White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism


White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism
Category: Americas
Genre: History
Publisher: Beacon Press
Published: 6/26/2018
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. Robin DiAngelo examines how white fragility develops, how it protects racial inequality, and what can be done to engage more constructively.

Book Summary - White Fragility - Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

Key Insights

This is a book for white people who feel uncomfortable talking about race. It is also for people of color who wonder why it is so hard for white people to talk about race. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism examines the complex, multifaceted phenomenon of ‘white fragility’ and, in doing so, deconstructs the underlying reasons why so many individuals are afraid to speak out in the name of racial equality.

Key Points

A Fundamental Contradiction

Race is not a genetic reality. While people of different races physically look different based on the color of their skin, this is actually a reflection of geography, not genetics.

As such, race is not biological--it is a social construct.

Race is a collection of ideas that teach us to see people who look a certain way as being part of a particular race. From there, we make assumptions about the societal role of these individuals, for better or for worse.

What function does race serve as a social construct?

Historically, race solves a fundamental contradiction in the United States. This country was built with the intention of creating an ideal reality. Instead, extreme inequalities developed, such as European Americans owning African Americans as slaves.

In order to justify this dichotomy, some look to the concept of race science, a pseudo-science ideology that claims African Americans are inherently lesser than European Americans. Therefore, African Americans do not require the same rights as their European counterparts.

While we now know that this flawed argument was really an excuse to enslave African Americans and used them for cheap labor, it was a commonly held belief in the early days of the United States.

Discrimination v. Racial Prejudice

When having a conversation about race, you may find that the person you are speaking with uses the words discrimination and racial prejudice interchangeably. While similar, the two terms have different meetings:

Racial Prejudice--When you are prejudiced, you are literally pre-judging someone. In the case of racial prejudice, you are pre-judging that person based on race.

Discrimination--Discrimination takes racial prejudice a step further. Now, not only are you being prejudiced against a person on account of their race, but you are also acting on these biases.

In combining these two terms, we arrive at racism. By definition, racism refers to one powerful racial group using their power and privilege against a less dominant group in a systematic way.

This is why it is factually inaccurate to say that black people are racist towards white people. The power imbalance between the two racial groups is a defining component of racism.

That said, it is still possible for a black person to discriminate against or be prejudiced towards white people, but this concept is not racism. White people create laws and act like the majority.

For instance, if a black realtor tells a white woman that she will not work with her based on her race, that is racial prejudice and discrimination. If, on the other hand, a white realtor tells a black person she will not work with her based on the color of her skin, it is racism. Not only is the white realtor acting with prejudice, but she is also contributing to a system that regularly forgoes rights for the black community.

Perhaps the white woman’s entire company supports her and decides to limit where black people can buy homes within the community. In doing this, the real estate company has created an institution for racism within the home-buying sector. A black person would never have the power to develop these kinds of laws in reverse.

The Role of History

In the 1950s and the 1960s, two misunderstandings took place that led to the denial of racism and the rise of white fragility.

First, look at the civil rights movement. During this period, black activists and white allies fought for the rights of black people in the North. However, the South held a starkly different view and strongly believed that white people were superior to black people and therefore deserving of all the power.

Many newspaper articles circulating at the time featured black activists and black protestors being attacked by white supremacists. The term ‘racism’ was often applied then, but only in the context of these extreme attacks and not seen as a general attitude.

Second, look at the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This act banned discrimination on the basis of race.

In combination, these events fed into a culture where racism was cartoonish in nature rather than a serious issue. White supremacists were seen as immoral villains.

The issue, though, is that many white people did not see themselves in this light. They were defensive of any accusation that they could possibly be racist. That was something that other people did, not them.

As we regularly see, this attitude is still common today.

Race-Neutral Language

Because it is no longer socially acceptable to make overtly biased race-based comments, many white people camouflage their prejudices in what is called ‘race-neutral’ language.

Think of geography.

Americans live in neighborhoods that are predominantly black or white or Latino and they are often referred to based on the majority race.

Research shows that if 7% of the residents in a neighborhood are black, white people are quick to leave, which is colloquially referred to as white flight.

When you ask the fleeing white people why they left, though, they will not come out and say that it is because there are too many black people. Instead, they will say things like, “the crime statistics are too high” or the “area is too poor”.

Both rationalizations are examples of race-neutral language. ‘Poor’ and ‘crime’ have become code words that are only used to describe largely black neighborhoods.

Think about the reverse.

A white person would never come out and say that they want to live among other white people Instead, they might say that they wanted to live in a ‘clean’ or ‘affluent’ area--words which often describe a white neighborhood.

Coded language makes it seem like white people are not being racist when they actually are. You can be racist without making a single direct reference to race.

Schools, jobs, movies, television shows, and other aspects of culture further amplify this insulation. White people are often surrounded by more white people and black people are often surrounded by more black people in every aspect of life. This perpetuates a lack of understanding in terms of what exists outside of your like-minded bubble, particularly in the case of the white community not understanding the reality of black America.

Individualism, Meritocracy, and Objectivity

Contemporary American society is built upon three fundamental ideologies: individualism, meritocracy, and objectivity. In order to see the impact of these predominant philosophies in terms of race, we must first examine their political definitions.

Individualism--Individualism is the idea that humans can determine their own path in life, regardless of how they were raised or where they grew up. People have the full autonomy to control and plan their futures.

The implication: Everyone has the ability to overcome any obstacles and it is based on how hard someone tries. If a black person is not reaching their goals, he or she must not be doing enough to get there. It is possible to achieve success, no matter the environment or circumstances surrounding your life.

Meritocracy--Meritocracy focuses on the concept of people getting what they deserve based on the efforts they put in.

The implication: It is okay for white people to make more money than black people because they must have worked harder to earn it. Black people just need to catch up.

Objectivity--Objectivity entails being free of bias in the way you understand the world.

The implication: Sure, there are people in the world with racial biases, but I am not one of them, so I do not need to work to improve the situation for the black community.

Combine these three ideologies together and you arrive at society with the collective belief that if black people want to have better lives, it is their responsibility to work harder and achieve success. The sentiment here is that black individuals are suffering because of their own poor choices.

As we have examined throughout the text, this is clearly not the case.

Main Takeaway

Racism is not just the white supremacist in the media who is seen assaulting a black man. Instead, the roots of race-based bias are far deeper and include actions and language that masquerade as being politically correct. As history has shown, racism is wrapped up in a set of long-held assumptions that can be difficult to challenge and detect. As members of society, we must all embrace the discomfort that often comes with conversations about race. It is only through honest dialogue that change will take place on a large and permanent scale.

About the Author

Dr. Robin DiAngelo--a long-time professor of social justice and best-selling anti-bias author--was born in San Francisco, California in 1956.

While Dr. DiAngelo’s first book--Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Critical Social Justice Education--was highly successful, her second book is what made her a household name.

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism was published in 2018--and has been encouraging long overdue conversations about the role of race in America and the superiority of white individuals--ever since.

After graduating from the University of Washington in 2004 with her doctorate in multicultural education, Dr. DiAngelo went on to teach at Westfield State University in Massachusetts where she received tenure in 2014. Since then, Dr. DiAngelo has transitioned back to her alma mater and assumed the role of Affiliate Associate Professor of Education.

She currently speaks to groups and holds workshops regarding the veiled racism that continues to threaten society today.

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