Robin DiAngelo is a sociologist with a PhD in multicultural education, working as a diversity trainer across the US for more than 20 years. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism is her third book on the topic of racial inequality, where she confronts the disbelief and sensitivity white people exhibit when they are told they are complicit in society’s institutional racism.
While it was written in 2018, this book is still desperately needed today.
It has been ten days since George Floyd was murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A lot has happened during this time. There have been protests in all fifty states and across the world. The officer who murdered Floyd has been charged with second degree murder, and the other three officers charged with aiding and abetting second degree murder. There is hope in the air that this could be a turning point after centuries of discrimination against black people.
On the flip side, there have been unprecedented amounts of police brutality unleashed on protestors, journalists, medics and non-protestors, with the majority of them completely unprovoked. Major news networks are reporting a skewed version of the protests, focusing on looting opportunists and failing to cover the majority of non-violent demonstrations, and the importance of the black lives matter movement. The contrasting words the media uses to describe black-led protests versus white-led protests is blatantly and inarguably biased. And with many white people ignorantly claiming the protestors are ‘rioters that are destroying cities and getting what they deserve’, the vicious undercurrent of racism that has controlled the country for hundreds of years grows angrier and deeper.
DiAngelo coined the term ‘White Fragility’ after years of witnessing defensive responses by many white people when examining societal discrimination, structural racism, and white privilege. Common responses include: ‘Well, it’s not me’, ‘I’m doing my best, what do you want from me?’, ‘You can’t say anything these days!’, ‘It’s PC gone mad!’, and the classic, ‘I can’t be racist, I have friends who are black!’
She points out a big issue with racism today is that it is seen as binary: Bad Person = racist, Good Person = not racist. This means when a white person is called out for personally contributing to a racial inequality, they will immediately interpret this as being called a bad person. Indignation ensues, all of the energy goes into proving they are not a bad person, and the true importance of the issue (and any opportunity to reflect on and amend their ways) is lost. The suggestion of racism causes more offence than the act of racism itself.
The way we are taught to define racism makes it nearly impossible for white people to understand it and recognise it. Because we live in a society of systemic racism where white people have the power, all white people are implicit in racism. The sooner we accept this, the sooner the trends of racial injustice can be recognised and disrupted.
“Stopping our racist patterns must be more important than working to convince others that we don’t have them.”
DiAngelo covers so much in 192 pages. Why the term ‘white’ became popular in the 1600s. How racial inferiority was created to justify unequal treatment. How white people see the term ‘white supremacy’ as referring only to radical hate groups when it is really the foundation of the society we live in; and how this reductive view obstructs our ability to identify racism and eradicate it.
“Most of us would not choose to be socialised into racism and white supremacy. Unfortunately, we didn’t have that choice.”
DiAngelo states that the white person’s defensiveness on the topic of racism is rooted in the false but widespread belief that racial discrimination can only be intentional. Being white herself she has a refreshing approach to her own white privilege by acknowledging that while she didn’t set the system up she does benefit from it, and therefore it is her responsibility to change her role in the system. This understanding leads her to be grateful should she receive feedback on accidental acts of racism, as she requires this feedback in order to identify her complicity and make the changes needed.
She also talks about white solidarity, which is the unspoken agreement among white people to protect white advantage and not cause another white person to feel racial discomfort by confronting them when they say or do something problematic. More often than not a white person’s feelings are protected instead of confronting racism.
“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.”
While the subject matter can be confronting, this is a necessary requirement to issue a powerful call to action: if your starting point is to accept that of course you have been thoroughly socialised into the racist culture of which you were born and benefit from, you no longer need to expend energy denying that fact. Once this is accepted, the real work to become anti-racist can begin.
Rating: 5 out of 5. A critical examination of white identity, the antidote needed to address white fragility. This is such an important read for all white people from colonised countries. It should be on every school curriculum.