiAngelo and attempting to support a lack of intelligence of black people to distinguish between being partners in the fight for an anti-racist society and being manipulated into being blind followers of DiAngelo. They quote Matt Taibbi, who describes DiAngelo as a “dangerous huckster” who “isn’t the first person to make a buck pushing tricked-up pseudo-intellectual horseshit as corporate wisdom, but she might be the first to do it selling Hitlerian race theory”.

If the following is a reflection of Hitlerian theory, then the writer of this article is spot-on. However, I would disagree and assign it as part of “Critical Whiteness Theory” — something more closely aligned to the work of DiAngelo, which is the premise from which she operates.

Whiteness is the relationship of dominance of white people over black people. This dominance occurs on an individual, interpersonal, cultural and institutional level. White Privilege is built into the constructs and norms of society, maintaining the comforts of white people. When these comforts are challenged, there is an uncomfortableness by white people and an awkward silence in which they try to restore their privilege by avoiding the subject. These silences are critical, according to David Mura (Mura, D. 1999 in TB Jelloun, C Volk & P Williams, Eds: Racism explained to my daughter, The New Press), as well as Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin (Picca, L. & Feagin, J 2007: Two-faced racism: Whites in the backstage and frontstage, Routledge) as part of the ideology of maintaining white privilege. These silences are used as tools to make the experiences of racism by black people invalid, or to oppose the pleas from anti-racist white people to change the status quo. 

Firstly, the article indicates that DiAngelo has been invited twice by UCT to host webinars at the university. This is not exactly correct. UCT’s Office for Inclusivity and Change (OIC) has partnered with the Social Justice Agency (SJA), a company of which I am the managing director, and which is focused in the area of race education, and works closely with DiAngelo on various projects clarifying that when DiAngelo engages with any events in South Africa it is through the SJA. I will add that the event in question was hosted not just to bring awareness to the current and very real gap between the haves and have-nots by means of inequality, racism, corruption and Covid-19, but it was also a fundraiser to support struggling students at UCT.  

Let’s get into some of the things mentioned in the article by Nattrass and Seekings:

“What does UCT’s ‘executive’ really think of ‘non-racialism’? On Wednesday 16 September, UCT proclaimed that its vision was to ‘embrace inclusivity, say no to non-racialism and erase all traces of the past’s injustices’.  Many readers were amazed. Saying ‘no to non-racialism’ meant rejecting not only one of UCT’s former core values, but also Section 1 of the South African Constitution.

“In the face of criticism on social media, the article was quickly ‘corrected’. By Thursday it read that UCT will ‘embrace inclusivity, promote non-racialism and erase all traces of the past’s injustices’. Complainants were told that a ‘mistake’ had been made by UCT’s media department.”

However this glitch (or mistake) came about, I can confirm that the deputy vice-chancellor for transformation through the OIC is actively committed to the fight against racism and establishing a more equitable and fair society, representative of South Africa. Any claims that are counter to this, would be very confusing to myself, as the managing director at the SJA and someone who has been working very closely with the OIC. I would, by means of personal knowledge, give them the benefit of the doubt in this regard.

This article tries to engage with the difference in understanding non-racialism as it was envisioned by Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela. Anyone who has taken the time to understand the difference between these two movements will know that no movement is static the word ‘movement’ in itself speaks volumes to the criteria by which any movement shifts and changes to accommodate the most pressing issues in society. Under apartheid, it was firmly established that white people were made to be seen as superior, purely by just being white, and being white would automatically afford a person undeserved privileges as the system was manipulated to do that. Therefore, it would make sense that a political leader from that time would call for a non-racist society that would see all people as equal and offer all people equal opportunities. Similarly, with King and the civil rights movements in the US.

Why has it become important for the non-racism movement to adjust to an anti-racist movement? Non-racialism fails to take into account the invisible hand that continues to operate in favour (unfairly so) of white people. Under non-racialism it is completely acceptable for white people to live their middle-to-upper-class lifestyles without any concern for the 80% poor, black majority in SA because they don’t see colour, and because everyone now has an equal opportunity to be whatever they want to be.

The problem with this is that white people under non-racialism have no obligation to engage with the continued struggle to dismantle systems that favour them, and why would they? Anti-racism more specifically recognises all racial divisions, its history and origins, how each group came to be in the position that they are today, and when found to be of ill-gotten gains, such groups are held to account. This is why articles like these emerge due to a lack of accountability among white people for their ancestors and descendants.

It has been 25 years since the demise of apartheid and yet white dominance still persists. With many significant changes visible as a result of the fall of apartheid, the country sadly remains racially divided. The black majority still lives in poverty while the white minority continues to hold their position of privilege and power. And while black people are trying to change the status quo, most white people are ignoring their role in the past and present, while continuing to perpetuate their white privilege as the gap between black and white widens. Not addressing the issues of the past maintains the unearned privileges white people have, while the black community grows even more frustrated as the years pass.

“DiAngelo’s solution is straight out of the Black Power playbook: to force white people to acknowledge the racism that she herself sees everywhere, and then to act in racially conscious ways (as taught by her) to all people at all times. Any white person who rejects this approach in favour of non-racialism is denounced for supposedly refusing to confront race and displaying ‘white fragility’.”

This opinion doesn’t take into account that DiAngelo doesn’t just write this information as an outsider looking in, but rather offers us as “black community knowledge” about the thinking and behaviour behind being a white, racist, liberal with white fragility that lacks any self-correcting tools to deal with their conscious and unconscious biases. How does she know this? Because she is white and everything that she writes about she has also been guilty of, and continues to work towards doing better in order to support the cause of black people to live in a society where we are truly viewed as equal to all others who live in that society.

“DiAngelo is an American consultant with a lucrative business in ‘anti-racist’ training. She promotes her work in South Africa, including at UCT, arguing that her ‘theory’ is as relevant in South Africa as it is in the US. According to DiAngelo, white people have ‘anti-blackness’ baked into them whether they realise this or not. Her corrective training requires them to accept their inevitable complicity in racism, to excavate and confess their racial biases, and learn not to ‘decenter’ black voices (which, being systemically oppressed, are necessarily weak and vulnerable). White people must also be (re)-educated about the many ways that words, symbols and arguments can be painful, experienced as ‘microaggressions’ and even as ‘epistemic violence’ by black people.”

Yes, DiAngelo has a successful business, but attributing it to exploiting black people is a stretch. She has been working and training in this space for four decades, with training and lived experience to back that up. She has never and will never claim to speak for black people — this is from my personal experience of working with DiAngelo. I am a South African and introduced DiAngelo into the South African context because, unlike the views in this article, myself as a black man and many other black people agree wholeheartedly that DiAngelo’s work can be applied with ease into our context. We experience her work as a reality to our lived experience as black people in relation to white people in South Africa. And, yes, we as a people remain oppressed and systemically disadvantaged by our past hardships and unfortunately other contributors such as corruption and poor leadership, but that doesn’t absolve the reality of a white supremacist system that continues to thrive in SA.

“DiAngelo’s book, White Fragility, although lauded by some as insightful, has also been condemned as profoundly racist towards both white and black people. David Edward Burke, for example, points out that her concept of ‘white fragility’ is a ‘Kafkatrap’ because it is an irrefutable theory: white people are either self-acknowledged racists (proving her theory true) or are denying it (displaying white fragility and therefore proving her theory true). He writes: ‘If a similar book were written about any other racial group – Asian Insecurity, Black Hostility, Latinx Insensitivity, etc. – not only would the book never become a bestseller, it would never be published. People would see the book for what it is — an absurd generalisation that attributes negative qualities to an entire race of people — the very definition of racism.’”

This fails to take into account that people of all races and backgrounds around the world accept DiAngelo’s work as truth, based on their lived experience. This article speaks of one perspective and specifically those of two white individuals, which one can argue is a response to their own white fragility.

It is probably important to point out that some of the views expressed in this article are eerily similar to that being pushed by US President Donald Trump. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think it is a compliment when your views and opinions are aligned to Trump’s. In fact, I would argue that it proves that you are probably a white, nationalist racist who claims to be a progressive thinker and has benefited for far too long off a system that fails to hold you accountable for your reckless behaviour.

“John McWhorter, a professor at Columbia University New York, similarly describes DiAngelo’s book as a ‘racist tract’, pointing out that it ‘diminishes Black people in the name of dignifying us’. He writes that he does not ‘need wider society to undergo teachings in how to be exquisitely sensitive to my feelings’ and that ‘I cannot imagine that any Black readers could willingly submit themselves to DiAngelo’s ideas while considering themselves adults of ordinary self-regard and strength’.” 

This statement serves to confirm that DiAngelo’s work is racist by nature and that black people could not willingly submit themselves to DiAngelo’s ideas. However, I submit myself willingly to DiAngelo’s ideas. That being said, let me produce some evidence of my own, on what a highly revered and respected Professor Tinyiko Maluleke had to say about DiAngelo’s work:

“If Malcolm X were a white American and Steve Biko a white South African; if Frantz Fanon were an American sociologist and Stokely Carmichael a modern-day white US immigrant and their lifetimes straddled the 20th and 21st centuries, all of them might have sounded just like DiAngelo. Such is the erudition and insight into the nature of racism of white people contained in the slim volume. Written after more than 25 years of activism as a diversity trainer in the US, the book focuses on how to interrupt the strategies and tactics with which white people avoid, resist and deflect discussion of their racism what DiAngelo calls ‘white fragility’.”

While this would have made for a great ending, I need to address a few more issues. These are two white people as mentioned who expressed what I have called out as their white fragility, which is their defence in arguing that they somehow have overcome their superiority and have become anti-racist without having to engage the ideas shared through DiAngelo’s work. I would like to provide further evidence that it is not just black people who willingly submit and approve of DiAngelo’s ideas and work, but also white people. For the purpose of this article, I will provide some of the more well known in this respect. Among them are Professor Melissa Steyn, Professor Samantha Vice, Dr Wilhelm Verwoerd (I don’t have to say too much here).

I question articles like these quoting their concern for something that might hamper our struggle for an anti-racist society and yet it seems at the heart of their approach it looks like an attempt to divide us. And with what end goal, one would ask. I couldn’t be more suspicious of their intentions, which to me seems anti-revolutionary.

In  conclusion, DiAngelo’s work and her contribution from her income as racial educator and facilitator, in supporting black organisations, communities and individuals, has been inspiring, if nothing else. She gives of her time and expertise free of charge across the world to black people as her partners. I would really think twice before I trust the intentions of those writing this article.

Finally, the idea is not, and never has been, to abolish the Freedom Charter’s calls for a non-racist society. It has, however, made a slight shift to address the most pressing need in society, which is to address the issues of the past in a more comprehensive way while continuing to fight for an equitable, just and more fair and representative society where black people may finally enjoy the freedoms that should be naturally achieved through our heritage and connection to the land of our birth instead of fighting with the offspring of our colonisers who, like Nattrass and Seekings, refuse to acknowledge their problematic positionality in history. DM

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  • “People would see the book for what it is — an absurd generalisation that attributes negative qualities to an entire race of people” — of course, they fail to mention that it is a ‘generalisation’ about an entire race of people that literally invented colonisation, and under the guise of ‘spreading the word of god’ conquered nations around the globe, oppressed the indigenous peoples, sold them into slavery in vast numbers and in many cases – the US, Namibia, Australia etc – actually committed genocide against them. I don’t see how it can be so difficult to recognise that systems put in place by the conquerors – most of which still exist, to some degree – would inevitably favour the conquerors and not the conquered, and that if those systems still exist, they would inherently ‘bake in’ a white person’s existing privilege. I have no problem admitting that, while I worked hard to get where I am, the schooling I received, the ease with which I was accepted into (and with which my parents were able to afford) university and my ability to obtain a job during my first forays into the working world were all facilitated by the position I was in in society, and that this position is due to the horrible things my ancestors did when they first arrived as colonisers….

    • I agree with what you have said here. I would like to get into the discussion, how do we move forward from here – recognising the damage done by our forefathers – how on earth do we make things better?

  • Having consumed and internalized some of Ms DiAngelo’s work, I find myself agreeing with a lot of what she has to say, but also finding a lot of what she has to say quite problematic. I agree that all white people are inherently racially biased, but I would add that I believe that the truth is somewhat larger: all people are racially biased. Taking the position that only white people can be racist is possibly the most problematic of her assumptions – I can name numerous examples across the globe that indicate otherwise. I also agree with her that white supremacy does exist, but once again I would argue that it is not the only racialised power structure, and once again I could point to numerous examples across the planet that prove otherwise. Is it not a somewhat condescending view to take that there is no such thing as black power? Once again, off the top of my head I can name numerous examples of black power. Mrs DiAngelo is well within her rights to point out certain truths (most of which I agree with) when it comes to what she calls ‘white fragility’, but she is painting less than half of the picture, and once again, making it all about white people.

  • I’m trying hard not to see this article as simply another white-bashing tirade. It seems to me that Ms d’Angelo and her acolyte in this article achieve little except to encourage white people to live in a perpetual state of anxiety and shame for the behaviour of their oftentimes long-dead ancestors. It is improbable that the SJA (by the way what exactly is social justice?) is not piggy backing on the profits being accrued by this funky publication. This may explain Mr Cleophas’s indignation at Profs Nattrass and Seeking’s article. From my observation of the goings on at UCT in the recent past it was no typo that proclaimed an end to non-racism, anti-racism is much more in vogue.

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