A character study of Robin DiAngelo, the woman behind “White Fragility” theory, is in order.
What follows is an investigation into DiAngelo’s family origin, childhood and adolescence, Lost Years, personality, relationships, some on career and education but with a personal focus. New sources and hard-to-find information extensively used.
This is a “biographical continuation” of the investigation into the history of the term she term she coined; see “White Fragility” and the Academia-to-Mainstream ‘Pipeline.’ An investigation into White Fragility Theory and its life-cycle from 2011 to 2020.
In Pursuit of the Woman Behind White Fragility Theory. “Who Radicalized Robin DiAngelo?”
By E.H. Hail
Introductory: The ‘People’ behind the ‘Pipeline’
“From an obscure fringe of academia in 2011 to the mainstream by mid-2020” sums up how the term/idea/taunt/disempowerment-slogan “White Fragility” traveled through US discourse.
There were several identifiable steps, stages, critical periods. The upward inflection points were generally associated with violence. A full account of the ascent-cycle for White Fragility can be read here.
White Fragility followed a traceable path, a path which we have referred to as The Pipeline, in which ideas born or nurtured on the fringes academia, so radical or bizarre they are laughed-off at the time (if indeed any mainstream person even becomes aware of them at this stage) in time penetrate to the “mainstream.” To use a more well-known term, this is the process by which the Overton Window shifts (is shifted). A close look at the way The Pipeline works gives great lessons on how politics and discourse work in the US and the West generally.
What about the ‘people’ behind the ‘Pipeline’? Ideas travel through The Pipeline. The term ‘Pipeline’ is intended to convey that a lot of ground is covered. White Fragility doctrine wasn’t imposed on America by some edict by Robin DiAngelo out of the blue in mid-2020. As such the process cannot really be reduced to (blamed on) the actions of single actors along the way. All the same, individuals do fill certain roles at different stages of The Pipeline and it would help to understand these people. Who fills these roles? Who are these people? What motivates them?
There are several brief portraits of individuals along different stages of The Pipeline process (ascent cycle) for White Fragility, but none is more important than the term’s coiner and popularizer, ROBIN DiANGELO. This study is about her.
Who is this woman? What lessons might a close look at her background yield as to how/why she ended up devoting her life to the promotion of an aggressive strain of ethnomasochism with religious-cult tendencies? In other words, Who (or ‘what’) radicalized Robin DiAngelo?
Robin DiAngelo? Who is That?
In “White Fragility and the Academia-to-Mainstream ‘Pipeline,’” (July 22) we see that Robin DiAngelo is a longtime academic in multicultural studies and related fields (her author blurb in her 2018 book says she is involved in “critical discourse analysis and whiteness studies”) and a professional Diversity Trainer. She earned several degrees in Seattle before taking a PhD (multicultural studies) in her forties.
DiAngelo’s wikipedia entry at the time of this research (June/July 2020) has few facts on her personal background. Her wiki entry was only created on March 31, 2017, about the mid-point of the third stage (of five stages) in White Fragility’s ascent cycle:
As for Robin DiAngelo’s public image, it’s fair to say that for mainstream purposes she was unknown before mid-2020. She was still so obscure, as of the late 2010s, that her wiki entry was proposed for deletion in 2019:
“The term ‘white fragility’ does not have a significant scholarly impact.”
That was March 2019.
The 2019 call for deletion is representative of the trend identified in the companion post (“White Fragility and the Academia-to-Mainstream ‘Pipeline’”) of people not taking seriously ideas which are already in the process of moving their way through The Pipeline. This especially applies to the early phases. In this case, just 15 months before the breakthrough in the decade-long process, we find someone dismissive enough to suggest deletion for non-notability.
Needless to say, the wiki entry survived and DiAngelo would be a major name fifteen months later (by June 2020), with millions of apolitical, go-along-to-get-along, and polite centrist types all hearing of her name and/or of her White Fragility theory.
A wiki editor added on Aug. 18, 2018 that DiAngelo was known for her “notable idea” of White Fragility. This was just after she published a book by that name — and well into the ascent process.
DiAngelo in medias res
Let’s jump ahead in the Robin DiAngelo story to the evening of July 3, 2018, shortly after DiAngelo’s book White Fragility was published. The Seattle Public Library event auditorium. The invited guest, a euphoric Robin DiAngelo.
The host is Misha Stone (born ca.1975; Jewish; librarian at the Seattle Public Library since ca.2002). Remember that she is ostensibly introducing Robin DiAngelo. These are the first words she says (0:07-0:30):
STONE: “Before we begin, I’d like to acknowledge we are gathered together on the ancestral land of the Coast Salish people.” [Long applause] “Let us honor their elders, past and present. We thank them for their stewardship of this land.”
When DiAngelo finally gets to speak (2:25), she piles on:
DiANGELO: “I do want to reiterate that this talk is happening on the ancestral territories of indigenous peoples.”
Why are they saying this? The talk’s topic has nothing to do with cultural anthropology of Amerindians in the Pacific Northwest at all. Do Amerindians make any appearances in the White fragility book’s index?
This bizarre form of ancestor worship (“other-people’s-ancestor-worship”) to me it kind of gives away the game immediately. Stone and DiAngelo (and the attendees who enthusiastically clap for this incantation)’s message is: White people are morally illegitimate.
If you read DiAngelo’s 2011 article on White Fragility in which she first introduces the term into (fringe-)academic discourse in earnest (see companion post, section ‘2011’), or listen to her early-July 2018 talk on her book (above) or any other appearance she makes, you’ll notice something:
DiAngelo is a cult trainer.
One example of many [14:00]:
“If you are white and you have not devoted years of sustained study, struggle, and focus on this topic [racism], your opinions are necessarily very limited.”
Cult trainers talk this way. The recognizable cult pitch always goes like this: “Your views and experiences and everything you’ve learned up to now from all or almost all sources are incomplete at best and probably illegitimate and tainted. Only if you undertake intense study, with us, can you attain legitimate and moral views — and salvation.” DiAngelo could be a trainer for any number of cults. She would not have to alter her ‘pitch’ much.
When one encounters a cult trainer, one blame the cult trainer for being in the cult? It’s tempting. But in many cases at least, and in many ways, these people, too, are really victims of the cult.
Let’s try to reconstruct what went on here, how someone ended up casting her life in this unfortunate direction.
Robin DiAngelo Becomes a Diversity Trainer, Floats around Academia
The critical event in Robin DiAngelo’s professional life came in the early 1990s at which time she was in her mid-thirties. At this time she became a “diversity trainer,” whatever that was supposed to mean then, or now.
(What “diversity trainer” really means is political commissar, training people on proper worldview on behalf of a regime or its ruling ideology and often having the power to arrange for punishment of dissenters; Heidi Beirich is another prominent defacto US political commissar who has been profiled here.)
DiAngelo’s role as diversity trainer / US political commissar / priestess of anti-racism has lasted for thirty years, now, in one permutation or another. Here she is, following her breakthrough to the mainstream, talking to The Guardian:
The Diversity field was poised for major growth when DiAngelo hopped aboard. This is how DiAngelo tells the beginning of the saga:
“I answered a call for diversity trainers from a [Washington] state department that had lost a civil rights lawsuit and been mandated to provide 16 hrs of diversity training to all their employees. They needed 40 diversity trainers to train 3,000 people.”
The role of diversity trainer is one DiAngelo has never really left. Her titles and settings have changed, as have national cultural-political conditions, but her ‘job’ or role in society has fundamentally not.
In those early early years of the Diversity Training industry and not-yet-lucrative Professional Anti-Racism, DiAngelo also worked as a birthing coach to supplement her income. This according to her husband’s website (more material of which will be used throughout the following).
Why was DiAngelo working as a birthing coach in the 1990s when she had a job as a Diversity Trainer? Clearly the latter must not have paid so well yet. Now it does in her new role as High Priestess-Maximus of Anti-Racism in the defacto civic cult of the West.
Before her entry into the world of professional anti-racism, Robin DiAngelo graduated with a BA in History and Sociology from Seattle University in June 1991. She was student commencement speaker.
DiAngelo lingered on the margins of academia in Seattle for years. She got an MA in Education from the University of Washington in 1995. Rinse, repeat. She was soon on the PhD track.
In 1997, DiAngelo surfaces in “the literature” with an academic missive against “Heterosexim,” which was radical for its time, being well before the Gay Marriage movement began (circa 2004; the Gay Marriage Movement entered into own ‘pipeline,’ eventually flipping opinion, with marginal-fringe opinions of one year becoming those of the mainstream political Center-Left ten years later and of the political Center five or so years after that).
Quoting from DiAngelo in 1997 (using the quaint nomenclature “gays and lesbians,” which if written by the late 2010s would open her up to attack from some quarters):
Within a heterosexist society, heterosexuals take for granted, and are largely unconscious of, their social and economic privilege in relation to gays and lesbians. This article attempts to reconstruct heterosexism as a heterosexual problem by exposing the subtle ways in which heterosexuals maintain, benefit, and are complicit in the oppression of gays and lesbians, regardless of intentions. It is based on a workshop co-designed by the author […]
This tiring passage is from the lead article (“Heterosexism: Address Internalized Dominance”) in the first issue in 1997 of the Journal of Progressive Human Services (a journal first published in 1990).
DiAngelo finished her PhD and graduated in May(?) 2004, also at the University of Washington in Seattle. Her PhD was is listed as in the fields of “Critical Multicultural Education; Whiteness Studies.”
When DiAngelo was doing her PhD work was about the time Whiteness Studies was first emerging. The field deals with ‘Whiteness’ by attacking it as immoral, illegitimate, and inherently oppressive. (A more honest and descriptive name would have been Anti-Whiteness Studies.) At this relatively early stage in the 2000-2004 period, Whiteness Studies was generally unknown to conservatives and when it did come up in the 2000s, it was mocked and dismissed. Fifteen to twenty years later, it’s easy to see who’s laughing last and who holds cultural power!
Robin DiAngelo Gets Married
For most of the 1990s, DiAngelo appears to have lived with a woman named Amy M. Zimmerman. Their names appear jointly on real estate transactions and property ownership in King’s County, Washington state. Zimmerman left this arrangement in 1999 and her name was taken off the property in question. An Amy M. Zimmerman later appears in records in Seattle marrying a woman named Martha Kreiner in 2014 (Washington state narrowly approved same-sex marriage in its Nov. 2012 referendum, the only state to do so while many others who held referenda rejected it). Was Robin DiAngelo in a romantic relationship with this woman at this time? If she was, it didn’t last.
Here is a picture of Robin DiAngelo at a Gay Pride event in June 1994 (from husband’s 2012-13 “Springfield Mass Pride” documentary on which, see below):
In July 2004, shortly after finishing her PhD and about to turn forty-eight, Robin finally did get married. The groom was Jason Toews. Jason (b.1967, eleven years Robin’s junior) had grown up in the Seattle suburbs. As of 2004, he was a divorced father of two who had known Robin DiAngelo in the 1990s in an unusual way (more on this in a moment). As of 2020, they are still married.
Jason has run a low-profile but public website/blog, which includes substantial biographical material of the usual blogging type, since the mid-2000s. Much of the information in this investigative report draws from his public blog.
Here is Jason (Robin DiAngelo’s husband)’s public self-bio on his website:
“I [Jason Toews] grew up in a fundamentalist Christian working-class family in a Seattle suburb during the 70’s and 80’s; got excellent grades (I won a spelling bee in 4th grade, and I was in the Honor Roll in high school), but was not encouraged to go to college; I spent many of my happiest hours performing in a rock band […]; I married  and had children while still in my 20’s; I experienced the painful loss of my marriage and my faith in my early 30’s [divorce, 1998]; soon after, I found myself strung out on anti-anxiety medication in the mental ward of Overlake Hospital; I eventually got better and married a powerful and beautiful woman who was our birthing instructor 10 years earlier […]”
The “powerful and beautiful woman who was our birthing instructor 10 years earlier” was Robin DiAngelo.
Robin DiAngelo apparently has no children. She was listed as unmarried in the 1990s. If she was marred in the 1980s, I find no mention or record or trace of it. There is some gray-area with her in regard to her Lost Years, on which more later.
2006: “White Fragility” is Quietly Born
Jason Toews says this about his wife, Robin DiAngelo, apparently writing in 2007:
As you may know, my partner Robin is a big smartypants professor. She teaches classes on Whiteness, and leads anti-Racism workshops and other admirable stuff like that. I don’t really know all the details, but I’m sure it’s very high-minded. Anyway, when she talks about racism and sexism, occasionally some folks get kinda bent out of shape. Usually conservative people, for some reason, but I’m not sure if that’s significant.
From this entry we see that Robin DiAngelo was still running anti-Whiteness and Anti-Racism workshops and classes in the Seattle area several years after her PhD. About spring 2007 she received an offer for a professorship at Westfield State College in Massachusetts. She took it. Robin and Jason moved to Massachusetts in summer 2007, and Jason reliably blogged about it. Robin insisted on a house in Springfield to be near authentic working-class people. More on that upcoming.
It was a year before the move to Massachusetts that Robin DiAngelo, still hanging around Seattle running diversity training sessions, first puts the term White Fragility in print. The citation is:
DiAngelo, R. 2006. “‘I’m leaving!’: White fragility in racial dialogue.” (essay) in Brenda McMahon & Denise Armstrong (Eds.), Inclusion in Urban Educational Environments: Addressing Issues of Diversity, Equity, and Social Justice (pp.213-240). Centre for Leadership and Diversity at the University of Toronto. [released June 30, 2006].
This 2006 entry was in an obscure book and certainly will have had little immediate impact. (Notice the title of this volume includes the scolding but vague “addressing issues,” a term that emerged about the same time as Whiteness Studies itself and related concepts/slogans. “Addressing issues” actually means nothing. It does not mean to solve problems. It’s unclear what it means –and therein lies its power. It has become standard bureaucratese in our time.)
A longer-form follow-up and expansion to this basic White Fragility article was published in 2011, by which time DiAngelo had the confidence to capitalize it. From the 2011 paper we can trace the ascent course (see companion post “White Fragility and the Academia-to-Mainstream ‘Pipeline’“), but we see that the idea (and the idea to ‘market’ the idea as she has) was already fully formed in DiAngelo’s mind by 2006 and
DiAngelo published something highly revealing of her psychology at this point in her career, probably signaling a roughly consistent attitude since the 1990s:
I grew up poor and White. Although my class oppression has been relatively visible to me, my race privilege has not. In my efforts to uncover how race has shaped my life, I have gained deeper insight by placing race in the center of my analysis […]
(From “My Class Didn’t Trump my Race: Using Oppression to Face Privilege,” an essay [pdf] by Robin DiAngelo appearing in Multicultural Perspectives, Vol. 8 Issue 1 , pp.51–56. Published by the National Association for Multicultural Education.)
To see life entirely through a prism of various kinds of oppression like this is not normal or healthy. Just as I asked a few months ago, “Who radicalized Heidi Beirich?” I’d like to ask, Whence Robin DiAngelo’s obsession with oppression?
Let’s step back in time again and try to get some real biographical insights:
Robin DiAngelo’s Early Years and Lost Years
A curious fact about Robin DiAngelo that might be overlooked by many casual perusers of her bio: When she graduated with her BA, she was nearly 35. She was born in 1956; her BA was in 1991.
What she doing the previous fifteen years of her post-high-school life, before she pushed through with the coursework for her BA degree at Seattle University (presumably most of which occurred in the late 1980s and up to May 1991)? It’s unclear, but there are clues.
Here is what we know: Robin DiAngelo was a serious international traveler in her youth, possibly late teens and twenties. According to her husband, at one point she lived on a kibbutz — a curious statement given that she is not Jewish and on which shortly.
Also according to her husband’s website, she first showed up in Seattle in 1980 (at about age 24); what she was doing in the 1980s is unclear. Her long period of wandering from ca. the mid-1970s to ca. the mid-1980s constitute Robin DiAngelo’s Lost Years.
We know more about her 1960s and early 1970s “K-12 age” youth. Here is how DiAngelo characterizes her own childhood:
I was born to working class parents; my father was a construction worker and my mother was a switchboard operator. When I was 2, my parents divorced and my mother began to raise us on her own; at that point we entered into poverty. […]
I used to stare at the girls in my class and ache to be like them; to have a father, to wear pretty clothes, to go to camp, to be clean and get to sit with them. I knew we didn’t have enough money and that meant that I couldn’t join them in school or go to their houses or have the same things they had.
(From “My Class Didn’t Trump my Race,” by Robin DiAngelo, 2006; appeared in journal Multicultural Perspectives.)
It’s fair to say these passages show us the outline of a worldview centered around resentment.
DiAngelo was writing there at age 48 or 49 and remembering what her childhood, thirty-five to forty-five years earlier, was like. The world she was writing about is worth a word:
She was writing about the 1960s-70s Peak America period, a time of confident white supermajority in America. A time of abundant optimism. For this reason or that reason, she felt left out — which was only exacerbated by the general optimism of the period. At least some of her childhood was spent in California (see also, “Who Lost California?“)
To get more specific, DiAngelo’s formative years, if we mark them off as between her 4th and 17th birthdays, were from 1960 to 1973. True, the latter years of this period saw ascendant leftist social movements, especially among under-30s at the time, and true, there was some degree of a Black racial movement (i.e., the Civil Rights movement) throughout the entire period including in the halcyon pre-1965 days before signs of the US cultural revolution were visible. But there also were simply not many Nonwhites around in most places. Whites of this era assumed they were invincible, an attitude those of that generation still seem to implicitly believe today.
Motivated by resentment, DiAngelo has embraced it tightly. Here she is rationalizing it again in the same “My Class Didn’t Trump my Race” 2006 essay:
“From an early age I had the sense of being an outsider; I was acutely aware that I was poor, that I was dirty, that I was not normal, and that there was something “wrong” with me. But I also knew that I was not Black. We were at the lower rungs of society, but there was always someone on the periphery, just below us. I knew that “colored” people existed and that they should be avoided.”
Another of Robin DiAngelo’s characteristic arguments is that middle- and upper-middle-class liberal whites are guilty of racism by ignoring it. This no doubt traces back to her peer-group during her upbringing as she describes it. It’s not clear where she grew up or where geographic formative places for her were. She claims to have moved a lot. (Based on her place of birth being said to be San Francisco, it may be assumed that some or much or all of her moving around was in her 1960s childhood was in California.)
DiAngelo’s husband, Jason Toews, says this, a further insight into his wife’s upbringing and less resentment-focused, writing before a 2017 trip they took:
My only other international travel had been for a wedding in Spain, with a brief side trip to France (Robin was raised Catholic and wanted to see Lourdes; my eczema was sadly not healed by divine intervention) […]
Robin DiAngelo “was raised Catholic” and, by Robin’s telling, by a single mother following a 1958/9 divorce by her parents.
At another time, we see Robin writing, “I was born on the Virgin Mary’s birthday, so how do you explain that?” I have never heard of Mary being attributed a specific birthday, which would be a Catholic thing to do. She wrote that comment in Oct. 2011, about the time she first published her White Fragility article in an obscure journal, and that would seem to firmly corroborate her own Catholic upbringing.
Here is DiAngelo, in another characteristically humorless passage in her 2006 “My Class Didn’t Trump My Race” essay, meditating on her oppressive role “collud[ing] with racism as a Catholic and a woman”:
My class position is only one social location from which I learned to collude with racism. For example, I have also asked myself how I learned to collude with racism as a Catholic and a woman. How did it shape my sense of racial belonging, of racial correctness, to be presented with God, the ultimate and universal authority, as White? How did the active erasure of Jesus’ race and ethnicity shape my racial consciousness? How did the universalization of Catholicism as the true religion for all peoples of the world engender racial superiority within me when all the authorities within that religion were White like myself? At the same time, how did my conditioning under Catholicism not to question authority lead me to silently collude with the racism of other Whites?
Robin DiAngelo says she is a Catholic, and by all appearances was told she was Catholic growing up and perhaps attended mass and all and as such was “raised Catholic,” but her true religion today is revealed here to be something else: Anti-Racism. She is subjecting her nominal religion to intense scrutiny by her true religion and the latter cancels-out the former. When and how did she come to convert?
So far we’ve seen that Robin DiAngelo long carried personal resentments against the society of her youth and early years, believing she got an unfair lot in life, in essence. The society she resented was the one she knew, one of confident White Supermajority, 1960s and early 1970s America. But everyone grows u and overcomes adolescent resentments, right?
As to what she was doing in young adulthood from the mid-1970s into the 1980s, this from DiAngelo’s husband:
For a drive from Seattle to San Francisco, I once wrote up a 4-page, single-spaced itinerary, which I photocopied several times just in case one got misplaced. Robin is the opposite – early years spent drifting around the world from kibbutz to pizza parlor to hostel to catamaran made her a bold and resourceful traveler who prefers to “figure it out when we get there” or some such long-hair nonsense. So already we have a problem.
A possible portrait of Robin DiAngelo in her youth circa the mid and late 1970s, as a serious traveler, possibly even that kind of hardcore traveler committed to medium- or long-haul international nomadism, floating from place to place and “figuring it out” along the way, by choice. Those of us who have lived this lifestyle for any amount of time will recognize the type, or the range of possible personality-types at play here, especially in combination with other known Robin DiAngelo biographical details.
DiAngelo writes in her “My Class Didn’t Trump my Race” essay that she “left home as a teenager and struggled to survive,” but doesn’t specify when and doesn’t specify in what circumstances she left home, or what “struggled to survive” meant — the line, like a lot of autobiography, could be massaged and self-serving. It was most likely some time between 1973 and 1975.
The strange comment that she had “drifted” at one point into a kibbutz, presumably in Israel, is curious. How does a Catholic girl “drift” to a kibbutz? When was this? How long? Probably not long, maybe just an extended visit. But how? Was it with a husband/boyfriend (or girlfriend)? Would they even let a single gentile women onto a kibbutz? There is nothing further online about this at all and it is one of the mysteries of Robin DiAngelo’s Lost Years
I should say again that After substantial research into her origins, I can say with certainty that Robin DiAngelo is not Jewish. The rumor I have seen reported is false. Her White-Catholic origin is confirmed along several avenues of evidence including her own statements and those of her husband and other archival documents and public records; nothing even suggests any Jewish ancestry. This kibbutz line from her husband is curious, anyway.
In reconstructing a personal-history narrative for Robin DiAngelo with imperfect information, we can take a midpoint guess that she left home in 1974, worked odds jobs and drifted for six years, including much world travel, until 1980 when she became tied to Seattle. Perhaps the travel continued into the 1980s, but anyway she has had some kind of ties to Seattle since then, except for the Massachusetts interregnum, summer 2007 to spring 2014.
Robin DiAngelo’s Personality
Revealing snippets of Robin DiAngelo’s personality are to be had from her husband’s accounts, in blog form, of their four-week-long Dec. 2017 trip to Thailand.
At the time of this trip, DiAngelo was still editing her June 2018 White Fragility book — a critical milestone in the White Fragility ascent-cycle as documented in the companion post to this one.
The plane touches down in Thailand, early December 2017. Out comes Robin. Out comes husband Jason. They go through the airport procedures and exit the secure area. Then it begins: The very first thing Robin DiAngelo does after arriving in Thailand is to go on a rant against an advertisement-poster she sees at the airport. The ad is for “Snail White Skin Cream,” marketed to Thai women as a beauty product to lighten their skin. This according to her husband’s account. He writes:
“Did Robin spend a sizable percentage of the trip offering passionate commentary on those ads? Yes. Yes, she did.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise to learn from Jason’s blog elsewhere that Robin is a strict vegetarian and that she “loves a farmer’s market – or, really, any kind of market.”
Another DiAngelo anecdote from husband Jason. They are at a tourist cave in Thailand:
Those of you who know Robin will immediately understand that this [a tour guide asking, “Do you like spiders?”] was a disastrously bad idea. Robin has a long-standing and fairly serious case of arachnophobia. She even saw a therapist about it. […] It was the worst possible thing to say to Robin on a good day, much less when she was already near panic.
So, Robin was now in tears, hyperventilating and refusing to move. I was genuinely afraid that we would not be able to get her out of the cave, and tried to regain control of the situation before a rescue team had to be summoned. I held her face in my hands and forced her to look at me, which she did not want to do. “Honey, I have not seen a single spider in here. I promise to keep you safe. We have to make it out of this cave, and you will not be able to do that if you keep crying. Stop crying for now, and I promise you can cry all you want when we’re outside, okay?”
It took several minutes, but she eventually was able to slow her breathing and focus.
Jason describes giving firm, authoritative commands to his wife Robin DiAngelo to help DiAngelo steady herself, which he blogifies in ALL-CAPS:
I swung my headlamp around, and saw a spider the size of my outstretched hand on the wall, inches from her hand. “KEEP LOOKING STRAIGHT AHEAD AND KEEP MOVING,” I told Robin. “DO NOT LOOK TO THE SIDE. LISTEN TO ME. KEEP MOVING.”
In another context, Robin would no doubt have harsh words for a White man giving such direct commands to a woman (oppression!), but this time she was glad for it. “Miraculously, she did exactly as I said, and we somehow made it out of the cave.”
“Back at the motor scooter…Robin was teary-eyed and barely able to talk. […] When we reached the town near our resort, Robin told me to pull over at a grocery store. She emerged with a bottle of vodka. I didn’t drink any, but the bottle was empty by the time we left Koh Lanta.”
And one more anecdote from Thailand from Jason Toews:
Our final day in Khao Lak began with a DiAngelo-Toews Vacation Tradition: Jason awakened by the sound of Robin vomiting. The night before, she had let herself get dehydrated, skipped dinner, drank two sweet cocktails, and now a migraine was looming. She gulped down Ibuprofen and bottled water while I busted out with my Bob Seger impression: “Woke last night to the sound of chunder…” I thought that was pretty clever, but Robin just glared.
Relocating to Springfield, Massachusetts; involvement in local activism
As mentioned earlier, back in 2007 Robin DiAngelo made the move to western Massachusetts after getting a professorship offer there. The decision loomed on where to live.
Robin finally insisted on Springfield, a place with a substantial crime problem and a degree of blight and immigrant-takeover by this time. During DiAngelo’s time living there, Springfield clocked-in at only 36.7% White Non-Hispanic on the 2010 Census, down from 90%+ before 1970.
Her husband quotes DiAngelo as saying:
“Why are we all focused on [finding a home in] Holyoke?” she demanded, apparently forgetting that I’d been saying this all along. “Springfield is full of working class people just like our families; just like the towns we grew up in. By not considering Springfield, I feel like we’re just buying into the propaganda that separates us by race and economic class.”
An ideologically motivated decision on where to live. (Recall that Robin DiAngelo has no children and did not have to consider non-existent children’s interests in this decision; Jason’s two children remained in the Seattle to finish their K-12 years.)
So it was that Robin DiAngelo chose a home in Springfield, a 20 to 30 minute drive from the Westfield State campus.
By 2011, Robin and Jason were organizing members of the Springfield, Mass., Gay Pride Parade. He blogged about it:
Robin DiAngelo was featured in, and helped produce, her husband’s documentary film hobby-project “This is Who We Are: Springfield Mass Pride,” which he created in 2012-13 and posted to Youtube in June 2013 (545 views at the Youtube upload as of this writing). Considering what it is, it’s a pretty good production. The music is better than the editing. You can tell Jason spent more time dealing in music than in film, but he has a talent for both.
In the “Springfield Mass Pride” credits, Robin DiAngelo is listed in multiple places. DiAngelo is:
- credited as one of the two “interviewers;”
- credited as a “Springfield historian” (which is Jason’s creative name for his interviewees; e.g., one is Springfield’s first-ever openly-Gay policeman, Michael Carney, who won a court case in 1994);
- credited with “Other Photos and Ephemera,”
- is one of those named in the Special Thanks section (“for invaluable feedback and moral support”).
- is featured as a racial and gay-rights expert in one segment.
As for that last one, among her comments are: “Does it mean the same thing to be White and Gay as it does to be a Person of Color and Gay?”
Robin DiAngelo “Hated” Living in Springfield, Massachusetts
Despite all her tough talk about how great and authentic it would be to live in Springfield, DiAngelo “hated it,” in the words of her husband Jason’s blog. She returned to Seattle in 2014.
It was right at the middle of her time at Westfield State in Massachusetts, teaching multicultural education, that the most important event in Robin DiAngelo’s professional life happened: The appearance of her “White Fragility” article in a real academic journal (2011), even if an obscure one. She resented having to live in Springfield in the early 2010s, but the second half of the 2010s were destined to be all upward, for her.
Jason, meanwhile, “loved it” in Springfield and stayed on another year. He rejoined Robin in 2015 back in Seattle, where they remain today.
A year after leaving Westfield State College, in mid-2015, Robin DiAngelo’s earthly sojourn crossed an important milestone. The second phase of the upward-ascent-cycle for her White Fragility meme — the sustained trickling out from the academic-ghetto — had begun. There was no way to know this process had begun at the time, but in retrospect we do see that sustained week-to-week interest in White Fragility dates to Q2 2015 (see companion post):
The above is on a zoomed-in scale, and the real breakthrough dates to the last days of May and then June 2020 tightly correlated with the George Floyd riots (and following three months of disruptions to all economic and social life with the Coronavirus shutdowns:
And so it was that Robin DiAngelo became a global celebrity of the semi-mainstream.
By the second stages of the ascent-cycle for White Fragility (the ‘Pipeline’ process of ideas moving from fringe-academia to the mainstream), DiAngelo was back among friends in Seattle and able to network there, also returning to doing occasional Diversity Training.
The stage was set for her 2018 book, and unbeknownst to anyone, the big mid-2020 breakout. That enormous jump in the third graph above represents the mid-2020 breakthrough.
Conclusions: Who is Robin DiAngelo? What Motivates Her?
DiAngelo, high-priestess of the Diversity civic religion; DiAngelo, promoter of the holy doctrines of White Ethnomasochism by which ye shall be saved; DiAngelo, discoverer of the latest new doctrine of White Fragility, for which she became an instant Diversity and Anti-Racism celebrity; DiAngelo, the beneficiary of moral panics; DiAngelo, the cult trainer.
Those are all valid mini-portraits o, but all are a little unfair because they depict her as one-dimensional. Like anyone else, she comes from somewhere and developed a way of thinking over time.
This investigation has sought to find who or what radicalized Robin DiAngelo, who or what motivated her to dedicate her life to the service of a systematized form of White Ethnomasochism. It need not have been this way. Something went wrong along the way; what was it?
This 5500-word character study has covered much ground, including original research using material otherwise not noticed and not published anywhere. What we see is the picture of a woman who, at times, seems almost provincial in her own way, almost a cardboard cut-out of what was known in the late 2000s and early 2010s in some circles as the “SWPL,” after a popular blog at the time, Stuff White People Like. She fits a lot of stereotypes.
I believe the firmest-foundation conclusion to this character study is as follows:
Robin DiAngelo is of White-Catholic origin, was raised Catholic and as an adult still identifies in some way as one. She comes from a broken home, grew up impoverished, and by her own telling was highly self-conscious and resentful of those around her, those she saw as coming from stable homes, those having families, money, and/or beauty. It is not a long logical leap to say her desire to take “White people” down and morally delegitimize them is really the desire to take down her own erstwhile peers and neighbors, of her decades-ago youth. A worldview colored by resentment.
It appears that Robin DiAngelo floated along, on an extended traveler’s life, up through her mid-twenties. Later she floated on an academia bubble in her thirties and forties. She never had anything like a traditional family of her own and has no children, a fact not to be overlooked in all this (as the dog that didn’t bark). She did eventually marry (a man, ten years her junior) in her late forties.
King’s County, Washington, property records suggest she cohabited with a woman in the 1990s. What the nature of their relationship was is speculative.
The resentments against her own society, which she developed and carried from a young age, animated her identity to some extent. But the outlets may have been largely non-political in the 1970s and 1980s, expressing themselves more in general disagreeableness unmoored from any specific political agenda. But then she became a Diversity Trainer. Her professional role as Diversity Trainer probably tapped into her resentment-identity and caused a chemical-reaction like effect, a weaponization of resentment. Being a Diversity Trainer in early 1990s Seattle and beyond was the central experience of her life.
White Fragility theory itself was born because so many so forcefully resented DiAngelo’s mandatory diversity training sessions. To DiAngelo, these working-age white people were the reincarnations of the same people she had resented in her childhood and adolescence. There was an open, socially acceptable avenue to attack them and make a sustained effort to delegitimize them morally. That’ll show them. I believe that is what went on here.
Considering the era and places DiAngelo grew up, the targets of her resentment were/are “liberal-leaning White Middle-America” types regardless of their specific geographic origins. These were the people DiAngelo knew; these were the people she resented. It was in the crucible of left-wing academia in the late 1980s and 1990s that DiAngelo’s personal emotional baggage became finally legitimized and the process by which it was redirected into political ends was in motion.
DiAngelo fell into the twin traps of pride and self-righteousness, believing herself to be on a moral crusade, probably an intoxicating feeling to her. Forces much larger than herself took advantage of her long-held insecurities. Totally unbeknownst to herself, and as many have done before and will do in the future, she had fallen into the clutches of a cult.
[End.] [Updated: Aug. 5 and Aug. 6, 2020.]
Several additional insights and information that complement the main text:
Addendum: See additional names and dates pinned down by a comment by John Morlar and several comment replies, as well as identifying the girl in the 1994 “Hate is Not a Family Value” picture as her (only) daughter.
Addendum: Robin DiAngelo may have lifted the term “white fragility” from her mentor David G. Allen in the early 2000s, a University of Washington professor and later Head of Women’s Studies.
Addendum: DiAngelo’s dissertation yields more insights including via names of the people she singles out to acknowledge/thank. We learn that all three of the DiAngelo sisters did not change their names at marriage, being “early adopters of ‘I’m keeping my name.'”
Addendum: On her surname. DiAngelo and her two sisters were born to a father surnamed Taylor and a mother surnamed DiAngelo. As adults, two of the sisters use the surname DiAngelo (the inherited name of their maternal grandfather and “maiden name” of their mother) and one as Taylor (the inherited name of their birth father and all three ). Despite many marriages between the three sisters, no name changes appear to have occurred. Not only that, two of the sisters chose specifically to use their mother’s maiden name, a breach with tradition particularly bold for their time and still unusual today. Within the context of being raised by a single mother, many would dismiss its symbolic importance.
Addendum: Two slices of Robin DiAngelo’s life from before her ascent began in the mid-2010s: A Sept. 2003 local news article has her giving a $60-a-head diversity-training seminar in Missoula, Montana, with local academic host Amie Thurber; also, notes on DiAngelo’s 2010s collaboration with Amie Thurber (they published an academic study on ‘microaggressions’).
Addendum: An Oct 2013 Boston Globe article in which she is quoted demanding the “termination” of the president of the college where she worked (he was under investigation and later cleared of wrongdoing).