Why social justice feels like self-help to privileged women

Why social justice feels like self-help to privileged women, by Kat Rosenfield.

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. … 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. …

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.”

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. …

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. …

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.

Well that explains a lot.