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...
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