“White Fragility”: Robin DiAngelo answers our questions

Adrian Liang on June 09, 2020

White Fragility

An antiracism educator and consultant, Robin DiAngelo saw during her work a pattern of resistance among white people during dialogues about race. Her investigation into that behavior led to White Fragility.

When it first published in 2018, White Fragility made waves among readers and won a spot on the New York Times best-seller list for 85 weeks. Now, as the world reacts to the killing of George Floyd, readers have again sought DiAngelo’s insights into why white people continue to ignore racism. DiAngelo answered our questions by video call about White Fragility, the incorrect definition of racism that derails so many conversations, and how “our learning will never be finished.”

Adrian Liang, Amazon Book Review: Can you tell me about yourself, your professional background, and what led to your writing White Fragility?

Robin DiAngelo: I’m a white woman. I’m an academic and an educator, and in the early ’90s, I began a career as a diversity trainer—that’s the term we used at that time. It was such an enlightening and challenging experience that I went on to get a PhD, and now I exclusively write and speak and teach on issues of race and racial justice, with a particular focus on white racial identity.

So this comes from over 20 years, day in and day out, of trying to educate primarily white audiences about racism, about what it means to be white. And there are some very predictable narratives—almost scripted responses—when you try to do that.

At first it was hard to speak back to those narratives, but over time I got clear about what was underneath them and how to speak back to them. And that led to the book White Fragility. That book is the culmination of 20-plus years of trying to educate white people on racism.

What is white fragility?

When I coined the term white fragility, the fragility part was meant to capture how little it takes to cause white people to melt down in umbrage and defensiveness. And for many white people, just proceeding as if being white has meaning will cause that meltdown. White fragility causes people of color and white people who are trying to push this agenda forward to have to walk around on eggshells, lest they trigger these delicate sensibilities and risk lash-back. Fragility is about how little it takes.

But the impact of that lash-back is not fragile at all. It’s a highly effective way to punish people who try to challenge racism. To silence the conversation, to silence the challenge, and to protect and maintain the racist status quo. Not consciously, most likely; but that is the impact of lashing out in those ways. Because behind that lashing out is the weight of history and power and control. It’s very powerful because it bullies us into not challenging.

I’ll be honest: I found the very title of White Fragility to be a title that made me, a white person, feel defensive. But now that I’ve read the book, I realize that defensiveness is one of the symptoms of white fragility. Can you tell me more about defensiveness as well as the other symptoms of white fragility?

When we’re challenged on our racial worldviews, our racial biases and assumptions, some defensiveness is natural. What turns it into white fragility is when we don’t move through those defenses, and so they end up functioning to block off any challenge to those assumptions. [Those defenses] actually lock us in deeper into a very uninformed worldview, and a very, very uninformed racial perspective.

When I say “uninformed,” that may be surprising to some readers, because I’ve never met a white person who doesn’t have an opinion on racism. I don’t think you can grow up in this country and not have an opinion on racism, but that doesn’t make it informed. One of the arguments I make in the book is that without very focused and committed ongoing education and struggle on this topic, you can’t have an informed opinion. Because nothing in the mainstream culture would give that to you. For example, you can be certified as highly educated with an advanced degree and never have discussed systemic racism. It would be an anomaly for you to have discussed systemic racism during your education, and certainly not in any sustained or consistent way.

So we have opinions, but they’re just not informed. And that’s one of the first challenges: the lack of humility we have about the necessary limits of our understanding. When that defensiveness functions to make sure that we protect the limits of our understanding, that’s what makes it white fragility.

There are several key reasons why that defensiveness is so predictable. The first one is what I call the good/bad binary.

Most of us have been taught that to be racist requires a simple formula: A racist is an individual who consciously doesn’t like people based on race and is intentionally mean to them. Anything less than wearing a white hood would not qualify. That definition, I think, is the root of most white defensiveness because it exempts us from the society we live in—a society in which racism is actually the foundation.

I’m very clear at this point in my life that most of the racial harm I have perpetrated as a white person was neither intentional nor conscious, but it wounded other people nonetheless. So as long as we think [racism] has to be intentionally mean, we’re going to hear feedback on our bias as being told that we’re immoral. We just can’t get where we need to go from that really simplistic idea. Virtually every action that we could identify as racist was done by people who would claim they’re not racist. So we’re at a point where that claim—“I’m not racist”—is functionally meaningless. So that’s one reason.

Another reason is that we’re taught to see ourselves as special, unique individuals, and we don’t think anyone can know anything about us if they don’t personally know us. White people take great umbrage when they are generalized about. And what we don’t understand is that, yes, we are individuals, of course, but we’re also members of a social group and our membership in that social group has profound consequences. We have to be willing to grapple with the collective shared messages and socialization we’re all getting because we are all members of a shared culture.

At the same time that white people are taught to see themselves as unique and special and different, we’re also set up to [believe we should] be able to speak for everyone because we are objective and don’t speak from any particular position. Black people are always seen as black people. We make a point of marking their race, and that reinforces the idea that they speak from a particular and limited, biased position. But we [white people] can speak for everyone.

I am rarely ever tagged by my race. Now, I’m a woman, so I’m tagged by my gender. If we’re going to talk about film directors, we will say, “film directors” and “women film directors,” or “film directors” and “black film directors.” So by not having your race marked, you are granted universality, objectivity, and individuality. And because not everyone is granted those things, they actually become privileges. And yet we come to feel entitled to them and so take umbrage whenever they are challenged.

Two last pieces come together to cause this phenomenon of white fragility. One of those is internalized superiority. This is probably the hardest one of all to look at as a white person. But no white person misses the message that it’s better to be white. No child misses the message. The research is clear [that] from a very early age, we know that it’s better to be white.

And we absorb that message. Denying that we have absorbed that message can only protect it.

I didn’t want that message. I didn’t choose that message. But I got it and I’m still getting it. I’m getting it 24/7 as we look at who controls our institutions, who are our heroes and heroines, who are our teachers and professors. It’s embedded in language.

I could go on and on and on about how deep that message is. And if it’s left unexamined and unchallenged, it is going to come out in ways that we may not be aware of but that are harmful to others nonetheless.

I’ll give you an example recently. I was just listening to two black journalists who were told they can’t cover the [George Floyd] protests because they’re biased. And this is a great example of the perversion of whiteness. Because not only is everybody biased, but I would say that white people are more biased and less objective on racism than black people, because we’re invested in racism. The system serves us. It’s comfortable for us. We don’t want to see this, especially if it implicates us. So we’re the least reliable to determine the legitimacy of whether something is or isn’t racist.

That’s an example of the white perspective of always being seen as simply human, and other people seen as a particular kind of human, and a less valuable one.

And finally, most white people live in segregation. We lived the most segregated lives of any racial group. Most white people don’t really know black people and don’t feel any loss about know not knowing black people. That is the most powerful message of all.

Whenever we call a school or neighborhood “good” in large part because there isn’t a significant number of black people who go to that school or live in that neighborhood…? Wow. We’re measuring the value of our spaces by the absence of black people. That’s a powerful message, and I’ve internalized it.

I’m not guilty for that. I didn’t choose to internalize it. What I am is responsible for the outcome of having internalized it. That’s on me to identify and address.

I think that there’s a narrative that’s especially loved in movies and in TV where a person has an epiphany—in this case, an epiphany about white fragility and racism. And once you have that epiphany—boom—everything is now fixed, conflict is over. But how have you seen this epiphany play out in real life?

For me, challenging my conditioning is a lot like water dripping on a rock. It takes hearing and seeing it over and over. We often come to consciousness so much later in life, and all that has come before that isn’t going to be turned around because we read one book or heard one talk. I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I still say and do racially problematic things. Certainly much less often and with much less defensiveness and a very good ability at this point to repair those moments, but we’re not going to ever be completely free of this [messaging].

I’ve given lectures and had white people come up to me afterwards and say exactly what I just literally explained in the lecture was a problematic thing to say. It’s so deep.

So that leads to an arrogance that we know everything we need to know and our learning is finished. I cannot repeat it too many times: our learning will never be finished. If we don’t proceed with that assumption, we’re going to be arrogant and complacent and defensive whenever it’s suggested our learning may not be as complete as we think it is.

In the present moment, I see that as a kind of righteousness in some white people who come to consciousness and then are ready to run out and call out every other white person they see. The number one question I get is, “What do I do?” The number two question I get is, “How do I tell other white people about their racism?” And when I get that question, I just look that person in the eyes and I say, “Well, how would I tell you about yours?” Because that question assumes that “It’s not me. I got it. I’m down. I’m good to go. Let me rush out and fix the world.” And we’re back to arrogance and entitlement. And it’s not particularly strategic.

One of the things you talk about is white solidarity and staying silent in the face of bigotry. What advice do you have about handling this in the workplace, where there are unequal power structures? Like in situations when you are speaking with somebody who works for you, or you could be speaking with your boss.

Well, this is another one of the challenges of this work. It’s very complex and layered and nuanced, so there’s not one simple answer to that question. And I believe that the more you engage, the more critical your consciousness is, the more self-aware you are… the more nuanced you’ll be in your responses in those moments.

There are a few different strategies. Sometimes in the moment, it needs to be addressed. Sometimes it’s more effective to address it offline, which allows that person to save some face and to sit with it a little bit and to collect themselves before moving forward. Sometimes, if it’s a black person who notices it, one strategy is to ask a white person who professes to be an ally to address it because they’re likely to get a lot less pushback.

And when I do address it, I try to point the finger at myself, not outward. So I start by trying to bring down defensiveness by somehow connecting. For example, “I can relate to that sentiment. I’ve certainly heard it before, or I have I felt it before. However, as a result of doing X, Y, & Z, I’ve gained a different perspective on that.” And then you speak your insight. It’s hard to argue with my insight—that’s my insight—and yet I’m indirectly teaching through just sharing what I’ve come to understand. And it may not shift that person, but at least in that moment, they heard a counternarrative to what they had just said.

And I try to think about it as: I need to do that for myself. That’s for my healing. That’s for my integrity. If the person I’m addressing shifts as a result of that, that’s wonderful. Of course, that’s one of my goals, but the ultimate goal is my own courage, my own risk-taking and vulnerability, in service of being in my integrity.

Let me be clear that there are moments where something requires you to fully say, “That is not acceptable to me.” But most of what happens in the workplace is less direct—what we might call microaggressions. It wasn’t clear to the person who did it. And so that [direct] approach—“That was racist”—is not often as effective.

What other books do you recommend for people who are seeking to educate themselves further on systemic racism and how to dismantle that system?

I absolutely recommend Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy workbook, because it’s a book that you do, not that you read.

Dr. Eddie Moore has the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge [at https://www.eddiemoorejr.com/21daychallenge], and it’s also active. It will actively engage you and put you on an ongoing journey.

Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is the other side of the white fragility coin. It’s a black woman talking about being the recipient of white fragility, and it’s done in a very accessible, personal way.

Carol Anderson’s White Rage is a brilliant and a little more academic analysis of being on the other side of white fragility and the history that undergirds white fragility. That book also won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Resmaa Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands also speaks to the emotional and the embodied aspect of these dynamics.

And How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram Kendi and the book he wrote before that, Stamped from the Beginning, which is the history that we have not been given. And that one is phenomenal—it also was a National Book Award winner.

Also Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race, Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Thick, and Mikki Kendall’s Hood Feminism.

What other questions are you asked about white fragility?

The other question that seems to be many white people’s lips right now is “What can I do?”

First, take a moment to reflect on how you’ve managed in 2020 to be a fully functioning, educated adult and not know what to do about racism. Seriously, how have you managed not to know? Why did you not seek out that information when Trayvon Martin was killed, when Black Lives Matter emerged, when Colin Kaepernick respectfully went down on one knee to acknowledge the killing of unarmed black people and lost his job? When neo-Nazis did a Hitler salute upon the inauguration of Donald Trump? Why did you not seek out that information then? Why are you seeking it out only now—what did it take to motivate you to finally seek out this information?

And then take out a piece of paper and make a list on why you don’t know the answer to that question. And there will be your map. Nothing you write on that list will be easy to address but everything on it can be addressed. Not quick or easy, because there’s no quick or easy answer. And then do Layla Saad’s workbook and Eddie Moore’s 21-Day Challenge, and from there you’ll be on your way. And of course there’s always Google. In 2020 there is an unbelievable amount of fantastic resources out there. Look them up.

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