Some Reflections on White Fragility

Among the most significant books I’ve read recently is Robin Di Angelo’s extremely popular, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism (Boston: Beacon, 2018). I have deliberately avoided discussing the broader issues of identity politics and critical race theory, which are important and need engagement, and I'm strategically limiting this post to (a) reproducing the main claims of the book in a way that Di Angelo would endorse as a faithful summary, (b) providing her claims the most favorable reading I can and (c) concluding with some questions. I borrowed a digital copy from the library, had to read it in a couple of days, and no longer have access to it. The page numbers are of a digital copy and not the print edition.

What is White Fragility?

White Fragility targets “white progressives” which Di Angelo defines as a “white person who thinks he or she is not racist, or is less racist” (34). Such white progressives “cause the most damage to people of color” (34). Her goal in writing the book is “to make visible how one aspect of white sensibility continues to hold racism in place: white fragility” (34/35).

White fragility occurs when white people respond to the charge of racism emotionally with anger, fear, shame, outrage, or guilt and behaviorally with crying, silence, avoidance, withdrawal, protest, hostility, or argumentation (31, 139, 140). This response, “born of superiority and entitlement,” serves “to reinstate white equilibrium” and “maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy” (31). White fragility “may be conceptualized as the sociology of dominance: an outcome of white people socialization into white supremacy and a means to protect, maintain, and reproduce white supremacy” (emphasis original, 133).

What is Racism?

White folk misunderstand racism because they are socialized in the Western ideologies of individualism and objectivity. Because of individualism, which “holds that we are each unique and stand apart from others” (38), race is often judged irrelevant, and because of objectivity, which assumes the possibility of seeing the world from a “universal human perspective” (40), one is unable to recognize bias.  

Di Angelo laments how common conceptions of racism prevent white people from understanding it or seeing their complicity (33). For Di Angelo, racism is not the intentional or conscious dislike of others because of their race (43). If it were, the charge of racism should be offensive to many. But racists, she insists, are not “mean” or “immoral” people (43). Racism does not exist in a good/bad binary in which racist = bad and bigoted, and non-racist = good and open-minded. Such a binary fails to see the systemic nature of racism and serves to exempt well-meaning white people from racism (108).

Di Angelo distinguishes racism from mere prejudice, i.e., individual prejudgments of others based on the social groups to which they belong, and from mere discrimination, i.e., an action based on prejudice (e.g., exclusion, ridicule) (51-53). Racism is “a racial group’s collective prejudice backed by the power of legal authority and institutional control” (52). As such it is impossible for black people to be racist because only white people “have the collective social and institutional power and privilege over people of color” (54). “Racism is a structure, not an event” (61), “a network of norms and actions that consistently create advantages for whites and disadvantages for people of color” (60).  

 A Racist Glossary: Privilege, Supremacy, Normativity, Solidarity

Racism, as a system, allocates an advantage to a race. The advantages that white people in North America have that are not similarly enjoyed by people of color form white privilege. Society is organized hierarchically by race in such a way that some do not enjoy the freedoms and opportunities of others. The unavoidable exercising of those advantages implies white supremacy—namely, “a socio-political economic system of domination based on racial categories that benefits those defined and perceived as white” (e.g., the overwhelming number of whites in the US congress and among US teachers, politicians, etc.; 63). White normativity represents the assumption that white people are the norm (e.g., “flesh-colored” make-up) and is apparent when a writer who is black is designated as a “black writer” (91). When whites “circulate and reinforce racial messages that position whites as superior” they are operating with a white racial frame (e.g., designating white neighborhoods as “safe” and “clean” and black neighborhoods as “dangerous”; 66,70). White solidarity is an “unspoken agreement among whites to protect white advantage and not cause another white person to feel racial discomfort by confronting them when they say or do something racially problematic” (93).

Fragile Denials of Racism

Racism persists because it is “adaptive” (72), and it manifests itself now as color-blindness and aversive racism. The idea of color-blindness might have been noble at the outset but it actually serves to retain racism because it implicates anyone who acknowledges race as a racist (74). Colored-blind claims include the following:

  • I was taught to treat everyone the same
  • I don't see color
  • Race doesn't have any meaning to me 
  • My parents are not racist, so that is why I am not racist
  • I'm not racist; I'm from Canada (114)

Di Angelo also introduces the concept of aversive racism, whereby racism is eschewed on the grounds of, e.g., friendships with people of color. Elsewhere, Di Angelo refers to this as color-celebrate, the alleged embrace of racial differences represented by statements such as these:

  • I work in a very diverse environment
  • I have people of color in my family 
  • I married a person of color 
  • I marched in the '60s
  • Our grandchildren are multiracial (115)

This, however, denies or minimizes the racist conditioning one has received through, e.g., media representations and jokes (80). Cross-racial friendships, as such, “do not block out the dynamics of racism” (118). 

Di Angelo excoriates white women for crying in the course of cross-racial dialogue: “Because of its seeming innocence, well-meaning white women crying in cross-racial interactions is one of the more pernicious enactments of white fragility” (154). Such unacceptable behavior only turns the attention of everyone in the room away from the real problem of racism. To indulge emotions is a narcissistic ploy to excuse inaction (156).

How to Interrupt White Fragility

We can interrupt white fragility “by being willing to tolerate the discomfort associated with an honest appraisal and discussion of our internalized superiority and racial privilege” (169). When exposed with their complicity in racism, white people should engage in the following behaviors: reflection, apology, listening, processing, seeking more understanding, grappling, engaging, believing. Further, they should respond with claims such as:

  • I appreciate this feedback
  • This is very helpful
  • It is my responsibility to resist defensiveness and complacency
  • Oops
  • It’s inevitable that I have this pattern. I want to change it (162)

Further, white people should operate the following assumptions:
  • racism is a multi-layered system embedded in our culture
  • being good or bad is not relevant
  • all of us are socialized into the system of racism
  • racism cannot be avoided
  • whites have blind spots on racism, and I have blind spots on racism
  • bias is implicit and unconscious; I don't expect to be aware of mine without a lot of ongoing effort
  • giving us white people feedback on our racism is risky for people of color, so we can consider the feedback a sign of trust (163)

These assumptions might interrupt racism in various ways, such as

  •  minimizing hard defensiveness
  •  demonstrating our vulnerability
  •  demonstrating our curiosity and humility (164)
  •  building authentic relationships and trust
  •  interrupting privilege-protecting comfort
  •  interrupting internalized superiority (165)

Di Angelo also suggests addressing racism by challenging “our own socialization and investments in racism and the misinformation we have learned about people of colour” (169), educating ourselves about the history of race relations, following the leadership of people of color, building authentic cross-racial relationships, getting involved with organizations working for racial justice, and by “breaking the silence about race and racism with other white people” (169).

A Positive Assessment

I profited greatly from reading Di Angelo’s book which, though repetitive at points, was clear and instructive. Furthermore, I think she is correct to identify the role of ideologies in socialization and I tend to agree that individualization and objectivity pose problems. It is helpful to think of the plight of people as collectives and not just as individuals and to admit that bias and prejudice are inescapable. I share her critique of the Enlightenment project, which she nowhere names (so far as I recall).  

I share Di Angelo’s convictions that white people who do not intentionally discriminate racially should not automatically be given a pass on the racism report card. I think it is very important for all white people to acknowledge racial inequality between blacks and whites and the disadvantages and restrictions blacks routinely experience. I support the notion of some kind of national or public commission in which sins can be admitted and renounced and some attempt can be made to make reparations. These reparations would not serve to atone for white guilt but could be utilized by proven civic organizations to invest in certain disadvantaged black neighborhoods. If people suffer greatly because of injustice perpetrated against their ancestors, why should I suffer nothing because of the injustice perpetrated by my ancestors? As a Christian, I support confessing my sins and the sins of my ancestors, and I don’t have to stare at my genogram for very long, I suspect, to find those who funded kidnapping and slave-trading. So racism is my problem, quite apart, as Di Angelo says, from any good intentions or individuals acts I might have done.

Some Questions

Reading the book also made me ask some questions:

1. Is it possible that by denominating all white people as racists implicated in a system of white supremacy one diminishes the offences of those explicitly prejudicial and overtly discriminatory white supremacist individuals or groups? 

2. How has Di Angelo escaped white fragility when all of her recommendations seem to reveal it? She recommends following the leadership of people of color, but earlier in the book chastises those who think the solution is to learn from black people, as if we can offload the problem on them (100-101). She recommends building cross-racial relationships and working for organizations addressing racial injustice, but earlier in the book bemoans these relationships as excuses for white inaction and denials of the systemic nature of racism. She recommends celebrating Toni Morrison, for example, as a writer (not a black writer) but decries those who minimize the race variable for their color-blindness.

3. Is there any evidence that interrupting white fragility, along the lines that Di Angelo recommends, ameliorates racism? Just about every major corporation in America has published statements denouncing racism, including many that have had Di Angelo address them. What is presently helping? 


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