White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Robin DiAngelo. Boston: Beacon Press, 2018.
Summary: Explains white fragility, its sources, expressions, the challenge it poses to conversations about race, and a different way to engage.
You’ve been there. A conversation about race begins and quickly, tension settles in the room. You don’t need a person of color to be present. The defensiveness is palpable and takes a variety of forms. For some the best defense is a good offense. In a conversation about the significance of the Black Lives Matter movement, someone pushes back and shifts the topic–“what about blue lives, what about unborn lives, what about all lives?” Another person might take an approach that personally distances them, saying that they have lots of black friends, or that when it comes to race, they are color blind. Some just become emotional, and the conversation shifts to comforting the weeping or upset person and shames the source of the bad feelings.
All of these, according to Robin DiAngelo are expressions of “white fragility,” a phrase she coined in 2011. She describes this phenomenon as follows:
“Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race. We consider a challenge to our racial worldviews as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people. Thus, we perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as an unsettling and unfair moral offense. The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable–the mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers a range of defensive responses. These include emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation. These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy. I conceptualize this process as white fragility.” (p. 2)
DiAngelo sees this first hand as an equity education trainer and consultant for corporations and educational institutions. Her most striking observation is that is it white progressives who cause the greatest daily harm, and it is primarily for this group of people that she writes. To understand why this is, she takes us to the roots of white fragility. She contends that we do not understand the powerful forces of socialization in our lives and consequently have a simplistic understanding of racism focused around conscious attitudes or intentionally offensive actions. Our problem is in what we don’t see, and one of the most compelling things about this book are the examples the author shares of her own unconscious biases and the ways these get expressed in her own behavior, as for example in a joke with one of her fellow trainers. We also do not understand the socially constructed character of racism in our national history. We speak of other racial groups but don’t grasp what “whiteness” means for us, thinking individually rather than collectively, even though we participate collectively in its benefits. We do not realize all the subtle ways whiteness shapes our lives, which DiAngelo chronicles.
Since the Civil Rights movement, among more progressive individuals racism takes subtler forms. We avow “color-blindness,” we maintain a positive self-image by using coded language like “good neigborhoods” rationalizations for white dominance, and maintain we have lots of people of color as our friends, or if we don’t that our neighborhoods are diverse. She calls this “aversive racism,” a form of denial that says, “this is not my problem.” Much of this stems from a “good/bad” binary. You either are or are not a racist according to this binary in which racist is bad. This doesn’t come to terms with the formative character of being socialized as a white person, and how deeply racist bias and behaviors are embedded in our lives and society, regardless of our conscious attitudes or deeds done. The binary means that “progressive” folk are committed to protecting a racial “righteousness” and this often triggers white fragility when issues of race are raised, particularly of a personally critical nature. The author proposes we do far better to see ourselves on a racism continuum, where, with the help of others, including people of color, we are seeking to move toward growth.
She goes on to talk about things that trigger white fragility and the feelings, behaviors, claims, assumptions, and most important, function of white fragile behavior, which is to protect our image and dominance as whites. Her concluding chapters talk about the “rules of engagement” typical to racial discussions, that white feelings and sense of safety need to be protected, particularly by people of color. The author suggests a very different approach when being given feedback about behavior that has a racist impact:
- How where, and when you give me feedback is irrelevant–it is the feedback I want and need. Understanding that it is hard to give, I will take it any way I can get it. From my position of social, cultural, and institutional white power and privilege, I am perfectly safe and I can handle it. If I cannot handle it, it’s on me to build my racial stamina.
- Thank you. (p. 125)
Her final chapter on “Where Do We Go From Here?” has a number of additional suggestions as well as a story of how DiAngelo responded with “racial stamina” rather than “white fragility” in a situation where she had racially transgressed.
From a Christian perspective, I’m reminded of an old saw that says, “there is more to being righteous than being right.” Sometimes our compulsion to “be right” reveals the depth of sin in our lives that right beliefs, right words, and right actions do not address–our “rightness fragility” as it were. If racism is sin, it should not surprise us that it is deeply embedded in our lives and society, and that right attitudes, words, and actions are no surety that racism is not embedded in us, perhaps in ways we are blind to until others bring them to our attention. Eradicating sin in my life is not simply a matter of ceasing to do certain things. It is a progressive, transformational process where I am indeed on a continuum of being conformed to Christ’s image, always an incomplete process in our lives. I am, in AA language, a recovering sinner.
This book helped me realize both that I am a [recovering] racist, and that the “go to” responses of white fragility hinder my recovery and cut me off from those who might help. Instead, I need to listen, and learn to say, “tell me more,” “I’m sorry, I was wrong” and “thank you.” This is an important book for individuals and organizations committed to racial equity, but wondering why they are not making progress. It suggests that for whites, even “progressive whites,” we may need to take a look in the mirror. In matters of race, as in many other things, we are often our own worst enemies.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.