White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism
In the preface to her slim and penetrating new book, White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo makes a statement that feels more provocative than it should: "I am white and addressing a common white dynamic. I am mainly writing to a white audience; when I use the terms us and we I am referring to the white collective."
These days, explicit self-identification with the "white collective" brings to mind the manifestos and Twitter rants of the loud, proud racists energized by Donald Trump's presidency. But DiAngelo is no Breitbart blogger or alt-right YouTube star, beckoning her white audience with news of their unjust marginalization. She is a scholar of race and education, and a longtime provider of workplace training on racial equality. Her message to her fellow white Americans (like me) is simple: You're too sensitive, and it's an obstacle to progress.
DiAngelo introduced the phrase white fragility—"a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves"—in an academic paper published in 2011. She was describing the reactions of many white people whose workplaces send them to her trainings. They show up defensive and stay defensive, pushing back against every exercise or idea. They don't deny racism exists, or even that it has horrible effects. But they refuse to concede that racism might have anything meaningful to do with their individual lives: their jobs, their families, their thoughts and feelings.
Most Americans will find DiAngelo's catalog of these evasive moves familiar; wearingly so for people of color, embarrassingly so for whites. Even for readers relatively wise to the ways of white defensiveness, it is usefully bracing to see so many maneuvers standing in a line-up together. A partial selection: I was taught to treat everyone the same. I don't see color. I went to a very diverse school. I marched in the '60s. If people are respectful to me, I am respectful of them, regardless of race. I grew up poor (so I don't have race privilege).
The problem isn't that each of these statements is necessarily false (though of course some cannot be true). The problem is that they reduce racism from a matter of structures, groups, and cultures—things that affect and ensnare us all—to a matter entirely of individuals and their self-proclaimed intentions. They are all, implicitly, ways of saying, "Leave me out; here is an issue on which I cannot be confronted." This posture shuts down honest talk about racism, making it less likely that people of color will share their perspectives, let alone have them understood by whites.
DiAngelo shares stories from her trainings about white participants who are challenged for their evasiveness, perhaps by co-workers who are not white. No matter how calm or polite the challenge, people claim they are being attacked, or treated "as white" instead of as the unique individual they know they are. They pout, tune out, nitpick, or blurt awkward jokes. One white woman, challenged to reconsider something she has said, flees the room; later, her friends insist to DiAngelo that, for this woman, the experience almost triggered a literal heart attack.
The advice in White Fragility is fairly straightforward—which is not, of course, the same thing as easy to act on. DiAngelo wants white people to abandon ideas of racism as a matter of individuals being good or bad, moral or immoral. To accept that we surely have unconscious investments in whiteness—investments we might not yet fully understand. To seek out the perspectives of people of color, embrace the discomfort that might result, and avoid confusing that discomfort with literal danger. To start uncomfortable conversations with family and friends. To breathe slowly. And, perhaps most important, to remember that we should do all this not for people of color, but instead for ourselves, in the spirit of honesty and truth-telling. If white people truly did what it took to shed their fragility, DiAngelo argues—perhaps skipping a few steps—"not only would our interpersonal relationships change, but so would our institutions ... because we would see to it that they did."
One major obstacle, of course, is that people don't like feeling uncomfortable. Many times in my own life, I have decided not to object to racist rhetoric in the interest of maintaining social equilibrium—of "not making a scene." (I've also used racist rhetoric myself: In 2001, I entered an op-ed contest for high school journalists with a piece about how the race of our politicians and journalists doesn't matter because all humans should be capable of using basic empathy to understand each other's perspectives and needs, no matter their skin color. I won second place.) And as a white writer, one who in recent years has been writing more about race and racial violence in America, I know the allure of isolating my engagement with these subjects to the page—where I can, in the comfort of solitude, spend my days refining my thinking and phrasing, all the while spending my nights and weekends with my overwhelmingly white friends and family, rarely discussing race or racism.
One pessimistic possibility, it occurs to me, is that as the term white fragility continues circulating outside of academia, it could end up being deployed by whites looking to deny their own connections to racism and absolve themselves of the need to do any hard work. The term has gone viral of late; last year, it was a runner-up in the Oxford Dictionaries word-of-the-year ranking. This newfound popularity has everything to do with our attempts at understanding Trump's electoral victory. My fear is that DiAngelo's term can all too easily be absorbed into attempts by liberal whites to paint Trump voters as categorically different people: members of another species, with whom they cannot possibly share any complicity or biases.
Last August, a Vox headline proclaimed that "The Charlottesville Protests Are White Fragility in Action." It was likely true—but the more white fragility is deployed to describe only its most extreme manifestations, the less it will spur broad white introspection, let alone the meaningful pursuit of change.
It is easy to overstate the value of "conversations about race" and, in the process, de-emphasize the need for material change. But it is hard to deny that a great many new conversations are likely needed, particularly within white families and social circles. The number of conversations coaxed into existence by DiAngelo's work will be a central measure of its success. I hope it is a great one.