By Robin J. DiAngelo, Beacon Press, June 26, 2018, 0141990562
I am sorry. I will do better. Robin DiAngelo, thank you very much.
White Fragility is written with authority. Clear, concise, and unrelenting. This book will change your view of racism.
Hopefully, it will help transform you into being less racist.
[k184] [Michael Eric Dyson’s Foreword] White Fragility is a vital, necessary, and beautiful book, a bracing call to white folk everywhere to see their whiteness for what it is and to seize the opportunity to make things better now. Robin DiAngelo kicks all the crutches to the side and demands that white folk finally mature and face the world they’ve made while seeking to help remake it for those who have neither their privilege nor their protection.
[k189] IDENTITY POLITICS
The United States was founded on the principle that all people are created equal. Yet the nation began with the attempted genocide of Indigenous people and the theft of their land.
[k209] Naming who has access and who doesn’t guides our efforts in challenging injustice.
This book is unapologetically rooted in identity politics.
[k235] When multiracial people’s racial identity is ambiguous, they will face constant pressure to explain themselves and “choose a side.”
[k258] A white man is pounding his fist on the table. As he pounds, he yells, “A white person can’t get a job anymore!” I look around the room and see forty employees, thirty-eight of whom are white. Why is this white man so angry?
[k262] White people in North America live in a society that is deeply separate and unequal by race, and white people are the beneficiaries of that separation and inequality.
[k265] Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race.
[k268] The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable–the mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers a range of defensive responses.
[k270] These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy. I conceptualize this process as white fragility.
[k276] In the early days of my work as what was then termed a diversity trainer, I was taken aback by how angry and defensive so many white people became at the suggestion that they were connected to racism in any way.
[k282] I assumed that in these circumstances, an educational workshop on racism would be appreciated. After all, didn’t the lack of diversity indicate a problem or at least suggest that some perspectives were missing?
[k285] At first I was intimidated by them, and they held me back and kept me careful and quiet.
[k289] Most appeared to believe that racism ended in 1865 with the end of slavery.
[k290] Many participants claimed white people were now the oppressed group, and they deeply resented anything perceived to be a form of affirmative action.
[k303] I came to see that the way we are taught to define racism makes it virtually impossible for white people to understand it.
[k312] Yet all their responses illustrate white fragility and how it holds racism in place. These responses spur the daily frustrations and indignities people of color endure from white people who see themselves as open-minded and thus not racist.
[k315] I believe that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color.
[k317] White progressives can be the most difficult for people of color because, to the degree that we think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived.
[k342] We must be willing to consider that unless we have devoted intentional and ongoing study, our opinions are necessarily uninformed, even ignorant.
[k349] If I am in a program considered progressive, I might have a single required “diversity” course. A handful of faculty will have fought for years to get me this course, likely having had to overcome resistance from the majority of their white colleagues, and will still be fighting to keep the course.
[k358] Interrupting the forces of racism is ongoing, lifelong work because the forces conditioning us into racist frameworks are always at play; our learning will never be finished.
[k371] Briefly, individualism holds that we are each unique and stand apart from others, even those within our social groups. Objectivity tells us that it is possible to be free of all bias. These ideologies make it very difficult for white people to explore the collective aspects of the white experience.
[k375] Individualism claims that there are no intrinsic barriers to individual success and that failure is not a consequence of social structures but comes from individual character.
[k379] Yet even though Gates’s son has clearly been handed unearned advantage, we cling tightly to the ideology of individualism when asked to consider our own unearned advantages.
Regardless of our protestations that social groups don’t matter and that we see everyone as equal, we know that to be a man as defined by the dominant culture is a different experience from being a woman.
[k387] We are socialized into these groups collectively. In mainstream culture, we all receive the same messages about what these groups mean, why being in one group is a different experience from being in another. And we also know that it is “better” to be in one of these groups than to be in its opposite–for example, to be young rather than old, able-bodied rather than have a disability, rich rather than poor.
[k394] We come to understand who we are by understanding who we are not.
[k397] In addition to challenging our sense of ourselves as individuals, tackling group identity also challenges our belief in objectivity.
[k414] A more fruitful form of engagement (because it expands rather than protects his current worldview) would have been to consider how Italian Americans were able to become white and how that assimilation has shaped his experiences in the present as a white man.
[k421] We cannot understand modern forms of racism if we cannot or will not explore patterns of group behavior and their effects on individuals.
[k425] Rather than use what you see as unique about yourself as an exemption from further examination, a more fruitful approach would be to ask yourself, “I am white and I have had X experience. How did X shape me as a result of also being white?” Setting aside your sense of uniqueness is a critical skill that will allow you to see the big picture of the society in which we live; individualism will not.
[k441] The racial status quo is comfortable for white people, and we will not move forward in race relations if we remain comfortable
[k447] To interrupt white fragility, we need to build our capacity to sustain the discomfort of not knowing, the discomfort of being racially unmoored, the discomfort of racial humility.
[k459] Under the skin, there is no true biological race.
[k461] To challenge the belief in race as biology, we need to understand the social and economic investments that drove science to organize society and its resources along racial lines and why this organization is so enduring.
[k470] Jefferson suggested that there were natural differences between the races and asked scientists to find them.
[k472] There were, of course, enormous economic interests in justifying enslavement and colonization. Race science was driven by these social and economic interests, which came to establish cultural norms and legal rulings that legitimized racism and the privileged status of those defined as white.
[k477] In less than a century, Jefferson’s suggestion of racial difference became commonly accepted scientific “fact.”
[k481] Exploitation came first, and then the ideology of unequal races to justify this exploitation followed.
[k488] The term “white” first appeared in colonial law in the late 1600s. By 1790, people were asked to claim their race on the census, and by 1825, the perceived degrees of blood determined who would be classified as Indian.
[k495] For example, Armenians won their case to be reclassified as white with the help of a scientific witness who claimed they were scientifically “Caucasian.” In 1922, the Supreme Court ruled that the Japanese could not be legally white, because they were scientifically classified as “Mongoloid.”
[k502] In reality, only European immigrants were allowed to melt, or assimilate, into dominant culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, because, regardless of their ethnic identities, these immigrants were perceived to be white and thus could belong.
[k520] However, poor and working-class whites were eventually granted full entry into whiteness as a way to exploit labor. If poor whites were focused on feeling superior to those below them in status, they were less focused on those above.
[k531] People who claim not to be prejudiced are demonstrating a profound lack of self-awareness. Ironically, they are also demonstrating the power of socialization–we have all been taught in schools, through movies, and from family members, teachers, and clergy that it is important not to be prejudiced.
[k548] American women’s struggle for suffrage illustrates how institutional power transforms prejudice and discrimination into structures of oppression.
[k550] While women could be prejudiced and discriminate against men in individual interactions, women as a group could not deny men their civil rights.
[k553] Similarly, racism–like sexism and other forms of oppression–occurs when a racial group’s prejudice is backed by legal authority and institutional control.
[k555] Racism is a system.
[k572] The direction of power between white people and people of color is historic, traditional, and normalized in ideology.
[k584] Yet racial disparity between whites and people of color continues to exist in every institution across society, and in many cases is increasing rather than decreasing.
[k608] As with prejudice and discrimination, we can remove the qualifier __ reverse__ from any discussion of racism. By definition, racism is a deeply embedded historical system of institutional power. It is not fluid and does not change direction simply because a few individuals of color manage to excel.
[k624] Instead of the typical focus on how racism hurts people of color, to examine whiteness is to focus on how racism elevates white people.
[k639] While Robinson was certainly an amazing baseball player, this story line depicts him as racially special, a black man who broke the color line himself.
[k641] Imagine if instead, the story went something like this: “Jackie Robinson, the first black man whites allowed to play major-league baseball.” This version makes a critical distinction because no matter how fantastic a player Robinson was, he simply could not play in the major leagues if whites–who controlled the institution–did not allow it.
[k644] Narratives of racial exceptionality obscure the reality of ongoing institutional white control while reinforcing the ideologies of individualism and meritocracy. They also do whites a disservice by obscuring the white allies who, behind the scenes, worked hard and long to open the field to African American players.
[k686] In his book The Racial Contract, Charles W. Mills argues that the racial contract is a tacit and sometimes explicit agreement among members of the peoples of Europe to assert, promote, and maintain the ideal of white supremacy in relation to all other people of the world. This agreement is an intentional and integral characteristic of the social contract, underwriting all other social contracts. White supremacy has shaped a system of global European domination: it brings into existence whites and nonwhites, full persons and subpersons.
[k699] The failure to acknowledge white supremacy protects it from examination and holds it in place.
[k765] Naming white supremacy changes the conversation in two key ways: It makes the system visible and shifts the locus of change onto white people, where it belongs.
[k800] Conversely, most people of color have rarely if ever had a teacher who reflected their own race(s). Why is it important to reflect on our teachers in our effort to uncover our racial socialization and the messages we receive from schools?
[k896] Meanwhile, under the surface is the massive depth of racist socialization: messages, beliefs, images, associations, internalized superiority and entitlement, perceptions, and emotions.
[k894] We might think of conscious racial awareness as the tip of an iceberg, the superficial aspects of our racial socialization: our intentions (always good!) and what we are supposed to acknowledge seeing (nothing!). Meanwhile, under the surface is the massive depth of racist socialization: messages, beliefs, images, associations, internalized superiority and entitlement, perceptions, and emotions. Color-blind ideology makes it difficult for us to address these unconscious beliefs. While the idea of color blindness may have started out as a well-intentioned strategy for interrupting racism, in practice it has served to deny the reality of racism and thus hold it in place.
[k901] Yes, it’s uncomfortable to be confronted with an aspect of ourselves that we don’t like, but we can’t change what we refuse to see.
[k911] Aversive racism is a manifestation of racism that well-intentioned people who see themselves as educated and progressive are more likely to exhibit.
[k942] When I ask if the neighborhood is black, she is comfortable confirming that it is. But when I tell her that I am interested in how whites talk about race without talking about race, she switches the narrative. Now her concern is about not wanting me to live so far away. This is a classic example of aversive racism: holding deep racial disdain that surfaces in daily discourse but not being able to admit it because the disdain conflicts with our self-image and professed beliefs.
[k1034] Every aspect of being white discussed in this chapter is shared by virtually all white people in the Western context generally and the US context specifically. At the same time, no person of color in this context can make these same claims.
[k1041] If they took a parenting class, the theories and models of child development were based on white racial identity.
[k1042] Although my parents may have been anxious about the birth process, they did not have to worry about how they would be treated by the hospital staff because of their race.
[k1057] I belong when I speak to my children’s teachers, when I talk to their camp counselors, when I consult with their doctors and dentists.
[k1059] In virtually every situation or context deemed normal, neutral or prestigious in society, I belong racially.
[k1078] Patrick Rosal writes poignantly about the pain of being mistaken for the help at a black-tie event celebrating National Book Award winners.
[k1083] And although I may encounter a token person of color during the hiring process, if I am not specifically applying to an organization founded by people of color, the majority of those I interact with will share my race. Once hired, I won’t have to deal with my coworkers’ resentment that I only got the job because I am white; I am assumed to be the most qualified.
[k1097] Having to navigate white people’s internalized assumption of racial superiority is a great psychic drain for people of color, but I have no need to concern myself with that.
FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT
I am free to move in virtually any space seen as normal, neutral, or valuable.
[k1112] Another way that my life has been shaped by being white is that my race is held up as the norm for humanity. Whites are “just people”–our race is rarely if ever named.
[k1120] Toni Morrison is always seen as a black writer, not just a writer. But when we are not looking for the black or Asian perspective, we return to white writers, reinforcing the idea of whites as just human, and people of color as particular kinds (racialized) of humans.
[k1123] Virtually any representation of human is based on white people’s norms and images–“flesh-colored” makeup, standard emoji, depictions of Adam and Eve, Jesus and Mary, educational models of the human body with white skin and blue eyes.
[k1141] Many of us can relate to the big family dinner at which Uncle Bob says something racially offensive. Everyone cringes but no one challenges him because nobody wants to ruin the dinner.
[k1146] The very real consequences of breaking white solidarity play a fundamental role in maintaining white supremacy.
[k1150] Notice that within a white supremacist society, I am rewarded for not interrupting racism and punished in a range of ways–big and small–when I do.
[k1152] But my silence is not benign because it protects and maintains the racial hierarchy and my place within it.
[k1157] As a white person, I can openly and unabashedly reminisce about “the good old days.”
[k1159] Claiming that the past was socially better than the present is also a hallmark of white supremacy.
[k1168] In understanding the power of white fragility, we have to notice that the mere questioning of those positions triggered the white fragility that Trump capitalized on. There has been no actual loss of power for the white elite, who have always controlled our institutions and continue to do so by a very wide margin.
[k1173] And although globalization and the erosion of workers’ rights has had a profound impact on the white working class, white fragility enabled the white elite to direct the white working class’s resentment toward people of color. The resentment is clearly misdirected, given that the people who control the economy and who have managed to concentrate more wealth into fewer (white) hands than ever before in human history are the white elite.
[k1190] The call to Make America Great Again worked powerfully in service of the racial manipulation of white people, diverting blame away from the white elite and toward various peoples of color–for example, undocumented workers, immigrants, and the Chinese–for the current conditions of the white working class.
[k1197] Busing children from one neighborhood into a school in another to account for residential segregation became a major strategy of desegregation (notably, white children were generally not bused into predominately black schools; instead, black children endured long bus rides to attend predominately white schools).
[k1201] It has not been African Americans who resist integration efforts; it has always been whites.
[k1205] The ability to erase this racial history and actually believe that the past was better than the present “for everybody” has inculcated a false consciousness for me personally and as a national citizen.
[k1208] On countless occasions, I have heard white people claim that because they grew up in segregation, they were sheltered from race.
[k1211] But why aren’t people of color who grew up in segregation also innocent of race?
[k1212] Because people of color are not seen as racially innocent, they are expected to speak to issues of race (but must do so on white terms).
[k1215] They–not we–have race, and thus they are the holders of racial knowledge.
[k1219] In their minds, the more people of color in an area (specifically, blacks and Latinos), the more dangerous the area was perceived to be. Research matching census data and police department crime statistics show that this association does not hold, but these statistics do not quell white fears.
[k1301] Although many parents of color want the advantages granted by attending predominantly white schools, they also worry about the stress and even the danger they are putting their children in.
[k1306] Not one person who loved me, guided me, or taught me ever conveyed that segregation deprived me of anything of value. I could live my entire life without a friend or loved one of color and not see that as a diminishment of my life.
[k1344] You could not be a good person and participate in racism; only bad people were racist.
[k1349] In other words, racists were mean, ignorant, old, uneducated, Southern whites. Nice people, well-intended people, open-minded middle-class people, people raised in the “enlightened North,” could not be racist.
[k1356] Within this paradigm, to suggest that I am racist is to deliver a deep moral blow–a kind of character assassination. Having received this blow, I must defend my character, and that is where all my energy will go–to deflecting the charge, rather than reflecting on my behavior.
[k1364] The good/bad frame is a false dichotomy.
[k1371] The focus on individual incidences masks the personal, interpersonal, cultural, historical, and structural analysis that is necessary to challenge this larger system.
[k1377] This worldview guarantees that I will not build my skills in thinking critically about racism or use my position to challenge racial inequality.
[k1477] Those who claim to have been taught to treat everyone the same are simply telling me that they don’t understand socialization. It is not possible to teach someone to treat everyone the same.
[k1487] I identify as a woman and am married to someone who identifies as a man, yet I would never say, “Because I am married to a man, I have a gender-free life.” We understand that gender is a very deep social construct, that we have different experiences depending on our gender roles, assignments, and expressions, and that we will wrestle with these differences throughout the life of our relationship.
[k1512] We can try to examine our judgments, hold them more lightly, and so forth, but to be free of judgment? Not possible.
[k1555] But we can’t teach humans to have no prejudice at all.
[k1556] Most of us only teach our children not to admit to prejudice.
[k1604] Racism is so deeply woven into the fabric of our society that I do not see myself escaping from that continuum in my lifetime.
[k1621] Talking about race and racism in general terms such as white people is constructive for whites because it interrupts individualism. But racial generalization also reinforces something problematic for people of color–the continual focus on their group identity.
[k1631] However, I believe that in the white mind, black people are the ultimate racial “other,” and we must grapple with this relationship, for it is a foundational aspect of the racial socialization underlying white fragility.
[k1640] But anti-blackness goes deeper than the negative stereotypes all of us have absorbed; anti-blackness is foundational to our very identities as white people. Whiteness has always been predicated on blackness. As discussed in chapter 2, there was no concept of race or a white race before the need to justify the enslavement of Africans.
[k1647] Today, we depict blacks as dangerous, a portrayal that perverts the true direction of violence between whites and blacks since the founding of this country.
[k1658] Affirmative action is a tool to ensure that qualified minority applicants are given the same employment opportunities as white people. It is a flexible program–there are no quotas or requirements as commonly understood. Moreover, white women have been the greatest beneficiaries of affirmative action, although the program did not initially include them. Corporations are more likely to favor white women and immigrants of color of elite backgrounds from outside the United States when choosing their executives.
[k1666] In 2018, affirmative action has all but been dismantled. Yet invariably, I will encounter a white male–bristling with umbrage–who raises the issue of affirmative action.
[k1694] But perhaps most fundamentally, anti-blackness comes from deep guilt about what we have done and continue to do; the unbearable knowledge of our complicity with the profound torture of black people from past to present.
[k1853] Racial stress results from an interruption to the racially familiar.
[k1884] Despite Mr. Roberts’s lack of cross-racial skills and understanding–a lack that led to a racial violation with potential legal repercussions–he arrogantly remained confident that he was right and that the student was wrong. His colleague, aware that Mr. Roberts was in serious trouble about a cross-racial incident, still maintained white solidarity with him by validating their shared perspective and invalidating that of the student of color.
[k1931] Thus, pointing out white advantage will often trigger patterns of confusion, defensiveness, and righteous indignation. These responses enable defenders to protect their moral character against a perceived attack while rejecting any culpability FIXME
[k1943] 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.
[k1982] Let me be clear: while the capacity for white people to sustain challenges to our racial positions is limited–and, in this way, fragile–the effects of our responses are not fragile at all; they are quite powerful because they take advantage of historical and institutional power and control.
[k1989] White fragility keeps people of color in line and “in their place.”
[k1994] White fragility is much more than mere defensiveness or whining. It may be conceptualized as the sociology of dominance: an outcome of white people’s socialization into white supremacy and a means to protect, maintain, and reproduce white supremacy. The term is not applicable to other groups who may register complaints or otherwise be deemed difficult (e.g., “student fragility”).
[k2169] White fragility punishes the person giving feedback and presses them back into silence.
[k2179] I did not set this system up, but it does unfairly benefit me, I do use it to my advantage, and I am responsible for interrupting it.
[k2224] To let go of the messenger and focus on the message is an advanced skill and is especially difficult to practice if someone comes at us with a self-righteous tone.
[k2251] Just before the gathering, a woman of color pulled me aside and told me that she wanted to attend but she was “in no mood for white women’s tears today.”
[k2274] The murder of Emmett Till is just one example of the history that informs an oft-repeated warning from my African American colleagues: “When a white woman cries, a black man gets hurt.”
[k2276] Because of its seeming innocence, well-meaning white women crying in cross-racial interactions is one of the more pernicious enactments of white fragility.
[k2283] The training came to a complete halt as most of the room rushed to comfort her and angrily accuse the black facilitator of unfairness. (Even though the participants were there to learn how racism works, how dare the facilitator point out an example of how racism works!) Meanwhile, the black man she had spoken for was left alone to watch her receive comfort.
[k2293] While she is given attention, the people of color are yet again abandoned and/or blamed.
[k2297] Price says, “Imagine first responders at the scene of an accident rushing to comfort the person whose car struck a pedestrian, while the pedestrian lies bleeding on the street.”
[k2299] White men, of course, are also racially fragile, but I have not seen their fragility manifest itself in cross-racial discussions as actual crying.
[k2309] Intellectualizing and distancing (“I recommend this book …”)
[k2318] When we are mired in guilt, we are narcissistic and ineffective; guilt functions as an excuse for inaction.
[k2323] For people of color, our tears demonstrate our racial insulation and privilege.
I asked the woman of color I refer to in the opening of this chapter if I was missing anything in this list. This is her response:
[k2326] You are crying because you are uncomfortable with your feelings when we are barely allowed to have any.
[k2327] We are supposed to remain stoic and strong because otherwise we become the angry and scary people of color.
[k2329] We are abused daily, beaten, raped, and killed but you are sad and that’s what is important. That’s why it is sooooo hard to take.
[k2335] I have seen our tears manipulate men of all races, but the consequences of this manipulation are not the same.
[k2338] In the white racial frame, not all women are deemed worthy of recognition.
[k2342] When white men come to the rescue of white women in cross-racial settings, patriarchy is reinforced as they play savior to our damsel in distress.
[k2347] For black men in particular, the specter of Till and countless others who have been beaten and killed over a white woman’s claims of cross-racial distress is ever present. Ameliorating a white woman’s distress as quickly as possible may be felt as a literal matter of survival.
[k2376] “Yes,” she replies. “That survey? I wrote that survey. And I have spent my life justifying my intelligence to white people.”
My chest constricts as I immediately realize the impact of my glib dismissal of the survey. I acknowledge this impact and apologize.
[k2414] Being good or bad is not relevant.
[k2438] When white people ask me what to do about racism and white fragility, the first thing I ask is, “What has enabled you to be a full, educated, professional adult and not know what to do about racism?” It is a sincere question.
[k2447] The final advice I offer is this: “Take the initiative and find out on your own.”
[k2450] Break with the apathy of whiteness, and demonstrate that you care enough to put in the effort.
[k2456] So consider racism a matter of life and death (as it is for people of color), and do your homework.
[k2473] Many people of color have assured me that they will not give up on me despite my racist patterns; they expect that I will have racist behavior given the society that socialized me. What they are looking for is not perfection but the ability to talk about what happened, the ability to repair.
[k2490] Perhaps the most powerful lesson I have learned in terms of interrupting my own white fragility is that this feedback is a positive sign in the relationship.
[k2493] 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.
[k2511] We can follow the leadership on antiracism from people of color and work to build authentic cross-racial relationships.
[k2517] Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.
[k2526] When I start from the premise that of course I have been thoroughly socialized into the racist culture in which I was born, I no longer need to expend energy denying that fact.
[k2528] Denial and the defensiveness that is needed to maintain it is exhausting.
[k2569] The consequences of white fragility include hours of agonizing as well as far more extreme consequences such as being seen as a threat and a troublemaker. These biased assessments often lead to job loss, stress-related illness, criminal charges, and institutionalization.
[k2577] Since my learning will never be finished, neither will the need to hold me accountable.
[k2592] To continue reproducing racial inequality, the system only needs white people to be really nice and carry on, smile at people of color, be friendly across race, and go to lunch together on occasion.
[k2594] But niceness is not courageous.
[k2596] Interrupting racism takes courage and intentionality; the interruption is by definition not passive or complacent.
[k2599] I have been engaged in this work in a range of forms for many years, and I continue to receive feedback on my stubborn patterns and unexamined assumptions. It is a messy, lifelong process, but one that is necessary to align my professed values with my real actions. It is also deeply compelling and transformative.