Redefining 'Harm' Infantilizes People of Color | Opinion

Robin DiAngelo, author of the bestselling White Fragility, has made a pretty penny traveling the country insisting that white people should infantilize black people—and that black people should embrace victimhood (their own fragility)—to coax a racial reckoning. Apparently she has a new book, Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm, coming out in June. Upon reading its title, my first thought was, "Is this an autobiography?"

More than a few authors of various races and creeds have already addressed the detriments of the ideology pushed by DiAngelo and others. I don't plan on repeating these repudiations. My issue is more focused. I believe that this ideology's biggest, most dangerous tool is its ever-evolving definition of the most salient word in the new book's title: "harm."

"Harm" has become an almost ubiquitous term in social justice circles, mainly because of how broadly activists apply it. In contemporary social justice parlance, the word has broadened from its original meaning of physical and sometimes mental injury to anything that offends, creates discomfort or, through "slippery slope" logic, can eventually lead to physical harm. The word "harm" does not mean what it used to mean.

The standard definition of harm has undergone concept creep—the broadening of a word's meaning to incorporate thoughts and actions formerly considered outside its purview. In other words, harm is perceived in more places now than it was before. Where once the potential for harm existed in contact sports, accidents, physical altercations, traumas and so on, one might now find it while reading a question on an exam, listening to a recorded debate in a classroom or encountering an opinion on social media.

Van Jones described harm's concept creep—and its societal consequences—during a 2017 panel discussion. Jones stated the following to an audience of University of Chicago affiliates about a growing demand from student activists to be shielded from harm:

I don't want you to be safe ideologically. I don't want you to be safe emotionally. I want you to be strong. That's different. I'm not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots and learn how to deal with adversity. I'm not going to take all the weights out of the gym. That's the whole point of the gym. This is the gym. You can't live on a campus, where people say stuff you don't like.

Jones contrasted the students' attitude with that of his parents, who participated in the Civil Rights protests of the 1960s: "They dealt with fire hoses. They dealt with dogs. They dealt with beatings. You can't deal with a mean tweet?"

Black Lives Matter sign
A Black Lives Matter sign sits in the snow outside of a home on February 13, 2021 in Seattle, Washington. David Ryder/Getty Images

I share Jones's lament that the broadening meaning of harm correlates with the narrowing of students' ability to handle discomfort and challenges. Even worse, it can cause activists to spend so much time on relatively innocuous actions that they have none left for the arduous task of dealing with real societal harms like housing and food insecurity, failed educational institutions, violence in inner cities and disproportionate mortality rates. Although Jones's reference to his parents was powerful, he did not have to go 50 years into the past to compare feigned harm to real harm. He only needed to point to the constant violence that takes place regularly in the areas surrounding the University of Chicago's own campus.

Defining harm as shallowly as many modern activists do leads them to mistake symbolic gestures for concrete strategies for change. Fredrik deBoer pointedly addresses this phenomenon in a recent article:

When people are hungry, you give them food. You don't put hungry people in the Google Doodle or have a special section on Disney+ for films about hungry people. You give them food. Black people have specific material needs; expressed broadly, they need money and they need power. Which of the developments since the murder of George Floyd meaningfully increases Black wealth or Black power? What about the economic deprivation and material oppression of the average Black person?

Eradicating harm—newly redefined—may only amount to performance art, in which the semblance of action is all that is needed.

Perhaps the issue most neglected in all of this is that the redefinition of harm infantilizes people of color. I would never let someone else have so much power over my wellbeing that a "mean tweet" or a mere question—especially one asked out of curiosity or a request for elaboration—would shake me to my core. I don't think a world in which people of color give their power away so easily is one any self-respecting person of color would want to see. Black people survived 300 years of slavery and 100 years of Jim Crow apartheid, but a request to explain ourselves is unbearably "harmful?"

I, for one, refuse to be harmed so easily. I refuse to let people have so much control over my happiness and fulfillment. My anti-racism is about promoting empowerment. I cannot say the same for others.

So what is to be done? DiAngelo's new book will not be available until June, but it's safe to say that her definition of harm will likely be the one I've discussed in this article. When she—or anyone else—uses this redefined term, ask yourself how conducive it is to racial justice. Ask yourself who really benefits. Ask yourself if her ideas and tactics will make any real difference in the lives of the truly injured. Lastly, consider the logical effect of ubiquitous harm: when harm begins to mean everything, it ceases to mean anything at all.

Erec Smith is an associate professor of rhetoric at York College of Pennsylvania and a writing fellow for Heterodox Academy. His latest book, A Critique of Anti-Racism in Rhetoric and Composition: The Semblance of Empowerment, was recently published by Lexington Press.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.