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Read Wretched of the Earth, not White Fragility

What I write here doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of the owners of Weller Book Works or those of my colleagues, but I know that each of us is devoted to some idea of racial justice in a country where, even since its inception, violence, exploitation, and colonial nightmares have ruled the day. If anyone in our community takes issue with what I say here, you can take it up with me personally. This blog – neonatal as it is – will only ever be an impetus for discussion and intellectual inquiry; it is neither a place for me to pontificate nor a place to express either performative activism or reactionary views on the part of the bookstore. I own all of my views, to the extent that any 'I' may own what they write and speak.

Protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and other black Americans by police officers have driven concerned people to sources of and arguments about race and identity. This is certainly a much brighter picture than that of the United States in the last six decades or so. We can say, “At least some people are trying!”

However, the bare minimum is not worth celebrating. Mediocrity, that classic American virtue, needs to be quashed once again, I’m afraid. In the past two weeks, people, especially upper-middle and middle-class, white people, have turned to Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility as some sort of guide in what is effectively a system outside of their control. Nonetheless, they recognize that on some level they are accessory to this abusive system as criminals in colonialism, slavery, and the perpetuation of exploitation.

I have taken up this book in recent days to determine for myself if it is worth people’s time and if it deserves the moral accolades its received.

It is not worth your time and its a poor excuse for a moral response to white supremacy, the caraceral state, and the military industrial complex. In fact, White Fragility contributes to ongoing problems with race and intellectual mediocrity by letting people think certain attitudes and behaviors are radical when they are merely performative and empty.

In the opening pages, DiAngelo expresses her aim to construct a white identity and white consciousness that are anti-racist, that are purged of that nice, pithy buzzword “implicit bias.” Already, DiAngelo shows herself to be a disappointing thinker, sheer and stunning in her ability to pretend she has got ahold of the nuances of race, identity, consciousness, history, ethics, atrocity, and political subjectivity. Complex issues deserve complex meditations and inquiry. In this post, I’m going to tell you why White Fragility is a sad excuse for absolving your sin. I’ll then recommend a book about race and colonialism written by someone who both experienced these things and treated them with the care they deserve: Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon.

White Fragility provides the illusion of reflection on one’s whiteness in order to help said white subject enjoy their guilt rather than wallow in it, be paralyzed by it, or actually do something, like defunding and disarming the police, the military, and the corporate elite of the USA. In other words, White Fragility helps white liberals retain a sense of moral superiority over their more reactionary cousins, white conservatives and white fascists. Wanting to have their cake and eat it too, White Fragility and other signs of bad faith action allow white liberals to keep the privileges and tools of exploitation untouched by participating in the various hyptothetical scenarios DiAngleo provides for the reader, wherein instead of experiencing a human being as a complex, infinite expanse, the white person is tasked with drawing up a survey for their colleague of color to talk about racism. It’s a nice way to help excuse yourself while doing nothing.

Furthermore, DiAngelo never backs up her claims regarding identity and consciousness; she never asks, “What is identity?” or “What is consciousness?” Instead, she tells us about business seminars where white people reacted poorly to being told their racist. Now, those people are not defensible, but when your only evidence for a stable conception of an identity is an anecdote about a business seminar, I don’t really care that someone got mad at you. The very notion of a stable identity derived from the color of one’s skin is the notion that first led to the justifications of colonial violence, including the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. If one subject is always and transparently one kind of subject, then there is no need to worry about them if they will always be subhuman compared to another subject. It should be needless to say, but identity is far more complex and never, never, never stable. Nor is race a biological, objective categorization or organization of human subjects. It was invented to differentitate between rational subjects (white) and primitive, wild, or degenerate subjects (not white, often including Jews whose families had lived in Europe for centuries.) The valorization of identities does not liberate us, it only recapitulates the same erroneous, unthoughtful thinking that led to the emergence of racism, colonialism, and European imperialism.

Enough on White Fragility. Let’s talk about someone who was a philosopher and knew a lot about racism and colonialism.

Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth opens with one of the most famous critiques (in its original sense as ‘exploration’) of colonial violence. He lays down how and why it is quite rational, in fact now inevitable, that ‘the colonized subject’ violently revolts and reclaims what the European nations took from them. Not only does this book help you explain to your relatives why violence is a necessary force of popular action, but it will also make you deeply uncomfortable if you are a white person.

(Incidentally, why do so many people become neurotically concerned about trying to make their racist relatives less racist? What do you have to gain by defending them in a violent uprising? You shouldn’t pander to the lowest denominator in the room; you should demand more and better from yourself and those around you. I’ve never understood it.)

If you are not a white person, then you may perhaps still want a book or source of information regarding race and political action. You may already know about Fanon, in fact. Wretched of the Earth is not just a ‘Colonial Revolt for White Dummies’. The final sections of the book are summaries of psychoanalytic case studies of people who sought analysis with Fanon. They are people who experienced colonial violence, and they tell you their stories of tormenting oppression, self-imposed violence, and grueling, complicated searches for freedom, both personal and collective. Fanon provides clear, convincing analysis of these subjective accounts to advance an argument about the objective thrust of the political and symbolic dialectics alienating each us, destroying each of us, and helping others profit off of us.

Published in France in 1961, Wretched of the Earth is my favorite of Fanon’s works because it is the most sparing in its attempts to accommodate itself to any reader. The legacy of colonial violence is brutal, so should its resolution and its investigation. Again, business seminars will do nothing for you; Fanon’s thought has already inspired revolutionaries and seekers of justice across the globe for decades in the wake of postcolonial revolution and socialist revolution. If you want something that leads to action and change, here you go!

I’ll leave it here because you should let the Martinican psychoanalyst-philosopher tell you how it is. You should also be prepared to question Fanon. Many have done so in the years since this book’s publication. None of them were white Americans who thought that there were only two sides to politics or that going to a voting booth would undo all of the systematic, global methods of exploitation still in place today.

I encourage you to trudge on a path of study with Fanon as your starting point and be prepared to have your world shaken. It’s the only moral feeling in the world, really.

If you’ve already acquired and read White Fragility, then I offer my condolences. Acquire a copy of Wretched of the Earth and try to undo its damage. If you’ve acquired but not read White Fragility, then return it and exchange it for Wretched of the Earth at your public library or local, independent bookstore.

Do better. Stay angry.