What Is White Fragility?

White fragility

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What Is White Fragility?

White fragility refers to a broad range of responses—often in the form of guilt, excuses, dismissal, or anger—white people may have in reaction to discussions on racism. The term "white fragility" was popularized by sociologist and author Robin DiAngelo in her book, "White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism."

In her book, DiAngelo focuses on white fragility as a response to racism against Black people.

What Does White Fragility Look Like?

Robin DiAngelo's concept of white fragility came from her experiences as a diversity trainer at various workplaces. She noted  "familiar patterns" in many of the white employees’ responses when racism was brought up in group discussions.

For instance, if DiAngelo started talking about white privilege, white members of her training groups often displayed similar reactions to one another including dismissiveness, anger, resentment, or defensiveness.

There are a variety of common ideas they expressed:

  • "I have a Black friend/family member, so I'm not racist."
  • "Racism ended with slavery."
  • "I've struggled in my life, so I'm not privileged."
  • "I am colorblind, so I'm not racist."

From the social media account of the former president of CrossFit to the Central Park birdwatching incident, we've seen white people perform racist actions—yet when some are called out, they recite the scripted line that DiAngelo heard from her students: “I’m not 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, a 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."

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

White Fragility as a Trauma Response

Dr. Marsh defines white fragility by saying: "Specifically, what is described as white fragility is actually a trauma response of white people to the trauma of racism."

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 is deeply embedded throughout our society and culture.

— Akeem Marsh, MD

What Causes White Fragility?

DiAngelo makes the point that white fragility is not a "natural" phenomenon. We are parts of the whole of society and therefore, cannot address racism without taking a critical look at our environment—and the thoughts and beliefs that are influenced by our environment.

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)." He continues, "From the standpoint of psychology, it is like when it comes to race, white people generally have underdeveloped maturity, as in this developmental milestone was not met."

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.

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 have 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.

Popular Ideologies, Part of the Problem

According to DiAngelo, meritocracy and individualism—two prevailing narratives in U.S. culture—further impede people from understanding the more insidious nature of racism.

Meritocracy is the idea that no matter who you are, you have equally achievable means for success. DiAngelo counters this principle by citing a study that showed, 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 in the U.S.

Individualism is the idea that you, as your own person, can be held separately from the group or society in which you live. DiAngelo says this framework reduces racism to an individual and moral dilemma. Saying, "I am not racist," DiAngelo notes, blocks people from holding themselves accountable for the problem of racism within society.

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

DiAngelo emphasizes that white fragility is wielded as “weaponized hurt feelings.” In other words, DiAngelo posits that 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 life (she later admitted her accusation was false).

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 those in the Black community to dehumanization, violence, and even death. 

If white fragility is a mechanism that prevents people from examining inward biases, further crimes against the Black community continue, oftentimes, unexamined.

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

The question remains, then: How are we able to address and remove harmful stereotypes from our culture if we can’t admit to having them?

Critiques of White Fragility

There are criticisms of Robin DiAngelo's "White Fragility"some that implicate DiAngelo in the very racist actions she attempts to call out in her book.

Presumption of Black Experiences

Linguist and professor John McWhorter says DiAngelo’s work is full of “presumptuous claims.” 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?"

McWhorter asks, how can white people 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.

Takeaways From White Fragility

Whether the concept of white fragility is one that you agree with or disagree with, it opens up some opportunity for reflection—on how to be an effective ally to racial equality, how to ask questions instead of assuming the answers, and how to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Individual Work

Becoming defensive, in general, can be a real hurdle to openness and growth. 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.

Discomfort is normal. Be open to apologizing if you cross a boundary, 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. "

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. Groups often meet virtually to educate and organize—some even collaborate with other nonprofits to promote intersectional activism.

You may also use social media to connect further with activists 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.

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.

Remember, 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. Gaslighting can be done unintentionally, but as Dr. Marsh adds," What is important is the impact, not intent."

"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 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, 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.

7 Sources
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.
  1. DiAngelo, R. J. (2019). White fragility: Why it's so hard for white people to talk about racism. London: Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books.

  2. Danyelle Solomon, C. (n.d.). Systemic Inequality: Displacement, Exclusion, and Segregation.

  3. Danyelle Solomon, C. (n.d.). Systemic Inequality: Displacement, Exclusion, and Segregation.

  4. Bulatao, R. (1970, January 01). Health Care.

  5. Carbado DW, Rock P. What Exposes African Americans to Police Violence? Social Science Research Network; 2016.

  6. Doubek, J. (2020, July 20). Linguist John McWhorter Says 'White Fragility' Is Condescending Toward Black People.

  7. Anti-Racist Reading List from Ibram X. Kendi - Chicago Public Library. (n.d.).

By Laura Harold
Laura Harold is an editor and contributing writer for Verywell Family, Fit, and Mind.