Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism
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White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism is a 2018 book that delves deep into the United States’ race relations. This book is primarily addressed to white people. The author, Robin DiAngelo, describes white fragility as how white people become defensive when told that they benefit from racism. The book provides examples of why white fragility exists. Plus, Robin DiAngelo explains the negative impact of white fragility and how we can challenge it. The book concludes that the best way to address racism is to challenge white people proactively.
Robin DiAngelo’s Perspective
The author of this book, Robin DiAngelo, is an American academic. She has been working within the specialism of critical discourse analysis and whiteness studies for many years. She has been an educator on racial and social justice issues for more than twenty years. Plus, Robin has worked as a Professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University. She is currently the Associate Professor of Education at the University of Washington. DiAngelo coined the term ‘white fragility’ in 2011, within one of her academic papers.
DiAngelo bases a large part of this book on her experiences as a professional diversity consultant. During this time, she conducted diversity workshops for businesses and other organizations. These workshops where she first noticed how defensive white people are about benefiting from racism.
Chapter 1 – The Challenges of Talking to White People About Racism
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
White people have been socialized to see that race matters. However, they do not consider their 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 means that you only see your experience. You don’t see yourself collectively with white people.
However, the naming of race is a critical component of cross-racial skill-building. Hence, it 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. This understanding is needed to overcome white fragility, as it helps build up our racial stamina.
Chapter 2 – Racism and White Supremacy
This chapter focuses on how race is merely socially constructed. We must understand race before we can tackle racism and white fragility.
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. They are just superficial differences that are associated with geographies in which people’s ancestors adapted. Therefore, this means that race can be seen as a social construct rather than a biological truth. Or, put more simply, race is just a set of ideas created within a particular culture. These ideas guide our thoughts and our actions.
Our current social understanding of race is still based on genetic differences. This understanding means we are conditioned to see and treat certain groups of people in specific ways. DiAngelo uses the US as an example. She explains how race has historically served to resolve contradictions at the heart of the country’s foundation. The US was created on the foundation of ‘equality,’ but this is not the reality. The country was instead built on extreme inequalities, with slave-owning European Americans enslaving African Americans.
To justify this lack of equality in the US, race science was introduced in the 18th century by European Americans. Race science was a form of pseudoscience that claimed African Americans were genetically inferior to European Americans. Based on this premise, European Americans continued to provide African Americans with fewer rights. Plus, European Americans were given certain privileges. Therefore, inequality between African American and European American people was justified by pseudoscience. This inequality persists 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. Having these privileges leads to denial of these same privileges for others. Pre-abolition, white people had the right to keep slaves. Post-abolition, white people maintained things like the right to vote, while non-white people did not have this right. These historic facts encourage 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, the term “white” was only used for certain ethnic groups from Europe. This did not include the Irish and Italian Americans until the late 19th century. For these groups to eventually be accepted as white, they had to assimilate into the social constructs of whiteness established. For example, they had to learn English and leave their old languages behind. This shift in behavior shows that race is not a natural distinction between two pre-existing groups of “white” and “black” people. Instead, race is about social superiority and inferiority. Therefore, racial inequality is systemic. It was and is seeped in the country’s social, cultural, political, and economic realities.
Disparities in modern America exemplify this systemic inequality. White people constitute:
- 100% of the ten wealthiest 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
Suppose you adopt a simplistic understanding of racism. In that case, you will believe that the civil rights movement ended racist practices in America. Instead, racism is systemic and highly adaptable. Racism seeps into modern norms, policies, and practices. Hence, we see similar racial outcomes as we did before the civil rights movement.
Modern racism persists through the color-blind ideology. Color blindness might seem well-intentioned. However, claiming you do not see race makes it challenging to address unconscious racist beliefs. Denying you see race can 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, race-neutral language makes it increasingly difficult to detect racial prejudice. Hence, this leaves the prejudices unconscious. These unconscious prejudices are showcased by neighborhoods in America being segregated into racial groups. Legally sanctioned segregation may be a thing of the past, but modern Americans are still segregated by where they live. White Americans are deciding where to live and to live away from Black Americans. DiAngelo describes the phenomenon of white flight. White flight is when white people decide to leave neighborhoods when 7% or more of the residents are black.
White people describe these neighborhoods as 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 even realizing their 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 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 reinforcement:
- A feeling of belonging. Everywhere a white person looks in a culture, they can see other white people. They see leaders, authors, and celebrities. Culture being dominated by white people 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. Hence, 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 into criminal justice. The police and judges disproportionately arrest, sentence and kill black and Latino men
- Racial segregation
- White solidarity
- Being oblivious to the country’s racial history
These aspects make white people romanticize the good old days and protect the white advantage. Plus, black people typically do not have the same experiences in life. DiAngelo points out that white privilege does not mean all white people have it easy. White people can have hardships too. Instead, white privilege simply means white people enjoy certain advantages because of their whiteness.
Chapter 5 – The Good/Bad Binary
A binary emerged following the civil rights movement. People believed that malicious acts of extreme prejudice were racist and that only bad people committed these acts. This cultural norm is a good/bad binary. White people started to associate actions that looked like the Southern white supremacist attacks in the 1950s and 1960s as racism. This binary is not helpful. It 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 are now what white people see as racism. Most white people want to see themselves as nice, moral individuals. 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 unfairly insulted, judged, or attacked.
These feelings of unfairness are the foundation of white fragility. Feeling unfairly insulted leads to defensive behaviors.
Chapter 6 – Anti-Blackness
Although white supremacy impacts all people of color, black people are almost always represented as the ultimate racial “other.” Hence, 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.
DiAngelo importantly points out that this anti-blackness is in all white people. This is because of the societies in which we grow up. White people all benefit from racism. The benefits of racism have nothing to do with engaging in acts of overt racial discrimination. White people benefit from racism, whether they like it or not.
There is no way a white person could grow up in, and benefit from, our society and not have racial prejudices. This is because society is systemically racist. 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
This chapter begins to consider and explore the effects and outcomes of occasions when white people are triggered in conversations about race and racism. Generally, white people live in states of racial comfort as they live in insulated racial privilege environments. They are surrounded by white people and do not need to face the racial inequalities of society.
However, racial stress can occur when white people are reminded of and challenged on color-blindness, meritocracy, and individualism. When challenges to these things trigger them, 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
DiAngelo differentiates between racial prejudice and racism within her work. Prejudice based on racial grounds is a person’s prejudgment purely based on their racial group. This prejudice then becomes discrimination if they act on it. Therefore, a person from any racial group can be racially prejudiced and racially discriminate against another racial group.
However, racism is fundamentally different. Racism can only occur when a racial group has more power than another group and systematically uses it against its members. 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 them.
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, 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 victimized or ‘attacked’. These claims surrounding unfair treatment is them blaming others for their discomfort with racism. 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 and flimsy defense mechanism.
So, white fragility serves to deny the existence of racism. It helps white people 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. Therefore, 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. However, if pressed on the matter, white people will admit things like being afraid of young black men. Due to this fragility, it doesn’t take much to disturb their supposed stability. Subsequently, negative emotions and actions arise.
Chapter 9 – White Fragility in Action
Building on from the points in the last chapter, this chapter describes some of the feelings and behaviors associated with white fragility:
Each of these responses is 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
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 for giving feedback on racist assumptions and patterns. The cardinal rule was not to give feedback at all. White fragility will always punish the person giving feedback and demand silence of them. Despite this, feedback is fundamental to us being able to address and dismantle racism.
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. 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 racist ideas. The author merely asked a question about the possibility of her being exposed to racist ideas. The woman’s response was furious, and she 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 experience has the same pattern: 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 discussions, in society, from starting in the first place. Many black people avoid these conversations with white people because they fear the potentially negative reactions. Henceforth, white fragility plays a massive 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 critical point to take from this book was raised in chapter 11. DiAngelo outlines the historical impact of white women’s tears on black people and white men. Heartfelt emotions are essential for everyone, but when we cry, it is 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?” – Robin DiAngelo
This book concludes with where we need to move forward. We need to consider the biases 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.
We rate this book 4.2/5.
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