Okay my reactions to this woman are so viscerally unpleasant it took me a loooong time to get around to doing this, and it might shorter than I’d intended but let’s get started.
Getting a Baseline
For body language I wanted some kind of baseline, to see what normal for her is. Normally you’d want everyday informal interactions but since she does public speaking for a living a few different public speeches would be enough. I was a little surprised at how….flighty and fluttery she seems. I don’t know the source but my first thought was that she was a traditional White Southern Lady since there was a lot hand waves and bits where she leans back with her head a bit forward and pursed lips. There’s also some Italianish hand gestures (which she might come by naturally). Most annoying is a tendency to use the OK handshape to punctuate sentences moving it around (a way of leading those listening to her, think of a conductor holding a baton).
The Hair Story
The part I chose to look at a bit more closely is from this video. Starting at about 04:33. This is a go to story for her that she’s obvious told many, many times which means that it’s a good deal less spontaneous than the relation of a new event would be But that doesn’t matter since this is a teaching story (stories are among the most effective ways of teaching people things). The audience has been prepared to hear how she messed up and how the mess got fixed and what was learned.
At 5:02 she says: “I want you to notice what I’m doing, not only am I making a joke about a Black woman’s hair, which is a sensitive issue”.
This is a weird thing to point out. She does this as if everyone and their dog knew that Black women are sensitive about their hair. Is that true? I don’t know. I do know that if someone you know is sensitive about something it’s not a good idea to go broadcasting that around. The same way that if you’re sensitive about some aspect of your appearance you should never bring it up and should never assume that other people are bringing it up. Don’t let people know how to push your buttons. Whatever she thinks she’s doing, she’s also letting the audience know: “Hey, if you want to be nasty to a Black woman… start in on her hair! They hate that!”
At 5:08 “And I do know better” The body language and intonation here carry a bit of noblesse oblige “Silly Black women and their hair obsession, I hope they’re sufficiently grateful that I’m on their side… think of the damage I could do if they don’t appreciate me..”
At 05:36 “Would you be willing to grant me the opportunity to repair the racism that I perpetrated toward you in the meeting last week?”
This is close to word for word from her book and so the wording is obviously important to her and there’s a couple of weird things here. She loses all animation as she says this in a weird mantra-like monotone which indicates it’s almost a set phrase for her. This is clearly outside the normal framework of human interaction but it’s also clearly how she thinks people should communicate.
It seems that she’s using racism as a count noun whereas in normal usage it’s non-count. Racism was an event, an almost physical thing that can be repaired…. We’ll leave aside the semantic features of repair which don’t really fit here – is she intended to make her racism work better?.
Also ‘perpetrate’ usually contains the semantic feature “on purpose” no one uses “perpetrate” about things that happen by accident or ignorance.
At 6:12 “And I have spent my life justifying my intelligence to white people.” this is followed by a very weird gesture that’s reminiscent of a benediction? And then she moves on. What the audience is usually expecting at this point is some recognition of the survey’s value that she had not previously noted. This is conspicuous by its absence here. The impression that’s left is “Poor Angela trying to prove she’s smart with her tedious surveys… God bless her”.
I’d love to know what her interlocutor is feeling during this interview. A lot of the time she seems bemused, but after seeing her on other videos I think that’s just her resting face.
There’s more but I can’t take it…. instead just as yourself about face validity. Does the type of interaction she describes seem like it would lead to improved relations between people from different races? If you think it does then by all means start saying this like “Would you be willing to grant me the opportunity to repair the harm that I perpetrated against you.” and please write up the results.
Finally, the meta-message of this story (and longer excerpts and quite possibly her whole book) seems to be
“A white person working with a Black person has to walk on eggshells all the goddamned time” which is part of a larger meta-message “Dealing with Black people at work is a miserable experience for white people and you need an expert like me to get through it.” Which is the whole point. As some have pointed out, the function of Robin and those like her is to prove corporate employers with a convenient way of firing people at will. She’s part of the Professional Managerial Class whose role in the system is to instill labor discipline. Employers don’t want employees who feel any kind of class connection with each other and Robin and her kind help make sure that can never happen.