Last Updated on July 30, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 835
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, published in 2018, contributes to the ongoing conversation about how white people can navigate their privilege. Crucially, the book was inspired by Robin DiAngelo’s own experiences as a diversity consultant and the conversations she witnessed and was part of as a result of this job. DiAngelo is a white woman, and she explains that, in her experience, it is often more effective for white people to be challenged by others of the same race.
DiAngelo observes that white people largely respond to racial challenge with guilt, defensiveness, shame, silence, tears, or other emotional behaviors. This reaction is what she terms “white fragility,” and the book attempts to explain several reasons for this and how to identify it. DiAngelo presents white fragility as something that is often unconsciously done and rooted in deep feelings of shame and embarrassment over white people’s complicity with the subjugation of people of color. These reactions, though unconscious, are not benign, and they can take a great emotional (and sometimes physical) toll on people of color. In a chapter analyzing “white women’s tears,” DiAngelo explains how white women’s tendency to react to racial challenges with tears brings with it the historical murders of Black men after white women’s displays of distress. In this way, DiAngelo highlights the very real impact of white fragility upon the lives and livelihoods of people of color.
The book tries to dismantle the idea that racism is exclusively an intentional and conscious dislike of people of color by explaining how racism has “adapted” and “evolved” since the era of slavery in the United States. As all people are “socialized” into a culture that prioritizes and rewards whiteness, everyone holds prejudice and therefore can never be “free” of racial responsibility. Instead of the overt racism white people are accustomed to seeing in the media, such as images of extreme violence and brutality, racial prejudice has adapted to include “aversive” forms, such as “coded language” and claims of “color blindness.” DiAngelo encourages white people to become attuned to their own reactions and the reactions of other people when they are challenged about race.
Among reasons such as historical misunderstanding and lack of willingness to engage in cross-racial relationships, DiAngelo identifies two key reasons for white discomfort and defensiveness: antiblackness and the “good/bad binary.” She argues that the former is an inherent aspect of white identity. Whites possess the privilege of thinking of themselves outside of “group” or “racialized” terms, in contrast to people of color. As whiteness is unremarkable and relentlessly present in education, media, culture, and politics, white people are never forced to see themselves in racial terms. As a result, they often fail to see how claims of “color blindness” work to protect, rather than dismantle, racial inequality.
The good/bad binary is equally, if not more, prevalent in the tendency toward white fragility. This concept explains the way in which popular understandings of racism demand that displaying racial prejudice and being a morally good person are mutually exclusive. According to this line of thinking, it is possible to be free from racial prejudice—and evidence of universally bad morals if such prejudice is shown. On the contrary, DiAngelo argues that this binary is a false dichotomy that allows white people to feel that they have no work left to do. As a result of the good/bad mentality, white people feel as though someone is calling them a bad person when they are challenged on the subject of race, and therefore they tend to become defensive and argumentative.
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makes use of case studies and real-life situations throughout the book to illustrate white fragility at work. She also demonstrates best practices for how to handle being racially challenged. In chapter 12, DiAngelo reflects on how she herself is imperfect on matters of race and is continually striving to improve:
Many people of color have assured me that they will not give up on me despite my racist patterns; they expect that I will have racist behavior given the society that socialized me. What they are looking for is not perfection but the ability to talk about what happened, the ability to repair.
In contrast to earlier stories of white people claiming they were having heart attacks in reaction to criticism or verbally abusing those who had challenged their racial assumptions, DiAngelo’s personal story successfully demonstrates her argument that all people are on a “continuum” and will never be finished learning how to examine their own racism.
Throughout the book, DiAngelo demonstrates how white fragility shuts down further discussion and is unproductive for engaging with race matters. By abandoning the good/bad binary and approaching racial incidents as an opportunity for learning, humility, and growth, white people can begin to acknowledge their own privilege and dismantle their racial assumptions. Doing so will deepen authentic cross-racial connections and lessen the “physic weight of race” for people of color.