As defined by Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility refers to both a book and a behavior. In her subtitle, “Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” we learn the simplest definition of the behavior. White people see race through a completely different lens, based on life experiences and cultural conditioning.
This is a book of the moment, despite its 2018 publication date. And, sadly, it’s also a book which is appropriate for many decades, including most likely those to come. The history of racism is long in years and deeply embedded in our culture. So, one book can not cover it all or change it forever.
I believe DiAngelo doesn’t intend to do either. Her purpose is to translate her racial and social justice training from seminars to the printed page. She begins with her thesis—that all white people are racist, and most will react with hypersensitivity when told this. Then she works through her proofs of thesis. At the tail end of the book, she includes some possible solutions.
DiAngelo starts with the history of racism in America, including an explanation of how many factors combine to create structural racism. Then she moves on to what it’s like to be white, as compared to lives of people of color. This includes discussion of what she calls the “good/bad binary,” which is her segue into the real meat of white fragility.
As she dives into her full explanation of the many aspects of white fragility, DiAngelo uses a variety of frameworks. For example, the ideas of body supremacy and white savior complex. In the case of the latter, she uses a movie (based on a true story) as an example. She also quotes from scholars like Carol Anderson and anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu. Her explanation of Bourdieu’s concepts was unclear for me. But I plan to search for other sources and see if that helps.
White fragility in action
From here, DiAngelo moves into examples from her work and her own experience. She describes seminar participants who exhibit white fragility. And also, the frustration that she and other participants experience when their work gets derailed by these reactions. There are a few pages of lists: feelings, behaviors, claims, assumptions. Her “Rules of Engagement” is the mother lode of how white people restrict their own growth in this area by cutting off deeper examination with limitations. And then there are “White Women’s Tears,” a category all its own.
After moving from history to theory to actions, DiAngelo is finally ready to discuss next steps. Her section on solutions is a scant ten percent of the total pages. She fully proves the thesis that white fragility exists. I’ll be grateful if and when she translates this knowledge and experience to suggestions beyond this book. But, honestly, just reading this book is enough for now. It’s packed full.
Don’t get me wrong here. This is an important book for white people to read. I think we have to confront this concept and process it before we can move towards concrete anti-racist change, both structurally and personally. DiAngelo discusses aspects of white racial socialization that intrigue me, like the connection to Bourdieu’s concepts.
As I read White Fragility, I highlighted often and could relate to my own white woman experiences. My thoughts while reading also provoked interesting dinner discussions with my spouse, who is Asian American / Pacific Islander (AAPI).
I hope that my lens is different based on the inquiry I set out to do in 2017. After reading many books about social justice history, historical figures, and current movements, my perspective is definitely wider than it was. I see the lives of people of color in a way I couldn’t before. Yet, I’m still white, female, suburban and according to DiAngelo, I’m racist and always will be.
I’m still absorbing that pronouncement. But I’m willing to take her hypothesis in and deal with it. I’m not willing to walk away in tears and say, “but I’ve read all this stuff.” I haven’t lived the lives that people of color have. So, I don’t really understand. But I’m trying, and that’s what this book means for me—another aspect of understanding healthy ally behavior.
After reading White Fragility, I particularly want to pick up How to be an Anti-Racist by Ibram Kendi and revisit it. I think the two would make an effective reading pair. I’ll let you know how it goes.