What is the book about?
White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism is a 2018 book that delves deep into the race relations within the United States, while primarily addressing the book to white people. The author, Robin DiAngelo describes white fragility as the way in which white people become defensive when told that they benefit from racism. The book provides examples of why white fragility exists, the negative impact it has, and how we can challenge it. The book concludes that the best way to address racism is to proactively challenge white people, especially those who seem to be displaying white fragility to ideas of racism.
The author of this book, Robin DiAngelo, is an American academic who has been working within the specialism of critical discourse analysis and whiteness studies for many years. In fact, she has been an educator on issues of racial and social justice for more than twenty years. She has worked as a Professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University and is currently the Associate Professor of Education at the University of Washington in Seattle. DiAngelo coined the term ‘white fragility’ in 2011, within one of her academic papers.
Additionally, DiAngelo bases a large part of this book on her experiences as a professional diversity consultant. During this time, she conducted workshops fo businesses and other organizations on matters pertaining to diversity. This is where she first noticed how defensively white people react to the idea that they might benefit from racism and that they might be behaving in a racially problematic way.
“I believe that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color. I define a white progressive as any white person who thinks he or she is not racist or is less racist, or in the “choir,” or already “gets it.” White progressives can be the most difficult for people of color because, to the degree that we think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived. None of our energy will go into what we need to be doing for the rest of our lives: engaging in ongoing self-awareness, continuing education, relationship building, and actual antiracist practice. White progressives do indeed uphold and perpetuate racism, but our defensiveness and certitude make it virtually impossible to explain to us how we do so.”
Chapter 1 – The challenges of talking to white people about racism
“White people raised in Western society are conditioned into a white supremacist worldview because it is the bedrock of our society and its institutions. Regardless of whether a parent told you that everyone was equal, or the poster in the hall of your white suburban school proclaimed the value of diversity or you have traveled abroad, or you have people of color in your workplace or family, the ubiquitous socializing power of white supremacy cannot be avoided. The messages circulate 24-7 and have little or nothing to do with intentions, awareness, or agreement. Entering the conversation with this understanding is freeing because it allows us to focus on how–rather than if–our racism is manifest.”
This chapter offers an introduction to the two major challenges of talking to white people about racism. DiAngelo describes these as:
- A limited understanding of socialization
- A simplistic understanding of racism
So, to elaborate on this, white people have been socialized to see that race matters, but within this, they do not consider their own race and the impact of it. DiAngelo explains how this socialization has occurred through the Western ideologies of individualism and objectivity. Holding an individualist idea of the world around you means that you only see your experience in a vacuum, you don’t see yourself in terms of the collective white people.
However, the naming of race is a critical component of cross-racial skill-building and is necessary to engage critically with the topic of race. On top of this, white people must consider the impact of being members of their racial group has. This is needed to overcome white fragility, as it helps build up our racial stamina.
Chapter 2 – Racism and white supremacy
“The simplistic idea that racism is limited to individual intentional acts committed by unkind people is at the root of virtually all white defensiveness on this topic.”
This chapter focuses on how race is merely socially constructed. This is extremely important, as we must understand race before we can tackle racism and white fragility. Despite this, society amplifies the idea that race is associated with large genetic differences. Contrary to popular belief, race isn’t a genetic reality.
Differences in our skin color do not reliably correlate with underlying genetic variations between people. They are just superficial differences that are associated with geographies in which people’s ancestors adapted. Therefore, this means that rather than a biological truth, race can be seen as a social construct. Or, put more simply, race is just a set of ideas created within a particular culture. Importantly, though, these ideas guide our thoughts and our actions.
Our current social understanding of race, still based on genetic differences, means we are conditioned to see and treat certain groups of people in certain ways. Using the example of the US, DiAngelo explains how race has historically served the function of resolving contradictions at the heart of the country’s foundation. The US was created on the foundation of ‘equality’ but this is clearly not the reality. The country was instead built on extreme inequalities, with slave-owning European Americans enslaving African Americans.
In order to justify this lack of equality in the US, race science was introduced in the 18th century by European Americans. This was a form of pseudoscience that claimed that African Americans were genetically inferior to European Americans. Based on this premise, European Americans continued to provide African Americans with fewer rights, while European Americans were given certain privileges. Therefore, inequality between African American and European American people was justified by false narratives around genetic differences that still persist today. It also was the start of what we now see as racial designations of “black” and “white”.
Today, being perceived as white still carries legal, political, economic, and social privileges that lead to denial of these same privileges for others. Pre-abolition white people had the right to keep slaves and post-abolition they maintained things like the right to vote, while non-white people did not have this right. This encourages the idea of white supremacy, whereby whiteness or white experiences are seen as the ideal.
Whiteness has been used as a social construct for many years. For example, originally the term “white” was only used for certain ethnic groups from Europe, not including the Irish and Italian Americans until the late 19th century. In order for these groups to eventually be accepted as white, they had to assimilate into the social constructs of whiteness that had been established. For example, they had to learn English and leave their old languages behind. This shows that race is not a natural distinction between two pre-existing groups of “white” and “black” people, but shiftable markers of social superiority and inferiority. Therefore, racial inequality was systemic. It was and is seeped in the country’s social, cultural, political, and economic realities.
This systemic inequality can be seen by the disparities in modern America. White people constitute:
- 100% of the ten richest Americans
- 90% of the US Congress
- 96% of US state governors
- 100% of the top US military advisers
- 84% of full-time university professors
- 90-95% of the people who decide which TV shows, music albums, and books get produced and published
Chapter 3 – Racism after the civil rights movement
If you merely adopt a simplistic understanding of racism, then you will believe that the civil rights movement ended racist practices in America. Instead, though, as racism is systemic and highly adaptable it has continued to seep into modern norms, policies, and practices. Because of this, we see similar racial outcomes as we did before the civil rights movement.
One of the contemporary areas in which racism has adapted and persists is through the color-blind ideology. Although initially well-intentioned, claiming that you do not see race makes it difficult to address unconscious racist beliefs. Therefore, denying that you see race serves as a way, in society, to deny the reality of racism. Adopting race-neutral language does little to challenge racism in the modern world.
For example, American society no longer socially accepts openly expressing racial prejudices. However, coupled with race-neutral language, this means that it is increasingly difficult to detect racial prejudice, leaving the prejudices largely unconscious. These unconscious prejudices are showcased in neighborhoods in America being segregated into racial groups. Legally sanctioned segregation may be a thing of the past, but modern Americans are still segregated in where they live. Or, as DiAngelo puts it, White Americans are deciding where to live and to live away from Black Americans. In fact, DiAngelo describes the phenomenon of white flight, whereby white people decide to leave neighborhoods when 7% or more of the residents are black.
The vocabulary used by white people to describe why white flight occurs, though, avoids these prejudices. Instead of saying it is because of the presence of black people, they describe the neighborhoods as ones which are becoming “dangerous” or “crime-ridden”. These have become code words for black neighborhoods. Comparatively, white neighborhoods become described as “safe” and “clean”. This means that white people can be racist without even appearing to be or realizing their own prejudices.
The impact of this segregation is that white people are taught in white schools and are surrounded by white people at work and in the media they consume. This insulation offers a clue as to why white people are unaware of the problems of racism. They do not see it and so they do not acknowledge it.
Chapter 4 – How does race shape the lives of white people?
In this chapter, DiAngelo introduces eight foundational aspects of white fragility. They are based on racial identification and reinforce:
- A feeling of belonging. Everywhere a white person looks in culture they can see other white people, such as leaders, authors, or celebrities. Holding these predominantly white people as exemplars of its culture sends a message to white people of “you belong here” and a message to black people of “you don’t belong here”
- Freedom from the burden of race
- Freedom of movement
- Being warranted the label of being ‘just’
- Labeling themselves as racially innocent. White people often associate black and latino men with crime, because of the depictions of black and latino people in the media. This leads to research showing that white people’s perceptions of a neighborhood’s crime level are directly correlated with how many young men of color live there. This also translates onto criminal justice, with the police and judges disproportionately arresting, sentencing and killing black and latino men
- Racial segregation
- White solidarity
- Being oblivious to the country’s racial history
Each of these mean that white people romanticize about the good old days and protect white advantage. Plus, they mean that black people typically do not have the same experiences in life. All of these foundational aspects, taken together, can be considered a white privilege. DiAngelo importantly points out that white privilege does not mean that all white people have it easy. White people can have hardships too. Instead, the idea of white privilege simply means that regardless of circumstances white people enjoy certain advantages because of their whiteness.
Chapter 5 – The good/bad binary
“When we move beyond the good/bad binary, we can become eager to identify our racist patterns because interrupting those patterns becomes more important than managing how we think we look to others.”
Following the civil rights movement, a binary emerged whereby people believed that malicious acts of extreme prejudice were racist and that only bad people committed these acts. This cultural norm, according to DiAngelo, is the good/bad binary. White people started to associate acts that looked like the Southern white supremacist attacks in the 1950s and 1960s as racism. This binary is not helpful, as it actually makes it impossible for the average white person to understand less overt forms of racism. A lack of understanding means a lack of action in tackling racism.
Fundamentally, we now have a cartoonish understanding of what racism is. The extreme examples of racism that led to changes in the law and the initial definition of racism are now what white people see as racism. The issue is, most white people want to see themselves as nice, moral individuals and as racism is now almost exclusively associated with these extreme acts, they react badly to being called out on racist behaviors. White people can believe they are being unfairly insulted, judged, or attacked.
This is ultimately the foundation of white fragility. Feeling unfairly insulted leads to defensive behaviors.
Chapter 6 – Anti-Blackness
Although white supremacy impacts on all people of color, black people are almost always represented as the ultimate racial “other”. This means that there is a uniquely anti-black sentiment integral to white identity.
DiAngelo explains how anti-blackness is rooted in misinformation, fables, perversions, projections, and lies about African Americans. Therefore, there are conflicting feelings toward black people among the white population. Some of these emotions are benevolence, resentment, superiority, hatred, and, most fundamental of all, guilt. White people have guilt about past and current systematic transgressions against black people that have occurred.
DiAngelo importantly points out that this anti-blackness is in all white people because of the societies in which we grow up. White people all benefit from racism, so their personal intentions have very little to do with whether they should be challenging racism. Benefiting from racism has nothing to do with engaging in acts of overt racial discrimination; whit people benefit from racism whether they like it or not.
At a basic level, there is no way in which a white person could grow up in and benefit from our society as it is, a systemically racist society full of racist behaviors and ideas, and not come out the other side with racial prejudices. Like all human beings, white people are socialized. Our current society socializes white people to adopt an anti-blackness narrative.
Chapter 7 – Racial triggers for white people
“I was co-leading a workshop with an African American man. A white participant said to him, “I don’t see race; I don’t see you as black.” My co-trainer’s response was, “Then how will you see racism?” He then explained to her that he was black, he was confident that she could see this, and that his race meant that he had a very different experience in life than she did. If she were ever going to understand or challenge racism, she would need to acknowledge this difference. Pretending that she did not notice that he was black was not helpful to him in any way, as it denied his reality – indeed, it refused his reality – and kept hers insular and unchallenged. This pretense that she did not notice his race assumed that he was “just like her,” and in so doing, she projected her reality onto him. For example, I feel welcome at work so you must too; I have never felt that my race mattered, so you must feel that yours doesn’t either. But of course, we do see the race of other people, and race holds deep social meaning for us.”
This chapter begins to consider and explore the effects and outcomes of occasions when white people are triggered in conversations about race and racism. White people, generally, are living in states of racial comfort as they live in insulated environments of racial privilege. They are surrounded by white people and do not need to face the racial inequalities of society.
Racial stress can occur, though, when white people are reminded of and challenged on concepts such as color-blindness, meritocracy, and individualism. When they are triggered by challenges to these things they then are unable to respond constructively. These are some of the common examples of reactions to these challenges:
- Emotional incapacitation
- Cognitive dissonance
The difference between racial prejudice/discrimination and racism
“If I believe that only bad people are racist, I will feel hurt, offended, and shamed when an unaware racist assumption of mine is pointed out. If I instead believe that having racist assumptions is inevitable (but possible to change), I will feel gratitude when an unaware racist assumption is pointed out; now I am aware of and can change that assumption.”
DiAngelo makes the point of differentiating between racial prejudice and racism within her work. Prejudice based on racial grounds is a prejudgment of a person purely based on the racial group they are associated with. This then becomes discrimination if it is acting upon. Therefore, a person from any racial group can be racially prejudiced and racially discriminate against a person from another racial group.
However, racism is fundamentally different. Racism can only occur when a racial group has more power than another group and uses that power against its members in a systemic manner. In this way, the prejudices are incorporated into society’s laws, institutions, policies, and norms. These constructs are then used to discriminate against a group, rather than at an individual level. Therefore, black people cannot be racist against white people because of the imbalance in power between the two groups.
White fragility involves misunderstanding and denial of the distinction between prejudice and racism.
Chapter 8 – The result: White fragility
Research would suggest that ideas about race are constructed as early as preschool. Despite this, though, white adults often deny that racially-based privileges exist. When challenged, they resort to self-defense. In conversations about race and racism, white people will often characterize themselves as having been victimized or ‘attacked’. These claims surrounding unfair treatment is them blaming others for their discomfort with racism. In this way, DiAngelo points out that white fragility is not actually fragile but can instead be a form of bullying that allows white people to regain control. Therefore, the components of white fragility provide white people with a comforting, but also flimsy, defense mechanism.
So, white fragility serves to deny the existence of racism and for white people to feel comfortable about the privileged position they occupy in society. These two points are interlinked. Denying racism allows white people to view their privileged position as a natural outcome, which means that they feel comfortable with that ‘natural’ position.
The fragility in white fragility comes from the components of this contraption. Firstly, white people’s assumptions about racism are not backed up by logic. Additionally, people’s prejudices may not be consciously portrayed but if pressed on the matter, white people will admit things like that they are afraid of young black men. Due to this fragility, it doesn’t take much to disturb their supposed stability and this leads to negative emotions and actions.
Chapter 9 – White Fragility in action
Building on from the points in the last chapter, this chapter describes some of the feelings and behaviors that are associated with white fragility in action. The behaviors that are often engaged with to tackle the negative emotions associated with challenges to one’s views on race are:
Each of these responses are not productive. These emotional reactions block any entry point for reflection and engagement with the content.
Chapter 10 – White Fragility and the rules of engagement
“It is white people’s responsibility to be less fragile; people of color don’t need to twist themselves into knots trying to navigate us as painlessly as possible.”
DiAngelo also provides the reader with advice on how to approach white people when talking about race. From decades of experience, DiAngelo identified unspoken rules of how to approach white people when giving them feedback on their racist assumptions and patterns. The cardinal rule, she noticed, was to not give feedback at all. White Fragility will always punish the person giving feedback and demand silence of them. Despite this, worryingly, feedback is fundamental to us being able to address and dismantle racism.
The guidelines that are typically acceptable insist on white people feeling comfortable and supporting the racial status quo. Focusing on the feedback, instead of the delivery or messenger, is key to building the stamina necessary for continued engagement.
DiAngelo provides the example of one anti-racism workshop she co-led in which she encountered a woman who was raised in Germany before moving to the US. In the German town where she grew up she claimed there were no black people. Therefore, the ideas of race and racism were not taught to her. DiAngelo then asked the woman whether she believes that watching American films or having lived in the US for more than 20 years could have encouraged any racist ideas. The author merely asked a question about the possibility of her being exposed to racist ideas. The response: the woman was furious and said she would never attend a workshop run by DiAngelo again. This is just one example of White Fragility that DiAngelo has experienced while running her workshops. Each one has the same pattern of a simple question about racism, a strong emotional reaction, and subsequent negative behaviors.
The most important outcome, though, is that these outbursts and behaviors shut the conversation down. It also prevents many conversations, in society, from starting in the first place. Many black people avoid these conversations with white people because they fear the potential negative reactions. Henceforth, White Fragility plays a huge role in reinforcing racism.
If you can’t even talk about it, then you certainly aren’t going to take action to eradicate it.
Chapter 11 – White women’s tears
Another important point to take from this book was raised in chapter 11. DiAngelo gives an outline of the historical impact of white women’s tears on black people and white men. Heartfelt emotions are of course important for everyone but when we cry it is also political. Emotions are shaped by our biases, beliefs, and cultural frameworks. Plus, our emotions drive our behavior. When a white woman cries over racism the attention is going to her. For black people, this is just another demonstration of white privilege. Instead of attention going to addressing racism, it goes to the white woman.
Chapter 12 – Where do we go from here?
“The key to moving forward is what we do with our discomfort. We can use it as a door out—blame the messenger and disregard the message. Or we can use it as a door in by asking, Why does this unsettle me? What would it mean for me if this were true?”
This book concludes with where we need to move forward, having considered the biases that are inherent in the way white people approach racism. We must try and develop different feelings that accelerate our lifelong journeys of addressing unconscious racial bias. Certain emotions can reinforce white fragility and we must challenge these. Instead, we should respond to questions about race with:
Based on these emotional responses, the behaviors that could subsequently be produced are:
So, we must all seek out more information and demand that White Fragility is taught in schools. We must also build authentic cross-racial relationships.
Finally, we must not remain comfortable. We will never tackle racism by being passive; it takes courage and intentionality, but we must do it.