White Fragility Summary

White Fragility is a nonfiction book by sociologist Robin DiAngelo that examines how white people react to discussions of race, racism, and ongoing white supremacy.

  • Several factors keep white people unaware of their complicity in racism, including the notion of individuality, US history, the “white racial frame,” “racial silence,” and the “good/bad binary.”
  • White people’s reactions to “racial triggers,” such as when others call them out for racism, are often harmful to people of color.
  • White fragility, DiAngelo argues, is one of the largest barriers to an actively anti-racist future.

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Last Updated on July 30, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 962

White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism is a 2018 book by sociologist Robin DiAngelo. After DiAngelo spent decades learning and teaching about race in academic and organizational settings, she uncovered a pattern in the ways white people react to discussions about race, racism,...

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White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism is a 2018 book by sociologist Robin DiAngelo. After DiAngelo spent decades learning and teaching about race in academic and organizational settings, she uncovered a pattern in the ways white people react to discussions about race, racism, and white supremacy. (White supremacy is defined as people who are identified as white benefiting from the privileges of racism, such as having more access to jobs, wealth, housing, and safety than people of color.) In short, DiAngelo found that white people in the United States have difficulty confronting their own complicity in systems of racism and prejudice against people of color, particularly Black people. In part, this is because they have been socialized to believe that they are exempt from being identified by their race.

To begin, DiAngelo discusses the concept of “individualism,” a belief that is foundational to a racist society and that allows white people to believe that their opinions, feelings, and beliefs are purely individual. Therefore, when white people are confronted with race or racism, they believe that they have nothing to do with the structural systems of white supremacy. As a result, they may distance themselves from the conversation in various ways, particularly by becoming defensive.

As DiAngelo goes on to explain, though, white supremacy is threaded through American culture. Beginning with so-called “scientific” justifications for slavery, she examines how pseudoscience allowed white people in power to uphold the status quo—a status quo that is still present today. She goes on to explain the differences between prejudice, in which unfounded assumptions about race are projected onto people from a particular racial group; discrimination, in which one’s actions are affected by their prejudices; and outright racism, in which racial prejudice and discrimination are legally, institutionally, and societally upheld. It is possible for white people to ignore these systems of oppression because of what DiAngelo calls the “white racial frame,” which is an internalized structure of thought that encodes whiteness as the norm and anything else as “other.”

Next, DiAngelo outlines how white people are unaware of racial histories and how this contributes to subtly racist attitudes, such as “color blindness” and “coded” language (for example, terminology like “urban” and “diverse”). These forms of racism allow even white people who see themselves as progressive or liberal to perpetuate racist ideologies in their daily lives, thus harming people of color. Such unconsidered thought and use of language is upheld by “white racial belonging,” an institution from which DiAngelo herself, who is white, has benefited. She discusses how messaging about whiteness and race, continued segregation, and the expectation of “white solidarity” or “racial silence” together allow whiteness to go unchallenged in white spaces, thus intensifying the discomfort white people have when ultimately confronted with issues regarding race.

Another factor that leads to white fragility is what DiAngelo terms the “good/bad binary.” By this logic, it is assumed that all morally “good” people are completely free of racist ideas, while all racist acts are committed by morally “bad” people. This is a myth, DiAngelo argues: humans are complex, and it is quite likely that a “good” person could hold racist beliefs or otherwise be complicit in upholding racist structures of power. The false binary ensures that white people are particularly fragile when accused of racism, as they have been taught that only “bad” people are racist. Ultimately, this undermines actual anti-racist work and solidarity with people of color.

In the United States in particular, Black people are constructed as the “ultimate racial other” for white people. White identity has been constructed on antiblack sentiment, and white supremacy is upheld by the assumption of Black inferiority. DiAngelo explains that antiblackness is particularly prevalent as a projection of “deep guilt” and “white moral trauma.”

From here, DiAngelo moves to “racial triggers” for white people, which can include anything from the term “wypipo” to being explicitly called out for racism. These triggers evoke “emotions such as anger, fear and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation” in white people. Reactions to racial triggers are automatic and often completely subconscious, but DiAngelo argues that they are still harmful.

DiAngelo’s discussion up to this point culminates in a description of “white fragility” over the book’s last several chapters. White fragility, caused in particular by the white myth of individuality and “unracialized identities,” is a “state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.” This is one way that white supremacy functions to keep white people from engaging in anti-racist behavior, and it culminates in a series of unspoken rules for behavior that ultimately prohibit conversation about race, white people’s implicit or explicit racism, and changing racist behavior. The first of these unspoken rules is that fragile white people do not want to hear feedback on their racist behaviors or attitudes “under any circumstances.” In direct opposition to these “rules of engagement,” which only serve to uphold white supremacy and the status quo, DiAngelo suggests two rules of her own. The first is that feedback on her own racism is always welcome; the second is simply “thank you.”

In closing, DiAngelo discusses the necessity for a new and anti-racist framework. She uses an example from her own life in which she perpetrated racism and then responded appropriately using anti-racist values. It is not enough to be “nice”; after all, racism ultimately relies on “nice white people” to keep it alive. Instead, white people must use the tenets of anti-racism to be able to understand when and how racism takes place, and they must dismantle their own white fragility in order to work toward ending racism and white supremacy.

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