The Moral Limits of Anti-racist Self-Help

illustration of oversized white
Illustration by Vahram Muradyan; images by Les Byerley / Shutterstock; QuartoMundo / CGTrader

This article was published online on August 3, 2021.

Last March, just before we knew the pandemic had arrived, my husband and I enrolled our son in a progressive private school in Pasadena, California. He was 14 and, except for a year abroad, had been attending public schools his whole life. Private was my idea, the gentle kind of hippie school I’d sometimes wished I could attend during my ragtag childhood in Boston-area public schools amid the desegregation turmoil of the 1970s and ’80s. I wanted smaller class sizes, a more nurturing environment for my artsy, bookish child. I did notice that—despite having diversity in its mission statement—the school was extremely white. My son noticed too. As he gushed about the school after his visit, he mentioned that he hadn’t seen a single other kid of African descent. He brushed it off. It didn’t matter.

I did worry that we might be making a mistake. But I figured we could make up for the lack; after all, not a day went by in our household that we didn’t discuss race, joke about race, fume about race. My child knew he was Black and he knew his history and … he’d be fine.

Weeks after we sent in our tuition deposit, the pandemic hit, followed by the summer of George Floyd. The school where my son was headed was no exception to the grand awakening of white America that followed, the confrontation with the absurd lie of post-racial America. The head of school scrambled to address an anonymous forum on Instagram recounting “experiences with the racism dominating our school,” as what one administrator called its racial reckoning began. Over the summer, my son was assigned Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds’s Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You and Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give. When the fall semester began, no ordinary clubs like chess and debate awaited; my son’s sole opportunity to get to know other students was in affinity groups. That meant Zooming with the catchall category of BIPOC students on Fridays to talk about their racial trauma in the majority-white school he hadn’t yet set foot inside. (BIPOC, or “Black, Indigenous, and people of color,” was unfamiliar to my son; in his public school, he had described his peers by specific ethnic backgrounds—Korean, Iranian, Jewish, Mexican, Black.)

He made us laugh with stories about the school at the dinner table. His irony and awareness were intact. But his isolation in the new school, under quarantine, was acute; he missed his friends, who were all going to the local public high school, albeit on Zoom. How could he meet kids who shared his interests in graphic novels, film, debate, comedy, politics? I expressed my concern and was told that our son would surely soon make some friends through that weekly BIPOC affinity group. This year of racial reckoning, one school official said, was about healing. At every meeting I attended, I kept bringing up the importance of recruiting more Black families. Administrators, almost all of them white, kept emphasizing the need for more outside DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) specialists to heal the school’s racial trauma.

I thought of our experience at the school recently as I read Courtney E. Martin’s memoir about trying to live a “White moral life.” In Learning in Public: Lessons for a Racially Divided America From My Daughter’s School, she shares her experience of deciding to send her kindergartner to the majority-Black and academically “failing” neighborhood public school she’s zoned for in Oakland, California. Martin is a writer on social-justice issues who is in demand on the college-lecture circuit. In spirit, her book is an extension of her popular Substack newsletter, called The Examined Family, written “for people who get all twisted up inside about the brokenness of the world, and wonder how to actually live in it, loving and humble, but brave as hell.” In other words, her memoir is aimed at fellow upper-middle-class white progressives eager to confront their “white fragility,” the phrase coined a decade ago by the white educator Robin DiAngelo, whose 2018 book by that title (subtitled Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism) is the bible of many of those DEI specialists I kept hearing about.

[John McWhorter: The dehumanizing condescension of White Fragility]

DiAngelo diagnosed what has never not been obvious to Black people (to be Black in America is to hold a Ph.D. in whiteness, whether you want to or not): that white people, when their “expectations for racial comfort” get violated, go into a defensive crouch, and vent some blend of guilt, anger, and denial. White privilege turns out to be a kind of addiction, and when you take it away from people, even a little bit, they respond just like any other addict coming off a drug. The upper-middle-class thin-skinned liberals among them are also very willing to pay for treatment, of which DiAngelo offers a booster dose in a new book, Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm, aware that the moment is ripe.

The word brave gets used a lot in Martin’s book, and the idea of bravery gets performed a lot in DiAngelo’s book, as she time and again steps in as savior to her Black friends, who apparently need a bold white person to take over the wearisome task of educating unselfaware, well-meaning white people. In a curated space and for an ample fee, she heroically takes on a job that Black people have been doing for free in workplaces and at schools and in relationships over the centuries. As she acknowledges, she also “could not articulate the dynamics of white fragility without … reading the work of Black writers who came before my time.” Indeed, everything she notices about whiteness has been noticed by Black writers before her. DiAngelo’s whiteness is her not-so-secret sauce, giving her crucial entrée to audiences who, as she puts it, “are more likely to be open to initial challenges to [their] racial positions … from a fellow white person.”

How we have wished that white people would leave us out of their self-preoccupied, ham-fisted, kindergarten-level discussions of race. But be careful what you wish for. To anyone who has been conscious of race for a lifetime, these books can’t help feeling less brave than curiously backward.

Martin, ensconced in a hotbed of just the sort of racial self-delusion that DiAngelo feels is crying out to be challenged, wants very badly to be good. “We, White progressives, love Black Oakland,” she writes, self-mockingly. “We just don’t actually know anyone who is Black who is from Oakland.” Setting out to change that, she is more than ready to break the “ubiquitous, maddening, and problematic pattern” of “white silence”—one of 18 “moves of white progressives” to maintain the status quo that DiAngelo enumerates. Right in step with Nice Racism’s edicts, she is also eager to “take risks and make mistakes in the service of learning and growth” by speaking up—not just in a workshop, but between the covers of a book.

[Ibram X. Kendi: The anti-racist reading list]

The project Martin proudly chronicles is learning by actually doing. Rather than finagling to snag a spot in either of the two highly rated, whiter public schools nearby, as her quasi-enlightened Oakland friends do—or considering the progressive private school in the area—she agonizes about her choices, then bucks the trend. Her account is cringey in its many blind spots. She’s also hyperaware that it has blind spots. Does that mean we are not allowed to cringe?

Martin is most at ease in moments when she is describing her own white tribe and the “inequity and hypocrisy” rife in a hip enclave like hers. She’s acerbically self-deprecating, sharp in her observations. “I love this little experiment with White parents. If you say your kid isn’t gifted, it’s like you’ve shit on the avocado toast in the middle of the table.” When she meets another white mother, she captures the texture of social advantage with a vividness you won’t find in DiAngelo’s books: “Shared culture is the water—cool, soothing, and invisible. It’s our food (those salty dried-seaweed packets, those squishy bags of organic goop), our persistent, performative friendliness … our thirty million words.” These moments of “white double-consciousness”—of awareness of how deep her ties are to the insular world she aims to escape—suggest a more interesting and less mawkish book than we get.

But in her interactions with Black people, Martin gets tripped up by the paradox of anti-racist self-help: the challenge, as DiAngelo puts it, of “decentering ourselves as white people,” while also being constantly and humbly focused on white ignorance, complicity, built-in advantages, unshared experiences. Avoiding signs of unearned racial confidence (“credentialing,” “out-woking,” and “rushing to prove that we are not racist” are on DiAngelo’s list of white-progressive moves), all the while striving to be a model anti-racist, creates a double bind for the white ally. Martin strains to be transparent about her own “mistakes and shortcomings.” She even includes as footnotes the comments of her sensitivity reader and Black friend, an educator named Dena Simmons, as a way of “showing my work.” When Martin describes a Black man she meets as a “gentle creature,” for example, Simmons suggests, “Maybe let’s not call him a creature, especially from a White narrator.”

Martin admits all her wrongdoings before we can get to her (those footnotes, of which there are surprisingly few, seem to be reserved for glaring missteps). And yet, despite the mea culpas and disclaimers and self-deprecating acknowledgments of all the ways she fails, she goes ahead and writes a book about race barely more than a year into her real-world odyssey of wokeness. And she continually reverts to a binary and reductive racialized shorthand—a sign that she is having a harder time shaking off her white blinders than she realizes.

When Martin finally arrives at the promised land of Black public school and surrounds herself and her child with actual Black people, they come across as flat, kindly stock figures—props who serve to illustrate whatever anti-racist point she’s trying to make. Whereas the white characters in her book come to life as types I recognize, the Black characters are afflicted with the problem that James Baldwin points out in his seminal 1949 essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” commenting on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. “Uncle Tom … [Harriet Beecher Stowe’s] only Black man,” he writes, “has been robbed of his humanity and divested of his sex. It is the price for that darkness with which he has been branded.” At first sight, Martin sums up her daughter’s kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Minor, with snap judgments that are the flip side of white suspicion, the kind of romanticized projection onto Black people that can be equally erasing: “She seems totally in command of her craft, like someone with a passion for teaching, someone who grew up pretending to be a teacher to all her stuffed animals all day long.”

Martin is aware of her own white-gaze problem, as when she duly reports that she had “reveled in the unearned familiarity” of her initial “reading” of Mrs. Minor, and she presses to learn more. Martin’s daughter has thrived in her class; she’s learned about Harriet Tubman, and Black friends come for a playdate. But Mrs. Minor is restless. When she leaves her teaching job to start a preschool for Black children in her own home, Martin won’t let her go. She begins showing up for visits, sitting in Mrs. Minor’s kitchen during the preschool’s nap time, peppering her with questions in an effort to enrich her own white moral life.

That the arrangement is forced and one-sided, beneficial to her, the white parent-writer, isn’t lost on Martin, yet she doesn’t stop. “It’s naptime again,” she writes from Mrs. Minor’s kitchen table on yet another visit. “Mrs. Minor is trying her best to answer my question. Which was: ‘What would you do if you were in my shoes?’ ” Martin wants Mrs. Minor to tell her what to think of a white person’s desire to believe that her own and her daughter’s presence in the mostly Black school will magically improve the place. After Mrs. Minor gives her a halting, irritated answer about gentrification and power, Martin decides it is she who has been of use to Mrs. Minor—that by asking these questions, she’s helped Mrs. Minor think through the problem. “I realize that Mrs. Minor is sort of interviewing herself. And I’m here for it. Better her than me.” In the footnotes, the barely-there sensitivity reader is pricked enough by these last two sentences to cross them out and write, “I do not think you need to say this. It feels very colonial or taking-advantage-of.”

Martin’s impulse to idealize Black people as fonts of needed wisdom has a counterpoint: She can’t seem to help pathologizing Black people as victims awaiting rescue. Her account implicitly conflates class and race; Blackness is a blanket term that somehow comes to equal poverty, as though wealthy and highly educated Black people don’t exist. Martin recognizes the problem—that the fearful white imagination has trouble seeing Black people as individuals—but she continually reinforces these ideas in her narrative. “Black kids—poor Black kids especially—still seem, and this feels very hard to force my fingers to write, less human. Less textured. Less known. Less real. They are subjects of a new report.” By admitting to her own latent racism, she evidently feels she comes that much closer to a life of recovery.

Martin just can’t shake her patronizing belief that Black people need her to save them. Her effort to build on a friendship between her daughter and the son of a single Black father at the school unfolds like a salvation fantasy. She starts by pushing, awkwardly, for a playdate and, when the pandemic closes the school, loans the pair a laptop and tries to line up tutoring. Having learned that the father is picking up free lunches from the school, she fights the urge to drop a bag of groceries on his doorstep, afraid that will seem like insultingly blatant charity. Instead, she pretends she’s made too much pasta for her family, and offers to leave a container at his door, hoping it will seem neighborly, neutral—but hears nothing back. She gets that the dad may be rejecting her role as helper-with-the-resources. Or rather, Martin gets that she doesn’t really get it: “His silence speaks. I don’t know what it says.”

Black people in these books are oppressed. White people are clueless and privileged. And never the twain shall meet, unless it’s under the auspices of arranged workshops or, if the cross-racial experiences happen in real life, in interactions so consciously and unconsciously freighted that, as DiAngelo puts it, “we end up engaging disingenuously.” Or, as Martin shows, falling into age-old antebellum-tinted dynamics as she yearns to confirm her place in a morally clean white universe. Baldwin writes that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is “activated by what might be called a theological terror, the terror of damnation”—which in DiAngelo’s case is not literal hell but an endless purgatory, no absolution in view, and no real political action, either. She is not interested in police brutality, hate crimes, the criminal-justice system, drug laws, or even what Martin touches on, the failure of public schools to educate all children.

[From the May 2014 issue: Nikole Hannah-Jones on how separate and unequal education is coming back]

Interracial worlds, friendships, marriages—Black and white lives inextricably linked, for good and for bad, with racism and with hope—are all but erased by Martin and DiAngelo, and with them the mixed children of these marriages, who are the fastest-growing demographic in the country. I found nothing of my own multiracial family history in these books; my husband’s Black middle-class family is nowhere to be found either, inconvenient for being too successful, too educated, too adept over generations to need Martin’s handouts or DiAngelo’s guidance on dealing with white people. The world these writers evoke is one in which white people remain the center of the story and Black people are at the margins, poor, stiff, and dignified, with little better to do than open their homes and hearts to white women on journeys to racial self-awareness.

As our semester at the progressive private school trudged on, my son refused to go to any more affinity-group meetings. They depressed him in ways he couldn’t articulate. I worried that all the racial healing was breaking him, and started to feel nostalgic for the big, chaotic public school where he had friends. I went to one parent diversity meeting after another. I wrote an administrator, and she wrote back, telling me about a “Witnessing Whiteness” class she was taking, and asking if she might “lean on” me for help in her ongoing education. We decided to leave. Our son wanted his friends back. It was as basic as that. But it was also more complicated. My husband and I didn’t want him to be part of the school’s great white awakening anymore. Teachers and staff were acting out their anxieties about past failings on kids who were living in an upside-down world and deserved better than bewildered platitudes. The school did not see my son, only what he represented on its journey.

This article appears in the September 2021 print edition with the headline “White Progressives in Pursuit of Racial Virtue.”

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