“White Fragility” Is A True But Partial Guide To Difficult Racial Conversations
Part 1: What’s True And Useful
Some people love Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. Others have trashed it. After reading the book and reflecting on it, I think it’s both true and partial. What I mean is this: it embodies several useful perspectives about racial identity and is incomplete. And she’s not alone. Whether we’re talking about the book’s true believers or its fiercest critics, nobody is completely right or entirely wrong. Every perspective has something to offer and leaves something out.
This article is about what’s true and what’s partial. My aim is not to deconstruct White Fragility but to reconstruct a vision for having difficult racial conversations, growing up as adults, and making a better society. Part One is about what’s true and useful about the book. Part Two describes what’s partial and offers important perspectives to supplement it.
I’m writing for people who admire DiAngelo’s courage and intentions, sense her approach is problematic, and wonder how to integrate it into a larger vision. This article takes the perspective of a leadership coach and likely speaks to people managers, facilitators, and fellow coaches. I’m most interested in reaching people who identify as white. You are DiAngelo’s primary audience. We have a lot of work to do together.
Improving difficult racial conversations and growing people
White Fragility covers a range of territory. This article examines it in the context of two questions:
- How can we improve the quality of difficult conversations about racial identity?
- What conditions must be present in these conversations to help people grow as adults?
What’s True and Useful about White Fragility
In this section, I share what’s true and useful about White Fragility. Each item is a valuable perspective central to having difficult conversations about racial identity. In one or two cases, I repeat DiAngelo‘s point without conditions or caveats. With the rest, I deliberately use my own words to separate the perspective from her distorted interpretation.
There’s a lot of first person here. I “own up” to many patterns common to white people yet feel little shame about them. (I feel shame about other things — ask me about that another time!). The privileges I’ve received and the biases I’ve felt are not sinful nor evidence that I’m bad. They’re in the air I breathe. This article is not a confession, and I’m not looking for absolution. In fact, the good person/bad person dichotomy is fallacious and unhelpful. In the words, of Stanley Crouch, “There is, at the center of this nation’s soul, a tragic optimism that recognizes our capacity for folly, corruption, mediocrity, and incompetence but maintains belief in the possibility of meeting those eternal human failings with enough force to whack them down until they make their inevitable return.”
The same holds true for individuals. As Bryan Stevenson writes, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” In my case, trusting in the parts of me that are decent and noble gives me strength to look at the rest. I’ve had to grow into this capacity, which is one step on the growth journey. It points to a possibility overlooked by White Fragility and its critics. What if we could have candid conversations about racial matters with more compassion than blame and more self-acceptance than shame?
1.Racism is real and corrosive, but race is a fallacy. Racism is my country’s original sin and an eternal scar on its soul. But what about race? Wouldn’t things get better if we accepted that all races are equal? I don’t think that’s the ultimate destination, because race itself is problematic. We refer to people as “black” or “white,” implying there are multiple biological races in the human species. This is false. Recent genetic research has confirmed what social science has argued for decades: whiteness and blackness are socially constructed. In DiAngelo’s words, “whiteness, like race…is not a biologically heritable characteristic that has roots in physiological structures or in genes or chromosomes.” When I learned this in college, it was mind-blowing. First, it demolishes the foundational assumption of white supremacism. How can any “race” be superior to another if there is only the human race? Second, it taught me to hold the words “white” and “black” lightly. I may treat you better, worse, or differently based on your skin color or cultural idiom (a group’s social conventions, rituals, beliefs, and mythology), but this is my interpretation. It’s not about you. It’s certainly not ordained by biology. As we’ll see, DiAngelo quickly steps away from this distinction. Like people “reimagining white identity,” she does this in ways that reinforce the racial essentialism she decries. Still, the core point that race is a fallacy remains important.
2.White people as a group generally receive many privileges simply by being perceived as white, not black — and are unaware of these privileges. DiAngelo brings to the foreground what many don’t notice. She deconstructs edifices that are robust but often invisible — and does so methodically, almost surgically. In the case of privilege, it can and often does happen passively. You don’t have to exert energy to reap the benefits. The world opens doors for you. This point about passivity is mine. DiAngelo argues that whites are always “complicit” in receiving privilege, as they are in everything else (more on this later). Yet her examples often suggest the opposite.
When police officers pull me over, they generally give me the benefit of the doubt. I don’t live with a target on my back and the distress this creates. When white neighbors see me walking down the street, their bodies don’t immediately tense up because of my skin. When they do, it’s women reacting to a man. In conversation, I don’t often expend energy adjusting my words, tone and posture to make others feel physically safe. When I do, it’s for other reasons. Professionally, I’ve received introductions, requests, and offers from people who may have withheld them they didn’t perceive me as white (and upper-middle-class — more on this in part 2). My wife, whom people identify as white, consults to organizations. It’s unlikely that anyone in her client organizations questions her competence due to her skin color. When our two sons act boisterously in public, people generally perceive them as cute, not threatening. When they become teens, I won’t continuously remind them how to act around police nor lose sleep fearing these encounters.
Thought experiment: revisit pivotal life experiences and ask, “How might this have turned out differently had people perceived me as black?” For years, I’ve told the story of how the Boulder Theater unjustly confiscated my drivers’s license shortly after my 21st birthday and how I recovered it. The story centers around me walking blocks to find a police officer and asking for his help. Then us walking together to the theater to fix things. People hearing the story inevitably laugh at the incongruity of it all. So now let’s ask: if I were black, would I have sought out the police? If so, would the officer have trusted my innocence enough to walk four blocks, confont the theater manager, call the Michigan State Police, and then tell the manager to return the ID? There are many moments in that tale where things could have turned out very differently.
3. White people as a group generally have deeply rooted biases and preferences about people they perceive as black. DiAngelo refers to these as “prejudices,” “racial worldviews,” “white dominance,” and racism. Whereas privileges are things you receive, biases are things that you — specifically your mind and body — actively do. She writes that whites “are insulated from racial stress, at the same time that we come to feel entitled to and deserving of our advantage. Given how seldom we experience racial discomfort in a society we dominate, we haven’t had to build our racial stamina.” DiAngelo’s key insight is that you don’t have to belong to the Klu Klux Klan to hold such biases. You’re endowed with them as part of a collective experience of perceiving yourself as white and others as black. The biases are largely unconscious, one reason they hang around so long. You can’t change what you can’t see. By bringing these patterns to light, DiAngelo helps you perform what Harvard educator Robert Kegan calls a subject-object move. You take what you were previously subject to and make it an object of awareness. Instead of the bias or preference having you, you have the bias or preference. Now you can make a choice. First you name it, then you tame it.
I don’t know when this capacity first grew in me, but it stabilized in 2000. This is when I started regularly meditating, began re-examining my childhood through books and therapy, and found a supportive community. Note: none of these explicitly involved racial issues. They were about building a capacity to witness all of my thoughts and assumptions, including those about “black and white.”
DiAngelo doesn’t say this, but making racial bias an object of awareness need not involve shame or blame. Approached with curiosity, the experience can feel neutral, like walking into a room for the thousandth time and seeing something you never before noticed. In a recent email exchange with a friend, I reflected on why at age 18 I was drawn to the hip hop group, Public Enemy. Several times a week, in route to the library, my friend, Dave, and I would get in my car, pop in Nation of Millions, and pump up the volume. The fiercer Chuck D’s sang and the stronger his words, the more alive I felt. Why was this? A large part of the motivation was pure: the quality of the music, Chuck D’s voice, and pure curiosity.
Yet something else was at work, a distortion: the idea that hip hop is the most authentic expression of black American culture and that by listening to it, I would fully contact that culture. This is the myth of black authenticity. Stanley Crouch says of it, “There’s never been a small audience for any idiom that projects the Negro as inferior to the white man.” My translation: for many young white folks, hip hop — especially gangsta rap — provides an outlet for anger and alienation. It compensates for the love we never got. But equally present is the assumption that the one rapping is less intelligent than the one listening. What’s ironic about the authenticity myth is that it’s often based on a tower of quicksand. Not a few male hip hop artists are guys from middle-class families acting “street.” So it’s all confounding.
It also shows a benefit of exploring biases with curiosity: dig deeper and you learn that humans are more, not less, complex than those very biases would suggest. You won’t find this point in White Fragility, but it follows from the assumptions she highlights.
4. White people generally can go years, even decades, without having difficult conversations about racial identity. Although this is a form of privilege, I list it separately because DiAngelo centers her book around this and point five. Indeed, it’s a major reason she chose her vocation. Many white folks have no black colleagues or close black friends and go through the day without thinking about black people’s experiences. They “almost always had white teachers; many did not have a teacher of color until college.” Also, getting confronted about racial topics is a rare experience. Most references happen in hushed voices and through subtle innuendo, like opinions about what are “good neighborhoods” or “good schools” or seemingly innocent questions about someone’s qualifications for a job or college acceptance. Such “casual race talk“ is a way to send metamessages without being explicit and maintain plausible deniability.
I’ll add a caveat: these assessments may include more than solely racial bias. Still, the point remains: if you identify as white, you can live to 100 without having a conversation about privilege and bias, much less being challenged on your own. As I stand here writing, I struggle to remember the last time someone initiated a difficult conversation with me about this. After the Million Man March in 1995?
5. White people generally find conversations about racial issues stressful and employ psychological defenses and conversational moves to get out of them. As we’ll see in Part Two, these patterns happen in all difficult conversations, regardless of the person or topic, which DiAngelo doesn’t acknowledge. Still, this is the core of White Fragility. DiAngelo’s most vivid stories center on white folks’ attempts to wiggle out of tough questions coupled with her forceful efforts to call them on it. Here, in my words, is the pattern:
- DiAngelo: “Let me give you some feedback. The biases we’ve been talking about are real, and they involve you.”
- White participant: “No, I’m different. I marched with Dr. King, and my cousin’s daughter-in-law is black.”
- DiAngelo: “Saying you’re different is what white people do to avoid the stress of confronting this. It obscures racism. How do you think a black person feels when you do this?”
- White participant: “You misunderstand me. I’m not avoid anything. In fact, I’m feeling hurt.”
- DiAngelo: “Feeling hurt is way to avoid culpability. You’re using this to shift attention away from the black person you just harmed. This is white fragility. It’s happening right here, right now.”
Part 2 will show how this isn’t the best way to handle such situations. For now, let’s appreciate the discernment DiAngelo brings to these observations. Each story she shares demonstrates a defense mechanism and/or cognitive bias. Chris Argyris, also known for a blunt, take-no-prisoners style, famously referred to these as examples of “fancy footwork.” You evade something uncomfortable without admitting you are doing this.
While reading White Fragility, I noticed my mind doing what DiAngelo calls “credentialing.” Here’s a sample: “My first grade teacher was black.” “My middle school science teacher, Mr. Broadway, who taught me to think critically was black”. “I used to attend Black Student Alliance meetings in college.” “One of my oldest buddies is black.” “I hosted a series about all this on my podcast.” And, most poignantly: “I’m different because I don’t claim to free of racist ideas. They pass through my mind all the time.”
These are facts. Unlike DiAngelo, I don’t think they prove I’m racially biased (the best evidence for which are my own admissions). But they do express my uniqueness (which in Part Two I’ll argue is important). And within this is a defense against something. Noticing these defenses and getting curious about them without shame or blame helps us grow. And it prepares us for the difficult conversations our times call for.
These five perspectives reflect what’s true and useful about White Fragility. The good news: within each of us is the capacity to include these perspectives in our worldview. The catch: we aren’t born with this capacity. We have to grow into it.
For my entire childhood, I was subject to all of this. I received privileges and held biases yet didn’t know it. Then, halfway through college, a new world opened up. I began to see what previously was invisible. This was painful, at times excruciatingly. I felt shameful feelings in my body and sought to escape them. In My Grandmother’s Hands, Resmaa Menakem calls this “dirty pain.” I criticized my parents, the culture of my school, and society writ large. I took on the white savior role, which never works, and employed what Menakem calls “ugly sympathy” (you poor, poor victims.) Anything to escape the difficult sensations. This is how deconstruction works. You take things apart with a self-assured, vehement tone.
Around age 30, I got lucky. I came across people and perspectives offering exactly what I needed: compassion over blame and self-acceptance over shame. I started learning to stay with feelings I previously fled and remain in conversations I previously avoided. Menakem calls this “clean pain”. My new community also showed me that critiquing what’s broken in society isn’t the last stage in the journey. After deconstructing, you can reconstruct. I learned to neither accept any idea as the whole truth nor reject it out of hand but, instead, to ask: what’s true and useful here, and what’s partial and needs to be supplemented by other ideas? It is toward that latter question that Part Two of this exploration will turn.