White Fragility Themes
The main themes in White Fragility are individualism and objectivity, racism and morality, white solidarity and silence, and white discomfort.
- Individualism and objectivity: The notions of individualism and objectivity both allow white people to maintain self-images that are not “racialized.”
- Racism and morality: A false “good/bad binary” allows white people to assume that only fully “bad” people commit racist acts.
- White solidarity and silence: Silence among white people about racial issues allows them to maintain the status quo and white supremacy.
- White discomfort: Talking about racism can be difficult for white people, but active anti-racist work is crucial.
Last Updated on July 30, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 999
Individualism and Objectivity
According to DiAngelo, two key aspects that form the basis of white fragility are the beliefs in individualism and objectivity. Both of these beliefs are often held by white people as a result of their lack of “racialized self-image.” Unlike Black people and other people of color, white people are not accustomed to seeing themselves in the context of race, as whiteness has been made to seem “unremarkable.” Due to this, many believe that individualism (being unique) and objectivity (being free of bias) are possible.
Throughout the book, DiAngelo argues that the opposite is true: all people are socialized in a culture of white supremacy and relentlessly exposed to racial stereotypes. As a result, no one can claim that they are “color-blind” or “were raised to treat everyone the same.” The author makes clear that these claims, however well-intentioned, demonstrate a fundamental lack of understanding of racial prejudice (which everybody has) and attempt to absolve white people from racial responsibility.
Toward the end of the book, DiAngelo explains that it is more helpful to realize that people can be neither objective nor individual when it comes to race. Everyone, in fact, is on a lifelong journey of improvement. By thinking of herself on a “continuum,” DiAngelo is able to approach challenges to her racial views with humility and openness, rather than pretending that she is not constantly shaped by race.
Racism and Morality
The most obvious discussion of morality in White Fragility is the exploration of the good/bad binary. DiAngelo explains that this false dichotomy of good/not racist versus bad/racist ignores the realities of socialization and unconscious bias. In doing so, it is “the most effective adaptation of racism in recent history.” This mentality is shown to be why white people find themselves “on the defensive” in conversations about race, rather than engaging with inner reflection. The belief that racism can only take the form of isolated, intentional, and extreme acts of prejudice dismisses the very real harm done at a less extreme and often unconscious level. By removing the “morality” aspect of racial engagement, DiAngelo attempts to empower people to feel comfortable with their imperfections and actively try to work on them, rather than becoming afraid and shutting down the conversation.
Throughout the book, DiAngelo tries to emphasize that “white fragility” and the behaviors associated with it are not harmless or benign. Rather, the discomfort and distress of white people can pose real dangers to people of color—and have done so many times throughout history. For example, when discussing white women’s tears, DiAngelo makes reference to the murder of Emmett Till and points out that white people (and specifically white women) “bring those histories with them” when engaging in cross-racial discourse. The historic murders of Black men as a direct result of white female distress cannot be separated from the reactions of white women today, and what those situations feel like or signify for Black men and other men of color.
White Solidarity and Silence
White solidarity is the “unspoken agreement” between white people to protect other whites from racial discomfort and maintain the racial equilibrium. When broken, there are very real consequences, including social coercion; an individual may be accused of “having no sense of humor” or being “too politically correct” because they are engaging with racial discourse and breaking white solidarity.
This system works to maintain white supremacy and discourage white people from speaking out about racial matters, even when this silence causes material harm to people of color. Further, it is equally damaging for white people to position themselves as “racially innocent”:
I can justify my silence by telling myself that at least I am not the one who made the joke and that therefore I am not at fault. But my silence is not benign because it protects and maintains the racial hierarchy and my place within it. Each uninterrupted joke furthers the circulation of racism through the culture, and the ability for the joke to circulate depends on my complicity.
Instead of white solidarity, which perpetuates racial inequality and white supremacy, DiAngelo encourages white people to hold one another accountable and provide feedback. If on the receiving end of feedback, it is important to approach the situation with humility and thanks, as it provides a learning opportunity and a chance to explore one’s racial biases:
Racism is the norm rather than an aberration. Feedback is key to our ability to recognize and repair our inevitable and often unaware collusion.
Most crucially, white solidarity is harmful because it protects whites at the expense of people of color. DiAngelo argues that the practice obscures white people’s willingness to engage with racial discourse. Even so, it should also not be the responsibility of people of color to educate whites about racism. White solidarity prevents progress because it is a survival mechanism of white supremacy, and it is the responsibility of white people to recognize when it is happening and dismantle it.
At the heart of White Fragility lies DiAngelo’s encouragement for white people to engage with racial discourse at a deep level, and she makes clear that this will most likely involve deep discomfort. White fragility itself can be seen as a reaction to discomfort: white people are unused to being made to think about racism and therefore resist doing so. DiAngelo argues, however, that discomfort is essential to becoming more engaged with one’s own racial biases. “White insulation” serves only to protect racist systems and is a self-indulgent coping mechanism for white people.
As such, much of the book involves understanding why a white person may feel uncomfortable, where those feelings stem from, and how to endure them. While people of color are intimately familiar with racial discomfort, DiAngelo explains that white people have not built up the capacity to sustain it. As a result, a person’s ability to confront racial discomfort and sit with it is a key element to dismantling white fragility.