White Fragility

by Robin DiAngelo

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Chapters 6–9 Summary

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Chapter 6: Anti-Blackness

In this chapter, DiAngelo examines the inherent antiblack sentiment of racism and white supremacy. She begins by explaining how white people have “unracialized identities” and display a key privilege of dominance in their ability to see themselves as individuals. In contrast, people of color do not always have the privilege of being seen outside of the context of race.

DiAngelo argues that, specifically, antiblack sentiment is integral to white identity. Although she makes clear that this is not intended to diminish the truth of the racism that other groups of color experience, she believes that Black people are “the ultimate racial ‘other’” for white people. Alongside relentless images of white supremacy are images of Black inferiority; one cannot exist without the other. In this way, antiblackness has inherently formed white identity.

Some scholars have argued that white people split off and projected the qualities they did not want in themselves—such as laziness and violence—onto Black people. Equally, DiAngelo identifies affirmative action policies as provoking enduring white resentment; in the cultural imagination, it is sometimes seen as a program that “denies” deserving white people of jobs in favor of “unqualified” people of color. On the contrary, however, the scheme was designed to ensure that qualified minority applicants are given the same employment opportunities as white people. The enduring unwillingness to understand affirmative action policies has contributed to sustained antiblack sentiment.

Antiblackness can also be seen in the ways white people justify violence against Black people, criticize the Black Lives Matter movement, and accept the harsh treatment Black people receive for actions that whites would not even be held accountable for. At its roots, antiblackness stems from misinformation, a lack of historical knowledge, and—most importantly—“deep guilt about what we have done and continue to do.” She explains that this “white moral trauma” causes white people to project and misplace their guilt onto people of color, particularly Black people.

According to DiAngelo, Blackness serves as a reminder to white people that they are capable and guilty of inflicting immense harm, and that their privilege comes from the subjugation of others. Concurrently, white people also use Black people to feel noble and warmhearted—also known as the “white savior” trope—thus implying that Black people are inherently incapable of success without white guidance.

Chapter 7: Racial Triggers for White People

DiAngelo believes that white people are less tolerant of racial stress as a result of being racially comfortable and living in “white insulation” their entire lives. She builds on her earlier explanations for white fragility, stating that the majority of “educational” experiences for dismantling racism (such as workplace training or college courses) make use of coded language and rarely address white privilege, thus perpetuating the white assumption that racial issues are to do with “them” rather than “us.” In addition, such experiences are leveraged by progressive whites to claim that they have been sufficiently educated on racial inequality and therefore have nothing left to learn.

DiAngelo examines the sociological and psychological reasons behind the predictable reactions white people have when ideologies such as color blindness and individualism are challenged. The anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu theorized that all humans possess “habitus” (the internalized awareness of one’s status and its relationship to others). Using this theory, DiAngelo explains that, as habitus is the result of socialization, and we are socialized in an antiblack, white supremacist society, this shapes our understanding of “capital.” Capital is the social value people hold in a particular “field” (that is, a specific social situation). According to the theory of field, capital, and habitus, people are constantly—and unconsciously—seeking power, and habitus changes...

(This entire section contains 1472 words.)

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based on existing social hierarchy. Subconsciously, people know what rules will help them to gain power in certain social contexts. As a result, when this balance is disrupted—for example, when social cues are unfamiliar or challenge our own capital—people try to regain balance by outwardly displaying the intense emotions associated with white fragility.

Emotions and behaviors such as anger, silence, argument, and guilt serve to reinstate the white equilibrium and return “the capital ‘lost’ via the challenge” to white supremacy:

This capital includes self-image, control, and white solidarity.

Though the behaviors associated with white fragility are reflexive and often subconscious, DiAngelo affirms that they are neither harmless nor benign.

Chapter 8: The Result: White Fragility

This chapter examines how white people will often place themselves in the position of “victim” when talking about race. DiAngelo explains that the moral objection to racism adopted by white people—as a result of the good/bad binary—increases their resistance to acknowledging their complicity with racial inequalities. This is particularly damaging, because in an inherently racist society, whites possess the power to choose how, when, and to what extent racism is challenged or addressed. The “discourse of self-defense,” wherein white people position themselves as victimized, blamed, and attacked, enables them to maintain moral character and reject blame. In doing so, racist imagery is reinforced, as antiracist endeavors are often described in violent terms, such as being “traumatic” for whites.

DiAngelo explores the language white people use when they do engage in racial discourse. This language is often “coded” and used only among other white people, reaffirming her theory of white solidarity. In DiAngelo’s view, the discomfort that white people feel when exploring race and their relationship to it limits their ability to authentically engage in cross-racial relationships and discussions. Citing a white woman who claimed that she was going to have a literal heart attack after being challenged (“falsely accused,” according to her) over racial insensitivity, DiAngelo highlights how white people will often attempt to return all attention back to them and their well-being when called out, thus successfully diverting care away from the person of color they have wronged. White people’s ability to escape or remove themselves from challenges is a key aspect of privilege.

According to DiAngelo, white supremacist culture means that being questioned regarding one’s attitudes on race is incredibly rare; as a result, white people have not built the capacity to handle the sustained discomfort of being challenged. Despite the term “white fragility,” DiAngelo makes clear that white people’s responses are not in fact “fragile” at all. In fact, they are powerful: they take advantage of whites’ historical and institutional power and control. These responses work as a form of bullying, intended to keep people of color “in their place.”

Chapter 9: White Fragility in Action

DiAngelo recounts her experiences as a former professor and current facilitator of race workshops, and states that the most common form of white fragility she encounters is outrage. She explains how, as a white person, she is in a position to talk about white supremacy and racial issues “without my fellow white people running from the room or reeling from trauma.” However, she also explains how these people are usually only receptive to her presentation as long as it remains abstract:

the moment I name some racially problematic dynamic or action happening in the room in the moment . . . white fragility erupts.

Tackling racism in action is not well-received by these groups, even though DiAngelo has been asked to come for that very purpose.

DiAngelo goes on to share an instance of white fragility that bears the hallmarks of what she has discussed in the book thus far. When coleading a community workshop, which was both voluntary and required a fee to attend, a woman named Eva claimed that she held no racism and knew nothing about race growing up. She grew up in Germany, where she said there were no Black people. DiAngelo invited her to challenge this assumption and think about the images she had seen from films and heard from others about Africa and African Americans. DiAngelo also asked Eva to reflect on what she had absorbed from living in the US for twenty-three years and to consider the types of relationships she had with Black Americans, if any. Eva was furious, confronted DiAngelo after the workshop, and was still angry when invited to attend another workshop months later.

DiAngelo explains how Eva’s emotional reactions are typical of white fragility. Those who are challenged on their behaviors often feel singled out, judged, angry, and shamed; they respond by crying, arguing, focusing on “good intentions,” or physically leaving. The claims made to justify these reactions—such as “I know people of color,” “that is just your opinion,” or “some people find offense where there is none”—work to exempt the person from further accountability or engagement. DiAngelo explains how these claims rest on key assumptions that white people make about race and their relationship to racism, such as the good/bad binary. All of these assumptions and subsequent behaviors work to block further engagement, and in fact encourage racial resentment and divisions.


Chapters 3–5 Summary


Chapter 10–12 Summary