A Defense of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility

Roderick Graham
Jul 6, 2020 · 12 min read

Recently, I have had conversations on social media about the use of the slogan “All Lives Matter” in response to someone using “Black Lives Matter”. I argued that using All Lives Matter was racist in its implications by dismissing the claims of black people. I made an analogy to a mass shooting that occurred in a city near me — Virginia Beach, Virginia. In response to the mass shooting, several community leaders began promoting the hashtag #VBStrong. I then asked people to consider how citizens in Virginia Beach would perceive someone responding to #VBStrong with #Allcitiesstrong.

Some people understood this analogy. But most did not. Some of the responses:

  • There were “logical flaws” in my analogy
  • Black lives matter is a communist organization
  • I was trying to divide people
  • Black lives matter is racist
  • I was given data on police shootings

I have always been a supporter of the ideas in Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility. However, the responses to my social media posts brought home to me how insightful DiAngelo’s work is and how helpful it can be in having conversations about racism.

People didn’t have to agree that using All Lives Matter in the context of Black Lives Matter is racist. But it is a conversation worth having. Instead, the claim of racism was never addressed, and I was presented with bivariate tables and accusations of faulty logic. DiAngelo would argue that my proposition threatens the racial narratives white people hold dear.

This essay is a defense of the ideas presented in Robin DiAngelo’s bestselling book. I am writing this as a sociologist and as a black person — those two labels matter.

As a sociologist, I have spent more time than most teaching and doing research race in the United States. I can evaluate many of DiAngelo’s claims within a broader context of what social scientists understand about race. I am also a black American. Most of my comparisons and examples will be from the standpoint of black and white in the United States.

My blackness matters in another aspect. The claims in DiAngelo’s book are triggering for many white people. Once triggered, a mental process of attempting to dismiss the book’s merits and debunk major claims is set in motion. This can lead to some rather unfair treatments of the book, and it’s ideas, as evidenced by Matt Taibbi’s critique. Reason is the slave of the passions, as it were.

I have my biases as well. I want the book to be read by as many as possible because I think it is helpful. But I have the luxury of examining its content without feeling the book offends my political sensibilities or attacks me personally. I am not as passionate, and therefore possibly more reasonable.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

The Ideas of White Fragility

Individualism and Objectivity

A beginning premise in White Fragility is that white people embrace the ideas of individualism and objectivity. We can substitute “Westerners” for whites and see that this is a rather banal statement. We understand that Christian societies have always valued the sanctity of the individual (individualism) and since the Enlightenment have believed in the values of unbiased data collection and hypothesis testing (objectivity). Diangelo argues that white people, on average, adhere to the ideologies of individualism and objectivity more than other racial groups in Western society.

My anecdotal experiences lead me to agree with DiAngelo. I have heard white people repeatedly respond to the phrase like “white people are/think” with claims such as “I am an individual, why are you trying to put people into groups?” In response to a concept that is primarily qualitative or interpretive in origin like microaggressions, I have heard white people continuously call for some objective, precise measure lest it not be real.

But individualism and objectivity are belief systems that are adopted and are not naturally occurring in nature. So, just because one holds these ideologies does not mean that people do not share behavior or that some groups perceive the world differently. Entire disciplines — sociology, political science and (macro) economics, and entire professions — marketing and advertising, are premised on explaining the attitudes and actions of (racial) groups. To put it bluntly, we know that individual people are more likely to share the perceptions of people within their racial group on any number of issues than people outside of their racial group.

DiAngelo links these ideologies to one’s understandings of racial dynamics. She writes, “These ideologies make it very difficult for white people to explore the collective aspects of the white experience.” A focus on individualism makes it hard for whites to imagine (or admit) that group status matters in society. They do not see themselves as belonging to a group called “white people,” but instead solely as individuals.

Race scholars have known this for quite some time and is at this point, a banal observation. Meanwhile, a focus on objectivity is a way to dismiss the notion that members of different groups in society will have different perspectives on racial dynamics. They are not prepared to acknowledge that they see racial dynamics through the frame of a white person, just as black people see racial phenomena through the cultural experiences of a black person, and so on.

There is nothing academically radical or pseudo-intellectual in the beginning premises of DiAngelo’s work.

A Different Understanding of Racism

One of the most useful ideas presented in White Fragility is that our lay knowledge of racism and racists is outmoded and damaging to conversations about race. People of all backgrounds think of racism only occurring through overt, intentional racist behaviors — the man who commits a hate crime, the parents who tell their children not to date black people, or the woman caught on camera yelling racial slurs.

This is not the way scholars of race have understood racism for quite some time. Scholars know that racial inequalities are generated primarily through minor, innocuous actions that create differences in employment, where one gets to live, in friendship networks, and more. These are often not deliberate acts. They are acts done by white people merely living their lives in the way they were socialized to live them. Although black people share this lay understanding generally, their racial experiences attune them to the impacts of everyday actions, and they are more likely to be aware of them.

DiAngelo applies this understanding to a discussion of the “good/bad binary” and how it preempts conversations on race. People believe that only evil, immoral people who commit intentional acts of racist behavior contribute to a racist society. Therefore, a white person will react strongly to being associated with racism because it means to them that they are a terrible person. They may say, “I am a good person; therefore, I am not a racist,” or “I did not intend to be discriminatory; therefore I am not a racist,” or “I have never used a racial slur; therefore I am not a racist.”

DiAngelo urges whites to think outside of that good/bad binary when being accused of racist actions. Your actions may contribute to a racist society even though you do not intend them to do so. This is akin to someone adding to a traffic jam by following along the road that had been laid out for you.

I also think that shifting the dialogue outside of the good/bad binary would be beneficial for society. In other words, we need to evolve in our understandings of what racism is so that it conforms to empirical realities. If we realize that racism is not about immoral sociopaths, but instead about the actions of everyday people living the lives they have been socialized into, we can depersonalize many discussions about race.

The “White Words”: Whiteness, White Privilege, and White Supremacy

I think it is best to deal with these three ideas together. They are used to describe the elevated position that white people have in Western societies. There are no definitive definitions for these terms. Some objectors to DiAngelo’s work zero in on this and use it to reject her entire thesis. This is a signal that the objector is looking for a reason not to engage with the ideas. One does not dismiss the phenomenon of capitalism simply because three economists may describe it in slightly different ways.

These three “White Words” narrate a story about being white in Western, multiracial societies. Before moving forward, I must say that I express sympathy with the person who finds these words jarring. But the current ethic concerning discussions about race is not to attempt to protect white people’s sensibilities. This is because one often ends up making the white person feel better. However, the aggrieved party — the racial minority — is still left with her complaints unaddressed. I am slowly coming around to this notion, and the story of the three “white words” goes a little something like this:

  1. If the census category “white” denotes an objective racial group, then whiteness is the race-related experiences and perceptions of people who fit into that category. The usual objection raised here is that white people do not all think the same and that these are gross generalizations. This is the ideology of individualism appearing again. But people respond to external stimuli in broadly similar ways.
  2. The external stimuli that white people are responding to is living in a white supremacist system. White supremacy denotes a system in which the racial category white is seen as the standard by which all is measured. In a white supremacist system, white people dominate positions of authority, power, and prestige. They are the standards of beauty and the most desirable mates. These assertions may be uncomfortable because they disrupt a racial narrative that suggests a colorblind society. However, DiAngelo lists numerous statistics showing how whites dominate positions of authority, power, and prestige. Survey data on beauty and dating also show a preference for white people — especially women, in comparison to other people of color.
  3. White privilege, then, is the unearned benefits gained from being a member of the racial category “white” in a white supremacist system. Being an attractive white woman is better, all things considered than being an equally attractive black woman. The idea of “unearned benefits” can be problematic for some. I often tell my students to imagine white privilege as the privilege of not having your race work against you. Whites do not get discriminated against on job applications, for example. This is a privilege afforded white people in a white supremacist system.

The argument is that white people were socialized in similar racial environments. DiAngelo devotes a chapter in her book, (Ch. 4 “How Does Race Shape the Lives of White People”) to describe these similar experiences. It is a well done and quite compelling chapter. As a black person, I can say that I do not live in a white person’s world. The racial environment that white people share as a group is the underpinning of both the myriad racist actions that reproduce racial inequality and the resistance to talking about race and racism.

The story of the three “white words” is what most sociologists studying race brings to the table. This is like any complex societal pattern — multifaceted and multidimensional. Never is racism supported on a single thin reed such as the Implicit Association Test (IAT). Reading detractors of DiAngelo — most notably Jonathan Church, one would imagine that she rests much of her assertions on implicit bias. Conclusions about how race operates in society can indeed be supported by experimental tests such as the IAT. But the evidence for racism is found in a wide array of sources, from the documentation of human interactions in everyday life (e.g., ethnography), to the statistical analysis of attitudes from survey data (e.g., the Pew Research Center), to government data revealing racist patterns (e.g., policing), to increasingly Big Data.

White Fragility

White fragility describes the “anger, withdrawal, emotional incapacitation, guilt, argumentation, and cognitive dissonance” of white people when the racial narratives they hold are threatened. Notice I did not say when they are accused of being a racist. When DiAngelo’s detractors talk about white fragility only in terms of white people reacting to being called racist, they are being disingenuous. Here is a summary of a scenario that opens the chapter where the concept of white fragility is introduced (Chapter 8 — “The Result: White Fragility”):

Joan, a black woman, has requested that Karen, a white woman, stop talking over her in meetings. Karen is upset at this request. Karen sees herself as an individual. However, Joan’s perception of these events is that Karen is a white woman interrupting her as a black woman. There are racial dynamics at play that Joan perceives, but Karen does not. When DiAngelo attempts to explain this, Karen responds with, “Forget it! I cannot say anything right, so I am going to stop talking!”

In this short scenario, we see how Karen’s viewpoint of racial dynamics makes it difficult for her to see or acknowledge Joan’s perspective. Just in case readers cannot infer how race matters here for Joan, Karen is a member of a group that, for centuries, has purported to speak for people like Joan. There is a racial history here that Karen is not thinking about, but Joan is.

Karen sees herself as an individual, and her belief in objectivity prevents her from envisioning that Joan has a different interpretation of the dynamics at play. Karen is indeed a unique person, but concerning racial dynamics, Karen’s fragility is a typical response from a white person.

My guess is that most people who have read the title of the book — White Fragility — and then browsed a few hit pieces, will not be aware of the type of nuanced, context-dependent situations to which DiAngelo has been privy.

I further suspect that black people will nod in recognition when they read this chapter. They will recognize many of the examples DiAngelo points out. For example, many black people have been in a position in which they point out racist phenomena in a setting, and yet they are accused of causing the problem. She writes that in her work as a consultant, “…I am consistently warned that past efforts to address the lack of diversity have resulted in trauma for white employees”.

Most black people, including me, know what is going on here. Some of us have had to navigate a subtly racist work environment every day for years. Remember, this is not about overt acts of immoral behavior. For a professor, this could be watching a white colleague’s work get lauded in a faculty meeting while yours of equal merit does not. Or, seeing your white colleagues have access to more leverageable information (upcoming grants, an opportunity to co-author a research article). At the same time, you get the boilerplate advice: “The first year is always the toughest” and “Make sure and get enough sleep.” These actions are racist in their implications regardless of whether the senior faculty intend it to be so.

A three-hour diversity training workshop is given, where concerns of racist behavior are raised. At which time, white people talk about their trauma at being called a racist! DiAngelo writes, “White fragility functions as a form of bullying; I am going to make it so miserable for you to confront me — no matter how diplomatically you try to do so — that you will simply back off, give up, and never raise the issue again.”

These are complex interactions that require quite a bit of intellectual investment to understand. I urge DiAngelo’s detractors to reflect on why they can place their personal experiences with racial discussions on equal footing with someone who has earned a Ph.D., taught for many years, and was a consultant for many years. The wealth of experience she brings to bear on white fragility is impressive and shows in her book.

Conclusion: The Final Four Chapters

A common objection is that every response to the charge of being racist or contributing to racism counts as being fragile. This claim conflates “theory” with “practice.” On a theoretical level, yes, one would need to clearly define what is and what is not white fragility and then test those claims. Psychologists or sociologists may try to do some fieldwork or natural experiments to understand these dynamics with more precision, as laid about by Valerie Tarico.

But this is missing the point of the entire book and is a massive deflection. DiAngelo’s work is a field manual for having constructive conversations about racism. There is no “Kafkaesque trap,” as Jonathan Church argues if one is talking about the practice of dealing with white fragility in discussions of race.

There are many ways of responding to having one’s racial narrative threatened:

  • One could ask probing questions to get a deeper understanding of that person’s experiences.
  • One could validate that person’s experiences before venturing into relaying their own.
  • One could accept the charge (as a friend might do when another friend says that he or she has hurt their feelings) and then ask about ways to move forward.
  • One could neither accept nor reject, but make the (genuine) attempt to reflect on the charge.

Although White Fragility is for and about white people, the point is to leverage the experience and knowledge of DiAngelo to deal with the concerns of the actual aggrieved party — racial minorities. Her detractors, completely missing this point, respond with bivariate tables and accusations of faulty logic. If you are thinking this is being fragile, you would be correct.

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