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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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.

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