Review – White Fragility

Critical Race Theory for Dummies

White fragility

Overview

Synopsis In this “vital, necessary, and beautiful book” (Michael Eric Dyson), antiracist educator Robin DiAngelo deftly illuminates the phenomenon of white fragility and “allows us to understand racism as a practice not restricted to ‘bad people’” (Claudia Rankine). Referring to the defensive moves that white people make when challenged racially, white fragility is characterized by emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and by behaviors including argumentation and silence. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium and prevent any meaningful cross-racial dialogue. In this in-depth exploration, DiAngelo examines how white fragility develops, how it protects racial inequality, and what we can do to engage more constructively. ~ Beacon Press

Author Robin DiAngelo
Publisher Beacon Press
Genre Non-fiction

Length 192 pages

Release Date June 26, 2018

The murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor brought worldwide attention to the fact that Black lives should matter, but recent events had proven that they do not. Consequently, I personally suffered something akin to a crisis in faith. In my cathartic article, “Racial Battle Fatigue and the Church,” I intended to raise a crucial question. I wondered whether those who claim to be my brothers and sisters in Christ said so with the intention to placate, or if they were making a genuine commitment to becoming anti-racist, like my biological brothers and sisters and I have always been.

As a white person, I can openly and unabashedly reminisce about “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. Consider any period in the past from the perspective of people of color: 246 years of brutal enslavement; the rape of black women for the pleasure of white men and to produce more enslaved workers; the selling off of black children; the attempted genocide of Indigenous people, Indian removal acts, and reservations; indentured servitude, lynching, and mob violence; sharecropping; Chinese exclusion laws; Japanese American internment; Jim Crow laws of mandatory segregation; black codes; bands on black jury service; bans on voting; imprisoning people for unpaid work; medical sterilization and experimentation; employment discrimination; educational discrimination; inferior schools; biased laws and policing practices; redlining and subprime mortgages; mass incarceration; racist media representations; cultural erasures, attacks, and mockery; and untold and perverted historical accounts, and you can see how a romanticized past is strictly a white construct. But it is a powerful construct because it calls out to a deeply internalized sense that any advancement for people of color is an encroachment on this entitlement (59).

I was surprised by the reception of my article — more positive than negative — and since its debut here at Geeks Under Grace, I have noticed a precipitous trend in the publication of similarly-themed articles and books on the topic of the American Church’s covenant with white supremacy. Responses from church figures remained slow and tentative, when what I was looking for was an emphatic repudiation like Phil Vischer’s “Holy Post – Race in America,” which would require the kind of commitment to anti-racism that I had been looking for in faith communities since I became a Christian in 2005.

You know who my white friends are, because they go hard like this.

The secular realm responded in ways that I had hoped Christians would, by cleaning out bookstores and libraries of all their stock of texts concerning race. Texts like Michelle Alexander’s ten year-old magnum opus, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me catapulted to the top of best-selling lists, when nonfiction of that sort was prior (unfortunately) nowhere close to mainstream popularity. Yet among all the books written by black authors, another book concerning race written by a white author received the most attention. I had purchased Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism well before the 2020 protests. Recently, our books editor, Courtney Dowling boosted it on her list of timely texts to review. Well, there is no time like the present!

Content Guide

Robin DiAngelo, expecting her audience to get all up in their feelings,  advises that her white readers take deep breaths when they encounter something in the text that raises their blood pressure. In a book titled, White Fragility, DiAngelo provides this advice in earnest, even though it could be delivered scornfully. For individuals who identify as multiracial, she advises that they assume a position of saliency — absorb what is useful and relevant and leave behind the rest (xvi). I believe that this text would be superfluous to someone like Tracee Ellis Ross, while it would function as execration for someone like Sage Steele.

For example, perhaps you’ve heard someone say “I was taught to treat everyone the same” or “People just need to be taught to respect one another, and that begins in the home.” These statements tend to end the discussion and the learning that could come from sustained engagement. Further, they are unconvincing to most people of color and only invalidate their experiences (9).

DiAngelo does quote Lee Atwater‘s infamously vulgar yet illuminating words concerning the Southern Strategy and how to win over whites to the Republican party by appealing to racial prejudice. Explicitly, the Atwater commentary includes gratuitous and unrepentant usage of the N-word.

Review

The big idea in Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility is that white people, by virtue of living in the United States of America, intentionally or unconsciously participate in the perpetuation of white supremacy. Because white supremacy is a system, its influence is not dictated merely by individual action, but collective participation. White supremacy ceases to function when and only when its participants are aware of its functionality and actively work against its purpose of preserving the social order of inequality as normal, with whiteness as the status quo, and all other identities as other(ed). In other words, white supremacy becomes impotent when white people become actively anti-racist.

Many people of color have shared with me that they don’t bother giving feedback to a white person if they think the individual is unwilling to accept it… they either endure the microaggressions or drift away from the relationship. They do not feel close to white people to whom they can’t speak honestly about racism, and these relationships always have a degree of distance and inauthenticity (147).

Easy-peasy lemon squeezy, right? If that were the case, DiAngelo would not have needed to write a book, only a paragraph like the one above. At any rate, she addresses dozens of behaviors that passive and active participants in white supremacy bring to bear when faced with the accusation that they might be participating in white supremacy — a sort of feedback loop. I do not recall D’Angelo mentioning the concept of cognitive dissonance; at any rate, the circular logic that enables white supremacy to maintain its stranglehold on the social order is the backlash that she defines as white fragility.

While I commend white people who have taken up figurative arms in the efforts to create an anti-racist society, and therefore have decided to begin with White Fragility as their introduction to critical race theory  (really, whiteness studies), I would be remiss in my professional training as an expert in the field if I did not say that this text is remedial.

Everything DiAngelo has written can be found in the Black Canon. This took place before much of our readership was born.

A key reason why DiAngelo singles-out white people as her intended audience and proceeds to speak using the collective noun “we” is because she spins the first half of her book talking about things that black people in the United States already know. Black people recognize the kinds of behaviors that white people activate in their “white fragility” during our everyday experience! Because it is her intention to speak to white audiences, I do appreciate that she explicitly satisfies rhetorical questions such as, “why does everything have to be about race?” DiAngelo categorizes questions like that as a function of white fragility, and asserts that in the way the hegemony has structured America, everything is always already about race.

The dimensions of racism benefiting white people are usually invisible to whites. We are unaware of, or do not acknowledge, the meaning of race and its impact on our own lives. Thus we do not recognize or admit to white privilege and the norms that produce and maintain it. It follows that to name whiteness, much less suggest that it has meaning and grants unearned advantage, will be deeply disconcerting and destabilizing, thus triggering the protective responses of white fragility (28).

Of course, this means that she does not really say anything that is epistemologically cutting-edge. She publishes her book in 2018 and addresses the concept of white privilege by the second chapter. While there are some people who might have only encountered the idea of white privilege in the past few years, and have rejected it forthwith, Paula S. Rothenberg’s White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of Racism from 2008 sits on my bookshelf. This is why I say that White Fragility is remedial (and why the sudden interest in The New Jim Crow is somewhat disheartening because most states in America have since decriminalized marijuana, a major pipeline crime that put black people in prison, where they remain).

Whites enact racism while maintaining a positive self-image in many ways:

♦ 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 [I would add, assuming no BIPOC is qualified for the job — lies]
♦ 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).

Even so, one must meet a person where they are. Thus, White Fragility should be a revelation for people who, if they ever talk about race, do so with coded, non-threatening language like saying “urban” or “dangerous” as analogous to “where black people live.” According to DiAngelo, this is racist thinking, but it is acceptable to most whites because it is not a church bombing or a lynching. However, it is still embedded in our everyday functions and interactions.

We see anti-black sentiment in how quickly images of brutality toward black children (let alone black adults) are justified by the white assumption that it must have been deserved (93).

Our projections allow us to bury this trauma by dehumanizing and then blaming the victim. If blacks are not human in the same ways that we white people are human, our mistreatment of them doesn’t count. We are not guilty; they are. If they are bad, it isn’t unfair. In fact, it is righteous (94).

After debunking concepts like colorblindness (see also Eduardo Bonilla-Sliva’s Racism Without Racists), meritocracy, and individualism to bits, she establishes that while BIPOC people can also be prejudiced and discriminate, they do not maintain the same kind of power or effect as a white person doing the same. Therefore, “BIPOC can be racist too” is a false-equivalence. DiAngelo moves on to discuss how white solidarity rears its head to re-establish racial equilibrium, which is whiteness. Especially potent are her chapters, “White Fragility and the Rules of Engagement,” and “White Women’s Tears.” Amy Cooper’s encounter with Christian Cooper is still fresh in many of our minds at the time of this writing; the latter chapter is appropriate, even if unoriginal. I also appreciate how DiAngelo outlines all the ways that one is not supposed to talk to a white person about their racism:

Thus, white fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress in the habitus becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, reinstate white racial equilibrium (103).

Besides her flaw of being unoriginal, DiAngelo throws in Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of habitus for no reason besides her desire to sound scholarly, yet this is unnecessary. She flexes her expertise elsewhere by saying that human behavior is patterned and predictable. While in other contexts, one may take offense to a generalization of people, as a sociologist, it is literally her job to make generalizations. Unfortunately, she undermines her efforts by never providing a route to reconciliation. I did not detect how an anti-racist white person is “allowed” to interact with a black person on the subject of race.

The expectation that people of color should teach white people about racism is another aspect of white racial innocence that reinforces several problematic 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 included. By leaving it to people of color to tackle racial issues, we offload the tensions and social dangers of speaking openly onto them. We can ignore the risks ourselves and remain silent on questions of our own culpability (64). 

While I think Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility is useful for the kind of white people who do not have genuine friendships with BIPOC — because they would have disclosed this kind of information already — it is a good starter text for those who have never engaged with anti-racism before. I would urge those kinds of folks to keep reading, actively seeking out robust book lists. I especially recommend Carol Anderson’s White Rage (DiAngelo cites this text on page 96), which outlines what happens when “white fragility” fails in its function. Violence, such as police brutality, then activates beyond the ideological functions that DiAngelo discusses in White Fragility.

Positives

+ Says the secret parts out loud
+ Accessible to all levels of readers

Negatives

- Lacks real praxis
- The people who need to read it, won't

The Bottom Line

White Fragility is a useful introduction to how white people respond when confronted with accusations of racism, but Robin DiAngelo offers no new revelations to those already familiar with the discourse.

 

Story/Plot 7

Writing 7.5

Editing 7.3

7

Maurice Pogue

Since picking up an NES controller in 1985 at the age of 2, Maurice and video games have been inseparable. While most children aspired to be lawyers, doctors, or engineers (at the behest of their parents), he aspired to write for publications such as EGM, PC Gamer, PC Accelerator, and Edge. After achieving ABD status in English at MSU, Maurice left academia and dedicated his writing to his lifelong passion. He is currently the Video Game Editor at Geeks Under Grace.

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