Robin DiAngelo and the Problem With Anti-racist Self-Help

Robin DiAngelo and the Problem With Anti-racist Self-Help

The Atlantic
September 2021 (Published online 2021-08-03)

Danzy Senna, Associate Professor of English
University of Southern California

Illustration by Vahram Muradyan; images by Les Byerley / Shutterstock; QuartoMundo / CGTrader

What two new books reveal about the white progressive pursuit of racial virtue

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.)…

Read the entire review of the books here.

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