White Fragility

by Robin DiAngelo

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Chapter 10–12 Summary

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Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1513

Chapter 10: White Fragility and the Rules of Engagement

This chapter focuses on the “unspoken rules” of engaging with white people about racial bias. DiAngelo draws on her earlier explanation of the good/bad binary to highlight how giving feedback to White people on their racial assumptions only triggers white fragility. As a result, she writes,

I have found that the only way to give feedback without triggering white fragility is not to give it at all.

Not giving feedback on racism is the “cardinal rule” of engaging with white people about racism. DiAngelo explains that if this is not possible, there are other rules that must be followed in order to protect the feelings and comfort of the white person—rules that help to effectively restore white equilibrium. The lengthy list of unspoken guidelines include behaviors such as “proper tone”; being indirect, as “directness is insensitive”; and avoiding highlighting racial privilege, as it “invalidates the form of oppression that I experience.”

DiAngelo argues that these unspoken rules need to be challenged and dismantled. It is vital to ask where they came from and whom they serve:

Racism is the norm rather than an aberration. Feedback is key to our ability to recognize and repair our inevitable and often unaware collusion.

As an alternative to these unspoken and damaging rules, DiAngelo sets out the guidelines she herself follows when receiving feedback. The first is that location, tone, and timing are irrelevant, as “it is the feedback I want and need,” and she is capable of handling it—“if I cannot handle it, it’s on me to build my racial stamina.” The second is simply saying “thank you.” DiAngelo explains that both of these guidelines require fully understanding that white people benefit from and perpetuate systemic racism; dismantling this system of power means facing one’s own shortcomings.

White fragility is also evidenced in the need for white progressives to “build trust” before they can explore racism within a group setting. The white “call for trust” works to reassure white people that others won’t think they are racist before exploring their biases. The guidelines that work to build this trust are often problematic, such as “speaking your truth” (which preserves the erroneous idea that all beliefs are equally valid) and “assuming good intentions” (thus invalidating victims’ feelings and upholding white racial innocence).

DiAngelo explains that it is impossible for these guidelines to be universally applied across races, because they fail to account for unequal power relations. Instead, they “coddle white fragility” and thus maintain the status quo, rather than helping to dismantle racism. These rules can also be deployed against people of color. Instead, DiAngelo writes, white people need to build up their stamina to bear witness to the pain of racism that they themselves cause. She encourages people to “let go of the messenger and focus on the message,” and argues that it is more important to stop racist patterns than to try and convince others that one doesn’t have them.

Chapter 11: White Women’s Tears

White tears, specifically white women’s tears, are sometimes deployed as a political tool, working to shift attention to the person crying in cross-racial settings. DiAngelo emphasizes that although it is important to display emotion rather than suppress it, emotions are political in two ways. Firstly, they are shaped by our biases and beliefs, and are therefore “not natural; they are a result of the frameworks we are using to make sense of social relations.” Since our cultural frameworks are inherently political—for example, the prevailing belief that men must not be vulnerable or that women should not show anger—emotions...

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are political too. In addition, the externalization of emotion impacts other people.

DiAngelo explains that white women’s tears in cross-racial situations are problematic due to the long history of Black men being tortured and murdered as a direct result of white women’s distress:

Our tears trigger the terrorism of this history, particularly for African Americans.

DiAngelo argues that “well-meaning white women crying in cross-racial interactions” constitute a particularly dangerous form of white fragility. A woman crying in this situation takes the focus from the dismantling of racial bias and instead directs all attention and comfort toward herself. As a result, the people of color present are abandoned or even blamed. In this way, “racism becomes about white distress, white suffering, and white victimization.”

White men, on the other hand, manifest their fragility in ways other than crying, such as interrupting people who are speaking, explaining away racism, “playing the devil’s advocate,” and withdrawing or becoming silent. Like women’s tears, these actions remove race from the conversation and allow white men to retain control of the discussion and assert their dominance. DiAngelo highlights the importance of being racially uncomfortable in engaging with problematic behaviors. Reacting with tears is self-indulgent and does not come across as authentic solidarity, as “for people of color, our tears demonstrate our racial insulation and privilege.”

Finally, DiAngelo explains the different impact that white women’s tears can have on white men and men of color. She states that they have a very specific effect, as white men can authorize and legitimize pain as a result of their social position. In contrast, men of color may battle with the historical weight of racism as a result of white women’s distress (for example, as in the murder of Emmett Till) and see the situation as a matter of survival. Although it is important for white people to feel grief about the brutality of white supremacy and their role in perpetuating it, this must translate into committed and transformative action rather than just tears.

Chapter 12: Where Do We Go from Here?

DiAngelo opens the final chapter of the book by telling a story of how she was called out for racial insensitivity after dismissing a Black web developer’s survey in a meeting and making a joke referencing another Black team member’s hair. After being informed by another member of the team that the web developer, Angela, was offended by these interactions, DiAngelo discussed her feelings (embarrassment, shame, and guilt) with a white friend before meeting with Angela to apologize. After apologizing about the survey and insensitive comment, she asked if there was anything else that needed to be said. Angela asked if DiAngelo would like public or private feedback in the future, and DiAngelo opted for public.

DiAngelo explains that, before she embarked on her current career, the aforementioned interaction would have gone very differently and likely have caused her to feel victimized and attacked. Rather than repairing her relationship with Angela, DiAngelo admits that she would probably have lost the relationship in favor of protecting her limited worldview. She points out that it is important for white people to respond to feedback with openness and humility. Being “good” or “bad” is irrelevant: either way, racism cannot be avoided. When wondering how they can combat racism and white fragility, white people ought to ask themselves,

What has enabled me to be a full, educated, professional adult and not know what to do about racism?

DiAngelo emphasizes that addressing racism is not without effort, and that, for example, “If my answer is that there are no people of color in my environment, I will need to get out of my comfort zone.” White people need to be proactive, take initiative, and seek out advice from others—whether books or friends—in order to “break with the apathy of whiteness.” Using the analogy of a doctor diagnosing a patient and then having to leave the appointment before they can explain the illness, DiAngelo highlights how almost everyone in that situation would rush home and research their newfound condition extensively:

Bottom line: you would care enough to get informed. So consider racism a matter of life and death (as it is for people of color), and do your homework.

DiAngelo argues that white people must take responsibility for the actual impact of their words and actions rather than focusing on their intentions. In order to do so, white people must build their capacity to sustain discomfort, as interrupting the pattern of white fragility involves acknowledging and going against inherently racist socialization. Developing a “positive white identity” is an impossible task, DiAngelo contends, and white people should instead strive to be “less white.” By this, she means being more racially aware and continually challenging racial arrogance. DiAngelo encourages people to give feedback to fellow white people about their displays of racial prejudice and emphasizes that it is not people of color’s responsibility to educate white people on race.

“The default of the current system is the reproduction of racial inequality”; as such, interrupting racism requires courage and intentionality. In closing, DiAngelo emphasizes the importance of realizing that one is never finished learning:

Even if challenging all the racism and superiority we have internalized was quick and easy to do, our racism would be reinforced all over again just by virtue of living in the culture. . . . It is a messy, lifelong process.

Chapters 6–9 Summary