If you want to understand progressive racial discourse, there are few books more relevant than White Fragility, antiracist educator Robin DiAngelo’s attempt to expose the psychological and ideological barriers preventing whites from dismantling racism. Her fundamental thesis is that whites suffer from what she calls ‘white fragility,’ a posture of defensiveness and hypersensitivity that perpetuates white dominance.
To many conservatives, the book will feel like it’s set in an alternate universe from the one they inhabit. In a sense, it is. DiAngelo’s racial framework is derived from critical theory, an ideology that divides the world into dominant, oppressor groups and subordinate, oppressed groups. Dominant groups subjugate subordinate groups through the exercise of hegemonic power – the imposition of their values, norms, and expectations on society. The insidious tendrils of hegemonic power work their way almost imperceptibly through all of culture, influencing how we think, feel, and act.
For those who subscribe to the ideology of critical theory, I expect that White Fragility will feel intensely illuminating and insightful. For those who subscribe to a different worldview, White Fragility will feel profoundly disorienting for multiple reasons.
What is ‘racism’? Grab the nearest dictionary or the nearest person, and you’ll probably hear a definition that sounds something like “hatred or discriminatory behavior based on race.” You might be surprised to learn that -according to DiAngelo- this truncated definition is one of “the pillars of whiteness – [one of the] unexamined beliefs that prop up our racial responses… we are taught [wrongly] to think about racism only as discrete acts committed by individual people, rather than as a complex, interconnected system” (p.3).
In the same way, when someone talks about ‘whiteness’ in a racial context, we might assume that they’re talking about skin color or European ancestry. But, like many antiracist educators, DiAngelo understands ‘whiteness’ far more broadly. She writes: “Whiteness rests upon a foundational premise: the definition of whites as the norm or standard for human, and people of color as deviation from that norm” (p.25).
Finally, DiAngelo laments the idea that “the popular consciousness solely associates white supremacy with … radical [hate] groups” that “openly proclaim white superiority” (p.28). The popular consciousness is, once again, wrong. Instead, white supremacy is “powerful ideology [which] promotes the idea of whiteness as the ideal for humanity” (p.29). It is “circulated globally” and is “especially relevant in countries that have a history of colonialism by Western nations” (p.29).
DiAngelo seems continually surprised that her language provokes anger and confusion from whites because she insists that being complicit in racism does not imply personal moral guilt (p.13). Describing one of her training sessions, she writes that “the room is filled with tension and charged with hostility…A white man is pounding his fist on the table… Why are all the other white people either sitting in silent agreement with him or tuning out? I have, after all, only articulated a definition of racism” (p.1).
As we’ll see in the next section, DiAngelo attributes this anger to ‘white fragility.’ But isn’t a plausible, alternative explanation that whites are unable to ignore the extremely negative connotations of words like ‘racism’ and ‘white supremacy’? If I define the word ‘bigot’ to mean ‘a female vegetarian,’ I shouldn’t be surprised if a roomful of female vegetarians objects to being called ‘bigots,’ no matter how many times I reassure them that the word carries no moral connotations.
DiAngelo defines ‘white fragility’ as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress … becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves” (p.103). White fragility produces feelings of being “singled out,” “attacked,” “silenced,” or “judged,” behaviors such as “physically leaving,” “emotional withdrawing,” “denying,” or “seeking absolution,” and claims such as “I already know all this”, “You are generalizing” or “I disagree” (p.117).
Whites can also display white fragility by insisting on certain rules of engagement such as “feedback must be given calmly,” “you need to allow me to explain myself,” “Assume good intentions,” and “[Be] respectful” (p.123-126). DiAngelo insists that the true function of these rules is to “obscure racism, protect white dominance, and regain white equilibrium” (p.124). If whites claim that they are color blind, they are assured that “no one can actually be color blind in a racist society… [Therefore] the claim that you are colorblind is not a truth; it is a false belief” (p.127).
I’m reminded here of the concept of the ‘double bind’. When whites are accused of being complicit in racism, being socialized into ‘white supremacy’, and of being conditioned to see whiteness as the human ideal, they can either fully and freely admit to all of these charges. Or they can display the symptoms of white fragility by physically leaving, by physically staying and emotionally withdrawing, by denying the claims made, by affirming the claims made and seeking absolution, or by saying “I disagree.”
The white person seems to have been placed into an impossible situation: he can either admit that he is racist and fragile. Or he can demonstrate that he is racist and fragile by denying that he is racist and fragile.
Impact versus Intent
One of book’s repeated admonitions is that whites need to stop assuming that racism is always intentional. Instead, whites should recognize that impact is far more important than intent. When a white person is confronted for making a racist remark, they must not attempt to defend themselves or explain what they really meant. These kinds of reactions function to “Maintain white solidarity”, “silence the discussion”, and “Protect white privilege” (p.122). Even crying can be a tool of oppression. An entire chapter is devoted to the problematic character of “white women’s tears” (p. 131). “[O]ur tears demonstrate our racial insulation and privilege,” observes DiAngelo (p.136).
Given this insistence that impact is more important than intent and that whites need to simply accept the feedback of those hurt by their actions and change their behavior, DiAngelo’s own behavior may seem inconsistent. For example, she writes: “When I consult with organizations that want me to help them recruit and retain a more diverse workforce, I am consistently warned that past efforts to address the lack of diversity have resulted in trauma for white employees. This is literally the term used to describe the impact of a brief and isolated workshop: trauma” (p.110).
Faced with these consistent expressions of unhappiness and ‘hurt’ from white participants, does DiAngelo change her behavior? No. Each of these incidents is accompanied by her explanation that these reactions are the inevitable consequence of interrupting racist behavior and dismantling white supremacy. Impact is greater than intent, unless your intent is to dismantle racism, in which case your objectively good intentions fully justify the negative emotional impact you have on others.
White Fragility and Critical Theory
In these three areas, DiAngelo’s reasoning might seem rife with contradiction and question-begging. But is it? Not if you understand critical theory.
Built into critical theory is a fundamental asymmetry rooted in power dynamics. Yes, all of these claims would be inconsistent if we thought there was one objective set of standards binding on all individuals regardless of their demographic group. But critical theory denies that we can ever separate dialogue from power dynamics. The subordinate group is indeed held to different standards than the dominant group and there is nothing wrong with this asymmetry.
The appeal of DiAngelo’s book is that it claims to offer a road map to racial progress. However, I’m skeptical that it can live up to its promises. How can critical theory promote reconciliation when it’s predicated on dividing us into adversarial tribes locked in a struggle for dominance?
No doubt, ‘white fragility’ is a real phenomenon. Some whites (and presumably some non-whites) are oversensitive and manipulative in discussions of race. All people, especially those of us who strongly disagree with DiAngelo’s assessment, should be open to correction, willing to expose their prejudices, and humble enough to admit their ignorance. But my worry is that accusations of “white fragility” -like accusations of “race baiting” or “virtue signaling”- will be used to suppress dissent and shut down dialogue, fueling polarization, resentment, and disengagement. The path to racial healing is found not by unifying subordinate groups against a common enemy, but by seeking common ground on the basis of our shared humanity.
Of course, these pleas for gentleness and charity could just be another ploy to silence antiracists and their allies. Like any worldview, critical theory will color how we perceive and interpret all of reality. Is DiAngelo right in claiming that young people today are just as racist as their predecessors (p.50)? Is she correct in saying that she still harbors “deep racial bias, [and] racist patterns” (p.149)? Are requests for civility really thinly-veiled bids for power? The answers to these questions largely depend on which universe you think we’re living in.
See all content on critical theory here.
- Intro to Critical Theory
- Reconstructing the Gospel or Obscuring It? A Review of Jonathan Hartgrove-Wilson’s “Reconstructing the Gospel”
- A Short Review of Tatum’s Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?
- A Long Review of Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning – Part 1