White Fragility

by Robin DiAngelo

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Chapters 3–5 Summary

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Chapter 3: Racism After the Civil Rights Movement

Chapter 3 works to debunk the view that racism ended when equal rights legislation was passed in response to the civil rights movement. In particular, DiAngelo explains how “color blindness” acts as a modern form of racism, denying the reality of Black people’s experiences and allowing white people to absolve themselves of racial responsibility.

Citing Professor Martin Barker’s term “new racism,” DiAngelo explains how racism has adapted to produce “similar outcomes as those in the past, while not appearing to be explicitly racist.” Racism still exists because it is “highly adaptive,” and “color-blind racism” (pretending that one “doesn’t see race”) serves to deny its realities. According to the author, this outlook is rooted in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, wherein he wished that he would one day be judged on his character rather than the color of his skin. DiAngelo points out that the oversimplification of this message makes it difficult to address unconscious biases, as “we can’t change what we refuse to see.”

DiAngelo explains that “color-blind” ideology is a form of aversive racism, in which well-intentioned people exhibit racism in a way that allows them to maintain a “progressive” self-image. Examples of this include avoiding direct racial language, rationalizing the lack of people of color in the workplace as them just not applying for jobs, and attributing racial inequality to causes other than racism. DiAngelo makes it clear that the widespread white aversion to talking about race (as people associate this with the implication that they are then racist) makes it nearly impossible to instigate a constructive conversation about racism.

DiAngelo goes on to explain how “coded” language is often used to reinforce racial stereotypes and hierarchies, drawing boundaries between “us” and “them” through words like “urban” and “diverse.” White people’s need to deny their own racism manifests in this averse form and works to protect racist ideologies rather than challenge them.

Toward the end of the chapter, DiAngelo explains how research shows that despite proclaiming more tolerant and progressive views, millennials often exhibit behaviors associated with color-blind ideology. A study by sociologists Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin asked white college students to record every instance of racial issues they observed or were part of for six to eight weeks. The study found empirical evidence of the continued existence of explicit racism, even in a young generation that claims to be progressive. It also highlights how the majority of these incidents occurred in “the backstage—in all-white company” and often used humor to reinforce racial stereotypes. This “cultural racism” is used to create white solidarity, in which white people are “penalized” for talking about race and therefore avoid it completely.

To conclude, DiAngelo argues that in some ways, these new forms of racism are “more sinister than concrete roles such as Jim Crow,” as they produce the same outcome but allow the perpetrators to deny that they hold racist beliefs. She argues that this—“the refusal to know”—is another important pillar of white fragility.

Chapter 4: How Does Race Shape the Lives of White People?

This chapter explores how experiences of race form the foundations of white fragility. DiAngelo explains that white people in the United States will largely feel a sense of belonging as a result of their race. The “forces of racism” shape people before they are even born, as society is structured around a racial hierarchy that prioritizes white success. Even as she was born, DiAngelo, who is white, entered a high level of this existing hierarchy. Her race is unremarkable, as white people “belong” and...

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can see themselves when watching TV, looking at magazines, and shopping for makeup. Likewise, when learning the history of the US in schools, students are shown an overwhelmingly white group of leading figures and pioneers. Whiteness shapes worldview and identity, and carries with it a deep-rooted sense of belonging that many white people do not even realize they possess.

DiAngelo goes on to explain that this sense of belonging frees her from “the psychic weight of race,” meaning that she (and other white people) do not have to worry that their race will be held against them or that others will feel strongly about it. Similarly, white people have countless role models and opportunities open to them; race does not present a barrier to employment. DiAngelo summarizes that “whiteness has psychological advantages that translate into material returns.” The socialization of all people into a culture of white supremacy means that white people hold a deeply rooted internalization of racial superiority, which is “a great psychic drain” for people of color.

When talking about how white privileges are protected, DiAngelo uses the term “white solidarity,” defining it as “the unspoken agreement” between white people to not make other whites feel discomfort about matters of race. She explains that there are very real consequences to breaking white solidarity, which serves to maintain the racial hierarchy. Penalties such as being accused of being too politically correct or perceived as angry and humorless discourage people from speaking out against fellow whites. DiAngelo argues that because white people are not raised to see themselves in racial terms, it is easy to claim racial innocence and turn to people of color to learn about racism. However, white people are not racially innocent, and positioning themselves as such causes material harm to people of color. The treatment of people of color within neighborhoods and by authority figures such as police and judges is vastly different from the treatment of white people in these contexts, and white solidarity perpetuates this disparity.

DiAngelo states that expecting people of color to teach white people about racism reinforces the assumption that racism is something removed from the actions of white people, who all too often deny their involvement. It also requires nothing of white people and “reinforces unequal power relations by asking people of color to do our work.”

Racial segregation continues to shape life in the United States, and white people’s understanding of race as separate from themselves perpetuates this system. Upward mobility often involves ascending to “whiter” spaces and therefore presents the absence of people of color as a desirable goal.

Chapter 5: The Good/Bad Binary

The good/bad binary is the overwhelming perception of racism as something that can be reduced to extreme, isolated, and often violent acts of prejudice. It assumes that racist acts are based on conscious dislike and intentionally seek to harm a person of color. However, as DiAngelo explains, this is a false dichotomy that causes people to become defensive if it is implied that they are racist.

The images of Black persecution during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s allowed white Northerners to position themselves as “outside” of racism, as the image of the average racist became associated with some white Southerners’ explicitly prejudiced actions. When people believe in the good/bad binary, they believe that it is impossible to be a good, moral person and to also be complicit with racism. DiAngelo argues that this allows white people to relieve themselves of racial responsibility, as they can position themselves as “good” and therefore incapable of racism. On the contrary, however, this binary facilitates white supremacy: it makes it impossible for white people to understand and interrupt racism.

Since all people inherently hold prejudices, a binary understanding of racism obscures “the personal, interpersonal, cultural, historical, and structural analysis that is necessary to challenge this larger system.” Claims made by white people of “color blindness” serve to remove race from the conversation rather than engage with it. DiAngelo offers counter-narratives to popular claims rooted in the good/bad binary, explaining that, due to socialization, no one can be wholly objective, and therefore it is impossible to treat everybody in the same way, as people often claim to do. Instead, these statements just shut off further conversation and reflection upon race. Those who say that they “marched in the ’60s” or “have friends of color” reveal that they see racism as unchanging and uncomplicated, as if it can be reduced to a simple matter of racial intolerance.

People often deny racial culpability by claiming that their parents taught them not to be racist. However, as DiAngelo demonstrates, a racism-free upbringing is not possible, because racism is a structured and institutional social system. Instead, parents often (with good intentions) teach their children to deny prejudice and shy away from mentioning race at all. DiAngelo argues that it would be more useful if children were taught to recognize and challenge prejudice, as studies have shown that white children do not become less racially biased with age; instead, they simply learn to hide their racism in front of adults.

Finally, DiAngelo encourages people to think of themselves on a continuum—a continuous journey of racial learning, rather than something that means we are either good or bad. She argues that it is vital that people do not use incidents of racism to keep themselves on the “good” side of the binary. Instead, we must “continually seek to move further along” the inescapable continuum we are socialized into.

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