Why White People Should Read “White Fragility,” Especially Those Who Say “Don’t Generalize about White People”

As a white anti-racism educator, I have encountered “white fragility” for years in students, colleagues, community members, and, of course, in myself. I just didn’t have a framework for naming it and understanding it. Robin DiAngelo’s new book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism (Beacon, 2018) provides just that, with clarity and insight.

At the beginning of her book, DiAngelo explains how the US “is deeply separate and unequal by race, and white people are the beneficiaries of that separation and inequality” (1). In other words, white supremacy and systemic racism exist, and they are fueled by different forms of segregation. She goes on to say, “Given how seldom we [white people] experience racial discomfort in a society we dominate, we haven’t had to build our racial stamina. Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race. We consider a challenge to our racial world-views as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people” (1-2). Hence: white fragility. We know racism is bad. We don’t want to be bad. Therefore, we deny or otherwise cannot effectively acknowledge our complicity in racism and cannot engage in even a conversation about racism, unless it focuses on a far away racist.

One of the core challenges that white readers may potentially face with this book is the very concept of naming “white people” as a group of people when white people have been taught we are individuals. “It’s not fair to generalize about white people,” is a response this book is likely to prompt. But that is exactly the point DiAngelo is making: the fact that white people have been taught we are individuals is actually a function of white supremacy because we are the only ones who have been taught that. We take for granted the normalization of whiteness, and we tend not to identify other white people as white but simply as people, while black people are not identified as people, but as “black.” Everyone else is racialized while we are just “people.”

That way of thinking is something that was invented, and it was only invented a few hundred years ago. My own work, Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox, elaborates on this concept of the invention of race (or the social construction of race).

As DiAngelo makes clear, white people have been taught multiple intersecting ideologies that uphold white supremacy while simultaneously obscuring it:

  • White people are individuals
  • Just work hard and you’ll be successful (the American dream of meritocracy)
  • Everyone is the same – be colorblind
  • It’s not polite to talk about race
  • Racism occurs from intentional acts of malice

While the above ideologies may be taught explicitly, several other beliefs are also taught, though perhaps in less explicit ways, but they still work to uphold white supremacy:

  • White people don’t have a race
  • White people are superior
  • White people belong

Interestingly, at the same time as white people are taught that we don’t have a race, we’re also taught white people are superior and that we belong. Yes, whiteness is a series of contradictions, and I would say one reason for these contradictions emerges because whiteness is not real. It’s a made-up idea to equate light color skin with value. It’s not an inherently natural human quality to have that belief. It’s a belief that was taught, and so it’s not surprising that contradictions emerge when something that isn’t real, whose borders are constantly negotiated, is being desperately protected.

This complex web of intersecting ideologies is so dense that even just trying to sort out one thread at a time is a challenge. However, White Fragility gives us a place to begin by focusing on the psychology of whiteness. What is it white people have been taught about race so that we react to conversations about it in ways that we do? And, why does this occur? One reason DiAngelo gives is that “the majority of white people live in racial isolation from people of color (and black people in particular) and have very few authentic cross-racial relationships” (31-32). I can see this so well in my own state of New Jersey which, despite being in the North and being so diverse, is actually one of the most racially segregated states in the country. DiAngelo goes on to explain that because so many white people experience “racial isolation” then they are especially vulnerable to stereotypical messages in the media about people of color.

White Fragility is filled with valuable resources, including data, as well as lists of strategies for recognizing how white fragility is a form of bullying. Her interpersonal techniques, questions for reflection, and concrete examples of white fragility in the workplace all help ensure that this book does not only present a valuable theory but also a practical set of tools.

I had the pleasure of being interviewed this summer with Robin DiAngelo on WBAI’s Equal Time for Freethought (available here https://archive.org/details/equaltimeforfreethought2018/ETFF2018-07-07.mp3). I believe her work is an important and much-needed contribution to anti-racism.

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