Read White Fragility Online

Authors: Robin DiAngelo

White Fragility (2 page)

AUTHOR'S NOTE
IDENTITY POLITICS

The United States was founded on the principle that all people are created equal. Yet the nation began with the attempted genocide of Indigenous people and the theft of their land. American wealth was built on the labor of kidnapped and enslaved Africans and their descendants. Women were denied the right to vote until 1920, and black women were denied access to that right until 1964. The term
identity politics
refers to the focus on the barriers specific groups face in their struggle for equality. We have yet to achieve our founding principle, but any gains we have made thus far have come through identity politics.

The identities of those sitting at the tables of power in this country have remained remarkably similar: white, male, middle- and upper-class, able-bodied. Acknowledging this fact may be dismissed as political correctness, but it is still a fact. The decisions made at those tables affect the lives of those not at the tables. Exclusion by those at the table doesn't depend on willful intent; we don't have to intend to exclude for the results of our actions to be exclusion. While implicit bias is always at play because all humans have bias, inequity can occur simply through homogeneity; if I am not aware of the barriers you face, then I won't see them, much less be motivated to remove them. Nor will I be motivated to remove the barriers if they provide an advantage to which I feel entitled.

All progress we have made in the realm of civil rights has been accomplished through identity politics: women's suffrage, the American with Disabilities Act, Title 9, federal recognition of same-sex marriage. A key issue in the 2016 presidential election was the white working class. These are all manifestations of identity politics.

Take women's suffrage. If being a woman denies you the right to vote, you ipso facto cannot grant it to yourself. And you certainly cannot vote for your right to vote. If men control all the mechanisms that exclude women from voting as well as the mechanisms that can reverse that exclusion, women must call on men for justice. You could not have had a conversation about women's right to vote and men's need to grant it without naming women and men. Not naming the groups that face barriers only serves those who already have access; the assumption is that the access enjoyed by the controlling group is universal. For example, although we are taught that women were granted suffrage in 1920, we ignore the fact that it was white women who received full access or that it was white men who granted it. Not until the 1960s, through the Voting Rights Act, were all women—regardless of race—granted full access to suffrage. Naming who has access and who doesn't guides our efforts in challenging injustice.

This book is unapologetically rooted in identity politics. I am white and am addressing a common white dynamic. I am mainly writing to a white audience; when I use the terms
us
and
we,
I am referring to the white collective. This usage may be jarring to white readers because we are so rarely asked to think about ourselves or fellow whites in racial terms. But rather than retreat in the face of that discomfort, we can practice building our stamina for the critical examination of white identity—a necessary antidote to white fragility. This raises another issue rooted in identity politics: in speaking as a white person to a primarily white audience, I am yet again centering white people and the white voice. I have not found a way around this dilemma, for as an insider I
can speak to the white experience in ways that may be harder to deny. So, though I am centering the white voice, I am also using my insider status to challenge racism. To not use my position this way is to uphold racism, and that is unacceptable; it is a “both/and” that I must live with. I would never suggest that mine is the only voice that should be heard, only that it is one of the many pieces needed to solve the overall puzzle.

People who do not identify as white may also find this book helpful for understanding why it is so often difficult to talk to white people about racism. People of color cannot avoid understanding white consciousness to some degree if they are to be successful in this society, yet nothing in dominant culture affirms their understanding or validates their frustrations when they interact with white people. I hope that this exploration affirms the cross-racial experiences of people of color and provides some useful insight.

This book looks at the United States and the general context of the West (United States, Canada, and Europe). It does not address nuances and variations within other sociopolitical settings. However, these patterns have also been observed in white people in other white settler societies such as Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

WHAT ABOUT MULTIRACIAL PEOPLE?

Throughout this book, I argue that racism is deeply complex and nuanced, and given this, we can never consider our learning to be complete or finished. One example of this complexity is in the very use of the racial categories “white” and “people of color.” I use the terms
white
and
people of color
to indicate the two macro-level, socially recognized divisions of the racial hierarchy. Yet in using these terms, I am collapsing a great deal of variation. And though I believe (for reasons explained in
chapter 1
) that temporarily suspending individuality to focus on group identity is healthy for white people, doing so has very different impacts on people of color. For multiracial people in particular, these binary categories leave them in a frustrating “middle.”

Multiracial people, because they challenge racial constructs and boundaries, face unique challenges in a society in which racial categories have profound meaning. The dominant society will assign them the racial identity they most physically resemble, but their own internal racial identity may not align with the assigned identity. For example, though the musician Bob Marley was multiracial, society perceived him as black and thus responded to him as if he were black. When multiracial people's racial identity is ambiguous, they will face constant pressure to explain themselves and “choose a side.” Racial identity for multiracial people is further complicated by the racial identity of their parents and the racial demographics of the community in which they are raised. For example, though a child may look black and be treated as black, she may be raised primarily by a white parent and thus identify more strongly as white.

The dynamics of what is termed “passing”—being perceived as white—will also shape a multiracial person's identity, as passing will grant him or her society's rewards of whiteness. However, people of mixed racial heritage who pass as white may also experience resentment and isolation from people of color who cannot pass. Multiracial people may not be seen as “real” people of color or “real” whites. (It is worth noting that though the term “passing” refers to the ability to blend in as a white person, there is no corresponding term for the ability to pass as a person of color. This highlights the fact that, in a racist society, the desired direction is always toward whiteness and away from being perceived as a person of color.)

I will not be able to do justice to the complexity of multiracial identity. But for the purposes of grappling with white fragility, I offer multiracial people the concept of
saliency.
We all occupy multiple and intersecting social positionalities. I am white, but I am also a cisgender woman, able-bodied, and middle-aged. These identities don't cancel out one another; each is more or less salient in different contexts. For example, in a group in which I am the only woman, gender will likely be very salient for me. When I am in a group that is all white except for one
person of color, race will likely be my most salient identity. As you read, it will be for you to decide what speaks to your experience and what doesn't, and in what contexts. My hope is that you may gain insight into why people who identify as white are so difficult in conversations regarding race and/or gain insight into your own racial responses as you navigate the roiling racial waters of daily life.

INTRODUCTION
WE CAN'T GET
THERE FROM HERE

I am a white woman. I am standing beside a black woman. We are facing a group of white people seated in front of us. We are in their workplace and have been hired by their employer to lead them in a dialogue about race. The room is filled with tension and charged with hostility. I have just presented a definition of racism that includes the acknowledgment that whites hold social and institutional power over people of color. A white man is pounding his fist on the table. As he pounds, he yells, “A white person can't get a job anymore!” I look around the room and see forty employees, thirty-eight of whom are white. Why is this white man so angry? Why is he being so careless about the impact of his anger? Why doesn't he notice the effect this outburst is having on the few people of color in the room? Why are all the other white people either sitting in silent agreement with him or tuning out? I have, after all, only articulated a definition of racism.

White people in North America live in a society that is deeply separate and unequal by race, and white people are the beneficiaries of that separation and inequality. As a result, we 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. Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race. We consider a challenge to our racial worldviews as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people. Thus, we perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as an unsettling and unfair moral offense. The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable—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.
Though white fragility is triggered by discomfort and anxiety, it is born of superiority and entitlement. White fragility is not weakness per se. In fact, it is a powerful means of white racial control and the protection of white advantage.

Summarizing the familiar patterns of white people's responses to racial discomfort as white fragility has resonated for many people. The sensibility is so familiar because whereas our personal narratives vary, we are all swimming in the same racial water. For me, the recognition has come through my work. I have a rare job; on a daily basis I lead primarily white audiences in discussions of race, something many of us avoid at all costs.

In the early days of my work as what was then termed a diversity trainer, I was taken aback by how angry and defensive so many white people became at the suggestion that they were connected to racism in any way. The very idea that they would be required to attend a workshop on racism outraged them. They entered the room angry and made that feeling clear to us throughout the day as they slammed their notebooks down on the table, refused to participate in exercises, and argued against any and all points.

I couldn't understand their resentment or disinterest in learning more about such a complex social dynamic as racism. These reactions
were especially perplexing when there were few or no people of color in their workplace, and they had the opportunity to learn from my cofacilitators of color. I assumed that in these circumstances, an educational workshop on racism would be appreciated. After all, didn't the lack of diversity indicate a problem or at least suggest that some perspectives were missing? Or that the participants might be undereducated about race because of scant cross-racial interactions?

It took me several years to see beneath these reactions. At first I was intimidated by them, and they held me back and kept me careful and quiet. But over time, I began to see what lay beneath this anger and resistance to discuss race or listen to people of color. I observed consistent responses from a variety of participants. For example, many white participants who lived in white suburban neighborhoods and had no sustained relationships with people of color were absolutely certain that they held no racial prejudice or animosity. Other participants simplistically reduced racism to a matter of nice people versus mean people. Most appeared to believe that racism ended in 1865 with the end of slavery. There was both knee-jerk defensiveness about any suggestion that being white had meaning and a refusal to acknowledge any advantage to being white. Many participants claimed white people were now the oppressed group, and they deeply resented anything perceived to be a form of affirmative action. These responses were so predictable—so consistent and reliable—I was able to stop taking the resistance personally, get past my own conflict avoidance, and reflect on what was behind them.

I began to see what I think of as the pillars of whiteness—the unexamined beliefs that prop up our racial responses. I could see the power of the belief that only bad people were racist, as well as how individualism allowed white people to exempt themselves from the forces of socialization. I could see how we are taught to think about racism only as discrete acts committed by individual people, rather than as a complex, interconnected system. And in light of so many white expressions of resentment toward people of color, I realized that we see ourselves as entitled to, and deserving of, more than people of color deserve; I
saw our investment in a system that serves us. I also saw how hard we worked to deny all this and how defensive we became when these dynamics were named. In turn, I saw how our defensiveness maintained the racial status quo.

Personal reflections on my own racism, a more critical view of media and other aspects of culture, and exposure to the perspectives of many brilliant and patient mentors of color all helped me to see how these pillars of racism worked. It became clear that if I believed that only bad people who intended to hurt others because of race could ever do so, I would respond with outrage to any suggestion that I was involved in racism. Of course that belief would make me feel falsely accused of something terrible, and of course I would want to defend my character (and I had certainly had many of my own moments of responding in just those ways to reflect on). I came to see that the way we are taught to define racism makes it virtually impossible for white people to understand it. Given our racial insulation, coupled with misinformation, any suggestion that we are complicit in racism is a kind of unwelcome and insulting shock to the system.

If, however, I understand racism as a system into which I was socialized, I can receive feedback on my problematic racial patterns as a helpful way to support my learning and growth. One of the greatest social fears for a white person is being told that something that we have said or done is racially problematic. Yet when someone lets us know that we have just done such a thing, rather than respond with gratitude and relief (after all, now that we are informed, we won't do it again), we often respond with anger and denial. Such moments can be experienced as something valuable, even if temporarily painful, only after we accept that racism is unavoidable and that it is impossible to completely escape having developed problematic racial assumptions and behaviors.

None of the white people whose actions I describe in this book would identify as racist. In fact, they would most likely identify as racially progressive and vehemently deny any complicity with racism. Yet all their responses illustrate white fragility and how it holds racism in place. These responses spur the daily frustrations and indignities people
of color endure from white people who see themselves as open-minded and thus not racist. This book is intended for us, for white progressives who so often—despite our conscious intentions—make life so difficult for people of color. I believe that
white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color.
I define a white progressive as any white person who thinks he or she is not racist, or is less racist, or in the “choir,” or already “gets it.” White progressives can be the most difficult for people of color because, to the degree that we think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived. None of our energy will go into what we need to be doing for the rest of our lives: engaging in ongoing self-awareness, continuing education, relationship building, and actual antiracist practice. White progressives do indeed uphold and perpetrate racism, but our defensiveness and certitude make it virtually impossible to explain to us how we do so.

Racism has been among the most complex social dilemmas since the founding of this country. While there is no biological race as we understand it (see
chapter 2
), race as a social construct has profound significance and shapes every aspect of our lives.
1
Race will influence whether we will survive our birth, where we are most likely to live, which schools we will attend, who our friends and partners will be, what careers we will have, how much money we will earn, how healthy we will be, and even how long we can expect to live.
2
This book does not attempt to provide the solution to racism. Nor does it attempt to prove that racism exists; I start from that premise. My goal is to make visible how one aspect of white sensibility continues to hold racism in place: white fragility.

I will explain the phenomenon of white fragility, how we develop it, how it protects racial inequality, and what we might do about it.

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