Last week, President Trump ordered federal agencies to stop using critical race theory in their training sessions for government employees. As a professor with training in critical theory, I am deeply familiar with the scholarship that forms the racialist ideologies now taking hold in mainstream culture. Whereas the circulation of critical race theory used to be confined to our universities, it has recently been rearticulated in language that makes it accessible for public consumption and widespread dissemination. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, critical race theorists’ assertions have been touted as irrefutable truths about race in America.
The fact is, much critical race theory is sloppy scholarship, riddled with contradictions that, like so much insular academic discourse, serve to obfuscate rather than clarify the matters addressed.
The fact is, much critical race theory is sloppy scholarship, riddled with contradictions that, like so much insular academic discourse, serve to obfuscate rather than clarify the matters addressed. For years, activists on race matters have insisted that Americans need to have an “honest conversation” about race. Although that conversation has been ongoing, injecting critical race theory into the discourse has made it even more difficult for that conversation to unfold in productive ways.
A few weeks ago, Time magazine published an essay that demonstrates how critical race theory has warped the national dialogue. Written by Savala Trepczynski, Executive Director of the Center for Social Justice at UC Berkeley, the essay is entitled “People of Color Learn at a Young Age that they must be Twice as Good. Now White People Need to be Twice as Kind.” It portrays a mildly impolite neighborhood interaction as a devastating attack by a white person on a black one (the author). The essay reflects the many ways that some academics manipulate and recast even the most minute social exchanges in service of their ideological agenda on race.
During the encounter, Trepczynski narrates that she came upon a “white woman” after a relaxing walk—a white woman who, like all white people at sundown, was busy “washing her Lexus.” Trepczynski waved to not “startle” the woman with her “large, black presence.” The woman nodded but didn’t wave back. Trepczynski “motioned” to the woman in order “to ask” whether she would take a few steps back in her driveway so she could pass while “preserving social distancing.” In response, the woman “rolled her eyes, sighed, and walked wearily into her driveway.”
That’s the whole thing. But it is an instance in which Trepczynski says the woman “threw her whiteness” at her “like a rock.” It made her blackness “feel like a problem” and forced her to “metabolize [the woman’s] (white) irritation” as Trepczynski walked away “with [her] heart racing and tears in [her] eyes.”
A few points must be made about this specific incident. First, note that it is Trepczynski who identifies her neighbor as a “white woman.” One of the ideas prevalent in social justice circles is that we cannot depend on our perception to reliably determine another person’s identity (thus, the grievous concern about things like “misgendering”). There is much talk about how the “white gaze” artificially imposes blackness upon people of color. Still, Trepzcynski’s own testimony shows that it works the other way, too—the black gaze imposes whiteness upon people in public spaces. This is important because if the desire of critical race theorists is for white people to abandon “whiteness,” that will be impossible as long as non-white people impose it upon them in the way that Trepczynski did with her neighbor.
A common refrain among critical race theorists is that “white fragility” is what stymies productive discussion of race in our society.
Secondly, the author claims she “asked” the woman to move back in her driveway due to COVID-19 concerns—with a gesture. This is a lot of meaning to try to convey with a simple “motion.” What gesture can be used to ask this question: “You are a little too close to the sidewalk for me to pass while maintaining social distance—would you mind taking a few steps into your driveway?” I don’t think there is one. I can only assume Trepczynski made some movement of the hand that commonly indicates not a question, but an imperative: “Please move back a bit.” Under these circumstances, it’s not hard to imagine that such a request from a stranger might not receive a friendly, eager response from many folks.
Lastly, it’s shocking just how many certainties Trepczynski claims to have about her neighbor and about white people in general. Not only does she know the woman identifies as white, she knows that as a white woman she is likely to be “startled” by a black person. And although Trepczynski initially concedes there might be other reasons that this “white woman” could have been less than neighborly, she ultimately concludes that “what [she] experienced was a white person being ticked off by [her] black presence,” one who “exercise[d] her privilege to make her annoyance known.” In other words, Trepczynski is certain that this woman’s response was a product of racial hatred.
A common refrain among critical race theorists is that “white fragility” is what stymies productive discussion of race in our society. They claim that when faced with any critical assessment of whiteness, white people crumble, or disengage, or lash out in anger. Many of those who disagree with this essay, for instance, will dismiss it as a classic example of white fragility. This is a common tactic. In short, any reluctance to fully accept a negative characterization of whiteness is viewed as an unjustified reaction of retreat, hate, or rage. (Leave aside, for the moment, that in 2020, there is never anything other than a negative assessment of whiteness.)
The real reason why whites disengage, I would argue, is that the only acceptable response for whites is a groveling confession of guilt and self-disdain for their infliction of black suffering. The “conversation” that critics of whiteness claim to want is actually a monologue with a predetermined outcome—one where the white participants dutifully echo the ideological catechisms of critical race propaganda.
FRAGILITY, BLACK AND WHITE
Interestingly, what we see in Trepczynski’s essay is actually an example of what might be called “black fragility”: a habit of reading any undesirable behavior by a white person toward a person of color as an expression of race prejudice. This assumption is becoming more common among American activists. Of course, when this trait is observed in African-Americans, it must be acknowledged that, to some extent, this mindset is partly a product of undeniable traumas that were inflicted on blacks throughout our history. Today, however, these assumptions project bad motives onto white people—motives that most of them don’t have. This poisons the prospects for any “honest conversation.”
Speaking to whites, she reminds them of “the unconscious racism that is almost certainly in [their] mind and heart.”
What’s more, although white people are thought to be ignorant of even their own motives. Speaking to whites, she reminds them of “the unconscious racism that is almost certainly in [their] mind and heart.” She concludes that white antiracism “should include a heightened standard of kindness toward the [b]lack and brown people they run into in life.” I agree; we all should try to be as kind as possible to everyone we meet. But if I had to guess, I suspect that many white people might say they already consciously attempt to practice this “heightened standard” with strangers from all different backgrounds. I certainly do.
Trepczynski’s generalizations about whites are nonetheless interesting for a few reasons. First, one piety of the racial justice movement is that you can’t speak knowledgeably about the values, beliefs, and lifestyles of a group if you don’t belong to it. Among critical race theorists, speaking on behalf of a culture to which you don’t belong is sometimes called “ethnography.” Ethnography, in turn, is viewed as a uniquely western precursor to colonialism, a political ideology that asserts power over an outside group for their own good.
And yet, Trepczynski shows no reluctance to speak about who “white people” are and how they should live.
This leads us to the second problem with her characterization of whites. A few weeks ago, Joe Biden committed his millionth gaffe by suggesting that all black people think the same when it comes to politics. The violation here was that one cannot make generalizations about groups in this way. “Black people are not a cultural monolith,” we are told. To assert that they are is to ignore the status of each black person as an autonomous individual. So, while there are only ungeneralizable groups of black peoples, Trepczynski continues to uncritically ignore any differences among white people. In every way that matters, to Trepczynski, they are all raised the same, they all think the same, and they all supposedly want black people off their sidewalk.
In short, the piece in Time exhibits all of the reasons that the type of “honest” conversation that activists want America to have simply cannot happen.
STARTING THE CONVERSATION ANEW
So what can be done, then, to rectify the situation and prepare the conditions for such an honest dialogue about race in America? To be sure, many white people will have to undertake some intellectual preparation for such a conversation, because it will need to address the historical ways that race was weaponized in the western world: a history that resulted in real violence and injustice toward non-white peoples, which still resonates today. Critics are correct: many white people are fundamentally unwilling to countenance any such talk. If we are to move beyond this cultural moment, it will be essential that white Americans acknowledge historical injustice.
If we are to move beyond this cultural moment, it will be essential that white Americans acknowledge historical injustice.
But what virtually no one is discussing is that those who are loudest in demanding this dialogue, like Trepczynski, are not operating in good faith. They are not working towards mutual understanding and reconciliation. They are, in fact, working to invert the power binary rather than abolish it. Until reconciliation and mutual generosity is the aim, many whites will remain silent out of some mix of fear, frustration, and politeness. And given that the ascendant idea is “white silence is violence,” it follows that reducing the “violence” would require some incentive for whites to break their silence.
The main reason that the conversation around race is failing today is that it takes an unequivocally negative view of white people and advances a critique of whiteness that is marred with contradictions. These contradictions ensure that, however a white person chooses to inhabit the dialogue, her participation will always reinforce unfounded stereotypes about whiteness.
For starters, critical race theory asserts that whiteness is everywhere and nowhere. In other words, critics simultaneously claim that whiteness isn’t even real and that it is a mere ideological invention that stealthily conceals its operation in society (it’s “nowhere” and imperceptible), and they claim that whiteness is relentlessly and openly expressed every day in every corner of our culture (it is “everywhere” and unavoidable). It can’t be both, and a reckoning with this contradiction would be a necessary prerequisite to a productive dialogue, if only so white people know whether their whiteness needs more overt expression or less.
Further, many critical race theorists argue that whiteness is infinitely adaptable—that whenever it is silenced, subverted, or resisted, it will reinvent itself so that whiteness can be expressed anew in other spaces and through new exertions of power. In other words, whiteness has no “essence,” it is devoid of content, so that it can change shape as needed to pursue its objectives. And yet, many of those who argue that whiteness is infinitely adaptable also argue that it is irredeemable. Another contradiction: even though it can change itself into anything, it cannot change itself into something that is not inherently racist. So, it must be abolished, if only because its essence (an essence that it is alleged not to have) is irreparably malevolent.
Critics of whiteness also routinely argue that whiteness exists independently of white people—that one can assail the former without indicting the latter. This idea defies the generally accepted view that an attack on one’s culture is necessarily an attack on one’s person, and vice versa. Trepczynski’s criticism of whiteness isn’t simply an abstraction; it is a critique of her neighbor, who stands next to her Lexus, rolling her eyes as an avatar for white people everywhere. White people and whiteness are inseparable, and if whiteness is irredeemable and must be “dismantled,” what happens to white people once that project gets underway?
Finally, perhaps the greatest contradiction lies in the assertions of activists that white people have an obligation to enlist in the battle against whiteness (which is said to exist independently of white people) and yet they are told that they cannot possibly divest themselves of their whiteness. Critical race theorists Stephanie Wildman and Adrienne Davis express this idea when they write, “No matter how hard I work at not being racist, I still am.”
“No matter how hard I work at not being racist, I still am.”
If the entire problem of race in America is artificially reduced to a totemic, phantasmagorical whiteness, and white people are told there is no way they can be anything other than white racists, there is only one way that white people can meaningfully participate in work against racism. They must concede that they are morally broken, racist beneficiaries of unfair privileges, privileges that they are unable to refuse even if they want to. Agreeing to this view of whiteness ensures that the only ethical way to be white is to define one’s life through self-hatred and regret. Is it any surprise, then, that most white people will prefer to stay silent?
Trepczynski’s ultimate solution, a call for white people to be nicer, is somewhat surprising since critical race scholars often argue that niceness is a tool of white supremacy. For example, Angelina E. Castagno claims that, “As a strategic mechanism of whiteness, niceness operates to prevent engaging multicultural education in ways that center power, inequity, or institutional agency. Niceness operates to encourage safe, power-neutral recognition of difference.” But Trepczynski insists that the “kindness [she’s] calling for is not shallow or performative.”
This is the crux of the problem with the way we talk about race. On the one hand, white people must be honest in their interactions with people of color: they must participate in the dialogue, they must be willing to speak, and they must say what they truly think. But if they think the wrong thing, if they speak an unwelcome truth, they may face greater consequences than they would if they had simply nodded from the driveway. One need look no further than Andrew Sullivan’s recent firing/resignation from New York magazine for his role in publicizing controversial research on race—25 years ago.
Sadly, this heads-I-win-tails-you-lose dynamic shows why it is unlikely that Trepczynski and I could have a productive exchange: because if I say what she wants me to say, then I am being fake, performative, and patronizing. But if I say that mapping the entire, enormous complexity of American race relations onto a momentary unspoken exchange seems reductive and uncritical, then I’m “part of the problem.” If I say that breaking down in tears because a stranger rolled her eyes when you motioned her out of the way seems an unhealthy and unjustified response, then I’m “part of the problem.”
And I don’t want to be “part of the problem.” I want to take part in an open communication between whites and non-whites because there are clearly matters that must be addressed if we are to truly be one nation, rather than a fragmented array of groups with competing interests (the society envisioned by identity politics). But as it stands, I’m out of options. Until there is a way for whites to honestly participate in a productive dialogue that doesn’t demand their self-disdain as the ticket to admission, I expect the nation will remain at this stalemate. That’s bad for all of us. It’s also bad for the prospects of an America that is both inclusive and respectful of the human dignity that we all share.