Robin DiAngelo. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Beacon Press, 2018. (169 pages)
These ceremonials in honor of white supremacy,
performed from babyhood, slip from the
conscious mind down deep into muscles…
and become difficult to tear out.
– Lillian Smith, Killers of the Dream (1949)
“Seek first to understand” is the dictum that should perhaps precede any engagement with change, progress, or revolution. Naming “white fragility” is an accurate identifier, but the mere calling it out is insufficient to the hard work of dismantling it. DiAngelo’s book is a great collection of anecdotes, social analysis, and curated lists of ideas and beliefs that will give the reader a much fuller understanding of the complexities and pervasiveness of white fragility. And, by simply explaining the what of white fragility, the power of white fragility begins to slowly disintegrate. Here are some highlighted concepts, ideas, and beliefs behind white supremacy that cultivates white fragility:
- “Idealism,” the belief that white culture and white ways of doing things are the ideal.
- “Individualism,” the belief that racism is an individual problem, and not a structural problem. In the minds of white people, this relegates racism to “bad people,” but “not me.”
- “Exceptionality,” is to identify “high performing” people of certain races as “exceptional,” and use them as a model for how minority races should/ought to behave, and evidence that racism cannot, therefore, exist.
- “Insulation,” is the fact that many white people have no need to cross racial boundaries, and are, therefore, “insulated” from other racial experiences.
- “The power to choose,” is the ability of whites to choose when and how they talk about race, a summative result of individualism, exceptionality, and insulation.
DiAngelo also discusses “multidimensionality” the understanding that racial constructs and racism exist throughout all different dimensions, aspects, and contexts of a person’s experience. It is a key concept in her final and useful question to white people who want to know what to do about racism. First ask,
“What has enabled you to be a full, educated, professional adult and not know what to do about racism?” … How have we managed not to know, when the information is all around us? When people of color have been telling us for years? (144)
It is a good question. However, I wish it came at the front of the book rather than at the end. While I appreciate the analytical content, the structure of the book was not great, as was the writing style. The book felt more like cataloging social commentary than a robust academic report. As such, for those who already agree, it will be championed. For those who are intrigued and want to know more, this will be a good “jump in the deep end,” with a lot of splashing, but not a lot of technique. But there are those for whom this book will be extremely difficult, namely, white people who are fragile. A fault? Perhaps that’s the point?
Regardless, any work of dismantling of white supremacy for the pursuit of racial justice is welcomed. For that, thanks are to be given to DiAngelo for her contribution.
Foreword by Michael Eric Dyson
In the equation of race, another metaphor for race beckons; whiteness is the unchanging variable. Or, to shift metaphors, whiteness has been, to pinch Amiri Baraka’s resonant phrase, the “changing same,” a highly adaptable and fluid force that stays on top no matter where it lands. In a sense, whiteness is at once the means of dominance, the end to which dominance points, and the point of dominance, too, which, in its purest form, in its greatest fantasy, never ends. (ix)
…whiteness is a fiction,…an agreed-on myth that has empirical grit because of its effect, not its essence. But whiteness goes even one better: it is a category of identity that is most useful when its very existence is denied. That’s its twisted genius. Whiteness embodies Charles Baudelaire’s admonition that “the loveliest trick of (ix) the Devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.” (x)
It is not enough to be a rhetorician and a semiotician to deconstruct and demythologize whiteness. One must be a magician of the political and the social, an alchemist of the spiritual and psychological too. (x)
It’s been said that racism is so American that when we protest racisms, some assume we’re protesting America. – Beyoncé Knowles
The term identity politics refers to the focus on the barriers specific groups face in their struggle for equality. (xiii)
The identities of those sitting at the tables of power in this country have remained remarkably similar: white, male, middle- and upper-class, able-bodied. Acknowledging this fact may be dismissed as political correctness, but it is still a fact. The decisions made at those tables affect the lives of those not at the tables. Exclusion by those at the table doesn’t depend on willful intent; we don’t have to intend to exclude for the results of our actions to be exclusion. While implicit bias is always at play because all humans have bias, inequity can occur simply through homogeneity; if I am not aware of the barriers you face, then I won’t see them, much less be motivated to remove them. Nor will I be motivated to remove the barriers if they provide an advantage to which I feel entitled. (xiii)
[via: Also known as the “availability heuristic.”]
This book is unapologetically rooted in identity politics. … But rather than retreat in the face of that discomfort, we can practice building our stamina for the critical examination of white identity–a necessary antidote to white fragility. (xiv)
[via: I was delighted at the word “stamina” in DiAngelo’s book, as it was the same phrase I used when I got to interview Austin Channing Brown, February 10, 2019 (at minute 41:31 below).]
WHAT ABOUT MULTIRACIAL PEOPLE?’
I will not be able to do justice to the complexity of multiracial identity. But for the purpose of grappling with white fragility, I offer multiracial people the concept of saliency. (xvi)
Introduction: We Can’t Get There from Here
White people in North America live in a society that is deeply separate and unequal by race, and white people are the beneficiaries of that separation and inequality. As a result, we are insulated from racial stress, at the same time that we come to feel entitled to and deserving of our advantage. (1)
Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race. We consider a challenge to our racial worldviews as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people. Thus, we perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as an unsettling and unfair moral offense. The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable–the mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers a range of defensive responses. These include emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation. These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy. I conceptualize this process as white fragility. Though white fragility is triggered by discomfort and anxiety, it is born of superiority and entitlement. White fragility is not weakness per se. In fact, it is a powerful means of white racial control and the protection of white advantage. (2)
I believe that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color. I define a white progressive as any white person who thinks he or she is not racist, or is less racist, or in the “choir,” or already “gets it.” White progressives can be the most difficult for people of color because, to the degree that we think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived. None of our energy will go into what we need to be doing for the rest of our lives: engaging in ongoing self-awareness, continuing education, relationship building, and actual antiracist practice. (5)
1 The Challenges of Talking to White People About Racism
WE DON’T SEE OURSELVES IN RACIAL TERMS
Being seen racially is a common trigger of white fragility, and thus, to build our stamina, white people must face the first challenge: naming our race. (7)
OUR OPINIONS ARE UNIFORMED
…white people’s opinions on racism tend to be strong. Yet race relations are profoundly complex. We must be willing to consider that unless we have devoted intentional and ongoing study, our opinions are necessarily uninformed, even ignorant. …nothing in mainstream US culture gives us the information we need to have the nuanced understanding of arguably the most complex and enduring social dynamic of the last several hundred years. (8)
WE DON’T UNDERSTAND SOCIALIZATION
We make sense of perceptions and experiences through our particular cultural lens. … But exploring these cultural frameworks can be particularly challenging in Western culture precisely because of two key Western ideologies: individualism and objectivity. Briefly individualism holds that we are each unique and stand apart from others, even those within our social groups. Objectivity tells us that it is possible to be free of all bias. (9)
For many white people, the mere title of this book will cause resistance because I am breaking a cardinal rule of individualism–I am generalizing (11)
Rather than use what you see as unique about yourself as an exemption from further examination, a more fruitful approach would be to ask yourself, “I am white and I have had X experience. How did X shape me as a result of also being white?“ Setting aside your sense of uniqueness is a critical skill that will allow you to see the big picture of the society in which we live; individualism will not. 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. Work to see how these messages have shaped your life, rather than use some aspect of your story to excuse yourself from their impact. (13)
WE HAVE A SIMPLISTIC UNDERSTANDING OF RACISM
…if I am saying that my readers are racist or, even worse, that all white people are racist, I am saying something deeply offensive; I am questioning my readers’ very moral character. How can I make this claim when I don’t even know my readers? … So let me be clear: If your definition of a racist is someone who holds conscious dislike of people because of race, then I agree that it is offensive for me to suggest that you are racist when I don’t know you. I also agree that if this is your definition of racism, and you are against racism, then you are not racist. Now breathe. I am not using this definition of racism, and I am not saying that you are immoral. (13)
The key to moving forward is what we do with our discomfort. We can use it as a door out–blame the messenger and disregard the message. Or we can use it as a door in by asking, Why does this unsettle me? What would it mean for me if this were true? How does this lens change my understanding of racial dynamics? How can my unease help reveal the unexamined assumptions I have been making? Is it possible that because I am white, there are some racial dynamics that I can’t see? Am I willing to consider that possibility? If I am not willing to do so, then why not? (14)
2 Racism and White Supremacy
The differences we see with our eyes–differences such as hair texture and eye color–are superficial and emerged as adaptations to geography. Under the skin, there is no true biological race. The external characteristics that we use to define race are unreliable indicators of genetic variation between any two people. (15)
SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF RACE IN THE UNITED STATES
But race is the child of racism, not the father. – Ta-Nehisi Coates
The beneficiaries of slavery, segregation, and mass incarceration have produced racist ideas of Black people being best suited for or deserving (16) of the confines of slavery, segregation, or the jail cell. COnsumers of these racist ideas have been led to believe there is something wrong with Black people, and not the policies that have enslaved, oppressed, and confined so many Black people. – Ibram Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning
THE PERCEPTION OF RACE
The term “white” first appeared in colonial law in the late 1600s. By 1790, people were asked to claim their race on the census, and by 1825, the perceived degrees of blood determined who would be classified as Indian. (17)
To understand racism, we need to first distinguish it from mere prejudice and discrimination. Prejudice is pre-judgment about another person based on the social groups to which that person belongs. Prejudice consists of thoughts and feelings, including stereotypes, attitudes, and generalizations that are based on little or no experience and then are projected onto everyone from that group. Our prejudices tend to be shared because we sim in the same cultural water and absorb the same messages. (19)
People who claim not to be prejudiced are demonstrating a profound lack of self-awareness. (19)
When a racial group’s collective prejudice is backed by the power of legal authority and institutional control, it is transformed into racism, a far-reaching system that functions independently from the intentions or self-images of individual actors. (20)
Racism is a system. (21)
People of color may also hold prejudices and discriminate against white people, but they lack the social and institutional power that transforms their prejudice and discrimination into racism; the impact of their prejudice on whites is temporary and contextual. (22)
[via: We would have to concede that there did exist “white racism,” during the early years of mass European migration to the Americas, then, yes?]
When I say that only whites can be racist, I mean that in the United States, only whites have the collective social and institutional power and privilege over people of color. People of color do not have this power and privilege over white people. (22)
David Wellman succinctly summarizes racism as “a system of advantage based on race.” These advantages are referred to as white privilege, a sociological concept referring to advantages that are taken for granted by whites and that cannot be simply enjoyed by people of color in the same context (government, community, workplace, schools, etc.). But let me be clear: stating that racism privileges whites does not mean that individual white people do not struggle or face barriers. It does mean that we do not face the particular barriers of racism. (24)
WHITENESS AS A POSITION OF STATUS
…identity and perceptions of identity can grant or deny resources. These resources include self-worth, visibility, positive expectations, psychological freedom from the tether of race, freedom of movement, the sense of belonging, and a sense of entitlement to all the above. (25)
The story of Jackie Robinson is a classic example of how whiteness obscures racism by rendering whites, white privilege, and racist institutions invisible. (26)
Narratives of racial exceptionality obscure the reality of ongoing institutional white control while reinforcing the ideologies of individualism and meritocracy. (26)
Ruth Frankenberg, a premier white scholar in the field of whiteness studies, describes whiteness as multidimensional. (27)
White supremacy is especially relevant in countries that have a history of colonialism by Western nations. (29)
cf. The Racial Contract by Charles W. Mills
First, white supremacy is never acknowledged. Second, we cannot study any sociopolitical system without addressing how that (29) system is mediated by race. (30)
In light of the reality of historical and continual white supremacy, white complaints about “reverse” racism by programs intended to ameliorate the most basic levels of discrimination are profoundly petty and delusional. (30)
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.” – Lee Atwater
I hope to have made clear that white supremacy is something much more pervasive and subtle than the actions of explicit white nationalists. White supremacy describes the culture we live in, a culture that positions white people and all that is associated with them (whiteness) as the ideal. White supremacy is more than the idea that whites are superior to people of color; it is the deeper premise that supports this idea–the definition of whites as the norm or standard for human, and people of color as a deviation from that norm. (33)
| Naming white supremacy changes the conversation in two key ways: It makes the system visible and shifts the locus of change onto white people, where it belongs. It also points us in the direction of the lifelong work that is uniquely ours, challenging our complicity with and investment in racism. This does not mean that people of color do not play a part but that the full weight of responsibility rests with those who control the institutions. (33)
THE WHITE RACIAL FRAME
Sociologist Joe Feagin coined the term “white racial frame” to describe how whites circulate and reinforce racial messages that position whites as superior. … The frame is deep and extensive, with thousands of stored “bits.” These bits are pieces of cultural information–images, stories, interpretations, omissions, silences–that are passed along from one person and group to the next, and from one generation to the next. The bits circulate both explicitly and implicitly, for example, through movies, television, news and other media and stories told to us by family and friends. By constantly using the white racial frame to interpret social relations and integrating new bits, whites reinscribe the frame even deeper. (34)
In the US, race is encoded in geography. I can name every neighborhood in my city and its racial makeup. I can also tell you if a neighborhood is coming up or down in terms of home equity, and this will be based primarily on how its racial demographics are changing. Going up? It will be getting whiter. Going down? It will be getting less white. (36)
Predominantly white neighborhoods are not outside of race–they are teeming with race. Every moment we spend in those environments reinforces powerful aspects of the white racial frame, including a limited worldview, a reliance on deeply problematic depictions of people of color, comfort in segregation with no sense that there might be value in knowing people of color, and internalized superiority. In turn, our capacity to engage constructively across racial lines becomes profoundly limited. (37)
The example of a child publicly calling out a black man’s race and embarrassing the mother illustrates several aspects of white children’s racial socialization. First, children learn that it is taboo to openly talk about race. Second, they learn that people should pretend not to notice undesirable aspects that define some people as less valuable than others (a large birthmark on someone’s face, a person using a wheelchair). These lessons manifest themselves later in life, when white adults drop their voices before naming the race of someone who isn’t white (ane especially so if the race being named is black), as if blackness were shameful or the word itself were impolite. If we add all the comments we make about people of color privately, when we are less careful, we may begin to recognize how white children are taught to navigate race. (38)
3 Racism After the Civil Rights Movement
Racism can still exist because it is highly adaptive. Because of this adaptability, we must be able to identify how it changes over time. (40)
All systems of oppression are adaptive; they can withstand and adjust to challenges and still maintain inequality. (40)
What is termed color-blind racism is an example of racism’s ability to adapt to cultural changes. According to this ideology, if we pretend not (40) to notice race, then there can be no racism. (41)
This defensiveness is classic white fragility because it protects our racial bias while simultaneously affirming our identities as open-minded. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to be confronted with an aspect of ourselves that we don’t like, but we can’t change what we refuse to see. (42)
Aversive racism is a subtle but insidious form, as aversive racists enact racism in ways that allow them to maintain a positive self-image (e.g., “I have lots of friends of color”; “I judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin”). (43)
- Rationalizing racial segregation as unfortunate but necessary to access “good schools”
- Rationalizing that our workplaces are virtually all white because people of color just don’t apply
- Avoiding direct racial language and using racially coded terms such as urban, underprivileged, diverse, sketchy, and good neighborhoods
- Denying that we have few cross-racial relationships by proclaiming how diverse our community or workplace is
- Attributing inequality between whites and people of color to causes other than racism. (44)
This is a classic example of aversive racism: holding deep racial disdain that surfaces in daily discourse but not being able to admit it because the disdain conflicts with our self-image and professed beliefs. (45)
When you consider the moral judgment we make about people we deem as racist in our society, the need to deny our own racism–even to ourselves–makes sense. We believe we are superior at a deeply internalized level and act on this belief in the practice of our lives, but we must deny this belief to fit into society and maintain our self-identity as good, moral people. Unfortunately, aversive racism only protects racism, because we can’t challenge our racial filters if we can’t consider the possibility that we have them. (47)
I am often asked if I think the younger generation is less racist. No, I don’t. In some ways, racism’s adaptations over time are more sinister than concrete rules such as Jim Crow. The adaptations produce the same outcome (people of color are blocked from moving forward) but have been put in place by a dominant white society that won’t or can’t admit to its beliefs. This intransigence results in another pillar of white fragility: the refusal to know. (50)
4 How Does Race Shape the Lives of White People?
White People: I don’t want you to understand me better; I want you to understand yourselves. Your survival has never depended on your knowledge of white culture. In fact, it’s required your ignorance. – Ijeoma Oluo
FREEDOM FROM THE BURDEN OF RACE
…I don’t carry the psychic weight of race; I don’t have to worry about how others feel about my race. (54)
FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT
Another way that my life has been shaped by being white is that my race is held up as the norm for humanity. Whites are “just people”–our race is rarely if ever named. (56)
Toni Morrison is always seen as a black writer, not just a writer. But when we are not looking for the black or Asian perspective, we return to white writers, reinforcing the idea of whites as just human, and people of color as particular kinds (racialized) of humans. (56)
White solidarity is the unspoken agreement among whites to protect white advantage and not cause another white person to feel racial discomfort by confronting them when they say or do something racially problematic. … White solidarity requires both silence about (57) anything that exposes the advantages of the white position and tacit agreement to remain racially united in the protection of white supremacy. To break white solidarity is to break rank. (58)
THE GOOD OLD DAYS
Romanticized recollections of the past and calls for a return to former ways are a function of white privilege, which manifests itself in the ability to remain oblivious to our racial history. Claiming that the past was socially better than the present is also a hallmark of white supremacy. (59)
The call to Make America Great Again worked powerfully in service of the racial manipulation of white people, diverting blame away from the white elite and toward various peoples of color–for example, undocumented workers, immigrants, and the Chinese–for the current conditions of the white working class. (61)
WHITE RACIAL INNOCENCE
The expectation that people of color should teach white people about racism is another aspect of white racial innocence that reinforces several problematic racial assumptions. First, it implies that racism is something that happens to people of color and has nothing to do with us and that we consequently cannot be expected to have any knowledge of it. This framework denies that racism is a relationship in which both groups are involved. (64)
Second, this request requires nothing of us and reinforces unequal power relations by asking people of color to do our work. (64)
Third, the request ignores the historical dimensions of race relations. It disregards how often people of color have indeed tried to tell us what racism is like for them and how often they have been dismissed. (64)
Upward mobility is the great class goal in the United States, and the social environment gets tangibly whiter the higher up you climb. Whiter environments, in turn, are seen as the most desirable. (66)
Pause for a moment and consider the profundity of this message: we are taught that we lose nothing of value through racial segregation. Consider the message we send to our children–as well as to children of color-when we describe white segregation as good. (68)
| In summary, our socialization engenders a common set of racial patterns. These patterns are the foundation of white fragility:
- Preference for racial segregation, and a lack of a sense of loss about segregation
- Lack of understanding about what racism is
- Seeing ourselves as individuals, exempt from the forces of racial socialization
- Failure to understand that we bring our group’s history with us, that history matters
- Assuming everyone is having or can have our experience
- Lack of racial humility, and unwillingness to listen
- Dismissing what we don’t understand
- Lack of authentic interest in the perspectives of people of color
- Wanting to jump over the hard, personal work and get to “solutions”
- Confusing disagreement with not understanding (68)
- Need to maintain white solidarity, to save, face, to look good
- Guilt that paralyzes or allows inaction
- Defensiveness about any suggestion that we are connected to racism
- A focus on intentions over impact
My psychosocial development was inculcated in a white supremacist culture in which I am in the superior group. Telling me to treat everyone the same is not enough to override this socialization; nor is it humanly possible. (69)
5 The Good/Bad Binary
This chapter explores what is perhaps the most effective adaptation of racism in recent history: the good/bad binary. … After the civil rights movement, to be a good, moral person and to be complicit with racism became mutually exclusive. You could not be a good person and participate in racism; only bad people were racist. (71)
While making racism bad seems like a positive change, we have to look at how this functions in practice. Within this paradigm, to suggest that I am racist is to deliver a deep moral blow–a kind of character assassination. Having received this blow, I must defend my character, and that is where all my energy will go–to deflecting the charge, rather than reflecting on my behavior. In this way, the good/bad binary makes it nearly impossible to talk to white people about racism, what it is, how it shapes all of us and the inevitable ways that we are conditioned to participate in it.
Racism is a systemic, societal, institutional, omnipresent, and epistemologically embedded phenomenon that pervades every vestige of our reality. For most whites, however, racism is like murder: the concept exists, but someone has to commit it in order for it to happen. This limited view of such a multilayered syndrome cultivates the sinister nature of racism and, in fact, perpetuates racist phenomena rather than eradicates them – Omowale Akintunde
The simplistic idea that racism is limited to individual intentional acts committed by unkind people is at the root of virtually all white defensiveness on this topic. (73)
If you are white and have ever been challenged to look at your own racism–perhaps you told a problematic joke or made a prejudiced assumption and someone brought it to your attention–it is common to feel defensive. If you believe that you are being told you are a bad person, all your energy is likely to go toward denying this possibility and invalidating the messenger rather than trying to understand why what (75) you’ve said or done is hurtful. You will probably respond with white fragility. But unfortunately, white fragility can only protect the problematic behavior you feel so defensive about; it does not demonstrate that you are an open person who has no problematic racial behavior. (76)
Color-blind claims include the following:
- I was taught to treat everyone the same.
- I don’t see color.
- I don’t care if you are pink, purple, or polka-dotted.
- Race doesn’t have any meaning to me.
- My parents were/weren’t racist, so that is why I am not racist.
- Everyone struggles, but if you work hard…
- So-and-so just happens to be black, but that has nothing to do with what I am about to tell you.
- Focusing on race is what divides us.
- If people are respectful to me, I am respectful to them, regardless of race.
- Children today are so much more open.
- I’m not racist; I’m from Canada.
- I was picked on because I was white/I grew up poor (so I don’t have race privilege). (77)
The second set I term color-celebrate. This set claims that the person sees and embraces racial difference.
- I work in a very diverse environment.
- I have people of color in my family/married a person of color/have children of color.
- I was in the military.
- I used to live in New York/Hawaii.
- We don’t like how white our neighborhood is, but we had to move here for the schools. (77)
- I was in the Peace Corps.
- I marched in the sixties.
- We adopted a child from China.
- Our grandchildren are multiracial.
- I was on a mission in Africa.
- I went to a very diverse school/lived in a very diverse neighborhood.
- I lived in Japan and was a minority, so I know what it is like to be a minority.
- I lived among the [fill-in-the-blank] people, so I am actually a person of color.
- My great-grandmother was a Native American princess. (78)
This question is not “is this claim true, or is it false?”; … Instead I ask, “How does this claim function in the conversation?” If we apply this question to these two sets of narratives, one color-blind and the other color-celebrate, we see that all of these claims ultimately function in a similar way; they all exempt the person from any responsibility for or participation in the problem. (78)
This claim rests on a definition of racism as conscious intolerance; a racist is someone who presumably cannot tolerate even the sight of a person of color. (79)
…cross-racial friendships do not block out the dynamics of racism in the society at large, and these dynamics continue unabated. The white person will still receive white privilege that a friend of color does not, even when the two people engage in activities together. (80)
…just because you and your friend don’t talk about racism does not mean it isn’t at play. Indeed, this silence is one of the ways that racism is manifest, for it is an imposed silence. (81)
“I was taught to treat everyone the same.”
For example, I could lecture you for hours that it is not nice to judge, that no one likes to be judged–“You wouldn’t want to be judged, would you?”–and so on. At the end of that lecture, you would still continue to judge, because it is impossible not to. We can try to examine our judgments, hold them more lightly, and so forth, but to be free of judgment? Not possible. Nor can we treat everyone the same. Indeed, the person professing to treat everyone the same is stating a value that he or she holds, but the claim closes off any further reflection. (81)
“I marched in the sixties.”
“I was the minority at my school, so I was the one who experienced racism.”
“My parents were not racist, and they taught me not to be racist.”
…we can’t teach humans to have no prejudice at all. The human brain just does not work that way as we process information about others. Most of us only teach our children not to admit to prejudice. A parent training a child not to say certain things that are overtly racist is teaching the child self-censorship rather than how to examine the deeply embedded racial messages we all absorb. Ideally, we would teach our children how to recognize and challenge prejudice, rather than deny it. (84)
“Children today are so much more open.”
“Race has nothing to do with it.”
“Focusing on race is what divides us.”
Many whites see the naming of white racial power as divisive. For them, the problem is not the power inequity itself; the problem is naming the power inequity. This naming breaks the pretense of unity and exposes the reality of racial division. (86)
| Even though participants of color repeatedly state that whites’ refusal to acknowledge racial difference and power dynamics actually maintains racial inequity, white participants continue to insist that not talking about difference is necessary for unity. (86)
I have found it much more useful to think of myself as on a continuum. Racism is so deeply woven into the fabric of our society that I do not see myself escaping from that continuum in my lifetime. But I can continually seek to move further along it. I am not in a fixed position on the continuum; my position is dictated by what I am actually doing at a given time. Conceptualizing myself on an active continuum changes the question from whether I am or am not racist to a much more constructive question: Am I actively seeking to interrupt racism in this context? And perhaps even more importantly, how do I know? (87)
But all our phrasing–race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy–serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. … You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body. – Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
…anti-blackness is foundational to our very identities as white people. Whiteness has always been predicated on blackness. … Creating a separate and inferior black race simultaneously created the “superior” white race: one concept could not exist without the other. In this sense, whites need black people; blackness is essential to the creation of white identity. (91)
It seems that we white people just cannot let go of our outrage over how unfair this toothless attempt to rectify centuries of injustice has been to us. (92)
cf. My Grandmother’s Hands, by Resmaa Menakem
Coates refers to white people as “Dreamers” in “the Dream,” falsely believing that they are actually white. I take this to mean that whites can only be white if someone is not white–if someone is the opposite of white. White is a false identity, an identity of false superiority. In that sense, whiteness isn’t real. The dream is the “perfect world,” unpolluted by blacks. If whites are to construct this world, blacks must be separated through state violence. Yet they still must exist, for the existence of blacks provides the needed other against which whites may rise. Thus, white identity depends in particular on the projection of inferiority onto blacks and the oppression this inferior status justifies for the white collective. (95)
| To put it bluntly, I believe that the white collective fundamentally hates blackness for what it reminds us of: that we are capable and guilty of perpetrating immeasurable harm and that our gains come through the subjugation of others. (95)
Carol Anderson, in her book White Rage, argues that “the trigger for white rage, inevitably, is black advancement. It is not the mere presence of black people that is the problem; rather, it is blackness with ambition, with drive, with purpose, with aspirations, and with demands for full and equal citizenship. It is blackness that refuses to accept subjugation, to give up.” She continues: “The truth is that, despite all this, a black man was elected president of the United States: the ultimate advancement, and thus the ultimate affront. Perhaps not surprisingly, voting rights were severely curtailed, the federal government was shut down, and more than once the Office of the President was shockingly, openly, and publicly disrespected by other elected officials.” (96)
cf. The Blind Side (movie)
This film, told from the white perspective and enthusiastically received by audiences, reinforces some very important dominant ideologies:
- White people are the saviors of black people.
- Some black children may be innocent, but black adults are morally and criminally corrupt.
- Whites who are willing to save or otherwise help black people, at seemingly great personal cost, are noble, courageous, and morally superior to other whites.
- Individual black people can overcome their circumstances, but usually only with the help of white people.
- Black neighborhoods are inherently dangerous and criminal.
- Virtually all blacks are poor, incompetent, and unqualified for their jobs; they belong to gangs, are addicted to drugs, and are bad parents.
- The most dependable route for black males to escape the “inner city” is through sports.
- White people are willing to deal with individual “deserving” black people, but whites do not become a part of the black community in any meaningful way (beyond charity work). (98)
The film is fundamentally and insidiously anti-black. (98)
7 Racial Triggers for White People
Anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus is very useful for understanding white fragility–the predictability of the white response to having our racial positions challenged. According to Bourdeiu, habitus is the result of socialization, the repetitive practices of actors and their interactions with each other and with the rest of their social environment. Because it is repetitive, our socialization produces and reproduces thoughts, perceptions, expressions, and actions. Thus, habitus can be thought of as a person’s familiar ways of perceiving, interpreting, and responding to the social cues around him or her. (101)
There are three key aspects of Bourdieu’s theory that are relevant to white fragility: field, habitus, and capital. Field is the specific social context the person is in–a party, the workplace, or a school. (102)
Capital is the social value people hold in a particular field; how they perceive themselves and are perceived by others in terms of their power or status. (102)
Habitus includes a person’s internalized awareness of his or her status, as well as responses to the status of others. (102)
Racial stress results from an interruption to the racially familiar. (103)
- Suggesting that a white person’s viewpoint comes from a racialized frame of reference (challenge to objectivity)
- People of color talking directly about their own racial perspectives (challenge to white taboos on talking openly about race) (103)
- People of color choosing not to protect white people’s feelings about race (challenge to white racial expectations and the need for, or entitlement to, racial comfort)
- People of color being unwilling to tell their stories or answer questions about their racial experiences (challenge to the expectation that people of color will serve us)
- A fellow white disagreeing with our racial beliefs (challenge to white solidarity)
- Receiving feedback that our behavior had a racist impact (challenge to white racial innocence)
- Suggesting that group membership is significant (challenge to individualism)
- An acknowledgment that access is unequal between racial groups (challenge to meritocracy)
- Being presented with a person of color in a position of leadership (challenge to white authority)
- Being presented with information about other racial groups through, for example, movies in which people of color drive the action but are not in stereotypical roles, or multicultural education (challenge to white centrality)
- Suggesting that white people do not represent or speak for all of humanity (challenge to universalism) (104)
White fragility may be conceptualized as a response or “condition” produced and reproduced by the continual social and material advantages (105) of whiteness. (106)
8 The Result: White Fragility
In a white supremacist context, white identity largely rests on a foundation of (superficial) racial tolerance and (108) acceptance. (109)
…whites invoke the power to choose when, how, and to what extent racism is addressed or challenged. (109)
One way that whites protect their positions when challenged on race is to invoke the discourse of self-defense. Through this discourse, whites characterize themselves as victimized, slammed, blamed, and attacked. (109)
The language of violence that many whites use to describe antiracist endeavors is not without significance, as it is another example of how white fragility distorts reality. By employing terms that connote physical abuse, whites tap into the classic story that people of color (particularly African Americans) are dangerous and violent. In so doing, whites distort the real direction of danger between whites and others. (110)
If privilege is defined as a legitimization of one’s entitlement to resources, it can also be defined as permission to escape or avoid any challenges to this entitlement. – Rich Vodde
WHITE FRAGILITY AS A FORM OF BULLYING
White fragility functions as a form of bullying; I am going to make it so miserable for you to confront me–no matter how diplomatically you try to do so–that you will simply back off, give up, and never raise the issue again. (112)
White fragility is much more than mere defensiveness or whining. It may be conceptualized as the sociology of dominance: an outcome of white people’s socialization into white supremacy and a means to protect, maintain, and reproduce white supremacy and a means to protect, maintain, and reproduce white supremacy. The term is not applicable to other groups who may register complaints or otherwise be deemed difficult (e.g., “student fragility”). (113)
9 White Fragility in Action
Let’s start with the common emotional reactions that white people have…when our assumptions and behaviors are challenged.
- Singled out
- Physically leaving
- Emotionally withdrawing
- Focusing on intentions
- Seeking absolution
- I know people of color.
- I marched in the sixties.
- I already know all this.
- You are judging me.
- You don’t know me.
- You are generalizing.
- That is just your opinion.
- I disagree.
- The real oppression is class [or gender, or anything other than race].
- You are elitist.
- I just said one little innocent thing.
- Some people find offense where there is none. (119)
- You don’t do this the right way.
- You’re playing the race card.
- This is not welcoming to me.
- You’re being racist against me.
- You are making me feel guilty.
- You hurt my feelings.
- You misunderstood me.
- I don’t feel safe.
- The problem is your tone.
- I can’t say anything right.
- That was not my intention.
- I have suffered too. (12)
- Racism is simply personal prejudice.
- I am free of racism.
- I will be the judge of whether racism has occurred.
- My learning is finished; I know all I need to know.
- Racism can only be intentional; my not having intended racism cancels out the impact of my behavior.
- My suffering relieves me of racism or racial privilege.
- White people who experience another form of oppression cannot experience racial privilege.
- If I am a good person, I can’t be racist.
- I am entitled to remain comfortable/have this conversation the way I want to.
- How I am perceived by others is the most important issue.
- As a white person, I know the best way to challenge racism.
- If I am feeling challenged, you are doing this wrong.
- It’s unkind to point out racism.
- Racism is conscious bias. I have none, so I am not racist.
- Racists are bad individuals, so you are saying that I am a bad person.
- If you knew me or understood me, you would know I can’t be racist.
- I have friends of color, so I can’t be racist.
- There is no problem; society is fine the way it is.
- Racism is a simple problem. People just need to …
- My worldview is objective and the only one operating.
- If I can’t see it, it isn’t legitimate.
- If you have more knowledge on the subject than I do, you think you’re better than me. (121)
FUNCTIONS OF WHITE FRAGILITY
- Maintain white solidarity
- Close of self-reflection
- Trivialize the reality of racism
- Silence the discussion
- Make white people the victims
- Hijack the conversation
- Protect a limited worldview
- Take race off the table
- Protect white privilege
- Focus on the messenger, not the message
- Rally more resources to white people (122)
10 White Fragility and the Rules of Engagement
I have found that the only way to give feedback without triggering white fragility is not to give it at all. Thus, the first rule is cardinal:
1. Do not give me feedback on my racism under any circumstances. (123)
If you insist on breaking the cardinal rule, then you must follow these other rules:
2. Proper tone is crucial–feedback must be given calmly. If any emotion is displayed, the feedback is invalid and can be dismissed. (123)
3. There must be trust between us. You must trust that I am in no way racist before you can give me feedback on my racism.
4. Our relationships must be issue-free–if there are issues between us, you cannot give me feedback on racism until these unrelated issues are resolved.
5. Feedback must be given immediately. If you wait too long, the feedback will be discounted because it was not given sooner.
6. You must give feedback privately, regardless of whether the incident occurred in front of other people. To give feedback in front of any others who were involved in the situation is to commit a serious social transgression. If you cannot protect me from embarrassment, the feedback is invalid, and you are the transgressor.
7. You must be as indirect as possible. Directness is insensitive and will invalidate the feedback and require repair.
8. As a white person, I must feel completely safe during any discussion of race. Suggesting that I have racist assumptions or patterns will cause me to feel unsafe, so you will need to rebuild my trust by never giving me feedback again. Point of clarification: when I say “safe,” what I really mean is “comfortable.”
9. Highlighting my racial privilege invalidates the form of oppression that I experience (e.g., classism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, transphobia). We will then need to turn our attention to how you oppressed me.
10. You must acknowledge my intentions (always good) and agree that my good intentions cancel out the impact of my behavior.
11. To suggest my behavior had a racist impact is to have misunderstood me. You will need to allow me to explain myself until you can acknowledge that it was your misunderstanding. (124)
Feedback is key to our ability to recognize and repair our inevitable and often unaware collusion. In recognition of this, I try to follow these guidelines:
1. How, where, and when you give me feedback is irrelevant–it is the feedback I want and need. Understanding that it is hard to give, I will take it any way I can get. From my position of social, cultural, and institutional white power and privilege, I am perfectly safe and I can handle it. If I cannot handle it, it’s on me to build my racial stamina.
2. Thank you. (125)
White fragility is also evidenced in the need for so many white progressives to “build trust” before they can explore racism in workshops, support groups, and other educational forums. … Still, I believe that what it comes down to is this: I need to trust that you won’t think I am racist before I can work on my racism. (126)
| Consider the following common guidelines that have “building trust” at their base:
- Don’t judge
- Don’t make assumptions
- Assume good intentions
- Speak your truth: … Because no one can actually be color blind in a racist society, the claim that you are color blind is not a truth; it is a false belief.
- Respect: The problem with this guildeline is that respect is rarely defined, and what feels respectful to white people can be exactly what does not create a respectful environment for people of color. (127)
An antidote to white fragility is to build up our stamina to bear witness to the pain of racism that we cause, not to impose conditions that require people of color to continually validate our denial. (128)
I repeat: stopping our racist patterns must be more important than working to convince others that we don’t have them. We do have them, and people of color already know we have them; our efforts to prove otherwise are not convincing. An honest accounting of these patterns is no small task given the power of white fragility and white solidarity, but it is necessary. (129)
11 White Women’s Tears
Here, I want to address one manifestation of white tears: those shed by white women in cross-racial settings. (131)
If I believe that only bad people are racist, I will feel hurt, offended, and shamed when an unaware racist assumption of mine is pointed out. If I instead believe that having racist assumptions is inevitable (but possible to change), I will feel gratitude when an unware racist assumption is pointed out; now I am aware of and can change that assumption. In this way, emotions are not natural; they are the result of the frameworks we are using to make sense of social relations. And of course, social relations are political. Our emotions are also political because they are often externalized; our emotions drive behaviors that impact other people. (132)
The murder of Emmett Till is just one example of the history that informs an oft-repeated warning from my African American colleagues: “When a white woman cries, a black man gets hurt.” (133)
Whether intended or not, when a white woman cries over some aspect of racism, all the attention immediately goes to her, demanding time, energy, and attention from everyone in the room when they should be focused on ameliorating racism. … In a common but particularly subversive move, racism becomes about white distress, white suffering, and white victimiztaion. (134)
…if we whites want to interrupt this system, we have to get racially uncomfortable and be willing to examine the effects of our racial engagement. This includes not indulging in whatever reactions we have–anger, defensiveness, self-pity, and so forth–in a given cross-racial encounter without first reflecting on what is driving our reactions and how they will affect other people. (135)
| Tears that are driven by white guilt are self-indulgent. When we are mired in guilt, we are narcissistic and ineffective; guilt functions as an excuse for inaction. (135)
It’s infuriating because of its audacity of disrespect to our experience. You are crying because you are uncomfortable with your feelings when we are barely allowed to have any. You are ashamed or some such thing and cry, but we are not allowed to have any feelings because then we are being difficult. We are supposed to remain stoic and strong because otherwise we become the angry and scary people of color. We are only allowed to have feelings for the sake of your entertainment, as in the presentation of our funerals. And even then, there are expectations of what is allowed for us to express. We are abused daily, beaten, raped, and killed but you are sad and that’s what is important. That’s why it is soooooo hard to take.
THE MEN WHO LOVE US
12 Where Do We Go from Here?
…from a transformed paradigm, when we are given feedback on our inevitable but unaware racist patterns, we might have very different feelings:
When we have these feelings, we might engage in the following behaviors:
- Seeking more understanding
- Believing (141)
What claims might we make when we have these feelings and engage in these behaviors? (141) … these claims suggest openness and humility.
- I appreciate this feedback.
- This is very helpful
- It’s my responsibility to resist defensiveness and complacency.
- This is hard, but also stimulating and important.
It is inevitable that I have this pattern. I want to change it.
- It’s personal but not strictly personal.
- I will focus on the message and not the messenger.
- I need to build my capacity to endure discomfort and bear witness to the pain of racism.
- I have some work to do. (142)
Imagine the difference in our environment, interactions, norms, and policies if the following list described our assumptions:
- Being good or bad is not relevant.
- Racism is a multilayered system embedded in our culture.
- All of us are socialized into the system of racism.
- Racism cannot be avoided.
- Whites have blind spots on racism, and I have blind spots on racism.
- Racism is complex, and I don’t have to understand every nuance of the feedback to validate that feedback.
- Whites are / I am unconsciously invested in racism.
- Bias is implicit and unconscious; I don’t expect to be aware of mine without a lot of ongoing effort.
- Giving us white people feedback on our racism is risky for people of color, so we can consider the feedback a sign of trust. (142)
- Feedback on white racism is difficult to give; how I am given the feedback is not as relevant as the feedback itself.
- Authentic antiracism is rarely comfortable. Discomfort is the key to my growth and thus desirable.
- White comfort maintains the racial status quo, so discomfort is necessary and important.
- I must not confuse comfort with safety; as a white person, I am safe in discussions of racism.
- The antidote to guilt is action.
- It takes courage to break with white solidarity; how can I support those who do?
- I bring my group’s history with me; history matters.
- Given my socialization, it is much more likely that I am the one who doesn’t understand the issue.
- Nothing exempts me from the forces of racism.
- My analysis must be intersectional (a recognition that my other social identities–class, gender, ability–inform how I was socialized into the racial system).
- Racism hurts (even kills) people of color 24-7. Interrupting it is more important than my feelings, ego, or self-image. (143)
These assumptions might interrupt racism in various ways, such as the following:
- Minimize our defensiveness.
- Demonstrate our vulnerability.
- Demonstrate our curiosity and humility.
- Allow for growth.
- Stretch our worldview.
- Ensure action.
- Demonstrate that we practice what we profess to value.
- Build authentic relationships and trust.
- Interrupt privilege-protecting comfort.
- Interrupt internalized superiority. (143)
When white people ask me what to do about racism and white fragility, the first thing I ask is, “What has enabled you to be a full, educated, professional adult and not know what to do about racism?” … How have we managed not to know, when the information is all around us? When people of color have been telling us for years? (144)
Next, I say, “Do whatever it takes for you to internalize the above assumptions.” (144)
The final advice I offer is this: “Take the initiative and find out on your own.” (144)
There are several constructive responses we can have in the moment:
- Return to the list of underlying assumptions in this chapter.
- Seek out someone with a stronger analysis if you feel confused.
- Take the time you need to process your feelings, but do return to the situation and the persons involved. (148)
We can interrupt our white fragility and build our capacity to sustain cross-racial honesty by being willing to tolerate the discomfort associated with an honest appraisal and discussion of our internalized superiority and racial privilege. (148)
THE QUESTION OF GUILT
I cannot hide my anger to spare your guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivializes all our efforts. Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communciaiton; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness. – Audre Lorde, “Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism”
A POSITIVE WHITE IDENTITY
However, a positive white identity is an impossible goal. White identity is inherently racist; white people do not exist outside the system of white supremacy. This does not mean that we should stop identifying as white and start claiming only to be Italian or Irish. To do so is to deny the reality of racism in the here and now, and this denial would (149) simply be color-blind racism. Rather, I strive to be “less white.” To be less white is to be less racially oppressive. This requires me to be more racially aware, to be better educated about racism, and to continually challenge racial certitude and arrogance. 9150)
First, I try to affirm a person’s perspective before I share mine, and when I do share mine, I try to point the finger inward, not outward. (150)
In the end, my actions are driven by my own need for integrity, not a need to correct or change someone else. (151)
PEOPLE OF COLOR NAVIGATING WHITE FRAGILITY
Equity consultant Deon Alexander shared with me what is perhaps the most pernicious form of pressure on people of color: the pressure to collude with white fragility by minimizing their racial experiences to accommodate white denial and defensiveness. In other words, they don’t share their pain with us because we can’t handle it. This accommodation requires a profoundly unfair degree of inauthenticity and silent endurance. In a vicious racial cycle, white fragility has functioned to keep people of color from challenging racism in order to avoid white wrath. In turn, not challenging white people on racism upholds the racial order and whites’ position within that order. (153)
So in answer to the question “Where do we go from here?,” I offer that we must never consider ourselves finished with our learning. (153)