Paul Butler | White fragility in the workplace

Paul Butler

I’m presently reading a book titled “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo and it has most certainly got me thinking. We cannot deny the shameful history of slavery in the country we now call home. We also cannot deny much of the money that initially established and benefitted from the industry of slavery came from the gentrified ruling class of my country of birth — England.

Questions that Robin is stirring in my mind include: “Why was there only one Black girl and one Indian boy in my high school of perhaps 2,500 kids?” And, “Why did only white people live around me as far as the eye could see?” Other provoking questions that come to mind as I read DiAngelo’s work are, “Why have all my work bosses been white?”

I’m about three-quarters of the way through the book and so I’m staying open-minded on what her conclusions will be, but I sense I know where she’s headed and I’m not sure it’s all that helpful.

Two wrongs don’t make a right and I am concerned that the pot she’s stirring is not going to bring about world peace but, rather, more discordancy. It seems strange to me that DiAngelo is a diversity and inclusion trainer, yet much of her writing I suspect will cause more disparity than it will harmony.

She uses inflammatory phrases such as, “white privilege” and “white supremacy.” When whites in her workshops have pushed back or questioned her rationale, she accuses them of “white fragility.” She explicitly calls out what she refers to as a “white code” where white people look out for white people, especially in the workplace.

I do take umbrage to her assertions. As an employee for 18 years in Europe and here in the United States and as a business owner for the last 14 years, I haven’t observed the workplace racism she claims to be true. I have never participated in, overheard or had it reported back to me, of a bunch of whites in the workplace conniving behind closed doors about how to keep the best jobs or the best vendor contracts just between them. Like never.
Does racism exist? Yes, but the heart of the issue is the human heart. It will always exist in one way, shape or form. History — past and present — tells us about the cruelty mankind has lorded over its own. One aspect of racism is skin color. Another is ethnicity. People have also done dreadful things to each other on the basis of ethnicity — being the collective language, cultural values and traditions regardless of skin color.

It seems to me, human beings are not born good. We can be pretty mean to each other, even murderous, let alone racist. Books like hers aren’t helpful for the human condition — they’re actually harmful.

I’m just not convinced, three-quarters of the way in, that Robin DiAngelo’s work is that helpful, especially for those in the workplace. I believe the end result of her epilogue will be that she’s making Black people and generally any person of color angry for the white people’s sins of the past. In turn, she’s making white people feel guilty for sins they didn’t personally commit or she’s making white people angry for bringing up the past in the first place. I just see workplace anger on top of workplace anger. It’s like calling all Germanic people Nazis.

In doing so, the past and the present will become merged. In more people’s minds there’ll be even greater suspicion and more mistrust. When we should be coming together to lift each other out of the mess of COVID-19, her book is not conducive to collaboration. We should be focusing on the customer and our collective collegiality to get our work done, but instead, her writing is causing even more division and even more divisiveness at work.

One of my concerns about this book is that many workplaces are making it required reading for their employees. In my opinion, this is where human resource departments can cause more harm than good.

Well, I still have a few pages to go but I don’t think it’s going to be an ending where we all live happily ever after.

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