White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

By Robin DiAngelo. Beacon Press, 2018. 192 pages. $16/paperback; $12.99/eBook.

Robin DiAngelo, the white woman who wrote this book, has been teaching about racial justice for over 20 years. She writes, “When I talk to white people about racism, their responses are so predictable I sometimes feel as though we are all reciting lines from a shared script. And on some level, we are, because we are actors in a shared culture.” White Fragility is largely her examination of that script and the shared culture that helps write it.

She observes that white people have opinions about race and racism they think are objective even though they are heavily influenced by how they have been socialized as white people. She explores that socialization—noting, for example, that race has historically been presented as a biological reality, but is really a social construct. That construct is a crucial element in creating a system of oppression favoring those who are white as well as supporting the belief that the dominant white culture, rules, and people are normal and good.

That system of oppression has adapted to changed conditions such as the outlawing of racial discrimination and the shaming of people who overtly assert the inferiority of people of color. One of those adaptations is what she calls “color-blind ideology,” which disguises discrimination that occurs because of conscious, unconscious, and institutional biases. That ideology permits white people to disguise their own motivations and judgments, so they can talk, for example, about good schools or neighborhoods when by “good” they really mean “white.”

Another adaptation is racial segregation, which permits white people to benefit from discrimination without being aware of it or feeling responsible for it. Law enforcement practices and level of government service can vary by neighborhood without those differences being attributed to race.

The author identifies the cultural shift to viewing overt racial discrimination as immoral and adaptations to that shift—such as color-blind ideology and segregation—as root causes of what she terms “white fragility.” She uses this term to describe the sense of discomfort white people feel about racial issues and their defensive responses when their behavior is questioned.

Because the culture usually protects white people from having to think about race, many become upset when that protection does not work. Because racial discrimination is now considered shameful, white people often deny discriminatory behavior rather than change it.

The author identifies “patterns of white fragility.” These include assuming our experience is available to everyone, unwillingness to listen to people of color who share their experiences, needing to look good, and wanting to jump to “solutions” rather than do the hard, personal work.

As a white person, I recognized this last pattern in myself. When I first heard the author at a workshop list “focusing on solutions” as a pattern of white fragility, I was puzzled. Why shouldn’t we want solutions?

In the book’s conclusion, she explains:

When I give a talk or workshop, the number one question I get from white participants is, “How do I tell so-and-so about their racism without triggering white fragility?” My first response to this question is, “How would I tell you about your racism without triggering your white fragility?” With this response I am trying to point out the unspoken assumption that the person asking the question is not part of the problem.

She has learned to welcome feedback from people of color. She assumes she will never be completely free of racism. If she does not receive such feedback, she worries—just as worried as she would be if a doctor were about to discuss her test results and was called away before doing so.

While encouraging people of color to tell me when I get it wrong seems daunting, I find it helpful to think about language learning. The reasons I make mistakes trying to speak a new language are like the reasons I sometimes engage in racially oppressive behavior. I was not raised in an environment that taught me what I need to know. Because I do not regard mistakes I make in a new language as a moral failing, it is easier to respond to correction with equanimity and gratitude rather than denial. I need to take the same approach to feedback about racial missteps.

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