Book Review – White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People to Talk About Racism
Change is uncomfortable. Sometimes it is good, but it can still take some getting used to. So it is no wonder why talking to white people about racism can be a taxing and often abrasive feat.
In her years of research, Dr. Robin DiAngelo, a white woman, concludes that talking about racism with white people disrupts a racial status quo that unsettles them. She explains this and more in her latest book, “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.”
Good or Bad?
Most white people don’t want to be associated with any form of white supremacy, so discussing all of its subtle forms is nearly impossible. That’s because most Americans almost exclusively associate white supremacy with the KKK or Charlottesville-like protestors. But Dr. DiAngelo gives a more rounded definition of white supremacy for discussion: “White supremacy is a descriptive and useful term to capture the all-encompassing centrality and assumed superiority of people defined and perceived as white and the practices based on this assumption. White supremacy in this context does not refer to individual white people and their individual intentions or actions but to an overarching political, economic, and social system of domination” (28).
DiAngelo provides telling facts to support her definition. In her research, she found 15 major institutions, including the presidency, teachers, and professional football teams, that were disproportionately controlled by whites from 2016-2017 (30–31).
But statistics alone won’t change the perspective of a person who values white supremacy. Often the antidote for white people is to just not be racist. But Dr. DiAngelo reveals that the American understanding of racism is misconstrued and unhelpful for tearing down its covertly racist system. We cannot simply place ourselves nor other people in a “good/bad binary,” where only people who use overtly racist tones are bad and people who don’t are good.
If, as a white person, I conceptualize racism as a binary and I place myself on the “not racist” side, what further action is required of me? No action is required because I am not a racist. Therefore, racism is not my problem; it doesn’t concern me and there is nothing further I need to do. This worldview guarantees that I will not expand my critical thinking on racism or use my position to challenge racial inequality.
Silence and Fragility
Assuredly many whites are ready to give themselves a pass because their black friends or colleagues never talk about racism. But Dr. DiAngelo cautions, “Just because you and your friends don’t talk about racism does not mean it isn’t at play. Indeed, this silence is one of the ways that racism is manifest, for it is an imposed silence” (81). She discovered that people of color who’ve tried to talk about racism with their friends or coworkers were met with defensiveness or had their experiences invalidated, “so they stopped sharing their experiences” (81). To this point, DiAngelo again warns, “If racism is not a topic of discussion between a white person and a person of color who are friends, this absence of conversation may indicate a lack of cross-racial trust” (81).
White power is the American norm so any time it is spotlighted, “white norms are violated,” according to DiAngelo (86). Most white Americans would agree that white power, segregation, and racism are wrong and need to be done away with, “but unequal power relations cannot be challenged if they are not acknowledged. While it isn’t comfortable for most whites to talk about racism, we must do so if we want to challenge—rather than protect—racism,” writes DiAngelo (86).
But the crux for understanding this compelling book is found in DiAngelo’s definition of White Fragility:
White fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress in the habits becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, reinstate white racial equilibrium. Racial stress results from an interruption to what is racially familiar. These interruption can take a variety of forms and come from a range of sources…” (103)
DiAngelo goes on to list a myriad of emotional signals associated with this fragility. There are numerous excuses and evasive techniques often used to avoid dealing with racism head-on. One of her most compelling examples occurred during a workplace anti-racism training she co-facilitated.
When a white participant was given “sensitive and diplomatic feedback on how some of her statements had impacted several of the people of color in the room,” she took it as a false accusation of having a racist impact. Her colleagues alerted the training facilitators that she was experiencing a potential, but literal, heart attack as a result of the feedback she received. “All attention was immediately focused back onto her and away from engagement with the impact she had had on the people of color” (111).
White Fragility is a tool to put anyone who wants to challenge racist norms, on the defensive. DiAngelo considers it “a form of bullying; I am going to make it so miserable for you to confront me—no matter how diplomatically you try to do so—that you will simply back off, give up, and never raise the issue again” (112). She also believes it to be a sociology of dominance, “an outcome of white people’s socialization into white supremacy” and a way to keep and reproduce white supremacy (113).
Dr. DiAngelo’s assessment of the black experience with white fragility is a truism for many: “People of color cannot avoid understanding white consciousness to some degree if they are to be successful in this society, yet nothing in dominant culture affirms their understanding or validates their frustrations when they interact with white people” (xv).
Overall, “White Fragility” is not a book written to bash white people. Dr. DiAngelo’s intentions are to draw attention to the ongoing contributing factors that divide our society. For a country that many people claim to be a “Christian nation,” this book proves timely and worthwhile for anyone—particularly white people—seriously considering a path to greater unity.
Dr. Robin DiAngelo urges agents of peace interested in breaking the norms of whiteness—“the conditioning that makes white people apathetic about racism and prevents us from developing the skills we need to interrupt it”—to find out for themselves what they can do (she lists several historical and sociological resources for further study on the subject). “Break with the apathy of whiteness,” DiAngelo urges, “and demonstrate that you care enough to put in the effort” (144).
13 thoughts on “Book Review – White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People to Talk About Racism”
Thanks for the review and the insights.
I speak for myself only, of course, but I find that people like Dr. DiAngelo are the angels of God sent to help me free myself from the corruption of personal and systemic racism. I wanted a way out, and the good Lord sent such people to give me guidance and give me hope.
Her book is a kindness even though it is truthful and hard to read. She says that it’s possible to change and to grow. She doesn’t promise that it’s easy or that it’s even completely achievable. But she says that it’s within the grasp of everyone who wants to try, and she gives me hope that I can grab a hold of it.
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Here’s my 50-yr-old white female thoughts:
If a white person is operating under the false racist/non-racist dicotomy, then of course they are going to be upset if the only way they are given to process their lingering racism is that they are a racist. If you dont want to be racist then there is a lot of fear and shame associated with acknowledging racist thoughts or perspectives in your own heart. Even though I understand about subconscious and inherited culture of racism, i still have fear, even when i am engaging with a friend, that I will be misunderstood or lose a relationship if I reveal too much ignorance or share a new understanding or check an assumption. This is why I think many whites dont talk about it. It’s definitely an ostrich approach, and is a barrier to change in our society, but to be labelled a racist seems terrifying so we are often silent. I’m not wanting to put the burden on people of color, because it doesn’t belong there, but that’s a reality many white people who reject racism as a worldview struggle with.
Why would her color and/or gender matter in the context of the argument she presents?
I can easily find a black, female conservative that would reject the premise she posits.
My comments are to the logic being used, not her personally. And her argument isn’t dependent on her color/gender.
Hello Thomas W.,
As the author stated, Dr. Robin DiAngelo is a white lady. You, however, are not a white lady. Now do the math !
Peace and Love (Jude 1:2)
I appreciate the book review. I’m going to try keep this to a couple of points:
1. If the effort is to not bash white people, then the term “White Fragility” is not very persuasive. This compounds how they may take this by being seen as weak in a variety of capacities. It will come across as an insult. (How does it sound if it were “Black Fragility”, as for instance if one attempts a point of argument regarding lack of black fatherhood in the demographics ?)
As a part of this concept, did the book discuss how much of a two way street this can be? Was “black fragility” considered? How often do white people who do, or have attempted, to have a good conversation on the matter are met with an emotional response of anger, crying, or other as well? Or worse, would you not expect a white person to be upset, frustrated, and even unhelpful if he were receiving charges of being a racist or supremacist while in conversation, attempting to talk about these things (esp if the other person shares Dr. Diangelo’s definition)?
How about a different subject where this occurs where race isn’t the issue? Ever seen a Christian vs Atheist conversation/debate? What’s the root of the responses? How does anyone take it when they are told they are “wrong”?
Or in some ways, ever tried to fix a problem your wife brings you, esp one that’s deeply emotional?
2. A major part of the tension arising is largely because we tend toward our own definitions, and then interpreting someone else’s response through our world view/definitions and not theirs. We often then challenge their character when there’s a lack of response, or we shut down, not willing to risk ourselves anymore, not out of apathy, but lack of equal consideration and value. This is the crux of how Dr. Di’angelo shifts the goal posts/context. But you can’t understand the actions of others by changing the context usually. It just becomes confirmation bias. However, their actions are a result of their definition, not someone else’s.
So when she then uses current corporate and political racial demographics as supporting fact, it is by her terms, pulled through her lens. Thus, she assumes and mind reads a response like “apathy”.
The white thought process in response to the demographics would be something along the following as an example:
a. It’s true that many corporations and politicians are predominately white in leadership.
b. However, no laws currently force that situation. Business is free.
c. For politics, we can vote for anyone running, and anyone is free to run. Often minorities vote for white people all the same. Many whites and others elected a black president, many supported a Ben Carson, and many white conservatives would vote an Ivanka/Candace Owens presidency into office tomorrow.
d. For sports, many of these are owned by generations of families, and corporations. They are sold rarely, but there is nothing in the laws that prevent anyone from purchasing if put on the market. Michael Jordan wasn’t blocked by law or by other owners, underhandedly. The NBA has forced out a racist owner.
e. Most millionaires are over 50. You’re just now a couple of generations past civil rights acts. It takes time for most to build up wealth, and the wealth needed to purchase a NFL team or run for a major political office is substantial.
f. There also has to be a desire for those things (politics, team ownership) from African Americans. It’s okay to have other interests in general.
g. Any instance by which an African American has the opportunity, desire, and capability to purchase a team (or run for office) and is denied either by law or underhanded tactics is wrong, and the white person readily agrees should be corrected.
h. As of 2013, millionaires were 76% white, 8% black, 8% asian, about 8% hispanic. By contrast, 12% of the country is african american. This means we should see the percentage that’s lagging go up as economic opportunity continues to grow for African Americans. And over time, it’s likely color disparity in politics and ownership will reflect national demographics.
So the questions may become, “what do you want to do to shift this disparity that hasn’t already been done, or can this now be handled on a case by case basis when it occurs?”
The reality, Tim, is that younger generations are further removed from the overt white supremacy and systemic racism it caused. The reality is that if we continue to perpetuate such accusations of blame, we will profit nothing but more division.
“White fragility” and her definition of white supremacy are detrimental to forward progress.