Read With Your Eyes Open: A Critical Review of “White Fragility”
The problems of racism and racial justice have returned to the forefront of the American conversation this summer, after the tragic deaths of Ahmaud Arbury, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd prompted nationwide protests and riots in multiple U.S. cities. In this time of national turmoil and soul-searching, Americans are sharing many questions and opinions, grappling with the racial disparities, strife, and grievances that continue to plague our culture. Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility wasn’t originally on my reading list for this year, but it suddenly became the book of the moment, hitting the #1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list and being read and recommended by multiple friends. It’s easy to see why: the book is a fast-paced, engrossing read, drawing the reader in with a mix of bold pronouncements, engaging personal stories, and dramatic narrative moments.
As it turns out, however, White Fragility isn’t a book about police brutality, flaws in the justice system, or the problems facing poor black communities. It isn’t even primarily about racial bias, although that is one of its topics. In fact, White Fragility is a barrage of psychological manipulation techniques — an effort to convert sympathetic white progressives into dedicated social justice warriors. Simultaneously, it’s a handbook for these warriors, equipping them with potent rhetorical tools to build influence, recruit followers, and silence any opposition. Not only are DiAngelo’s methods devious, but her agenda is extremist. What initially looks like an exhortation to respect and fairness morphs into a contemporary spin of the Marxist revolution, exploiting America’s social divisions to tear down our cherished ideals, undermine our national identity, and topple our institutions. But it all begins by replacing dialogue with control.
Controlling the Conversation
Robin DiAngelo is an educator and diversity consultant. She and her colleagues host lectures, workshops, and discussion groups to help identify and combat racial prejudice, and to create more inclusive work environments. DiAngelo’s methods, however, often upset her white participants, who (she says) often end up storming out of the room or breaking down in tears. DiAngelo has cleverly turned these setbacks into an opportunity for her research, defining them as “white fragility,” a concept she has developed into a powerful strategy for persuasion and influence. In fact, white fragility is one of several approaches DiAngelo uses to control the conversation about race. Let’s examine each of these techniques in turn.
Wokesplaining: Let Me Educate You
First, DiAngelo presents herself as a revealer of hidden knowledge to her readers. We are profoundly ignorant, and need expert help, she assures us, when it comes to matters of race.
We must be willing to consider that unless we have devoted intentional and ongoing study, our opinions are necessarily uninformed, even ignorant. How can I say that if you are white, your opinions on racism are most likely ignorant, when I don’t even know you? I can say so because nothing in mainstream US culture gives us the information we need to have the nuanced understanding of arguably the most complex and enduring social dynamic of the last several hundred years. (p. 8)
By starting with the assumption of the reader’s ignorance, DiAngelo sets us up for a bookful of wokesplaining. Many of us have witnessed “mansplaining,” in which a man presumes to explain his opinions as fact to a woman, implicitly setting himself up as the authority because… he’s a man. Similarly, wokesplaining rolls out the opinions of the woke authority as fact, ignoring whatever knowledge, experience, or objections the not-so-woke hearers might have.
So DiAngelo will be our guide, to initiate us into knowledge of this “most complex… social dynamic” of racism. She is the authority, and no matter how strange, controversial, or even absurd her statements might sound, we just have to listen and learn. This approach allows DiAngelo to fill her book with unsupported — sometimes preposterous — opinions stated as fact. She does not feel the need to defend these opinions, because she is the professor. She has only to explain them. You can check your critical thinking at the door, because DiAngelo isn’t here to convince you. She’s here to wokesplain to you.
As a strong believer in critical thinking and rational dialogue, I would strongly recommend against reading White Fragility or any other book with this kind of unconditional acceptance. Yes, it’s true that your beliefs and feelings are fallible, but so are those of an equally human author. We should come to any book ready to learn, but also with our critical thinking fully engaged.
Bait and Switch: The Definition Game
Since she is the professor, Dr. DiAngelo is going to teach us some new words, words like racism, prejudice, discrimination, and white supremacy. But didn’t we already know these words? Yes, but DiAngelo is going to explain to us their new meanings, meanings we probably didn’t know before. Now, DiAngelo is not the originator of these definitions, which a few college professors have been slinging around for decades. But to most of us, they are strangely novel. The new meaning of racism is particularly important.
When a racial group’s collective prejudice is backed by the power of legal authority and institutional control, it is transformed into racism… (p. 20)
Notice that this definition of racism, often called “systemic racism,” is about collective prejudice, not individual bias. DiAngelo hates individualism, by the way — she says it’s a big part of the system of racism (p. 21). By this definition, racism isn’t something racist individuals believe or do, it’s a disease of the whole mainstream culture — all white people are collectively racist, even those who actively oppose racism. On the other hand, it’s impossible for non-white Americans to be racist, even if they have the same kinds of racial prejudices, or even practice racial discrimination (p. 22). That’s not true racism, DiAngelo explains to us. Racism is a structure created by the man. By the white man, to be specific. The definition of white supremacy is similarly a subtle attitude that runs all through the culture of majority white communities (p 28). If you were raised in a white family, according to DiAngelo, you’re almost certainly a white supremacist. Don’t take it too personally, though, you really couldn’t have helped it.
DiAngelo is doing two things with these strange and disturbing definitions. First, she’s “proving” how much she knows about race that we don’t, and how much we have to learn from her. Second, DiAngelo wants to gain control over her readers by getting them to accept a new definition of a word they already have strong feelings about. If you make up a new, technical definition for the word “perpendicular,” that might surprise me, but it doesn’t really move me. But no matter what definition you come up with an emotionally toxic word like “racist,” I sure as anything don’t want to be one! DiAngelo’s claim that all white people are cogs in a giant, racist machine is immediately troubling to us, and makes us want to know if she can show us the way out. Her definition is a bait and switch. While giving us a new definition to distract our minds, DiAngelo assaults our feelings with the emotional power of the old definition. It’s manipulation, and it works.
You Think That Because You’re a Racist: Gaslighting the Opposition
Now that she has prepared us with her new definitions, DiAngelo goes on to inform us that racism is all around us; it’s the air we breathe. According to her, we have all been secretly conditioned to support the racist system, which operates in every aspect of daily life. Because of this unconscious conditioning, racism has poisoned our minds, so that we cannot trust anything we know.
For example, you may know that some parts of your town are less safe than others, areas with barred and broken windows. Your street smarts tell you to avoid these neighborhoods at night. But according to DiAngelo, bad neighborhoods are all in your head — no more dangerous than the one you prefer to live in. Racism, DiAngelo explains at length, is what drives white people’s perceptions of which neighborhoods are desirable and safe (pp. 37, 45–46). “In fact,” she declares, “the classification of which neighborhoods are good and which are bad is always based on race.” (p. 65)
Can DiAngelo really expect us to believe such a statement? It is one thing to argue that blighted, crime-ridden neighborhoods are the fault of the wealthy and powerful people who shape our cities. But to deny that these neighborhoods are unsafe at all, to tell us we only think they are because of our racist upbringing, goes beyond passing blame. It’s an example of gaslighting — stimulating your imagination to believe that you’re the one who’s crazy (racist), that you can’t trust your own mind, that only DiAngelo and her allies can lead you straight.
If her obsessive description of our unconscious racism makes us uncomfortable, DiAngelo directs us to just keep reading and accepting it, pushing aside any skepticism about her claims. Instructing us as if she were our therapist, she puts her own questions in our mouths:
Why does this unsettle me? What would it mean for me if this were true? How does this lens change my understanding of racial dynamics? … If you are reading this and are still making your case for why you are different from other white people and why none of this applies to you, stop and take a breath. Now return to the questions above, and keep working through them. (p. 14)
DiAngelo goes on to list racist attitudes and cultural practices that have filled our lives without our knowledge. Using vivid examples, she stimulates our imaginations to do the work of convincing our minds, reshaping our memories to see racism infusing our childhoods (p. 21, 83), our education (p. 56), and the shows and films we watch (p. 32). Many of us will find echoes of DiAngelo’s examples in our memory; it is more than likely that we have witnessed racial bias or prejudice at times. But are they the norm in our lives, or the exception? To DiAngelo, they are proofs of the whole reality of our racist existence.
Like a good conspiracy theory, DiAngelo’s universe of racism is unprovable, and yet interprets all of life as evidence for its reality. Looking through her “antiracist” lens, you will see racism anywhere and everywhere. And if somehow you don’t see it, that confirms all the more how racist you really are.
Escape from Argument
If you find yourself skeptical about DiAngelo’s bait-and-switch definitions and gaslit universe of racism, you may have some arguments forming in your mind. You’d probably like to see some of her ideas backed up with evidence, maybe work through some of your objections, before you buy into this theory of life. And perhaps you’d like to hear what sort of practical changes DiAngelo and her colleagues would propose before you sign on to her way of thinking. But if that’s you, you’re reading the wrong book.
In her narratives, DiAngelo often mentions people who raise objections to her views. She paints these people as quarrelsome, obstinate, narrow-minded, and insecure. They’ve always got to have the last word, always want to shut down the conversation with unanswerable pronouncements. DiAngelo is sure that such people would be better off to just let go of their arguments and allow new ideas to expand their understanding (p. 12).
A brief word about argument is in order. We have all known people who are very much as DiAngelo depicts her detractors — stubbornly attached to their opinions, loud and angry, always spoiling for a fight. Being “argumentative” isn’t something we admire in our friends, nor are we proud of it in ourselves. But remember, argument itself is much more than quarreling. If we look at a dictionary we will find that to argue is simply to give persuasive reasons, facts, or evidence supporting your position. While argument can be stimulating to the passions, it’s also an important part of how we learn and test our ideas, how we determine what is true and what is false.
But DiAngelo has no intention of backing up her sweeping statements with logical arguments to persuade a skeptic. Instead, she side-steps all challenges, turning to the challenger with suspicion.
In my work to unravel the dynamics of racism, I have found a question that never fails me. This question is not “Is this claim true, or is it false?”; we will never come to an agreement on a question that sets up an either/or dichotomy on something as sensitive as racism. Instead I ask, “How does this claim function in the conversation?” (p. 78)
The last thing DiAngelo wants is a true dialogue, where people with different points of view can voice their opinions respectfully, listen to and engage one another, and seek to persuade one another of the truth. She is not at all confident that her theories will win out in that kind of conversation, and her goal is to exert influence over us, not to help us learn what is true. DiAngelo does make many statements of fact throughout her book. But when she stops to examine an idea, she’s not looking for its truthfulness, but rather for its usefulness — to her. Ideas that support her narrative of universal white racism are “constructive” or “useful,” while attitudes or beliefs that don’t fit the narrative are “problematic,” predictable efforts by unwitting racists to protect the invisible system of white supremacy (pp. 61, 64, 89, 99, 145). The only acceptable reason to share an attitude that is contrary to DiAngelo’s worldview is to confess it as a lingering symptom of racism, so she can cleanse it from your mind.
We must distinguish between sharing your beliefs so that we can identify how they may be upholding racism and stating your beliefs as “truths” that cannot be challenged. (p. 127)
According to DiAngelo, contrary arguments are not only unacceptable, they also represent one of many forms of “white fragility,” which brings us to the theme stated in the book’s title.
White Fragility: Silencing All Dissent
So what exactly is “white fragility?” It’s a good question, but one that evidently takes a little time to answer. First, you have to understand the context in which white fragility shows up. Mainly, it’s when white people have their ideas about race challenged. Those times when people are told that they’ve just said something problematic — in a racist kind of way. Or that being white makes them racists by definition. At that point, you can pretty much count on white fragility to rear its ugly head. In such circumstances, DiAngelo observes,
…the mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers a range of defensive responses. These include emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation. 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. (p. 2)
In this mouthful of academic jargon, DiAngelo combines all of her techniques for controlling the race conversation into one. As an authority, she is teaching us a concept (white fragility) we had probably never known before. By producing the definition, she controls its meaning, and is quick to correct you if you use it to support an opinion other than hers (p. 113). Almost any white person in a discussion of race will feel or do at least one of the things she describes as white fragility, so doesn’t that prove it’s a real thing? And if you question her definition — didn’t you see that the “behavior” of argumentation is a form of white fragility?
Let’s take a moment to review DiAngelo’s list of “white fragility” emotions and behaviors. The list turns out to include nearly anything a white person could do when confronted with DiAngelo’s bold pronouncements. How would you feel after being told that you’ve been a racist your whole life? Angry? Frightened? Ashamed? Those are all symptoms of white fragility. What could you do? You could share your own opinion — oh, but remember? Arguing is a big tell for white fragility, no matter how kindly you might be able to do it. Or you could just walk away… nope, that’s white fragility, too. But if you just listen politely? Sorry, that’s “silence,” a major white fragility behavior. And if you were to break down and cry, rest assured, even that is white fragility — DiAngelo has a whole chapter on “White Women’s Tears.” In fact, DiAngelo has defined any response to her ideas as white fragility, any response, that is, except glad, hearty agreement.
In the concept of white fragility, Robin DiAngelo has created an ideological black hole. Because her system interprets everything as evidence for itself, it pulls you further and further inside her world in which everything is about racism, and every person is either a racist or a victim of racism. If you get past all DiAngelo’s other tactics for persuasion, white fragility lets her dismiss any ideas you have to offer. And if you finally run screaming from the room, she can turn to the rest of her pupils and triumphantly explain to them how right she was about you. White fragility is Robin DiAngelo’s trump card to silence any and all dissent.
The Goals of White Fragility
As we have seen, White Fragility has a lot to say about the emotional responses of white people to DiAngelo’s ideas about race and racism. But does DiAngelo have any solutions to offer? What is her program for combating systemic racism? White Fragility does not set out to answer these questions. But neither does it avoid them. As DiAngelo rolls out her strategies to overcome the resistance of “white fragility,” the following goals emerge along the way.
Identity Politics: Divide and Conquer
The first of DiAngelo’s goals is to get you to think and act not primarily as an individual, but as a representative of your demographic group. “This book is unapologetically rooted in identity politics,” DiAngelo declares (p. xiv), and she is not kidding. DiAngelo can tell everything she needs to know about you by the color of your skin. People to her are not individuals with unique strengths, and weaknesses, individual experiences and insights. They are members of various collectives, based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, wealth, age, and so on. DiAngelo even speaks disapprovingly of MLK’s famous hope that his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” (p. 41). If you are white (or black, or another race), that is not just a fact about you. It’s who you are.
Not only is DiAngelo’s definition of human identity collective, it’s also profoundly divisive. “Our understanding of ourselves is necessarily based on our comparisons with others,” she declares (p. 11). Hence, she tells us, for white people being not-black, in fact being better than black, is a fundamental part of our racial identity, whether we realize it or not. “…anti-blackness is foundational to our very identities as white people. Whiteness has always been predicated on blackness,” DiAngelo declares (p. 91). Race for DiAngelo is always a kind of rivalry, a deep divide between people of one color and another.
By defining everyone in terms of race, DiAngelo is firmly dividing America into great contrasting groups, separating us from our fellow Americans by deep differences in identity, deeper than we had ever before suspected. And in her version of history, one group is always the oppressor, the other always the oppressed. To be white is to be guilty of the racism of the white collective. To be black is to be a victim of it. This narrative is a powerful tool for control over both the advantaged and the disadvantaged group. DiAngelo subdues her white readers through collective guilt, which requires them to follow her wherever she leads. At the same time, she looks to wield influence over blacks and other minorities as well, by claiming to be their champion in a world controlled by white power brokers.
This theory of society resembles the Marxist narratives of the last century, in which the poor workers of the world must be freed from their bondage to the comfortable bourgeoisie. But is the similarity a coincidence? After all, the American history of race-based slavery is certainly a true story and a national grief. If that were the only way in which DiAngelo echoes Marx, it wouldn’t be much of a connection. But as we examine DiAngelo’s perspective, we find other elements of the Marxist worldview as well.
As we have noticed, DiAngelo harshly condemns individualism as a racist ideology. But that’s not the only American value she has a beef with. She says Americans have been brainwashed into a whole list of ideologies that include “…individualism, the superiority of capitalism as an economic system and democracy as a political system, consumerism as a desirable lifestyle, and meritocracy (anyone can succeed if he or she works hard)” (p. 21). DiAngelo is taking aim at the American belief in capitalism and the ideal of the American dream, in which individual people can build a life for themselves through hard work and determination, and enjoy the fruits of their labor. To her, these cherished values are all of a piece with self-indulgent consumerism. But must we really abandon hope of individual success and reward, in order to combat greed and materialism? DiAngelo appears to think so.
Again and again, DiAngelo depicts life as a zero-sum game, a game in which winners build their success on the backs of the losers, whites robbing blacks, rich robbing the poor, men robbing women. In DiAngelo’s world, there is no room for successful people to make life better for everyone — if anyone is disproportionately successful, it is at someone else’s expense. So there are only two possibilities, either everyone will get exactly the same amount of life’s advantages and pleasures, or else life must be a battle between the haves and the have-nots. This is exactly the Marxist vision.
In fact, according to DiAngelo, the racist system, even the concept of race itself, was invented by the rich to divide and distract the poor (p. 19, 60) and to justify slavery. “As discussed in chapter 2, there was no concept of race or a white race before the need to justify the enslavement of Africans,” DiAngelo summarizes (p. 91). This statement is gaslighting at its boldest, as even a brief glance at human history will show that both racial identity and racism existed many centuries before the African slave trade.
When you combine DiAngelo’s beliefs about life as a struggle against oppression with her rejection of individualism and the capitalist system, it really begins to look as if her worldview is a form of Marxism. But it’s not the revolutionary Marxism of Lenin and Mao, is it? Aren’t there plenty of progressives who argue for peaceful reforms to redistribute wealth and curb oppression? Yes, but I’m not so sure that DiAngelo is one of them.
Burn Down the System: The Revolutionary Cause
White Fragility nowhere spells out a plan for political change or promises a final solution to the evils of racism. But its attacks on American identity, history, and policy are radical and relentless, and point the way toward equally radical solutions. To DiAngelo, American communities, institutions, and culture are so saturated with racism, it’s hard to imagine a remedy through incremental reform. And indeed, reform isn’t what DiAngelo is working for. DiAngelo hopes instead to tear down American institutions and cultural identity, and replace it with something else entirely.
To this end, DiAngelo is especially critical of American history, which she paints as one long, ugly story of racism. For her, it’s not enough to celebrate black history — we need to stop celebrating all the rest of it. After all, says DiAngelo, America was originally built on slave labor, and to “romanticize” our past shows a shameful disregard of the racial atrocities running from the days of the pioneers to the present. (pp. 59–60, 92). This wholesale condemnation of American history is as dishonest as it is dangerous. While many of the historical facts DiAngelo points to are true, and truly shameful, they are only part of the American story. Our history is full of victories for freedom and justice, including racial justice. DiAngelo’s skewed narrative of our past is a deliberate attack on American identity. And by undermining American identity, DiAngelo is clearing the way for something new to take its place.
Whatever future DiAngelo has in mind for America, it cannot be realized through mere legislative reforms. “But systems of oppression are deeply rooted and not overcome with the simple passage of legislation.” she observes sadly (p. 40). Nor is it sufficient to elevate people of color to high levels of status and leadership. “Whites control all major institutions of society and set the policies and practices that others must live by,” DiAngelo declares. “Although rare individual people of color may be inside the circles of power — Colin Powell, Clarence Thomas, Marco Rubio, Barack Obama — they support the status quo and do not challenge racism in any way significant enough to be threatening” (p. 27). With a wave of her hand, DiAngelo dismisses the achievements of these American leaders, and completely ignores the social progress represented in their success. By succeeding within the system, she insinuates, these people are meaningless tokens, Uncle Toms, sellouts to their race. And if DiAngelo can see such a progressive leader as Barack Obama as a supporter of the status quo, then the change she is working for must be drastic indeed.
What would this change look like? Again, DiAngelo doesn’t answer that question directly. But the only answer she leaves open is revolution. The whole system, the whole economy, the whole culture and its institutions are racist to the core, and they must be torn down to make way for something else. The old order must be thrown out, to make room for a new one. This Marxist revolution may be more or less bloody, but make no mistake, revolution it must be.
Conclusion and Response
As we have seen, White Fragility is no mere social commentary, nor is it a proposal for reform. Rather, it’s a one-way portal to DiAngelo’s interpretation of our lives, a rabbit hole lined with psychological snares to keep us inside. And there are strong clues about where it’s leading. The clues point to a radical political upheaval, to the replacement of the American capitalist system with something else entirely, a cultural and economic revolution.
This Marxist agenda is nothing new. The twentieth century was marked by dozens of Marx-inspired revolutions and post-revolutionary socialist governments. Such governments have succeeded at throwing out old orders and suppressing individualism, but they have utterly failed to bring about justice for all, or provide economic comfort to the masses. The only thing that is new about the mission of White Fragility is the division of humanity by color, rather than by class. Having failed to topple American institutions through class rivalry, today’s Marxists fan the passions of historic racial tensions in an effort to bring the American tradition of liberty to an end.
What can we do in the face of this attack on American society? First, we must not take wokesplainers like Robin DiAngelo as our professors. As the cultural divisions in our country grow deeper, we must refuse to let others do our thinking for us, and consider new ideas — from either side of the political divide — with a critical eye. Second, we must avoid vocabularies of propaganda. Clever demagogues will always control the conversation if they control the words we use. Third, we must reject explanations of society that reduce its complexities to a single, emotionally charged problem. Such theories do not build toward beneficial change, but instead pull our passions toward obsession, paranoia, and destructive rage. Lastly, Americans must resist all efforts to divide our identities and incite rivalries across lines of color, gender, or class. Regardless of such differences, we are one nation, one community and heritage of freedom, and the welfare of every person is a blessing to us all.
Perhaps most of all, we can maintain our sanity through gratitude. There are many things that are wrong with our nation, but there are also a great many things that are right with it. We have a functioning (though imperfect) justice system, with courts that work hard every day to protect the innocent. We have longstanding prosperity and great institutions for the welfare of the poor. The opportunity for people of all colors to excel, to succeed, and to hold positions of honor and leadership in the mainstream community has expanded dramatically in the last half-century. Truly, we have much to celebrate in America, even as we have much room for improvement.
The most powerful voices for change in American history have always cherished American identity, even appealing to American heritage and ideals as the basis for transformative change. President Lincoln’s Gettysburg address famously began with the words, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Lincoln praised the American founding fathers and claimed their ideals as his own, even as he declared that their task was unfinished, that a “new birth of freedom” was necessary.
Martin Luther King, Jr. similarly appealed to America’s founding ideals when he said, “America is essentially a dream. It is a dream of a land where men of all races, of all nationalities, and of all creeds, can live together as brothers. The substance of the dream is expressed in these sublime words, ‘We hold these truths to be self- evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’” To King, the cause of civil rights was not a replacement of the American tradition, but a fulfillment of it.
In the year 2020, the American ideal has still not been fully realized. Despite the great achievements of our past, Americans still face unequal access to justice, unequal opportunity for success, unequal dignity in our society. We still have work to do. And that work must be rooted in reality and gratitude, in a commitment to be honest about the ills of our society, and to love and protect what is good about it. We need to hear truthful, trustworthy messages to inspire the change this nation needs. White Fragility is no such message.