What Is White Fragility?

The term "white fragility" refers to a broad range of responses—from defensiveness to complete dismissal—by white people in conversations about racism against the Black community.

Sociologist and author Robin DiAngelo popularized the term in her book of the same name, White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. DiAngelo attributes this behavior to the fact that white people don’t experience racism, and therefore, have not built up a “stamina” or the ability to continuously and productively talk about racism.

What White Fragility Looks Like

Robin DiAngelo's concept of white fragility came from her time spent as a diversity trainer. She says she noticed "familiar patterns" in white people's responses when talking about racism in group discussions.

Upon discussing or learning about concepts like white privilege or various social injustices against the Black community, white members of her training groups displayed intense emotional reactions including dismissiveness, anger, resentment, defensiveness, and more.

There are a variety of common responses or defenses they would use to avoid associating themselves with racism in any way, including but not limited to:

  • "I'm not racist."
  • "I have a Black friend/ family member, so I'm not racist."
  • "Racism ended with slavery."
  • "I am colorblind, so I'm not racist."

She asked herself why she saw such patterns of defensiveness from white people, and how it was possible that their responses to being confronted with racism against Black people could sound so similar—almost scripted.

White Fragility In Our World

We see it happen all the time—from the social media account of the former president of CrossFit to the Central Park birdwatching incident—a white person says or does something racist and when the public calls them out on it, they recite the scripted line that DiAngelo heard so many times from white members of her diversity sessions: “I’m not a racist.”

“Rather than respond with gratitude and relief (after all, now that we are informed, we won't do it again), we often respond with anger and denial,” DiAngelo notes in her book.

So the question remains: What leads to this pattern of white people being unwilling to discuss racism without shutting down? When white people are called out on being racist, why not take it as an opportunity for growth rather than gaslighting members of the Black community by completely denying any harm done?

Socialization Causes White Fragility

In her book, DiAngelo quotes fellow author, journalist, and social issue expert Ta-Nehisi Coates: "Race, is the child of racism, not the father."

In other words, the U.S. was built on racism—on falsifying inherent differences between Black and white people. White supremacy and racism against Black people in our culture has amounted to racial disparities in housing, wealth accumulation, healthcare, and incarceration—to name a few.

DiAngelo discusses these among other inequalities in White Fragility, including the fact that Black people are stopped more often by police and receive harsher sentences than whites for the same crimes.

Many Americans perpetuate racist justifications for racial inequalities—exempting themselves from an inward examination of racist tendencies and an outward recognition of racism within our social systems.

They think or say, “There must be a reason,” as if to imply these centuries-old injustices are something a racial group could be responsible for bringing upon themselves.

Steeped in Racism

Ibram X. Kendi, historian, scholar of race policy, and author of How to Be an Anti-Racist, discusses racist justifications in his article for The Atlantic called “The American Nightmare.”

He talks about Race Traits, published by Frederick Hoffman—what Kendi calls “arguably the most influential race and public-health study" of the twentieth century. Kendi writes:

“In the first nationwide compilation of racial crime data, Hoffman used the higher arrest and incarceration rates of black Americans to argue that they are, by their very nature and behavior, a dangerous and violent people—as racist Americans still say today.”

We see the ripple effects of studies like Race Traits—among many more—that have long influenced our society, evident in the circulation of their racist notions still today.

Racialized Society

DiAngelo also makes the point that white fragility is not a "natural" phenomenon.

We are all socialized to absorb white supremacist values, to accept white as the default; we are parts of the whole of society and therefore, cannot address racism without taking a critical stance on our environment, and yes, even on our own thoughts and beliefs that are influenced by that environment.

For white people who may feel a bit defensive of being generalized by the term white fragility, DiAngelo gives some advice:

Robin DiAngelo

For now, try to let go of your individual narrative, and grapple with the collective messages we all receive as members of a larger shared culture... rather than use some aspect of your story to excuse yourself from their impact.

— Robin DiAngelo

Popular Ideologies, Part of the Problem

According to DiAngelo, there are several ideologies that exist in American culture that further impede white people from developing their understanding of racism. They include meritocracy and individualism.

Meritocracy

Meritocracy is a popular narrative, particularly one that prevails in the U.S. How many times have you heard someone say, "If you work hard enough, you can achieve anything”?

This popular narrative supports the idea that no matter who you are, you have equally achievable means to achieve success. But in reality, our society isn’t this ideal level playing field.

Take this example included in White Fragility. Studies have shown that despite equal levels of education and relevant experience, a person with a "white-sounding" name is more likely to get hired for a job than a person with a "Black-sounding" name.

Individualism

Individualism is the idea that you, as your own person, can be held separately from the group or society in which you live. For instance, if a white person is accused of holding racist beliefs, they might contend by saying, "But I'm not racist," and even follow it up with, "I'm a good person."

DiAngelo would say these two things are textbook white fragility. This response reduces racism to an individual, moral dilemma. That is to say, if I am not racist, then I can subsequently ignore any responsibility I have for further examination of myself or my world. I am exempt from the problem of racism.

As DiAngelo says, “We consider a challenge to our racial worldviews as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people.”

The Damage of Defensiveness

We’ve seen the patterns of responses that result from white fragility and some of the social conditions that have produced and reproduced it. But why is it important? What are the effects of white fragility?

Weaponizing White Fragility

DiAngelo emphasizes that white fragility is wielded as “weaponized hurt feelings.” In other words, a white person becomes indignant at the mere suggestion that something they said has racist implications—they deny it. Instead of recognizing that they made a mistake, and that feedback is valuable, they shift the focus to their own feelings.

In this way, they are shutting down any potentially meaningful conversation about racism as well as denying the reality that they may be complicit in saying something offensive.

Maintaining Racist Norms

DiAngelo also goes on to say that white people denying any culpability in racist patterns maintains the “racist status quo.”

When white people claim they are "not racist," it does not solve racism; in fact, this often blocks any growth that a white person could experience when learning how they might be perpetuating racist ideas and actions.

Critiques of White Fragility

There are criticisms of Robin DiAngelo's White Fragility that involve larger implications about how white people should go about anti-racism training.

Presumption of Black Experiences

John McWhorter is a linguist who takes issue with DiAngelo’s notion of White Fragility. He explains she makes “presumptuous claims” that simplify Black experiences and could even be considered racist themselves.

DiAngelo makes broad suggestions that Black people consistently become upset by the typical responses she classifies under white fragility. Wharton asks, "how would she know?"

He goes on to say that he doesn't see how white people can be given the opportunity to rectify racist thoughts and beliefs when DiAngelo is telling them that "pretty much anything they say or think is racist and thus antithetical to the good."

"I neither need nor want anyone to muse on how whiteness privileges them over me. Nor do I need wider society to undergo teachings in how to be exquisitely sensitive about my feelings," McWhorter writes. He says her "authoritative tone" serves only to "infantilize" Black people—which is "racist in a whole new way."

Racism in Anti-Racism Approaches

Jonathan Chait, commentator and writer for New York Magazine, agrees with DiAngelo that white people often don't understand the extent of their racial privilege. But the problem with many anti-racist trainings, he contends, is that it attributes everything to race.

"Indeed, their teaching presents individuals as a racist myth. In their model, the individual is subsumed completely into racial identity," Chait writes.

In an anecdote about Jackie Robinson, the first Black Major League Baseball player, DiAngelo writes that the reader should consider him as "the first Black man whites allowed to play major-league baseball."

The point of this reframing is to encourage white people to consider the negative impact that white solidarity has had on inclusion—certainly there were talented players before Robinson who didn't get the chance to play professionally.

But in the process, Chait says, DiAngelo erases the powerful qualities of Robinson as an individual, that he was able to achieve his own status.

"Her program treats individual merit as a myth to be debunked," Chait argues.

"What Can I Do?"

Reading DiAngelo's White Fragility (along with its criticisms) can contribute toward a functional understanding of racial marginalization; after all, it's necessary to open up a dialogue on theory when formulating solutions to social injustices.

But just as pressing, it's important to put learning into action. There is undoubtedly the evidence that many white people use the "excuses" or "denials" that DiAngelo often quotes in her book.

True, the pervasiveness of racism is overwhelming. Since white people don't experience racism, education is a crucial process. At first, it is normal to feel confused and even guilty.

DiAngelo says, “I don't feel guilty about racism. I didn't choose this socialization, and it could not be avoided. But I am responsible for my role in it."

Education

Black history is majorly lacking in the American education system. Education is a great first step (and ongoing practice) in order to understand the longstanding history of racial inequality in the United States.

In addition, we've all unconsciously absorbed racist stereotypes over the course of our lifetimes through movies, TV, celebrities, politicians, everyday encounters, and more.

What we can do is start to recognize the thoughts and beliefs we hold that are influenced by racist ideas and begin unlearning them.

There are plenty of lists recommended by anti-racist activists that can really contribute to a greater understanding of racism in the United States, both historical and present-day.

Activism

There are plenty of ways to become involved in racial justice organizations or groups.  Try searching online for organizations in your area. Oftentimes, groups meet virtually to both educate and organize—some even collaborate with other nonprofits to promote intersectional activism.

You may also use social media to connect further with activists who are in their communities every day promoting change. Try using hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter or searching your location to find events near you—there are often open calls for people to show up to marches or community gatherings.

Be Open to Growth

If you say something that someone says is racist, avoid becoming defensive. As DiAngelo notes, "good intentions" aren't enough. Becoming an ally to the Black community means knowing there is a racist experience in America that you, as a white person, do not experience.

It contributes to your personal growth and to anti-racist efforts to be open to feedback. Try to graciously accept feedback, and remember, it's part of learning.

Listening and learning will inform anti-racist action—whether it's speaking out against a racist joke or protesting unfair treatment by police toward Black people—which helps to combat racist mechanisms on some level.

Validate Black Experiences

There are many constructive ways in which white people can learn to listen to, validate experiences of, and support Black friends and family when they speak of their experiences with racism on a personal and societal level.

Oftentimes, responses that fall under white fragility serve to gaslight Black people and people of color. When you deny someone's experiences, you are telling them their reality doesn't exist and that what they perceive as "racism" is something else.

Though it can be difficult for white people to accept racist realities that they do not fully understand, they become part of the problem when they invalidate Black experiences.

A Word From Verywell

DiAngelo’s text White Fragility can be a useful resource for white people who are looking to inform their anti-racist journey.

Her main thesis is that by breaking down the boundaries that prevent us from communicating cross racially and developing a better understanding of racism are meaningful changes that can help dismantle racist systems.

In addition, she emphasizes the importance of listening instead of assuming you know the answers. This may help you better support your BIPOC friends and family, helping them to feel heard instead of feeling denied.

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Article Sources
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