Glorifying White Authors like DiAngelo Erases Decades of Black Writing on Whiteness
“I have spent most of my life … watching white people and outwitting them so that I might survive.” — James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name (1961)
Books on race and racism are dominating bestseller lists. Netflix has recently launched a new Black Lives Matter collection on its streaming platform, where films like Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us and Spike Lee’s Malcolm X have been trending for weeks. One of the most popular books right now is Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, which, as of today, has been a New York Times paperback nonfiction bestseller for 93 weeks. While sales of books by black authors like Ibrahim X. Kendi, Ijeoma Oluo, and Carol Anderson have also soared (granted, only three to four weeks ago), DiAngelo’s book seems to have left a particular mark on contemporary white American culture.
For weeks, white liberal Americans have been praising White Fragility, treating it as a must-read manual for white people, forming online discussion groups, and joining book clubs all across the country.
What is troubling about the current white liberal obsession with DiAngelo is how digital conversations that glorify her most recent work rarely consider writings on whiteness and white people by Black American authors, at least not with the same sense of urgency and importance.
DiAngelo is not the first scholar to become broadly popular among white liberal audiences. Before DiAngelo, there was the author of “White Like Me” Tim Wise (whose work I do not recommend for several reasons). Then, there was also Peggy McIntosh’s 1989 essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” which was one of the first texts that a friend sent to me as I tried to understand race after first moving to the United States ten years ago.
If DiAngelo’s readership is earnestly committed to decoding whiteness, we must ask a glaringly obvious question: why are white liberal Americans so quickly inclined to praise and venerate a white expert on race but generally don’t extend the same attention to what Black writers, intellectuals, and political leaders have had to say about whiteness and white people for decades?
With this mind, in the introduction to Black On White: Black Writers On What It Means to Be White David Roediger makes a compelling observation that may give us ground for reflecting on how white Americans think about racial expertise:
“Few Americans have even considered the fact that black Americans are extremely knowledgeable about white people and whiteness.”
Certainly, most white Americans haven’t been seriously taught Black literature—let alone black political thought—in schools. To be generous, we may say that, considering calls for white people to educate themselves, many well-meaning whites may simply not know where else to start. But what Roediger ultimately implies is that, on the level of culture, white people don’t fully realize that “being Black” is not a kind of fixed experience that automatically differentiates Black people’s experiences based on skin tone. Rather, racial experiences arise out of having to deal with white people and, therefore, being forced to learn about them, watch them, and, above all, watch out for them.
In other words, racial experiences do not exist in some kind of vacuum that is the proverbial “black experience”; experiences of racism are born out of daily interactions with white people, with white institutions, and with white culture, which, as Roediger reiterates, has made Black Americans “the nation’s keenest students of white consciousness and white behavior.”
Nonetheless, as bell hooks writes in “Representations of Whiteness in Black Imagination,” while white people routinely observe Black people with suspicion, they “find it easy to imagine that black people cannot see them” in the same way. In fact, white people, hooks argues, are deeply terrified of being seen by people of color and exposed in “the ways of white folks,” as Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes put it. White people are afforded this psychological illusion of safety precisely because in a white-dominate society it is always already assumed that only white people have the power to scrutinize others, and not vice versa.
White fantasies are a form of American racial fiction that projects narratives of white innocence onto others, obscuring the actual realities of what it means to live with white people and be the object of white people’s constant interrogation. Not only do Black Americans have had to intimately learn white culture and white consciousness in order to survive and navigate white people’s everyday scrutiny, Black writers have been writing about white people and whiteness since at least since the nineteenth century.
From folktales to slave narratives, accounts of black life in bondage became increasingly prominent during the era of slavery as enslaved people had to learn white people’s habits and ways of thinking to resist racial enslavement and find ways to persevere. Later, popular literary narratives about racial passing further showed how the practice of passing as white depended on black Americans’ meticulous observation of whites and the ability to strategically move between and through white and black spaces.
In the early twentieth century, James Weldon Johnson wrote in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), a fictional account about a young biracial black man who could pass as white in the post-Reconstruction U.S. South:
“colored people of this country know and understand the white people better than the white people know and understand themselves.”
Yet, despite this rich archive of black-authored texts that do nothing less than theorize whiteness (not to even mention a wide range of black cultural theory produced in the late twentieth century), Black American writers have often been perceived as merely offering their white readers a new perspective on what it’s like to be “a minority” or on, in Du Bois’s words, “how does it feel to be a problem,” and nothing more.
In comparison, “white writers,” Roediger notes, “have long been positioned as the leading and most dispassionate investigators of the lives, values, and abilities of people of color.” Writings on race and whiteness by white authors are much more rare to come by. These works provoke white people’s curiosity and gather attention for being seemingly exceptional (they are not).
So, let’s be clear here: the figure of the exceptional white race scholar is fetishized at the expense of black intellectual work on race and whiteness.
To this day, Black Studies scholarship is often dismissed by white Americans, many of whom don’t seem to take black intellectual and political thought seriously. Think about how African-American Studies is often dismissed as an “easy major” rather than a rigorous academic discipline in its own right. Ironically, this piece itself falls into the trap of referencing the breadth of black intellectual thought on whiteness precisely in order to prove its intellectual rigor and cultural significance.
Ultimately, the problem here is not that people are eager to read Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility per se but that way too many newcomers to the racial justice movement fail to take the rest of the black intellectual work as seriously. When white race scholars are revered and seen as exceptional, well-intentioned white Americans risk reading a trendy book by a white expert and not picking up a book by an established black author at all.
What does it say about white culture when masses of white Americans are ready to praise a white expert on race but make very little effort to read Black intellectuals who—make no mistake—have made their work possible?
Black intellectuals have been writing about whiteness for decades. Read them, too.