White Fragility: Why it is so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism
By Robin Diangelo
Reviewed and Produced by Kayla Dunning, Dedee Krause, and Jesse Stewart
***Note: The views expressed are academic assessments by the authors and do not necessarily reflect Baylor University or AM300 Solutions, LLC.
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Book Review and Summary:
White Fragility: Why it is so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism?
Book Review Notes:
Issues in Diversity Book Review Assignment: Kayla Dunning, Dedee Krause, and Jesse Stewart
Book Reviewed: White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo
Background: Published in 2018, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo became a New York Times Bestseller for explaining how White people should address racism in the moment and how they can move into a new, healthier, less racist paradigm. DiAngelo holds a PhD in Multicultural Education and specializes in critical racial and social justice education.
Thesis: (Progressive) White people play a role in perpetuating White Supremacy through an emotional response to racism, a phenomenon the author describes (through a detailed sociological analysis) as “White Fragility”; the result of socialized beliefs about race, racism, and White supremacy.
-When White people’s racial comfort is challenged, they feel a range of defensive emotions, which they externalize through negative actions and behaviors.
-To combat White fragility, White people must first become more aware of their internalized convictions, and then actively teach themselves to respond differently in the moment.
-Interrogating White fragility is meant to help White people unlearn their implicit biases and work against White supremacy.
Chapter Outline and Summaries:
The Author’s Note provides two key ideas. The first section is about identity politics, which she describes as “the focus on the barriers specific groups face in their struggle for equality” (xiii). Since all fights for equality between groups have come through identity politics, White Fragility uses this concept to explore what it means to be White in the United States and how White people can challenge racism.
The second key idea explained is the complexity of racial identities: Though she bisects the population into “White and people of color” (xv), she acknowledges that multiracial people live outside this binary.
Introduction: “We Can’t Get There From Here”.
Main Idea: (Progressive) White people play a role in perpetuating White Supremacy through an emotional response to racism, a phenomenon the author describes (through a detailed sociological analysis) as “White Fragility”; the result of socialized beliefs about race, racism, and White supremacy.
DiAngelo describes how White supremacy and racism have led to rampant inequality in the United States. This system insulates White people, causing them to take their privilege for granted. Since White people are protected from thinking about or processing the racism around them, they have difficulty handling racial stress; when a White person’s comfort is challenged by even “the mere suggestion that being white has meaning” (2), the result is “White fragility” (2).
The term White Fragility was coined after analyzing consistent patterns in the responses of White people —including herself—to racially stressful settings. Responses represent “the pillars of whiteness—the unexamined beliefs that prop up [...] racial responses” (3). She returns to the idea of racism and White supremacy as systemic, institutionalized cultural issues.
Chapter 1: “The Challenges of Talking to White People About Racism”
Main Idea: The Struggle is “Real”; Why it is a Challenge for White People to talk about racism?
White people have difficulty engaging in conversations about racism for the following reasons:
-First, White Americans don’t see themselves “in racial terms” (7), meaning that it is difficult for White people to understand that their experience is not universal; rather, it is distinctly shaped by White supremacy. To counteract this, DiAngelo suggests that White people must be able to identify themselves as White.
-Second, despite the fact that many White people have opinions and feelings about racism, their “opinions are uninformed” (7). Since “nothing in mainstream US culture gives us the information” (8), it is difficult to expect White people to have knowledgeable opinions about the history and impact of White supremacy and racism. White people must be taught better if they are to have healthy, productive conversations about race and racism.
-Third, White people’s ignorance means they do not understand socialization and its influence on peoples’ development and understanding of race. DiAngelo challenges the inherent tendency to want to focus on the individual instead of grappling “with the collective messages we all receive as members of a larger shared culture” (13).
-Finally, since White people are largely unaware of their White identity within a larger social context, their “simplistic understanding of racism” (13) limits their ability to talk about and process the issues around them. DiAngelo argues that while White readers might feel uncomfortable reading White Fragility, they should challenge themselves to have an internal dialogue about that discomfort. The only way to work against White fragility is to build White peoples’ “capacity to sustain the discomfort of not knowing” (14).
Chapter 2: “Racism and White Supremacy”
Main Idea; White identity also allows White people to feel that they are exempt from having to think about or talk about racial identity—that they are outside racial categories.
DiAngelo explains that many people believe that race is the result of biological or genetic differences, but this is not the case. The concept of race was the result of pseudoscientific efforts to justify the economic practices of slavery in the United States and global colonization.
The idea of race evolved to continue “legitimiz[ing] racial inequality and protect[ing] white advantage” (17) in the United States.
DiAngelo distinguishes racism from prejudice. All people have prejudice, which is not necessarily a bad thing—it is a natural consequence of being human. Prejudice can lead to discrimination, or “action based on prejudice” (20).
Racism is a specific kind of “a racial group’s collective prejudice [...] backed by the power of Like other forms of oppression, racism happens when a dominant racial group establishes systems and institutions to reinforce discrimination based on race. The historical context in which the category of race emerged in the United States and its current racist systems make it impossible for White people to avoid being part of these racial ideologies.
As a result, White people benefit from a series of societal and personal advantages. Critical race scholar Cheryl Harris describes “Whiteness as property” (24), explaining that “identity and perceptions of identity can grant or deny resources” (25). In other words, being White, or perceived as White, allows people to get both tangible resources (e.g., money, land) and intangible ones (e.g., a positive sense of self).
The complex nature of White identity gives White people systemic advantages and individual benefits. However, White identity also allows White people to feel that they are exempt from having to think about or talk about racial identity—that they are outside racial categories.
White supremacy, like race and racism, has changed over time, as have public perceptions about what constitutes White supremacy. DiAngelo argues White supremacy is a “sociopolitical economic system of domination based on racial categories that benefits those defined and perceived as white” (30).
Chapter 3: “Racism After the Civil Rights Movement”
Main Idea: Racism evolves following the Civil Rights Movement: Three types of racism emerged in the United States after the civil rights movement: color-blind racism, aversive racism, and cultural racism.
Racism’s adaptability has allowed White people to shift exactly what defines race, White supremacy, and racism. Three types of racism emerged in the United States after the civil rights movement: color-blind racism, aversive racism, and cultural racism.
Color-blind racism is the argument that “if we pretend not to notice race, then there can be no racism” (40-41
Aversive racism works on a strategy of denial. Without naming race explicitly, White people rationalize their racist beliefs or use coded language to share these beliefs.
Cultural racism is the result of the constant stream of racist information that people take in as part of American society, combined with “the idea that if someone is a good person, he or she cannot be racist” (48).
Chapter 4: “How Does Race Shape the Lives of White People?”
Main Idea: The intangible ways that White supremacy benefits White people and shapes their lives.
For White people, a sense of racial belonging in “virtually every situation or context deemed normal, neutral or prestigious” (53) is the natural consequence of being White. A general sense of comfort allows White people to be free from the weight of worrying about their racial identity in any context, to subconsciously see themselves as superior, and to move freely in almost all spaces without ever questioning their own racial identity.
White solidarity allows White people to remain racially comfortable in a wide range of scenarios, since challenging a White person leads to many of the symptoms of White fragility.
DiAngelo explains the idea of White racial innocence, whereby White people position themselves outside of a racial identity or hierarchy. This leads to racial inequity, partly because White racial innocence supports Whites’ choices to live in segregated communities.
Chapter 5: “The Good/Bad Binary”
Main Idea: The new social binary emerged in the wake of the civil rights movement. Since racism was bad, to be racist one must be a bad person; therefore, if one was a good person, one could not be racist.
A new social binary emerged in the wake of the civil rights movement. Since racism was bad, to be racist one must be a bad person; therefore, if one was a good person, one could not be racist. This reduced the casual definition of racism “to simple, isolated, and extreme acts of prejudice” (71), meaning that nearly all White people were exempt from being identified as racists. Not only does this dichotomy falsely simplify what racism and racists are, it also makes it extremely difficult to see racism as a systemic and institutionally supported issue.
Since adopting the good/bad binary, White people in the United States have resisted being labeled racist by arguing that they are good people. DiAngelo identifies common patterns of resistance that White people display. For example: “I was taught to treat everyone the same” (81), “My parents were not racist, and they taught me not to be racist” (83), and “Focusing on race is what divides us” (86).
Chapter 6: “Anti-Blackness”
Main Idea: Anti-Blackness emerges in contemporary American culture, including: White resistance to affirmative action programs, White acceptance of violence towards Black people, and White willingness to punish or criminalize Black people more readily.
While speaking in more generalized terms to discuss White racial identity, it is important to speak specifically about different racial identities in the United States. DiAngelo explores anti- Blackness in more depth, writing, “[I]n the white mind, black people are the ultimate racial ‘other’” (90). Without Blackness, White people could not have constructed their own superiority, so “blackness is essential to the creation of white identity” (91).
DiAngelo lists ways in which anti-Blackness is visible in contemporary American culture, including: White resistance to affirmative action programs, White acceptance of violence towards Black people, and White willingness to punish or criminalize Black people more readily.
DiAngelo discusses how anti-Blackness allows White people to deflect and project their own negative emotions onto a Black subject. Analyzing the movie The Blind Side, she concludes that White peoples’ “need to deny the bewildering manifestations of anti-Blackness [...] makes us irrational, and that irrationality is at the heart of white fragility” (98).
Chapter 7: “Racial Triggers for White Fragility”
Main Idea: What happens for White people when their racial comfort and sense of safety is threatened and describes the circumstances in which this happens.
The interruption of a White person’s racial comfort can come from a shift in their perception of their “habitus,” a sociology term meaning “a person’s familiar ways of perceiving, interpreting, and responding to the social cues around him or her” (102).
When a White person’s racial identity habitus is challenged, they often can only respond defensively. DiAngelo argues that when this kind of challenge causes a disequilibrium for the White person, “white fragility restores equilibrium” (106).
Chapter 8: “The Result: White Fragility”
Main Idea: White fragility is the result of a basic conflict that exists for most White people in the United States, especially those who identify as more progressive.
Even as young children, White people are socialized into White superiority. This, combined with most White people’s “moral objection to racism” (108), leads them to deny any complicity with White supremacy. In other words, White people internalize White supremacist values, yet also learn to refute any participation in White supremacy.
DiAngelo argues that White fragility “distorts reality” (110), causing White people to react with anything from defensiveness, to violent language, to refocusing attention on themselves. White people “retreat from the discomfort of authentic racial engagement [...] perpetuat[ing] a cycle that keeps racism in place” (111). Instead, White people should learn through this discomfort, rather than retreating or avoiding it.
Chapter 9: “White Fragility in Action”
Main Idea: White people feel challenged about Whiteness and racism, and respond with a range of emotions and behaviors: White people might feel “attacked, silenced, shamed... judged, angry, scared” (119) and might act out by “crying, physically leaving, emotionally withdrawing, [or] arguing” (119).
DiAngelo illustrates how White fragility looks with a series of anecdotes about her own experiences. She suggests that White fragility is less likely as long as discussions of race and racism remain intangible for a White person; yet naming “some racially problematic dynamic or action happening in the room in the moment” (117) makes White fragility erupt.
When a person responds with White fragility, they make predictable claims to justify their feelings and behaviors and to “exempt the person from further engagement or accountability” (119). For example, a White person might say something like, “I just said one little innocent thing” (119) or “I don’t feel safe” (120). These claims are based on assumptions like “My learning is finished” (121) and “If I am feeling challenged, you are doing this wrong” (121).
Chapter 10: “White Fragility and the Rules of Engagement”
Main Idea: Due to some of the previously outlined beliefs and assumptions held by White people, it is almost impossible to have conversations about race and racism with White people without White fragility entering the room.
Chapter 10 explores how to talk about Whiteness with White people in productive ways. Due to some of the previously outlined beliefs and assumptions held by White people, it is almost impossible to have conversations about race and racism with White people without White fragility entering the room.
White people have created unspoken rules for anyone engaging in a conversation about race or racism with White people. These rules “obscure racism, protect White dominance, and regain White equilibrium” (124).
DiAngelo’s guidelines for effective feedback are listening and processing criticism authentically and with humility, and stating gratitude towards the person providing the criticism.
The same conditions that create White fragility create White people’s predictable desire to “build trust” (126) before they talk about racism. Instead, White people should build “stamina to bear witness to the pain of racism [they] cause” (128).
An antidote to White fragility and avoidance of engagement is to work with honesty and humility to engage in truly examining their own beliefs and patterns of behavior.
Chapter 11: “White Women’s Tears”
Main Idea: White women cry in cross-racial settings, they often do so in order to (subconsciously or not) focus emotional support onto themselves. If “emotions are political” (132),
According to DiAngelo, one very common visible manifestation of White fragility is White women’s tears. She writes that when White women cry in cross-racial settings, they often do so in order to (subconsciously or not) focus emotional support onto themselves. If “emotions are political” (132),
White women’s tears are a critical example of one way that emotions can be dangerously politicized. In numerous historical examples, White women who acted distressed brought about the beating or murder of young African American men like Emmett Till.
Chapter 12: “Where Do We Go from Here?”
Main idea: If White people could reduce their defensiveness, they would disrupt racism and spur authentic growth and relationship.
DiAngelo provides an alternative paradigm for White people—responding to feedback about racism with feelings like “gratitude, excitement, discomfort... humility” (141) and behaviors such as “reflection, apology, [and] listening” (141).
When White people hear feedback about racism, they could: own their racism, admit fault, accept feedback, and commit to emotional and behavioral growth. In this paradigm, White people would appreciate feedback, genuinely express apology, and focus on acknowledging their underlying assumptions and developing a more complex understanding of the social nature of White supremacy and individual White people’s participation in it.
If White people could reduce their defensiveness, they would disrupt racism and spur authentic growth and relationship.
DiAngelo goes on to argue that White people can reduce feelings of guilt for perpetrating racism by reminding themselves that they were “socialized as White in a racism-based society” (149). No White person chooses this socialization, though it is each White person’s responsibility to learn about it and undo it.
White people could move into not a more positive, but a “less White” (150), White racial identity. DiAngelo encourages White people to continue learning and addressing their own socialization in order to combat racism in the United States.
Adaptive Racism: Her core arguments rest on defining racism as an adaptable, flexible structure. In fact, DiAngelo argues that the only reason “racism can still exist [is] because it is highly adaptive” (40), morphing over time as needed to maintain White supremacy.
Race Race is a socially constructed set of categories that mostly defy genetic or biological rules. Scholarship on race defines it as based on external characteristics that “are unreliable indicators of genetic variation between any two people” (15).
Racism: Racism is the legal and institutional backing of “a racial group’s collective prejudice” (20), becoming “a far-reaching system that functions independently from [...] individual actors” (20).
Whiteness: Whiteness, or being identified as a White person, is a racial category devoid of any real genetic or biological markers. Whiteness is instead constructed on “a foundational premise: the definition of white as the norm or standard for human, and people of color as a deviation from that norm” (25).
White Privilege: White privilege most frequently refers to advantages and benefits that come from Whiteness. DiAngelo describes White privilege as “a sociological concept referring to advantages that are taken for granted by whites and that cannot be similarly enjoyed by people of color in the same context” (24).
White Supremacy: DiAngelo defines White supremacy as the “all-encompassing centrality and assumed superiority of people defined and perceived as white and the practices based on this assumption” (28). White supremacy is the combination of racial categorization and racism.
White Fragility: DiAngelo coins the term White fragility to discuss “a response or ‘condition’ produced and reproduced by the continual social and material advantages of whiteness” (106). This response occurs when a White person experiences “an interruption to [racial comfort] which is familiar and taken for granted” (106). When a White person responds defensively to a perceived threat to their racial equilibrium they tend to respond with White fragility. The ensuing emotions and behaviors allow that White person to shut down or act out in order to end the perceived threat.