Read White Fragility Online

Authors: Robin DiAngelo

White Fragility (14 page)


I am coaching a small group of white employees on how racism manifests in their workplace. One member of the group, Karen, is upset about a request from Joan, her only colleague of color, to stop talking over her. Karen doesn't understand what talking over Joan has to do with race; she is an extrovert and tends to talks over everyone. I try to explain how the impact is different when we interrupt across race because we bring our histories with us. While Karen sees herself as a unique individual, Joan sees Karen as a white individual. Being interrupted and talked over by white people is not a unique experience for Joan; nor is it separate from the larger cultural context. Karen exclaims, “Forget it! I can't say anything right, so I am going to stop talking!”

The preceding episode highlights Karen's white fragility. She is unable to see herself in racial terms. When she is pressed to do so, she refuses to engage further, positioning herself as the one being treated unfairly. As NPR's Don Gonyea points out, a remarkable preponderance of white Americans believe that they also experience racial prejudice:

A majority of whites say discrimination against them exists in America today, according to a poll released Tuesday from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.

“If you apply for a job, they seem to give the blacks the first crack at it,” said 68-year-old Tim Hershman of Akron, Ohio, “and, basically, you know, if you want any help from the government, if you're white, you don't get it. If you're black, you get it.”

More than half of whites—55 percent—surveyed say that, generally speaking, they believe there is discrimination against white people in America today. . . .

Notable, however, is that though a majority of whites in the poll say discrimination against them exists, a much smaller percentage say they have actually experienced it.

The large body of research about children and race demonstrates that children start to construct their ideas about race very early. Remarkably, a sense of white superiority and knowledge of racial power codes appear to develop as early as preschool.
Professor of communications Judith Martin describes white children's upbringing:

As in other Western nations, white children born in the United States inherit the moral predicament of living in a white supremacist society. Raised to experience their racially based advantages as fair and normal, white children receive little if any instruction regarding the predicament they face, let alone any guidance in how to resolve it. Therefore, they experience or learn about racial tension without understanding Euro-Americans' historical responsibility for it and knowing virtually nothing about their contemporary roles in perpetuating it.

Despite its ubiquity, white superiority is also unnamed and denied by most whites. If we become adults who explicitly oppose racism, as do many, we often organize our identity around a denial of our racially based privileges that reinforce racist disadvantage for others. What is particularly problematic about this contradiction is that white people's moral objection to racism increases their resistance to acknowledging their complicity with it. In a white supremacist context, white identity largely rests on a foundation of (superficial) racial tolerance and
acceptance. We whites who position ourselves as liberal often opt to protect what we perceive as our moral reputations, rather than recognize or change our participation in systems of inequity and domination.

For example, in 2016, the Oscars were challenged for their lack of diversity. When asked if she felt the Oscars were “behind the times” for failing to nominate a single black actor for the second year in a row, actor Helen Mirren defaulted to white racial innocence in her reply: “It just so happened it went that way.” She also claimed, “It's unfair to attack the academy.” Actor Charlotte Rampling called the idea of a boycott against the Oscars to draw attention to the lack of diversity “racist against whites.” In so responding, whites invoke the power to choose when, how, and to what extent racism is addressed or challenged. Thus, pointing out white advantage will often trigger patterns of confusion, defensiveness, and righteous indignation. These responses enable defenders to protect their moral character against a perceived attack while rejecting any culpability. Focusing on restoring their moral standing through these tactics, whites are able to avoid the challenge.

One way that whites protect their positions when challenged on race is to invoke the discourse of self-defense. Through this discourse, whites characterize themselves as victimized, slammed, blamed, and attacked.
Whites who describe the interactions in this way are responding to the articulation of counternarratives alone; no physical violence has ever occurred in any interracial discussion or training that I am aware of. These self-defense claims work on multiple levels. They identify the speakers as morally superior while obscuring the true power of their social positions. The claims blame others with less social power for their discomfort and falsely describe that discomfort as dangerous. The self-defense approach also reinscribes racist imagery. By positioning themselves as the victim of antiracist efforts, they cannot be the beneficiaries of whiteness. Claiming that it is they who have been unfairly treated—through a challenge to their position or an expectation that they listen to the perspectives and experiences of people of color—they can demand that more social resources (such as time and attention) be channeled in their direction to help them cope with this mistreatment.

When I consult with organizations that want me to help them recruit and retain a more diverse workforce, I am consistently warned that past efforts to address the lack of diversity have resulted in trauma for white employees. This is literally the term used to describe the impact of a brief and isolated workshop:
This trauma has required years of avoiding the topic altogether, and although the business leaders feel they are ready to begin again, I am cautioned to proceed slowly and be careful. Of course, this white racial trauma in response to equity efforts has also ensured that the organization has remained overwhelmingly white.

The language of violence that many whites use to describe antiracist endeavors is not without significance, as it is another example of how white fragility distorts reality. By employing terms that connote physical abuse, whites tap into the classic story that people of color (particularly African Americans) are dangerous and violent. In so doing, whites distort the real direction of danger between whites and others. This history becomes profoundly minimized when whites claim they don't feel safe or are under attack when they find themselves in the rare situation of merely talking about race with people of color. The use of this language of violence illustrates how fragile and ill-equipped most white people are to confront racial tensions, and their subsequent projection of this tension onto people of color.

Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, in his study of color-blind racism, describes an aspect of white fragility: “Because the new racial climate in America forbids the open expression of racially based feelings, views, and positions, when whites discuss issues that make them uncomfortable, they become almost incomprehensible.”
Probing forbidden racial issues results in verbal incoherence—digressions, long pauses, repetition, and self-corrections. Bonilla-Silva suggests that this incoherent talk is a function of talking about race in a world that insists that race does not matter. This incoherence suggests that many white people are unprepared to explore, even on a preliminary level, their racial perspectives and to work to shift their understanding of racism. This reluctance maintains white power because the ability to determine which narratives
are authorized and which are suppressed is the foundation of cultural domination. This reluctance has further implications, for if whites cannot explore alternate racial perspectives, they can only reinscribe white perspectives as universal.

However, whites do engage in racial discourse under controlled conditions. We notice the racial positions of racial others and discuss this freely among ourselves, albeit often in coded ways. The refusal to directly acknowledge this race talk results in a kind of split consciousness that leads to irrationality and incoherence. This denial also guarantees that the racial misinformation that circulates in the culture and frames our perspectives will be left unexamined. The continual retreat from the discomfort of authentic racial engagement in a culture in which racial disparity is infused limits white people's ability to form authentic connections across racial lines and perpetuates a cycle that keeps racism in place.

A cogent example of white fragility occurred during a workplace anti-racism training I co-facilitated with an inter-racial team. One of the white participants left the session and went back to her desk, upset at receiving (what appeared to the training team as) sensitive and diplomatic feedback on how some of her statements had impacted several of the people of color in the room. At break, several other white participants approached me and my fellow trainers and reported that they had talked to the woman at her desk, and that she was very upset that her statements had been challenged. (Of course, “challenged” was not how she phrased her concern. It was framed as her being “falsely accused” of having a racist impact.) Her friends wanted to alert us to the fact that she was in poor health and “might be having a heart-attack.” Upon questioning from us, they clarified that they meant this literally. These coworkers were sincere in their fear that the young woman might actually die as a result of the feedback. Of course when news of the women's potentially fatal condition reached the rest of the participant group, all attention was immediately focused back onto her and away from engagement with the impact she had had on the people of color. As professor of social work Rich Vodde states, “If privilege is defined as
a legitimization of one's entitlement to resources, it can also be defined as permission to escape or avoid any challenges to this entitlement.”

White equilibrium is a cocoon of racial comfort, centrality, superiority, entitlement, racial apathy, and obliviousness, all rooted in an identity of being good people free of racism. Challenging this cocoon throws off our racial balance. Because being racially off balance is so rare, we have not had to build the capacity to sustain the discomfort. Thus, whites find these challenges unbearable and want them to stop.


Let me be clear: while the capacity for white people to sustain challenges to our racial positions is limited—and, in this way, fragile—the effects of our responses are not fragile at all; they are quite powerful because they take advantage of historical and institutional power and control. We wield this power and control in whatever way is most useful in the moment to protect our positions. If we need to cry so that all the resources rush back to us and attention is diverted away from a discussion of our racism, then we will cry (a strategy most commonly employed by white middle-class women). If we need to take umbrage and respond with righteous outrage, then we will take umbrage. If we need to argue, minimize, explain, play devil's advocate, pout, tune out, or withdraw to stop the challenge, then we will.

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. White fragility keeps people of color in line and “in their place.” In this way, it is a powerful form of white racial control. Social power is not fixed; it is constantly challenged and needs to be maintained. We might think of the triggers of white fragility discussed in
chapter 7
as challenges to white power and control, and of white fragility as the means to end the challenge and maintain that power and control.

Let me also be clear that the term “white fragility” is intended to describe a very specific white phenomenon. White fragility is much more than mere defensiveness or whining. It may be conceptualized as the
sociology of dominance:
an outcome of white people's socialization into white supremacy and a means to protect, maintain, and reproduce white supremacy. The term is
not applicable
to other groups who may register complaints or otherwise be deemed difficult (e.g., “student fragility”).

In my workshops, I often ask people of color, “How often have you given white people feedback on our unaware yet inevitable racism? How often has that gone well for you?” Eye-rolling, head-shaking, and outright laughter follow, along with the consensus of
rarely, if ever.
I then ask, “What would it be like if you could simply give us feedback, have us graciously receive it, reflect, and work to change the behavior?” Recently a man of color sighed and said, “It would be revolutionary.” I ask my fellow whites to consider the profundity of that response. It would be
if we could receive, reflect, and work to change the behavior. On the one hand, the man's response points to how difficult and fragile we are. But on the other hand, it indicates how simple it can be to take responsibility for our racism. However, we aren't likely to get there if we are operating from the dominant worldview that only intentionally mean people can participate in racism.


A board president has finally obtained agreement from the school to sponsor racial equity training for his predominately white teaching staff. But when he hears the workshop's title, he backs away, not liking that the term white is used.

When I was a professor of education, my university was situated ten miles from a city that is roughly 56 percent black and Latinx. Our student population was 97 percent white, and many of them did their internships in the public schools in this city. My department hadn't hired a faculty member of color in seventeen years. I repeatedly brought this up as an issue, but silence repeatedly followed. Eventually, a white colleague came to my office and angrily told me, “Every time you bring this up, you are saying that we shouldn't have our jobs.”

A white man works for an Indian tribe. He consistently lets the Native people he works with know how “exhausted” he is from “seeing injustice.” He doesn't know how much longer he can endure the job. His Native coworkers feel pressured to repeatedly console him and encourage him to stay.

I receive a call from a virtually all-white organization that is interested in racial equity training. They want to know how I will ensure that the participants will feel comfortable.

I have just given a keynote talk on what it means to be white in a society that proclaims that being white means nothing, while remaining deeply separated and unequal by race. The focus of my talk is on how race shapes white identity and the inevitable patterns that result. A white woman who works with Native Americans approaches the event organizer, who is a woman of color. The white woman is furious. “What about Native Americans? You left out Native Americans!” She berates the organizer for several minutes at a volume that I can hear from across the stage. When I intervene, she is calmer but still chastises me for leaving out Native Americans—who are “the most oppressed of all.” At no point does she acknowledge any aspect of the talk that relates to her as a white person, share any insight she may have gained into her own whiteness, or consider the impact of berating a woman of color who didn't actually give the talk.

As a former professor and current facilitator and consultant, I am in a position to give white people feedback on how their unintentional racism is manifesting itself. In this position, I have observed countless enactments of white fragility. One of the most common is outrage: “How dare you suggest that I could have said or done something racist!” Although these are unpleasant moments for me, they are also rather amusing. The reason I am there in the first place is because I have been hired specifically to do just that; I have been asked to help the members of the organization understand why their workplace continues to remain white, why they are having so much trouble recruiting people of color, and/or why the people of color they hire don't stay.

At this point in my career, I rarely encounter the kind of open hostility that I was met with in my early days as a facilitator. I attribute this change to the years of experience behind my pedagogy. Of course, I am also white, which makes other white people much more receptive to the message. I am often amazed at what I can say to groups of primarily white people. I can describe our culture as white supremacist and say
things like “All white people are invested in and collude with racism” without my fellow white people running from the room or reeling from trauma. Naturally, I don't walk in and lead with those statements; I strategically guide people to a shared understanding of what I mean by those claims. My own whiteness coupled with experience and strategy puts white people's overall reception of me light-years beyond how I was received in the early days.

White people are receptive to my presentation as long as it remains abstract. The moment I name some racially problematic dynamic or action happening in the room
in the moment
—for example, “Sharon, may I give you some feedback? While I understand it wasn't intentional, your response to Jason's story invalidates his experience as a black man”—white fragility erupts. Sharon defensively explains that she was misunderstood and then angrily withdraws, while others run in to defend her by re-explaining “what she really meant.” The point of the feedback is now lost, and hours must be spent repairing this perceived breach. And, of course, no one appears concerned about Jason. Shaking my head, I think to myself, “You asked me here to help you see your racism, but by god, I'd better not actually help you see your racism.”

Throughout this book, I have attempted to make visible the inevitable racist assumptions held and patterns displayed by white people conditioned by living in a white supremacist culture. When these patterns are named or questioned, we have predictable responses. The responses begin with a set of unexamined assumptions, which, when questioned, trigger various emotions, which activate some expected behaviors. These behaviors are then justified by numerous claims. These responses, emotions, behaviors, and claims are illustrated in the following example of a recent eruption of white fragility.

I was co-leading a community workshop. Because an employer had not sponsored it, the participants had all voluntarily signed up and paid a fee to attend. For this reason, we could assume that they were open and interested in the content. I was working with a small group of white participants when a woman I will refer to as Eva stated that because she grew up in Germany, where she said there were no black people,
she had learned nothing about race and held no racism. I pushed back on this claim by asking her to reflect on the messages she had received from her childhood about people who lived in Africa. Surely she was aware of Africa and had some impressions of the people there? Had she ever watched American films? If so, what impression did she get about African Americans? I also asked her to reflect on what she had absorbed from living in the US for the last twenty-three years, whether she had any relationships with African Americans here, and if not, then why not.

We moved on and I forgot about the interaction until she approached me after the workshop ended. She was furious and said that she had been deeply offended by our exchange and did not “feel seen.” “You made assumptions about me!” she said. I apologized and told her that I would never want her to feel unseen or invalidated. However, I also held to my challenge that growing up in Germany would not preclude her from absorbing problematic racial messages about black people. She countered by telling me that she had never even seen a black person “before the American soldiers came.” And when they did come, “all the German women thought them so beautiful that they wanted to connect with them.” This was her evidence that she held no racism. With an internal sigh of defeat, I gave up at that point and repeated my apology. We parted ways, but her anger was unabated.

A few months later, one of my cofacilitators contacted Eva to tell her about an upcoming workshop. Eva was apparently still angry. She replied that she would never again attend a workshop led by me. Notice that I did not tell Eva that she was racist or that her story was racist. But what I did do was challenge her self-image as someone exempt from racism. Paradoxically, Eva's anger that I did not take her claims at face value surfaced within the context of a volunteer workshop on racism, which she ostensibly attended to deepen her understanding of racism.

Let's start with the common emotional reactions that white people have (and that Eva demonstrated) when our assumptions and behaviors are challenged.

• Singled out
• Insulted
• Attacked
• Judged
• Silenced
• Angry
• Shamed
• Scared
• Guilty
• outraged
• Accused

When we have these feelings, it is common to behave in the following ways, as Eva did:

• Crying
• Denying
• Physically leaving
• Focusing on intentions
• Emotionally withdrawing
• Seeking absolution
• Arguing
• Avoiding

Given that these are strong emotions and reactions, they need to be justified. What claims do we make to justify these feelings and behaviors? Some of the following claims suggest that the claimant has been falsely accused. Others suggest that the claimant is beyond the discussion (“I already know all this”). But all of them exempt the person from further engagement or accountability, as Eva's claims exempted her.

• I know people of color.
• The real oppression is class
• I marched in the sixties.
   [or gender, or anything other
• I already know all this.
   than race].
• You are judging me.
• You are elitist.
• You don't know me.
• I just said one little innocent
• You are generalizing.
• That is just your opinion.
• Some people find
• I disagree.
   offense where there is none.
• You don't do this the right way.
• You misunderstood me.
• You're playing the race card.
• I don't feel safe.
• This is not welcoming to me.
• The problem is your tone.
• You're being racist against me.
• I can't say anything right.
• You are making me feel guilty.
• That was not my intention.
• You hurt my feelings.
• I have suffered too.

Several of these claims are also made in an email I received through my public website; the following comments are partly excerpted and summarized (caps in original email). The writer opens by saying that according to her assessment of my age, I did not live through the things that she lived through, and therefore, “I seriously doubt that there is one single thing you could tell me about race.” She goes on to state her credentials—how she lived through the momentous events of the civil rights movement, studied race and gender in college, is familiar with many famous black feminist writers and black politicians, and has known many black people throughout her life: neighbors, classmates, and colleagues. Further, the author suffers from the same illness that a black friend's sister died from decades earlier. This shared illness appears to be further proof of her alliance with black people. She uses these experiences and relationships as evidence that she has been able to shed any racism she may have had: “All the things you say whites ‘absorb'? I got them wrung out of me through my life and my education.” Her next move takes race off the table and replaces it with an oppression she experiences, sexism: “No, I don't want to talk about race any more. I want to talk about GENDER.” She ends by closing down any further engagement, saying that she likely wouldn't read any email I would send her.

I am confident that some of the feelings, behaviors, and claims illustrated in this email message will be familiar to white readers; we have either made some version of them ourselves or have heard others make them. Yet as with so many aspects of racism, we rarely examine or consider them problematic. So let's go under the surface and examine the framework of assumptions many of these claims rest on.


• Racism is simply personal prejudice.

• I am free of racism.

• I will be the judge of whether racism has occurred.

• My learning is finished; I know all I need to know.

• Racism can only be intentional; my not having intended racism cancels out the impact of my behavior.

• My suffering relieves me of racism or racial privilege.

• White people who experience another form of oppression cannot experience racial privilege.

• If I am a good person, I can't be racist.

• I am entitled to remain comfortable/have this conversation the way I want to.

• How I am perceived by others is the most important issue.

• As a white person, I know the best way to challenge racism.

• If I am feeling challenged, you are doing this wrong.

• It's unkind to point out racism.

• Racism is conscious bias. I have none, so I am not racist.

• Racists are bad individuals, so you are saying that I am a bad person.

• If you knew me or understood me, you would know I can't be racist.

• I have friends of color, so I can't be racist.

• There is no problem; society is fine the way it is.

• Racism is a simple problem. People just need to . . .

• My worldview is objective and the only one operating.

• If I can't see it, it isn't legitimate.

• If you have more knowledge on the subject than I do, you think you're better than me.

Now that we have identified the underlying assumptions that engender these feelings, behaviors, and claims, let's consider how they function.


• Maintain white solidarity

• Close off self-reflection

• Trivialize the reality of racism

• Silence the discussion

• Make white people the victims

• Hijack the conversation

• Protect a limited worldview

• Take race off the table

• Protect white privilege

• Focus on the messenger, not the message

• Rally more resources to white people

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