White Fragility

In (2018), Robin DiAngelo asks white people to reconsider what racism is, and how we help to perpetuate it in spite of our good intentions.

Racism, as DiAngelo uses the word, does not mean the explicit pro­fes­sion that there are es­sen­tial­ly dif­fer­ent human races and that some are better than others. That, she says, is an un­so­phis­ti­ca­ted folk de­fi­ni­tion of racism (I’ll call that “racismF”).

The de­fi­ni­tion she prefers (what I’ll call “racismS”) is that racismS is a sys­tem­ic, usual­ly (now­a­days) non-ex­pli­cit or eu­phem­is­tic, often sub­con­scious, in­ter­lock­ing and per­va­sive set of social, cultural, and political devices that reinforce white supremacy. RacismS is impossible to avoid. It’s everywhere, and is drilled into everyone in a multitude of ways, day in and day out.

“White fragility” is one of the devices that reinforce white supremacy. White fragility is a sort of defensiveness that takes the form of a variety of strategies that white people deploy when we are confronted with how we participate in and perpetuate racismS. Whites use these strategies to deflect or avoid such a confrontation and to defend a comfortable, privileged vantage point from which race is “not an issue” (at least to us who benefit from it).

The folk definition, racismF, is in fact one of the pillars of white fragility. Because, according to this definition, racismF is the conscious, explicit endorsement of an unconscionable belief system — all we white people have to do to stop participating in racismF is to disavow racial bigotry and then congratulate ourselves for our good sense. But this leaves racismS fully intact.

If you tell a white person like me that he is participating in and perpetuating racismS, he’ll typically respond by denying he has anything to do with racismF: e.g. “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.” White people interpret criticism about our patterns of behavior that perpetuate racismS as though we had been accused of adhering to racismF — of being crude bigots — and we respond defensively to what we perceive as an insult against our characters. In this way we give ourselves a pass on having to think about our inevitable participation in racismS, and so this helps to cement racismS and our own privileged position in it, which is… mighty convenient for us.

White progressives in particular, because disavowing racismF is such an important part of their identity, are wedded to this gambit. So much so that, according to DiAngelo, it is “white progressives [who] cause the most daily damage to people of color.”

So DiAngelo wants to take an axe to white fragility as a prerequisite for getting white people to stop propping up racismS. She’s devoted her career to this: she works as an “racial equity consultant” — someone who gets called in to companies and other institutions with racial insensitivity issues to try to help them fix their corporate culture. In the course of this, she’s seen all manner of examples of white people not getting with the program, and has collected a catalog of ways that white fragility manifests itself — denial, withdrawal, deflection, conspicuous wokeness, emotional outbursts, and so forth — always in ways that function to avoid confronting and dismantling white supremacy.

Much of her book (a little too much, in my opinion) is devoted to describing this variety of methods. In some of the remainder she gives her program for defusing white fragility so that white people can confront and diminish racismS. The first step is for whites to become more aware of their whiteness — to acknowledge that we see the world through white eyes and that our experience is a white experience, that we are not racially neutral or non-racial. We must abandon our pretensions to “individualism” and “objectivity” (two other ostensible pillars of whiteness) and acknowledge instead that we are who we are because we are white, and that what we take to be objective knowledge is actually a peculiarly white perspective.

Since, as DiAngelo explains soon after, race is not a biological fact, but a myth that was invented by white people to help them to justify their exploitation of other people — and since historically those whites who have been most explicitly invested in their whiteness have been so in the avowed cause of white supremacy — it may seem strange that DiAngelo suggests that white people become more race conscious, more invested in the reality of racial differences, and so forth. It seemed so to me. When DiAngelo wrote

Being seen racially is a common trigger of white fragility, and thus, to build our stamina, white people must face the first challenge: naming our race.

I was reminded of things I’d seen in the seedier corners of the internet from “race realists” and other such proponents of racismF. Take this, for example, from American Renaissance, an explicitly racistF group:

Race is an important aspect of individual and group identity. Of all the fault lines that divide society — language, religion, class, ideology — it is the most prominent and divisive. Race and racial conflict are at the heart of some of the most serious challenges the Western World faces in the 21st century.

The problems of race cannot be solved without adequate understanding. Attempts to gloss over the significance of race or even to deny its reality only make problems worse. Progress requires the study of all aspects of race, whether historical, cultural, or biological. This approach is known as race realism.

Until the very last sentence, that excerpt would not have seemed at all out-of-place if I had run across it in White Fragility. And that gives me pause. If white racial salience was invented to serve racismS, and has long been (and continues to be) a pillar of racismF, can it really be the key to getting us out of this mess?

DiAngelo believes that my concern — which she paraphrases as “focusing on race is what divides us” — is just one more device white people like me use to avoid confronting racismS. While race was invented, not discovered, and does not have the basis in real biological facts its inventors liked to think it does, once it was invented and deployed it became real through the real-world effects it has and the system of white supremacy it undergirds. To deny the reality of race may on some level be progressive and admirable, but the way that denial functions in the real world is to dismiss racismS as obsolete or irrelevant, and thereby to ensure that it continues unchallenged. White people who say they’re beyond race, don’t think of themselves in racial terms, are “color blind”, and so forth, are, when they do so, exercising white privilege, because those ostensibly race-neutral vantages are off-limits to non-white people.

So if a white person should not pretend to be racially blank, and yet as DiAngelo reminds us “white identity is inherently racist,” what is a white person to do? DiAngelo’s way to thread the needle is this: “I strive to be ‘less white.’ ”

To do this, acknowledge first that you are white, and that your whiteness is part of a package that includes the privileges enforced by racismS. Note that you have been socialized from day one to participate in and reinforce racismS, and that because this system is designed with your comfort in mind, you probably haven’t been all that motivated to examine this very closely. As a result, your default behavior, and that which will be reinforced by your white peers and by the racistS system, is behavior that will strengthen and perpetuate racismS. If you want to swim against that tide, you have to leave your comfort zone and put in some extra work. You should not feel guilty for having been socialized into racismS. That’s just the way it is for all of us. Leave the sackcloth and ashes aside. When you find out you’ve been doing something that perpetuates racismS, the best response is to say “of course I was; I’m glad I finally found out about it so I can change.” By adopting that attitude, you will be less defensive, less “fragile”, and more open to learning and improvement.

It felt useful to me to try on DiAngelo’s perspective about race and to interpret my outlook, experience, and actions through its framework. But there was a lot I didn’t care for about the book. DiAngelo would probably interpret that as my defensiveness; maybe she’s right.

For one thing, I was put off by the tone of woke intellectual arrogance and rhetorical aggression throughout: I must either accept DiAngelo’s assertions or I demonstrate, by not accepting them, that I am an unrepentant collaborator. She does not pause to engage with alternative theories and frameworks, but simply pushes hers as though it were an unquestionable fact and the only alternative to racismS. For example, she does not really acknowledge that her racismS and the vulgate’s racismF are two valid and useful concepts in their own contexts, one being the academic/professional use of the term and the other being the common/folk use of the term. To her, there is just the correct use of the term (hers) and the ignorant/complicit use of the term (most people’s).

For another, when she tried to support her theories by reference to real-world examples, I sometimes found her to be unreliable when I looked for independent evidence of those examples. To prop up her arguments, she sometimes resorts to deceptive oversimplification and caricature. At other times, her theories become so absorptive that they can explain any fact at all. For example, if whites leave a neighborhood and blacks move in, that’s “white flight;” if the reverse happens, it’s “gentrification;” either one is evidence of “disdain of whites for African Americans.” But if all possible evidence is evidence for your theory, your theory has ascended to some realm beyond evidence, and I’m not inclined to follow you there.

I also noticed an assumption that People of Color are preternaturally clear-sighted and of one mind on racial issues, so that a white person can just listen to one carefully and without defensiveness to obtain all the relevant information about a potentially racist scenario they are involved in. Are there People of Color who are ill-informed or unwise? might they disagree with each other? might they have a complex variety of motives for what they say and do? You wouldn’t know it from how they are typically portrayed in White Fragility.

DiAngelo is also weirdly oblivious about the actual power dynamics in many of the scenarios in which she describes encountering white fragility: the corporate training seminars she helps to put on. If Human Resources sends out a memo telling all employees to come to a racial bias seminar led by outside equity consultants, of course that’s going to put white employees on edge. They know who the bad guy is going to be in this movie, they’ve heard what happens to white people who screw up and say the wrong words to the wrong people at the wrong time, and they’re not entirely confident they know which words are the wrong ones this week. It shouldn’t be surprising that the smart ones adopt the strategy of keeping their heads down and their mouths shut. But when DiAngelo sees white people at such meetings clamming up, or talking in meandering ways, with “long pauses” and “self-corrections”, she just chalks this up as white people deploying their favorite strategies for perpetuating white privilege. In one example, she describes a white woman who became so upset at feeling falsely accused of racism? at one of these “workplace anti-racism training” seminars that her co-workers became concerned for her health; to DiAngelo this was obviously just self-serving histrionics and her co-workers were just enabling it as their own ways of reinforcing useful white fragility. She can’t imagine that such a person’s fears for her job or her reputation can have any validity.

But all this criticism adds up to me wishing it were a better book. It was worth reading and wrestling with. I think there is a lot of validity to its key points, and I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading it. If white people are to finally overcome racismS and stand on our own two feet, it will require that we talk more frankly about race and be willing to make uncomfortable, difficult changes. This book might be a good place to start for a lot of us.