The Myth of Individualism: Society is in Control

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "White Fragility" by Robin J. DiAngelo. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What is the myth of individualism? How does the individual perspective prevent people from seeing the realities of society?

The myth of individualism is the mistaken belief that everything we get is earned. Understanding societal prejudices, privileges, and luck challenges this myth.

Read more about the myth of individualism.

The Myth of Individualism

The belief in individualism is a central part of American ideology. It is the belief that individuals have full agency to shape the outcomes in their lives. According to the myth of individualism, no one faces any barriers on the way to achievement that are not of their own making. 

Individualism is a comforting and validating belief—for white people, who sit atop the nation’s economic and political power structures. It tells them that their success and advantages in life are entirely the result of their own hard work, intelligence, and initiative. 

But individualism sends a very different message to people of color. If powerful and successful people are powerful and successful because of their own merits as individuals, then it can only follow that powerless and unsuccessful people are in that condition because they are somehow “lesser” individuals. By its very nature, a belief in individualism renders one incapable of acknowledging the structural power disparities within society that lead to inequitable outcomes for different groups. 

No One Is Objective

White beliefs in objectivity are closely related to the myth of individualism. Because white people believe that they are unique individuals unshaped by history or society, they also come to believe that their views of the world are entirely objective. If you don’t believe you’re conditioned by society or any other external forces, you can’t accept the reality of your own biases. 

Being asked to confront one’s actions and beliefs as racist can be deeply upsetting to white people, because it punctures their myth of objectivity. It suggests that one does not have complete autonomy over how one thinks and acts—but, rather, that one ventures out into the world profoundly shaped by forces beyond one’s control.

The Myth of Individualism: Society is in Control

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Robin J. DiAngelo's "White Fragility" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full White Fragility summary:

  • Why white people become defensive when confronted with the idea of racism
  • How today's racial hiearchy began in roots centuries ago
  • How we as society can gradually overcome our deep racial divides

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

One thought on “The Myth of Individualism: Society is in Control

  • March 16, 2022 at 10:41 pm
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    Out of curiosity, how many “white” people does anybody think Robin DiAngelo interviewed before vomiting this nonsense into a book?
    How did she conclude that all “white” people believe “no one faces any barriers on the way to achievement that are not of their own making”?
    What gave her the idiotic notion that all “white” people believe “that their success and advantages in life are entirely the result of their own hard work, intelligence, and initiative.”? And how did she convince herself that “The myth of individualism is the mistaken belief that everything we get is earned.”?
    “White beliefs in objectivity are closely related to the myth of individualism. Because white people believe that they are unique individuals unshaped by history or society, they also come to believe that their views of the world are entirely objective.” Not even close.
    I am a scientist, and I strongly suspect she has never actually spoken to any scientist of any skin color about objectivity. How did she come to this conclusion that all “white” people believe objectivity has anything whatsoever to do with individualism? While I will not discount the possibility that someone (like DiAngelo) might foolishly believe this, suggesting that all “white” people believe this is absurd, insulting, and wrong.
    “If you don’t believe you’re conditioned by society or any other external forces, you can’t accept the reality of your own biases.” How did she manage to convince herself that “external forces” are contrary to objectivity? Aren’t “external forces” objective in nature? Objectivity requires observing external forces, if you ignore them you aren’t objective. Her argument against objectivity rather comically utilizes objectivity as a refutation of objectivity, and her definition of objectivity rather comically utilizes individual subjectivity to enable this refutation.

    “Individualism is a comforting and validating belief—for white people, who sit atop the nation’s economic and political power structures.” Again, this was determined how? Did she ask any of these “white” people at the top of society what they believe? I can think of several examples of “white” people who find comfort and validation in being part of a collective and shun individualism as weakness, the ‘National Socialist German Workers Party’ of Nazi Germany is but one poignant example of “white” people who quite obviously believed and practiced the precise opposite of this assertion. They deliberately did away with the notion of individuality to condemn millions of people to the crematorium based entirely on collectivist identities of race and nationality. Since there are supposedly still some of these people around somewhere, this is a shameful mistake to publicly profess in a modern book presuming aiming to address issues of racism.

    There are plenty of “white people” from the former Soviet Union who could educate her on the topics of collectivism, individualism, subjectivity and objectivity. I would read a book by any of them before I waste my time with DiAngelo again. (I highly recommend “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible” by Peter Pomerantsev).

    Since you only need a single counter-example to falsify and disprove an absolute statement, only one is needed to undermine the entire premise of DiAngelo’s book. Tune in to coverage on the Ukraine war, people in Russia (so-called “white people”) have rejected objectivity and believe what they are told to believe through state controlled media. The Russian narrative is that Ukrainians are drug-addicted Nazi’s, which is curious given that the Ukrainian president is Jewish, and that they are demilitarizing Ukraine. They say that Ukraine isn’t really a country and actually always belonged to Russia. There is no pretense at objectivity there, nor is there any pretense at individuality since the Ukrainians are being targeted solely by the fact that they belong to the Ukrainian nationality. Unless “white” means something other than the palest of the many skin tones of humanity, Russians look pretty “white” to me. Observing objective truth and speaking truthfully about it is illegal there, with sentences of up to 15 years in prison for suggesting that reality might differ from Putin’s subjective narrative. They close their eyes and cover their ears to the objective truth, and they live entirely in a world of state approved biases. A brave few “white” people in Russia reject this and do practice objectivity, and they then get arrested and jailed and/or tortured for it. I won’t insult Russians by suggesting that any of them, Putin included, actually believe their own bullshit. I wouldn’t dare suggest to a Ukrainian that “objectivity” blinds them to external forces. Bullets and Bombs are objective aren’t they? They’re also external forces aren’t they?

    This entire book is a naïve and rather ignorantly formulated straw man fallacy. None of the absolutes she proposes are actually believed by anyone I have ever met, let alone all “white” people. She has deliberately crafted a stupid and childish argument claiming to represent “individualism” believed by “white people” so that she can easily deconstruct it and look smart and insightful without any real inquiry or thought of any value.

    Probably the only truth contained in this book is that Robin DiAngelo understands that she’s racist. This begs the question: Why are people reading the ignorant opinions of a professed racist? This book sold over a million copies, meaning this racist made a huge sum of money by spouting off her ignorance to the world. If you wish to educate yourself, this book isn’t going to help. If you must read this stupidity for whatever reason, check it out at the library for free. Do not give the ignorant racist Robin DiAngelo any more money than she already has. If anybody wants to know what “white” people believe, they should ask around instead of reading this awful book.

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