Linguist John McWhorter Says 'White Fragility' Is Condescending Toward Black People Columbia University professor John McWhorter says the bestselling book White Fragility supposes that "Black people's feelings must be stepped around to an exquisitely sensitive degree."

Linguist John McWhorter Says 'White Fragility' Is Condescending Toward Black People

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We have a counterpoint to a massively popular anti-racism book. It's a book aimed at persuading white people to see their bias. But Steve Inskeep spoke with one scholar who did not like what he read.


The book is called "White Fragility." The author is Robin DiAngelo, a university professor. Her book made the bestseller list in 2013 and then returned in 2020. Readers hunger to address racism after the murder of George Floyd. Corporations have hired her to teach white employees. And DiAngelo has been featured in two long interviews on NPR.


ROBIN DIANGELO: It is comfortable for me, as a white person, to live in a racist society. We've got to start making it uncomfortable and figuring out what supports we're going to put in place to help us continue to be uncomfortable.

INSKEEP: DiAngelo says white people are so accustomed to living in a racist system they don't even know that they are. She pushes white people to abandon the defense mechanisms that they use to avoid talking about their racial advantages. Criticism of DiAngelo's work comes from John McWhorter. He's a writer and a linguist at Columbia University.

JOHN MCWHORTER: People sitting in a corporate boardroom being told that they're racist no matter what they do, to me, the idea that that is meaningful political activism - OK, that's an interesting proposition, but boy, you'd better put your cards on the table and explain why.

INSKEEP: Writing in The Atlantic, McWhorter acknowledges that DiAngelo is right that racism is pervasive and often unconscious. The question is what to do about that.

MCWHORTER: Robin DiAngelo has an interesting idea that as many white people in America as possible need to examine themselves for inner racism that they didn't know that they had. They need to face it. They need to spend their lives facing it and trying to unearth more of it, in the same way as a devout Christian explores the extent to which they are a sinner.

INSKEEP: What are some examples of the way that she talks in the book and also talks in her seminars, frankly, that you think missed the mark?

MCWHORTER: Well, I understand where she's coming from. I don't think she's a hustler. I know that she's sincere. But my question is, is it necessary for every good white person to walk around feeling uncomfortable about themselves as abstractly complicit in a racist system before we see political change? And so a white person is supposed to learn that there are all sorts of things that they can't say. You can't say I marched in the civil rights movement because that would make you too comfortable. You can't say I don't see race because you almost certainly do. You can't say it's about class because it's about race. And she's got about 25 prescriptions that make it so that any good white person is essentially muzzled. You just have to be quiet.

If you think about human history, there have been great and wrenching changes - not only in this country but in a great many others, but especially in this one, say, a few things that happened about 50 years ago - without there needing to be this rather Orwellian indoctrination program. So the question is, why do we need this now?

INSKEEP: Does she perhaps have a point with some of the things that white people say, though? I think of people who say, well, I was brought up not to think about race; I was brought up colorblind. She says that's an avoidance of the subject. You could argue with that, I suppose. But it does seem that well-intentioned people who try to think that way might not be getting the point exactly because race is so pervasive you kind of have to think about it.

MCWHORTER: Oh, of course. I mean, there's a certain kind of person who, if you try to talk about these things, will say, well, I was brought up not to see color, and I just judge people individually. And the fact is that almost certainly that isn't true. But, Steve, this is the problem - why do we need to fix that person in order to have progress?

INSKEEP: I think I'm hearing you saying that she's aiming in the wrong place. She's trying to, you argue, fix white people's souls when, in reality, the place that people should look is at institutions. What are the rules for police? What are the rules for fair housing? That sort of thing.

MCWHORTER: You have said exactly what I believe. I think that what Robin DiAngelo is doing is well-intentioned, but I think, ultimately, it's idle. Ultimately, the result of what she would create is a certain educated class of white person feeling better about themselves.

And, frankly, that's antithetical to her goal because no matter how she wants it to go, people are going to think that they've done some kind of work. It's going to be hard to get people to truly feel as endlessly culpable as she's seeking. And in the meantime, what's the connection between that and forging change? You can say that all of this is a prelude to changing structures, but the question will always be, why don't you just go out and change the structures, and why do you think that you couldn't until doing this?

INSKEEP: You go on to use an explosive word about this book. You say this book that is dedicated to eliminating racism in white people is racist. Why do you say it's racist?

MCWHORTER: It is racist. And I don't mean that Robin DiAngelo is a racist. I'm not calling her that. But I'm saying that if you write a book that teaches that Black people's feelings must be stepped around to an exquisitely sensitive degree that hasn't been required of any human beings, you're condescending to Black people. In supposing that Black people have no resilience, you are saying that Black people are unusually weak. You're saying that we are lesser. You're saying that we - because of the circumstances of American social history - cannot be treated as adults. And in the technical sense, that's discriminatory.

INSKEEP: I also want people to know that you're a linguist, and here we are using this word, racist. What is a proper definition of racist?

MCWHORTER: Well, racism is a very confusing word these days. But when I say that "White Fragility" is a racist book, what I mean is it does not allow Black people to be full human beings because full human beings deal with the imperfections of life.

And, Steve, this is important - by the imperfections of life, I do not mean somebody stepping on your neck until you're dead. I'm not talking about actual abuse; I'm talking about the more abstract sorts of things that we're familiar with, especially over the past several decades, as part of our racial landscape, where I think that the solutions are going to be more subtle than the kind of mental and spiritual straitjacketing that DiAngelo seems to think are necessary. It's an interesting proposal, but it's by no means as self-evidently wise as she implies and that many people, tragically, seem to be agreeing with her about.

INSKEEP: John McWhorter of Columbia University in New York City. Always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you.

MCWHORTER: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: He has one perspective on the popular book "White Fragility."

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