Robin’s Zugzwang

July 19, 2020 Category: Domestic Politics

Epilogue 1

I saw fit to compose epilogues to the preceding piece, as I found more points to make the this important matter. I took the time to elaborate on the present thesis not only because I have found Robin DiAngelo’s “zugzwang” to be problematic, but also because it has been shown to exacerbate the very societal dysfunctions it claims to ameliorate. (Put on your irony helmet, this is going to be a bumpy ride.)

Before proceeding, it is worth making something clear: WASPs (and other non-p.o.c.) need to recognize they were born into a society fraught with structural inequalities that exist, in part, along racial lines.  It is a set of exigencies that—all else being equal—happens to advantage them.  The catch is that, when it comes to socio-economic status, all else is not always equal.  In other words, not ALL socio-economic injustice is attributable to institutionalized racism; there are other societal dysfunctions at play.  (Corporate power doesn’t care how diverse its boardroom is.) Moreover, institutionalized racism cannot be reduced to personal interactions. So pretending that such things can be addressed by altering how each person conducts himself does nothing to fix the underlying problem.

This brings us to the new hobgoblin for Potemkin Progressives: “implicit bias”. “Implicit bias” is largely a chimera. *  There does not need to exist racial prejudice at the individual level for structural inequalities (along racial lines) to exist.  Institutional dysfunction takes on a life of its own; and is not remedied by people comporting themselves in a more “woke” manner.  Collegiality is all fine and dandy, but it does nothing to remedy barriers-to-entry that exist for marginalized communities.  

Robin DiAngelo’s approach is analogous to thinking that one can keep the Titanic afloat by changing the pattern of the drapes in all the state rooms.  At the end of the day, etiquette is just window dressing. But for Robin that’s just fine; as she’s only concerned with optics.

Robin seems to think that one can give p.o.c. a leg up by being more polite to them; by never offending them; and by catering to the sensibilities of any bystander who happens to be p.o.c.  This turns activism into street theater.  It’s as if putting on airs would magically eradicate all the structural inequalities that have been baked into the system over the course of generations.

Robin urges us to focus on cosmetic changes, as if socio-economic justice were primarily a matter of keeping up appearances.  This gives people the opportunity to talk the (quasi-scripted) talk without walking the walk.  Everyone postures (according to the assigned script / choreography), while all the institutional dysfunction remains fully in tact.

Consider the mantra of Identity Politics: Instead of celebrating diversity, we should be wary of it.  This is a message from which genuine Progressives recoil; as it is an explicit repudiation of the cosmopolitan ideal. Rather than embracing our shared humanity, it admonishes us to ignore it in favor of a framing based on some sort of demographic categorization.

Robin DiAngelo, the high priestess of identity politics, insists that things would be so much better if we stop focusing on our shared humanity, and fixate more on race. When it comes to attenuating structural inequalities, human solidarity needn’t play any role. Instead of striving to overcome racial divisions, we should AMPLIFY them.

As I hope to have shown in the preceding essay, magnifying alterity by sowing resentment and suspicion is not a winning strategy.  Yet, for the last few years, this has been Robin’s stock-in-trade.  Such perfidy makes Robin’s “white fragility” campaign as appalling as the tendentious asseverations of other grifters who engage in race-baiting under the aegis of anti-racism.  Anyone with common sense realizes that racism in one direction is not defused by directing it in the opposite direction.  To reiterate the point: Bigotries pointed at each other don’t cancel each other out; they fuel each other.

Such an approach is not only morally bankrupt; it is also impractical. Tendentious language is not an effective way to win over those who need to be won over: those who are currently NOT NOTICING structural inequalities, abiding racial inequities, socio-economic stratification, the problems of highly-concentrated wealth / power, systems of domination / exploitation / marginalization, etc.

An elementary point–which seems to escape Robin–is that one does not appeal to the better angels of people’s nature by berating them for having been born a certain way.  And one certainly does not persuade well-meaning people by accusing them of thought-crime.  Robin does not wear her sanctimonious proclamations well, especially once we consider that those same proclamations are feeding her bank account.

To recapitulate: Robin is doing more harm than good with her frivolous “white fragility” indictment; and her groundless conjectures about inborn moral degeneracy.  As is now evident, in the midst of her finger-wagging fervor, she sows division more than good will.  (Her “anti-racism” seminars actually exacerbate the very problem they purport to ameliorate.)  This is a reminder that dividing people by race never ends well.

Alas, virtue-signaling has become a lucrative cottage industry. Now, ersatz “Progressives” (read: Reactionaries masquerading as Progressives) are peddling a new form of authoritarianism and puritanism.

In this scheme, hyper-sensitivity is a kind of bravery.  The fetishization of hurt feelings is based on narcissism: “It’s all about ME; and how I happen to feel.  The rest of the world is obliged to recognize this.”  So Robin is happy to spread an ethos of pathological safety-ism…and watch the money roll in.  (Hint: If one is gas-lighting an entire demographic group, one is not a civil rights activist.)

Those who’ve made an avocation out of being “offended” are now in the business of shaming heretics in the public square…instead of doing the hard work of dismantling inequitable power structures (by, say, advocating for meaningful policy changes).  This ill-considered enterprise leads to a massive misallocation of limited resources.  For it entails diverting time and attention away from the things that will really solve the problems that DiAngelo pretends to care about.

DiAngelo convinces her acolytes that non-p.o.c. must PANDER to p.o.c. in order to ameliorate the racial iniquities of American society…and that p.o.c. can empower themselves by being PEEVISH.  In DiAngelo’s proposed scheme, p.o.c. are to be treated as subjects rather than as fellow humans.  She thus uses p.o.c. as props in her tendentious prognosis.

In effect, DiAngelo demands alterity as a means to comity, as if to say: Divided we stand, united we fall.  With every sanctimonious asseveration, she ends up furnishing bullies with another harebrained rational to bully…while SEEMING to do something valiant.

DiAngelo seems not to understand that there is no connection between being “offended” and being oppressed.  It is possible for one to never–even for a fleeting moment–feel “offended” by anything anyone ever said ever again, yet still be hamstrung by structural inequalities for one’s entire life.  Her daft scheme only seems to work insofar as we conflate propriety with probity.

Robin’s boondoggle follows a simple formula: Combat racism by coercing anyone with fair skin to acknowledge that they are (unwittingly) racist BY NATURE.  Her message to all those who aren’t p.o.c. is as follows: Blithely going about your business, even in the most anodyne of ways, is–in reality–a covert form of “racial control”.  So you should be ashamed.

If you don’t concede this point, then you’re being “defensive”; and that defensiveness is–in and of itself–proof of your racism.  (But if she drowns, then she wasn’t a witch.)  It used to be that someone who said “heads I win, tails you lose” was laughed out of the room.  Alas.  It turns out that common sense is not so common in p.c. circles.

Robin is a grifter.  She peddles her magical elixir of guilt with a glib unscrupulousness–a cross between a snake-oil salesman and an evangelical preacher.  And, as with any huckster, her exorbitant consultation fees ensure that she’s financially compensated for her astonishing wisdom.

Shaming THESE people for the color of their skin is part of her grift.  Patronizing THOSE people due to the color of their skin is the other part.  This purportedly offers a panacea for trans-ethnic comity.  What it really does is sow resentment…without solving any of the underlying problems.

For Robin’s adoring fans, finger-wagging is a courageous act.  Pearl-clutching is a sign of valor.  And–by the way–NOT obsessing over race is a form of racism.  As with any other grifter, her prognoses is downright Kafka-esque; yet oddly compelling for credulous audiences.  It gives people who don’t really give a shit an opportunity to feel like they’re fighting the good fight, without having to do anything substantive.

In the advent of the Enlightenment, exhibiting piety via self-flagellation was relegated to the rubbish heap of risible medieval practices; but Robin is determined to bring it back…though with a “call-outs” instead of cat o’ nine tails.  Until very recently, shaming people for their skin color was considered racist.  Now it’s called “anti-racist”…in the event that the shame is inflicted upon those who aren’t p.o.c.  (In other words, racism is cancelled out by racism pointed in the other direction.)  Reality tells a different story.  It is a basic principle of tribalism that countervailing bigotries don’t nullify each other; they exacerbated each other…leading to a vicious cycle.  Why?  Because divisiveness is reciprocal; and contempt fuels contempt.  (Robin may want to read up on positive feedback loops.)

The most basic feature of STRUCTURAL inequality–specifically when along racial lines–is that it is not resolved on the micro-level (i.e. by simply eliminating interpersonal racial biases).  For the problem is hardwired into INSTITUTIONS–irrespective of how noble individual intentions might be.  Inequitable power structures will remain fully intact even if those complicit in their socio-economic hierarchies were to grovel 24/7, and nobody ever “offended” anyone else ever again.

We should not be fooled by DiAngelo’s seemingly collegial pretensions.  Such posturing only serves to deepen our divisions–stirring acrimony where none would otherwise exist.  It’s like prescribing an irritant, then calling it a salve.  The perverse irony here is that this (purportedly) “anti-racist” grifter doesn’t give p.o.c. nearly enough credit.  (This is probably because she knows so little about ACTUAL p.o.c.)  Being offended for a marginalized group–on their behalf–does nothing to remedy any structural inequality with which they may be dealing.  It is only a chance to virtue signal…and then to pat oneself on the back for vanquishing bigotry from the face of the earth.

Memo to DiAngelo: The problem with racism is not poor manners.  Etiquette is not ethics.

One does a grave disservice to p.o.c. by supposing that all one needs to do is placate them (on an interpersonal level).  The idea, it seems, is to help a targeted demographic by pandering to its members’ most choleric disposition; not by actually doing anything substantive.  DiAngelo doesn’t seem to grasp how condescending this is.  As is the case with anyone else grappling with inequity, p.o.c. aren’t helped by being coddled; they are helped by being accorded respect.

Dismayingly, Robin’s garish pageant of virtue-signaling allows her to get away with peddling stereotypes of African Americans.  She pulls off this stunt by passing off her candy-coated dreck as INSIGHT.  What does it means to be black in America?  According to Robin’s mawkish depiction: Frangible?  Yep.  Captious?  Yep.  Petty?  Yep.  Concerned with electing genuinely Progressive figures to public office?  Don’t hold your breath.

Every decent person recoils from this puerile caricature–or from ANY generalization of an entire racial group.  And what of white people?  Well, you see, all of them are FRAGILE.  Every last one.  (And once they all fess up to this congenital defect, the world will magically become a better place.)  We are all familiar with this gimmick in its older forms.  In Christianity, it’s called “original sin”.  The schtick is as old as time: Propagate the impression of an ailment, then peddle the alleged cure.  It’s like a homeopathic remedy for racism; though Robin’s artificially-flavored hogwash is laced with a mild toxin.  It’s little more than an opportunity to virtue signal, without having to do anything to address structural inequality…along ANY lines.  (Note: A recent critique of Robin’s fatuous approach to racial justice is Jonathan Church’s “Rethinking Racism”.)

Robin’s daft crusade is a reminder that virtue-signaling is faux activism–a way to appear virtuous without actually have to do anything constructive (e.g. support Progressives running for public office, push for Progressive legislation, engage in work that helps to solve real problems, etc.)  Simpering while stating, “I’m sorry for being white” never once helped a p.o.c.; as coercing people into apologizing for being who they are (since birth) is ALWAYS a horrible idea.  Progressives should know better.  Alas.  Many on the “Left” are clamoring for an excuse to publicly congratulate themselves for being “woke”.  It is to that audience that Robin caters.  Little do such people realize: “I recognize the disadvantages you face as a member of a marginalized community” is only a POINT OF DEPARTURE.  Virtue signaling needn’t play any role in any activism that ensues.

Overmuch focus on proprieties, which operate solely on an inter-personal level, risks diverting vital attention away from macro-problems: systemic racism and the structural inequalities that it abets.  By fixating on being politically correct, otherwise well-meaning people miss the forest for the trees.  For instead of learning how to address structural inequality with political action, people occupy themselves with following the assigned choreography–reciting pieties, then calling it a day.  Meanwhile, fawning fans pay to hear Robin churn out more hokum.

In “Sociological Imagination”, C. Wright Mills noted that, if one is to procure a thorough understanding of how power and politics interact, a crucial distinction must be made between “personal troubles and public issues.”   To automatically construe the former as the latter is not insightful; it is narcissistic.  While case-studies on the individual level can be illustrative of issues on a macro-level, and while a sufficiently large sample set can reveal broader trends (which can help is identify systemic problems); a given person’s subjective state at any given time and place cannot be invoked to diagnose societal dysfunction.

Personal experiences don’t necessarily account for the myriad ways that incumbent power structures impact life outcomes; nor do they offer a full explanation for how larger socio-economic forces may impact any given person’s life.  Problematic one-on-one interactions may be symptomatic of institutional problems.  It does not follow from this that mitigating the occurrence of such interactions somehow makes those institutional problems vanish.  If anything, it only elides some of the more overt signs that such problems exist.

Fussing over an episode in which one person may have been uncouth toward another person, thereby eliciting a fleeting sense of discomfiture in the latter, may tell us something about the psychology of the two people involved in that particular interaction.  However, such an interaction cannot possibly provide an account of the systemic realities that shape society-at-large.

Robin takes the opposite approach.  According to her, racial inequities along racial lines can be corrected by making token gestures across those lines (gestures that are designed to INGRATIATE); and–the contention goes–this can only be done by fixating on racial differences in our day-to-day lives.  “Want to eliminate socio-economic injustices?  Don’t offend anyone!”

Obsessing over propriety does nothing in the way of generating awareness about structural inequalities; it merely makes people un-necessarily anxious about adhering to the latest prescribed etiquette in every encounter.  Moreover, it creates the illusion that, so long as one is exhibiting proper conduct / speech in all quotidian interactions, one is doing one’s part in eradicating racism.  Worse that FAILING to solve an underlying problem is pretending that one is taking measures to solve it when one is doing nothing of the sort.  We cannot rectify structural inequalities by minding our manners; and thinking that we CAN actually diverts our focus from doing what needs to be done.

I concur with Robin that, when it comes to hubris, there is nothing worse than a wealthy, white person with a sense of entitlement–whether such conceit is based on ethnicity, socio-economic status, or anything else.  The difference is that I don’t become the very thing I decry.  Obsessing over etiquette does absolutely nothing to attenuate structural inequalities; it is merely an opportunity to peacock.  Alas; virtue-signaling is all Robin’s most ardent followers are interested in.

It is this a hankering to APPEAR Progressive that enables her to charge exorbitant fees, attracting those who have no sincere interest in supporting Progressive figures / policies…yet still want to get credit for fighting the good fight.  After all, political correctness is about putting on airs.

So WHAT OF that sense of entitlement?  To combat this abiding social pathology (entitled caucasians who are heedless of what it’s like to NOT BE caucasian), the key is to identify those who are ACTUALLY culpable.  To do so, some degree of discernment is required.  That is to say: Sapience requires that we make the crucial distinction between those who have a sense of entitlement and, well, those who don’t.  One obfuscates this distinction by simply painting all white people in the world with the broad brush of “entitlement”–as if it were an inborn stain.  There is no better way to elide the fact that CERTAIN white people need to be indicted than to bunch them in with, well, everyone else.  As we learn in childhood, “crying wolf” dilutes the gravity of an indictment.  (This point is illustrated by those who categorize uncouth flirtation as “sexual assault”, thereby conflating rudeness with RAPE.)  Impropriety is not violence; and to pretend otherwise is to do a grave disservice to actual victims.

In Robin DiAngelo, we find just another charlatan who knows how to ingratiate herself with an obsequious target-audience.  The trick, Robin seems to have learned, is to pass her indiscriminate musings off as gnostic discernment.  Those who are hornswoggled into giving her asseverations oxygen are soon distracted from things that REALLY MATTER (i.e. our shared humanity).  This ends up being a misallocation of time and energy–very limited resources that should be devoted to promoting STRUCTURAL change.  Even as it affords us an opportunity to congratulate ourselves for doing nothing, good etiquette gets us nowhere.  Piety is not probity. Touting it as a cure-all is a fool’s errand.

The larger lesson to take home should be loud and clear to those are are sincerely interested in moving things forward.  It’s time to call out the mendacity of identity politics, and expose it for what it is: A right-wing phenomenon masquerading as an intrepid social justice crusade.

In the end, making non-p.o.c. aware of the travails of p.o.c. is the point. There are certain ways this has been done in compelling ways—from W.E.B. Du Bois’ “The Souls Of Black Folk” (in 1903) to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From A Birmingham Jail” (in 1963).  Ralph Ellison conveyed this reality in his 1945 essay, “Richard Wright’s Blues”, then in his 1952 novel, “Invisible Man”.  James Baldwin did so in his 1953 memoir, “Go Tell It On The Mountain”, then in his 1955 anthology, “Notes Of A Native Son”. (My hunch is that the vast majority of those who are smitten with Robin have not read any of these works.)

The more white people are cognizant of the tribulations that are still endured by p.o.c. (and understand WHY p.o.c. still endure those tribulations), the more everyone will be able to come together to formulate effective solutions.  For, at the end of the day, this is a common cause.

{*  Jesse Singal does a great job debunking the paranoia surrounding “implicit bias” in “Quick Fix”.  It is a creature of the anti-scientific fad known as “critical race theory”, a topic I discuss in Epilogue 3.}

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