What Is White Fragility?

White fragility

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What Is White Fragility?

White fragility refers to the discomfort White people may experience in reaction to discussions about 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.

Background of White Fragility

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 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."

DiAngelo went on to investigate why many White people seemed to resist the topic of racism, and why some even became combative.

Psychology Behind White Fragility

Dr. Akeem Marsh, a clinical psychiatrist and Verywell Mind Review Board member, weighs in on what white fragility means: "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 may have a "limited capacity to process and stabilize when presented with difficult information," which leads to emotional reactions like anger, confusion, irritation, overwhelm, or 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; rather, it's a product of white supremacy.

"People are socialized to whiteness as a supreme standard or the norm," Dr. Marsh notes. "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."

DiAngelo makes the point in her book that White people are unable to have a complete, lived-in, firsthand experience of being discriminated against on the basis of race. Without that experience, White people can't necessarily understand how ubiquitous racism is. This is why, DiAngelo observes, many of her White students had harsh reactions when confronted by the realities of racism.

DiAngelo uses tons of examples to illustrate our racialized society—one that upholds inequality for Black people and maintains white fragility:

  • Social inequality: Racism against Black people in the United States has created harmful stereotypes, racially fueled violence, as well as racial disparities in housing, the job market, wealth accumulation, healthcare, incarceration, and life expectancy—to name a few. Because White people aren't exposed to these types of racial discrimination, their reality is racially "insulated," DiAngelo notes.
  • Meritocracy: Meritocracy is the idea that no matter who you are, you have equally achievable means for success. DiAngelo calls it out as a prevailing narrative in the United States, but counters it 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.
  • Individualism: This 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, prevents White people from holding themselves accountable for the problem of racism within society.

The Damage of Defensiveness

DiAngelo emphasizes that white fragility is wielded as “weaponized hurt feelings.” In other words, when a White person takes it personally when people of color talk about race, attention may shift to the White person's hurt feelings at the expense of a Black person's lived experience.

Because white fragility upholds racist norms, DiAngelos posits, White people aren't truly able to become anti-racist or allies to the Black community—unless they are willing to abandon the protected worldviews their Whiteness has allowed them.

Without the willingness of White people to look inward and correct unconscious bias, our society can't get as deep as is necessary to unroot the grip of systemic racism.

Any claim a White person makes that they're not racist or that they are "exempt" from conversations about race is essentially doing more harm and—whether it's intentional or not—minimizes Black people's experiences with racism.

Critiques of White Fragility

The following are noteworthy critiques of DiAngelo's "White Fragility."

Presumption of Black Experiences

Linguist and professor John McWhorter writes that 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 they attribute 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—i.e., 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 topics for reflection—how to be an effective ally, 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. 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 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. "

Consider Your Point of View

Dr. Marsh notes, "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."

Instead of using shame as a tactic to push yourself or others into learning about the realities of racism, try to understand, this as an ongoing learning opportunity.

Dr. Marsh adds, "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 about them all the time—others, however, commit racist actions more consistently and consciously."

Remember that we are all members of a society in which racism exists; in other words, none of us are immune to internalizing racist ideas. To support each other and advocate for a fairer future, we must become aware of how our thoughts and behaviors may be influenced by those ideas.


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, conversations, 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.


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 follow activists who are promoting change in their communities every day.

Try using hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter or searching your location to find events near you—there are often open calls for allies to show up to marches or community gatherings.

If you do attend anti-racist rallies, workshops, or seminars, you may want to keep in mind the following tips: Listen before you speak. Hold more space than you take up. Reflect rather than resist.

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" may be a useful resource for White people who are looking to inform their anti-racist journey. In general, though, developing a better understanding of racism and, importantly, how racism influences our perceptions and actions, is a journey we all must face if we're to promote a more just future.

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

  6. 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.