What Is White Fragility?

The term "white fragility" refers to a broad range of responses—from confusion or complete dismissal to full-on rage—white people may have in reaction to discussions on racism. Sociologist and author Robin DiAngelo popularized the term in her book by the same name, White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.

Though white fragility can describe reactions to discussions on racism against all people of color, DiAngelo narrows the focus of her book to specifically describe it when it's a response to racism against Black people.

What White Fragility Can Look Like

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

Upon teaching concepts like white privilege or bringing up social injustices against the Black community, white members of her training groups often displayed intense emotional reactions including dismissiveness, anger, resentment, defensiveness, and more.

There are a variety of common phrases they used:

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

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 they are called out on it, they recite a variation of the scripted line that DiAngelo heard so many times from her white students: “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.

Dr. Akeem Marsh, clinical psychiatrist and Verywell Mind Review Board member adds his thoughts on this: "I think when people are called out on actions around racism, people feel as though it is a personal attack as it is often done in a way that shames the person. Shaming someone does not really cause them to learn."

He continues, "People generally lack nuance when it comes to racism. For instance, people tend to think a person is 'racist or not' when lots of people are capable of racist actions, and do them, but are not consistent on them all the time—others, however, commit racist actions more consistently and consciously."

Among the many types of racist action and reaction: what leads to these patterned responses among many white people? How can those who feel defensive upon being told that they are complicit in a racist action reframe it into an opportunity for growth?

How can someone make the shift from "well-intentioned" to an effective ally?

Socialization

DiAngelo 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 look at our environment, and even on our own thoughts and beliefs that are influenced by that environment.

Some feel a bit generalized by the term white fragility, so DiAngelo gives this 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

Dr. Marsh describes the effect of white supremacy, saying, "People are socialized to whiteness as a supreme standard, or the norm. And so many people move in this direction without active intent (it is sometimes unconscious, but not always)."

Socialization, DiAngelo notes, is key to releasing this idea that we haven't all been affected by white supremacy. She discusses a huge roadblock to the understanding of racism which is "individual understanding." As she puts it, this mindset is one that believes "only some people are racist and those people are bad."

There's a marked difference in understanding racism as structural and more pervasive in all of us versus something only "a few bad apples" become involved with. It sheds light on the impact a society steeped in racism would have on the people who are part of it.

What Has Led to 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. has a deeply rooted history of racism—on falsifying inherent differences between Black people and white people. White supremacy and racism against Black people in our culture has birthed harmful stereotypes, racial violence, as well as racial disparities in housing, the job market, wealth accumulation, healthcare, incarceration, and life expectancy—to name a few.

DiAngelo also discusses the fact that Black people are stopped more often by police and receive harsher sentences than whites for the same crimes.

DiAngelo notes that without firsthand experience of the challenges of racism, many white people are unable to recognize how ubiquitous it is—which is why, she observes, many of her students had harsh reactions when confronted by these realities.

Racialized Society

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

This is just one example of how a deeply flawed argument becomes a widely accepted truth—and is then passed along through generations.

But racist messaging is all around us—certainly in the stereotypes that Black people are more dangerous, but also throughout our school systems, our government, healthcare system, mass media, and more.

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. These 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 lines 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.”

Trauma Responses

What is happening on the inside to cause a response as deeply rooted as white fragility? Where do the edges of our environment meet and influence our emotional responses?

Dr. Marsh weighs in on white fragility from the lens of trauma, saying, "Specifically, what is described as white fragility is actually a trauma response of white people to the trauma of racism."

The "window of tolerance" is a term often used to describe the threshold a person has to process trauma. The National Alliance on Mental Illness states that in the initial phases of a trauma response, one might have "limited capacity to process and stabilize when presented with difficult information," which leads to emotional reactions like anger, confusion, irritation, feeling overwhelmed, or even complete numbness.

Akeem Marsh, MD

Racism is traumatic to all of us that are exposed to it, causes different types of harm to different groups, and it is deeply embedded throughout our society and culture.

— Akeem Marsh, MD

Dr. Marsh continues, "From the standpoint of psychology, it is like when it comes to race, white people generally have under-developed maturity, as in this developmental milestone was not met."

The Damage of Defensiveness

DiAngelo emphasizes that white fragility is wielded as “weaponized hurt feelings.” In other words, a white person becoming offended at the suggestion that something is racist often shifts the focus to the white person's hurt feelings at the expense of a Black person's experience, or even their life.

Take the tragic death of Emmett Till, a 14 year old Black child murdered after a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, falsely accused him of whistling at her in a grocery store. In this case, a white person's hurt feelings were prioritized over a child's alleged innocuous action (after his death, she recanted her accusation).

White fragility plays a role in further crimes against Black people such as widespread police brutality. A Harvard University study by Devon W. Carbado and Patrick Rock entitled What Exposes African Americans to Police Violence? explores the consequences of unexamined, negative biases—which are far-reaching and often fatal.

It states: "Data on disparities in frisks and use of force with black men suggests that even when officers approach a black man and find no evidence of wrongdoing, officers often prolong or escalate the encounter rather than terminate it."

Carbado and Rock

In other words, a black man who is providing literally no evidence of threat is nonetheless likely to attract the attention of police officers, so ingrained are the stereotypes linking him with threat.

— Carbado and Rock

Instilled racial stereotypes—such as that Black people are more dangerous, are more likely to be armed, are more violent—translate into internalized beliefs that Black people are threats. This subjects them to dehumanization on the most basic level, but also, to violence and even death.

Fragility Impedes Strength

White fragility blocks a white person from accessing the effects racist society has had on their thoughts, behaviors, and beliefs. How are we able to unlearn dangerous racist stereotypes if we can't even admit to having them?

Robin DiAngelo

When you understand racism as a system of structured relations into which we are all socialized, you understand that intentions are irrelevant. And when you understand how socialization works, you understand that much of racial bias is unconscious.

— Robin DiAngelo

She continues, "The societal default is white superiority and we are fed a steady diet of it 24/7. To not actively seek to interrupt racism is to internalize and accept it."

Without being able to accept the impact of racism and the pervasiveness of it, we're not able to have constructive conversations on how to dismantle it.

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?"

In DiAngelo's words, “I didn't choose this socialization, and it could not be avoided. But I am responsible for my role in it."

Individual Work

DiAngelo notes that racism is socialized into our thoughts, beliefs, and actions.

Just as you may have been brought up with a certain belief about yourself, your world, or other people, and grew up to unlearn and discard that belief because it didn't serve you, you will find it's a similar process with investigating the deep layers of conditioning we all have surrounding racism.

Dr. Akeem Marsh

"Many people will need to do their own individual work (some form of therapy) around this topic to really dig into their ways of thinking and gain new insights and perspectives."

— Dr. Akeem Marsh

In general, this type of personal development can help you better understand how your beliefs have been shaped by your society, and how you can move toward supporting yourself and others in the pursuit of anti-racism. While coping with emotional reactions surrounding racism can yield immense growth and change, it takes a conscious dedication to work through them.

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. Though, it's important to note that education is best used as a supplementary element in your pursuit of anti-racism on a deeper, more internalized level.

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

Becoming defensive can be a real hurdle to being open and to growth—but it's often a first line of action. 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, and are especially important in becoming an ally.

And DiAngelo notes that being open to feedback is crucial. It's important that we work through the discomfort we might experience, be open to apologizing when we've made a mistake, and continue to learn. Dr. Marsh adds, "It has to be an ongoing commitment to continue to grow in different ways. Lean into the discomfort. "

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.

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. Of course, it may be difficult for someone to recognize when they are denying someone's reality—they do it without realizing in that moment.

Dr. Marsh adds," What is important, though, is the impact, not intent. But society socializes folx in a way that sort of encourages this. Those who are able to should take a stand and help their fellow white people get to a point of being able to identify racism when they see it, and validate Black experiences when they hear them."

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, over time, to 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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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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