Through the Looking Glass of White Fragility

Anti-racist educator Robin diAngelo’s recent work White Fragility attempts to expose the racial ideology that prevents whites from engaging with or dismantling the structures of racism in American society. WhiteFragility Her fundamental thesis is that whites suffer from what she calls ‘white fragility’, a posture of defensiveness and extreme sensitivity that perpetuates white dominance.

In many ways, the book feels like it’s set in an alternate universe. On reflection, perhaps it is. DiAngelo is writing from the perspective of 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 seem intensely illuminating and insightful. For those who subscribe to a different worldview, White Fragility will be profoundly disorienting. Like the looking-glass room in Alice’s adventure, everything seems familiar at first. But the similarities are superficial. The basic assumptions of critical theory surface throughout the book, through its redefinition of familiar language, its assumption of subconscious but pathological motives, and its presumption of a fundamental asymmetry between oppressed and oppressor groups.

Defining terms

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

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 definition itself 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). Mere racial prejudice or racial discrimination is not racism. Instead, racism only occurs when “a racial group’s collective prejudice is backed by the power of legal authority and institutional control” (p. 20). “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” (p. 22).  As a result “we can remove the qualifier reverse from any discussion of racism. By definition, racism is a deeply embedded historical system of institutional power” (p. 24).

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 we’d be incorrect. DiAngelo writes: “Being perceived as white carries more than a mere racial classification; it is a social and institutional status and identity imbued with legal, political, economic, and social rights and privileges that are denied to others” (p. 24). “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, “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).

What are we to make of these alternate definitions? They’re quite common in some segments of academic scholarship. And aren’t we to some extent free to define terms as we please, provided that we’re clear and consistent? Yes, but only ‘to some extent.’ Words have connotations that are not easily lost.

DiAngelo seems continually surprised that her language provokes anger and confusion from whites. 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 an alternate explanation that whites are unable to ignore the extremely negative connotations of the word ‘racism’? If I redefine 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.

Identifying Fragility

“I only wish I had such eyes,” the King remarked in a fretful tone. “To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance, too”

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). This concept, taken by itself, seems valid. Surely, there are some white people to whom this description applies, those who are unreasonably sensitive and steadfastly resistant to discussing racial issues.

That said, the way in which diAngelo identifies the presence of ‘white fragility’ is questionable. On p. 119, she characterizes the symptoms of white fragility.  Emotionally, white fragility produces feelings of being “singled out,” “attacked,” “silenced,” “accused,” “insulted,” or “judged.” These feelings lead to behaviors such as “crying,” “physically leaving,” “emotional withdrawing,” “denying,” “seeking absolution,” and “avoiding.” To justify this behavior, the white person may make claims such as “I already know all this”, “You are generalizing” or “I disagree.”

Whites can also display white fragility by insisting on certain rules of engagement such as “feedback must be given calmly” or “you need to allow me to explain myself” (p. 123-124). Whites may also ask that facilitators of racial education workshops “build trust” by following rules like “Don’t judge,” “Don’t make assumptions,” “Assume good intentions,” and “[Be] respectful” (p. 126). Yet diAngelo insists that the true function of these rules is to “obscure racism, protect white dominance, and regain white equilibrium” (p. 124). If whites are tempted to insist 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 of the concept of the ‘double bind’ identified by feminist Marilyn Frye, which she applied to women but which seems applicable to whites here. 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 have two choices. They can either fully and freely admit to all of these charges. Or they can display their 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 something as deeply pernicious as “I disagree.”

In other words, a white person can either admit that he is racist and fragile up front or demonstrate that he is racist and fragile by denying that he is racist and fragile. 

The problems with diAngelo’s characterization of ‘white fragility’ can also be exposed by applying it to other groups. Imagine defining ‘female fragility’ as “the stress experienced by women when discussing sexism.” If a woman feels attacked or judged during a conversation about sexism and says things like “You are generalizing” or “I disagree,” is she exhibiting female fragility? It depends. Perhaps she is being fragile. But perhaps we really are attacking her and making all kinds of unfounded generalizations. To suggest that her concerns are merely a manifestation of ‘female fragility’ is to close the door to any genuine dialogue.

Impact versus Intent

She generally gave herself very good advice (though she very seldom followed it)

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 may seem harmless but they are are actually attempts to reestablish white dominance. They function to “Maintain white solidarity”, “silence the discussion”, and “Protect white privilege” (p. 122). Instead “when we are given feedback on our inevitable but unaware racist patterns” we should engage in behaviors such as “Apology”, “Listening”, “Seeking more understanding”, and “Believing” (p. 141).  Even crying can be a tool of oppression. An entire chapter is devoted to the problematic character of “white women’s tears” (p. 131). “For people of color,” writes diAngelo, “our tears demonstrate our racial insulation and privilege” (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 quite unusual. In several places, she admits that her anti-racist training workshops routinely cause feelings of anger, unhappiness, and trauma to white participants.

For example, diAngelo writes about giving feedback to a white participant in her seminar who made a racist remark: “she defensively interrupted me several times… Several white people also approached me to let me know how upset the teacher was and that she was quitting the group.” (p. 75) Elsewhere, 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). And: “One of the white participants left the anti-racism training I co-facilitated with an inter-racial team. [She was] upset at receiving (what appeared to the training team as) sensitive and diplomatic feedback on how some of her statements had impacted several of the people of color in the room… Her friends wanted to alert us to the fact that she was in poor health and ‘might be having a heard-attack.’ Upon questioning from us, they clarified that they meant this literally.” (p. 111)

Faced with these consistent expressions of unhappiness and ‘hurt’ from white participants, does diAngelo change her behavior? No. Does she refrain from attempting to justify her actions? Not at all. Each of these incidents is prefaced by her unapologetic 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

Every story has a moral you just need to be clever enough to find it.

In these three areas, diAngelo’s reasoning might seem difficult to follow. America is suffused with racism and white supremacy, but being “a good moral person” is compatible with being “complicit with racism” (p. 71). The extent of white racism and white fragility is demonstrated both when whites admit that they are racist and fragile and also when they refuse to admit that they are racist and fragile. The impact of a comment is more important than the intent of the person making it, but the intent of the anti-racist educator is more important than the impact of their comments.

Are these statements contradictions? No. Not if you understand critical theory.

Built into critical theory is a fundamental moral asymmetry rooted in power dynamics. Yes, all of these claims would be inconsistent if we thought there was one objective set of moral standards for all individuals regardless of their demographic group and if all groups were held to the same standards of civility, charity, and rational discourse. But critical theory denies that we can ever separate individual identities and 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. If your worldview insists that all human beings should be held to the same moral norms, then your worldview is wrong. Insisting that “My worldview is objective and the only one operating” is a hallmark of white fragility (p. 121) which must, like all components of white fragility, be abandoned in order to make real racial progress.

Well, with one exception.

Not everyone needs to deny that their worldview is correct. After all, critical theory functions as a worldview. To see the world in terms of oppressed groups and their oppressors is not to be blinded by power dynamics and socialization but to see reality as it actually, objectively is. To embrace critical theory is to wake up to reality after slumbering under the influence of white, male, Western hegemonic power.

Or so we’re told.

Color me skeptical.