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Master Cleanse

Why social justice feels like self-help to privileged women

Kat Rosenfield
June 29, 2020
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
This book inspired me to continue on the journey of personal growth that I’ve been on and gave me some fresh new perspectives to consider.
It is a resource and a guide; like having a learned teacher with you in the intimacy of your own home as you confront some of the most troubling and critical truths about yourself.
It wants you to meet your full potential, but YOU have to DO the work.
The journey is hard, but I assure you, it is worth it.

Half of these lines come from five-star reviews of contemporary self-help books. (Titles include Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis and the early-aughts law-of-attraction phenom The Secret.) The other half come from reviews of anti-racist handbooks, all of which rocketed to the top of bestseller lists this month amid a nationwide movement sparked by the May 26 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. (Titles include Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy, and, of course, Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility.)

The similarities are eerie, but also unsurprising. Rachel Hollis’ guide to self-help through face hygiene and Robin DiAngelo’s manual for the white and fragile provoke the same sort of starry-eyed praise, using the same highly specific vocabulary (the word “journey” turns up with remarkable frequency), because of the fundamental similarities in what they’re selling—and, more importantly, because the same people are lining up to buy it.

Self-help has always been a woman’s game. Not that men don’t also seek to improve themselves, but the books targeted to them tend to assume an existing state of self-confidence: You’re great as you are, you could just be a little better. Men learn optimization, life hacks, the power of thinking without thinking: four-hour work weeks and other highly effective habits that are meant to help them build upon their innate perfection, like a software upgrade. Women, on the other hand, have faulty wiring that needs ripping out. Our most beloved self-help books are all about fixing something that came broken, delving into the psyche and excavating everything that’s wrong with you: Women are exhorted to work on themselves the way a weekend warrior might work on a vintage TransAm, tinkering endlessly, replacing parts, fixing one flaw only to find that the engine still won’t turn over, the real problem still buried somewhere under the hood. That you might actually get behind the wheel and drive out of the garage someday is a possibility so distant that it’s hardly worth thinking about. What matters is that whatever is wrong—with the engine, your life, the world—it’s definitely all your fault. (“YOU have to DO the work.”)

Is it socialization? Evolution? A bit of both, nature and nurture at once? Whatever the reason, women’s feelings of inadequacy have always been a gold mine for savvy salespeople, with entire industries springing up around the insecurity du jour. The trappings change as attitudes do; notice how the publications that used to sell spot-reduction techniques or cellulite creams pivoted to “wellness” in the early aughts. At the peak of its relevancy, the Gawker empire even launched its own version of the women’s lifestyle magazine with Jezebel, a supposed game changer that would deliver all the sex-celebrity-fashion fun of a Marie Claire or a Cosmopolitan, “without airbrushing.”

Ten years later, it’s clear that the game did not, in fact, change. Female self-loathing is still a major moneymaker, the only difference being that the relentless focus on women’s flaws has moved under the skin. Your problem areas are now your problematic areas; it’s your soul, not your cellulite, that needs smoothing.

Of course, only the most elite women can afford the luxury of so much wallowing in their imperfections, a fact that feminist writers have readily critiqued in other contexts. A New York Times article by Jessica Knoll noted, accurately, that the trillion-dollar wellness industry “is a largely white, privileged enterprise catering to largely white, privileged, already thin and able-bodied women, promoting exercise only they have the time to do and Tuscan kale only they have the resources to buy.”

Whatever is being sold, be it a jade vagina egg or a ticket to an anti-racist workshop, there’s a great deal of money to be made off the guilt, anxiety, and insecurities of financially secure white women.

But if that’s true of wellness in our late capitalist moment, it’s equally true of wokeness. Diversity, an $8 billion enterprise back in 2003, exploded in the wake of Donald Trump’s election into one of the nation’s fastest-growing industries. Colleges funneled millions of dollars into diversity and inclusion efforts; in 2019, a survey found that 63% of working diversity trainers had been hired within the past three years. And it’s not just corporate strategy that’s up for sale: you can buy diversity in the form of books, movies, merchandise, and $2,500 dinner parties where white women pay to confess their racist complicity. Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility seminars—at which the attendees are overwhelmingly white, female, and highly educated—cost as much as $165 per person. Her keynote speaking fee is $40,000. Whatever is being sold, be it a jade vagina egg or a ticket to an anti-racist workshop, there’s a great deal of money to be made off the guilt, anxiety, and insecurities of financially secure white women.

And like any other luxury lifestyle choice, this one is an ongoing investment. As a marketing strategy, convincing women that social justice is best achieved through endless self-interrogation is brilliant. The savviest brands on offer turn the profitable allure of unattainability into a core part of their ethic. DiAngelo herself talks about anti-racism the way some people would talk about training for a marathon—“I want to build the stamina to handle the discomfort so we don’t retreat in the face of it, because retreating holds the status quo in place”—only in this version, it’s endless preparation for a race that never comes. Not even DiAngelo herself can give a straight answer to the question of how well-meaning allies might put their education into action:

When they ask me, “What do I do?” I have to ask a couple questions back. The first thing is “How have you managed not to know? It’s 2018. As a white person in 2018, why is that your question? How have you managed not to know what to do about racism when good information is everywhere and people of color have been trying to tell us forever?

Reading DiAngelo’s book, however, it becomes clear that not knowing is part of the deal. White Fragility explains not only that white progressives are the most dangerous racists of all, but that they always will be, and only through constant and unmitigated navel-gazing can they hope to do less damage. This anti-racist regimen isn’t a solution; it’s an intellectual diet that you’ll be paying for over the rest of your life.

Yet, if the solipsism of the self-help social justice genre is plain enough, so too is its appeal. When so much injustice stems from huge, deep-seated, structural issues that have been created over decades if not centuries, people will naturally gravitate toward the more manageable option of tweaking the contents of their own heads. Given the choice between pulling weeds in your own little garden plot versus joining a team of people who are trying to chop down a 400-year-old oak tree with a pocket knife, most of us would choose the former; even if the weeds always come back, digging them up feels like progress. And of course, not everyone who reads these books does it to the exclusion of other forms of activism, or sits on their hands while they do. One millennial white woman, who was waiting on a back-ordered copy of White Fragility for her anti-racist book club, told me that she’s been doing meaningful work for years to push for police reform, but saw the book club as an opportunity to discover new resources and perspectives: an exercise in the active listening that allies are often exhorted to do.

But for those whose activism begins and ends with hashtags and book clubs, the narcissism is undeniable, and arguably even part of the appeal—what Vulture’s Lauren Michelle Jackson calls “a vanity project, where the goal is no longer to learn more about race, power, and capital, but to spring closer to the enlightened order of the antiracist.” (“And yet, were one to actually read many of these books,” Jackson notes, “one might reach the conclusion that there is no anti-racist stasis within reach of a lifetime.”) Self-help social justice doesn’t just offer privileged white women the comfort of a permanent passion project; it fuels the pleasant, ego-driven delusion that nothing is more important to the cause, to any cause, than the innermost minutiae of your own thoughts, attitudes, and feelings.

Meanwhile, as antiracist reading lists proliferate and book sales surge, the primary benefit is not to the marginalized communities who suffer most from oppression, but to the finances of the privileged class of professional diversity educators whose guidance is required, forever, to help you do the work. This may partly explain the dearth of solutions in books like White Fragility; after all, an anti-racist training program that actually made people not racist would ultimately render the author, and her entire industry, irrelevant.

In her 2001 book Race Experts, Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn observed that practical and productive approaches to societal change were being subsumed by the New Agey therapeutic language that now dominates contemporary diversity efforts, what she described as “far-fetched notions about the capacity of self-obsessed wallowing in emotional outpouring to heal not only the individual but all the ills of the world.”

“These approaches pose as a challenge to the status quo,” Lasch-Quinn wrote, “but end up guaranteeing that the moment of emotional catharsis will never end.”

Twenty years later, these words seem prescient. The emotional catharsis is, indeed, ongoing. The cult of self-improvement demands that you fix yourself first: Love yourself before you ask someone else to love you. Know your own value before you ask for that raise. Unlearn your privileged biases before you try to make change. For how long? As long as it takes, lady. Maybe forever.

And while protesters pour into the streets, raise their voices, and lobby their representatives to change the status quo, self-help social justice encourages too many of these highly educated, financially secure, socially liberal, and politically engaged women—women who, not for nothing, make up one of the nation’s most influential voting blocs—to take themselves out of the equation. Instead, at this pivotal moment in our nation’s history, in an election year, they are dutifully doing the “work” of staring at their own unflattering reflections. Forever on a journey to nowhere, unpacking and repacking the invisible knapsack, journaling through their guilt while the world burns outside.

Kat Rosenfield is a culture writer and novelist. Her next book, No One Will Miss Her, will be published by William Morrow in October 2021.