Read White Fragility Online

Authors: Robin DiAngelo

White Fragility (7 page)

Now think about your teachers. When was the first time you had a teacher of the same race as yours? Did you often have teachers of the same race as your own?

Most white people, in reflecting on these questions, realize that they almost always had white teachers; many did not have a teacher of color until college. Conversely, most people of color have rarely if ever had a teacher who reflected their own race(s). Why is it important to reflect on our teachers in our effort to uncover our racial socialization and the messages we receive from schools?

As you answer these questions, also consider which races were geographically closer to you than others. If your school was perceived as racially diverse, which races were more represented, and how did the racial distribution affect the sense of value associated with the school? For example, if white and Asian-heritage students were the primary racial groups in your school, your school was likely to be seen as better than a school with more representation from black and Latinx students. What were you learning about the racial hierarchy and your place in it from geography?

If you lived and went to school in racial segregation as most people in the United States do, you had to make sense of the incongruity between the claim that everyone was equal and the lived reality of segregation. If you lived in an integrated neighborhood and/or attended an integrated school, you had to make sense of the segregation in most of society outside the school, especially in segments considered of higher value or quality. It is also highly likely that there was still racial separation within the school. And for those of us who may have grown up in more integrated environments due to social class or changing neighborhood demographics, it is unlikely that integration has been sustained in our current lives. Reflection on these questions provides an entry point into the deeper messages that we all absorb and that shape our behavior and responses below the conscious level.

In the US, race is encoded in geography. I can name every neighborhood in my city and its racial makeup. I can also tell you if a neighborhood is coming up or down in terms of home equity, and this will be based primarily on how its racial demographics are changing. Going up? It will be getting whiter. Going down? It will be getting less white. When I was a child, posters on my school walls and television shows like
Sesame Street
told me explicitly that all people were equal, but we simply do not live together across race. I had to make sense of this separation. If we were equal, why did we live separately? It must be normal and natural to live apart (certainly no adult in my life was complaining about the separation). And at a deeper level, it must be righteous that we live apart, since we are better people. How did I get the message that
we were better people? Consider how we talk about white neighborhoods: good, safe, sheltered, clean, desirable. By definition, other spaces (not white) are bad, dangerous, crime-ridden and to be avoided; these neighborhoods are not positioned as sheltered and innocent. In these ways, the white racial frame is under construction.

Predominately white neighborhoods are not outside of race—they are
with race. Every moment we spend in those environments reinforces powerful aspects of the white racial frame, including a limited worldview, a reliance on deeply problematic depictions of people of color, comfort in segregation with no sense that there might be value in knowing people of color, and internalized superiority. In turn, our capacity to engage constructively across racial lines becomes profoundly limited.

To illustrate an early lesson in white racial framing, imagine that a white mother and her white child are in the grocery store. The child sees a black man and shouts out, “Mommy, that man's skin is black!” Several people, including the black man, turn to look. How do you imagine the mother would respond? Most people would immediately put their finger to their mouth and say, “Shush!” When white people are asked what the mother might be feeling, most agree that she is likely to feel anxiety, tension, and embarrassment. Indeed, many of us have had similar experiences wherein the message was clear: we should not talk openly about race.

When I use this example with my students, sometimes a student will say that the mother is just teaching her child to be polite. In other words, naming this man's race would be impolite. But why? What is shameful about being black—so shameful that we should pretend that we don't notice?
The mother's reaction would probably be the same if the man had a visible disability of some kind or was obese. But if the child had seen a white person and shouted out, “Mommy, that man's skin is white!” it is unlikely that the mother would feel the same anxiety, tension, and embarrassment that would have accompanied the first statement.

Now imagine that the child had shouted out how handsome the man was, or how strong. These statements would probably be met with
chuckles and smiles. The child would not likely be shushed, because we consider these statements compliments.

The example of a child publicly calling out a black man's race and embarrassing the mother illustrates several aspects of white children's racial socialization. First, children learn that it is taboo to openly talk about race. Second, they learn that people should pretend not to notice undesirable aspects that define some people as less valuable than others (a large birthmark on someone's face, a person using a wheelchair). These lessons manifest themselves later in life, when white adults drop their voices before naming the race of someone who isn't white (and especially so if the race being named is
), as if blackness were shameful or the word itself were impolite. If we add all the comments we make about people of color privately, when we are less careful, we may begin to recognize how white children are taught to navigate race.


“Children today are so open. When the old folks die off, we will finally be free of racism.”

“I grew up in a small rural community, so I was very sheltered. I didn't learn anything about racism.”

“I judge people by what they do, not who they are.”

“I don't see color; I see people.”

“We are all red under the skin.”

“I marched in the sixties.”

New racism
is a term coined by film professor Martin Barker to capture the ways in which racism has adapted over time so that modern norms, policies, and practices result in similar racial outcomes as those in the past, while not appearing to be explicitly racist.
Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva captures this dynamic in the title of his book
Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America.
He says that though virtually no one claims to be racist
anymore, racism still exists. How is that possible? Racism can still exist because it is highly adaptive. Because of this adaptability, we must be able to identify how it changes over time. For example, after a white nationalist march and the murder of a counter-protester, the president of the United States said that there are “very fine people on both sides.” This comment would have been unthinkable from a high-ranking public official just a few years ago. Yet if we asked the president if he was a racist, I am confident that he would reply with a resounding no (in fact, he recently stated that he was “the least racist” person one could ever meet). In this chapter, I review various ways that racism has adapted over time to continue to produce racial disparity while it exempts virtually all white people from any involvement in, or benefit from, racism.

All systems of oppression are adaptive; they can withstand and adjust to challenges and still maintain inequality. Take, for instance, the federal recognition of same-sex marriage and accommodations for people with disabilities. While the overall systems of heterosexism and ableism are still with us, they have adapted in limited ways. These adaptations are held up as reassurance to those who fought long and hard for a particular change that equality has now been achieved. These milestones—such as the recognition of same-sex marriage, the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title 9, the election of Barack Obama—are, of course, significant and worthy of celebration. But systems of oppression are deeply rooted and not overcome with the simple passage of legislation. Advances are also tenuous, as we can see in recent challenges to the rights of LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, and intersex) people. Systems of oppression are not completely inflexible. But they are far less flexible than popular ideology would acknowledge, and the collective impact of the inequitable distribution of resources continues across history.


What is termed color-blind racism is an example of racism's ability to adapt to cultural changes.
According to this ideology, if we pretend not
to notice race, then there can be no racism. The idea is based on a line from the famous “I Have a Dream” speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King in 1963 during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

At the time of King's speech, it was much more socially acceptable for white people to admit to their racial prejudices and belief in white racial superiority. But many white people had never witnessed the kind of violence to which blacks were subjected. Because the struggle for civil rights was televised, whites across the nation watched in horror as black men, women, and children were attacked by police dogs and fire hoses during peaceful protests and beaten and dragged away from lunch counters. Once the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed (a landmark civil rights and US labor law that outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin), it was less acceptable for white people to admit to racial prejudice; they did not want to be associated with the racist acts they had witnessed on television (in addition to the fact that discrimination was now illegal). One line of King's speech in particular—that one day he might be judged by the content of his character and not the color of his skin—was seized upon by the white public because the words were seen to provide a simple and immediate solution to racial tensions: pretend that we don't see race, and racism will end. Color blindness was now promoted as the remedy for racism, with white people insisting that they didn't see race or, if they did, that it had no meaning to them.

Clearly, the civil rights movement didn't end racism; nor have claims of color blindness. But reducing King's work to this simplistic idea illustrates how movements for social change are co-opted, stripped of their initial challenge, and used against the very cause from which they originated. For example, a common response in the name of color blindness is to declare that an individual who says that race matters is the one who is racist. In other words, it is racist to acknowledge race.

Consider color-blind ideology from the perspective of a person of color. An example I often share occurred when I was co-leading a workshop with an African American man. A white participant said to him, “I don't see race; I don't see you as black.” My co-trainer's
response was, “Then how will you see racism?” He then explained to her that he was black, he was confident that she could see this, and that his race meant that he had a very different experience in life than she did. If she were ever going to understand or challenge racism, she would need to acknowledge this difference. Pretending that she did not notice that he was black was not helpful to him in any way, as it denied his reality—indeed, it refused his reality—and kept hers insular and unchallenged. This pretense that she did not notice his race assumed that he was “just like her,” and in so doing, she projected her reality onto him. For example, I feel welcome at work so you must too; I have never felt that my race mattered, so you must feel that yours doesn't either. But of course, we do see the race of other people, and race holds deep social meaning for us.

We might think of conscious racial awareness as the tip of an iceberg, the superficial aspects of our racial socialization: our intentions (always good!) and what we are supposed to acknowledge seeing (nothing!). Meanwhile, under the surface is the massive depth of racist socialization: messages, beliefs, images, associations, internalized superiority and entitlement, perceptions, and emotions. Color-blind ideology makes it difficult for us to address these unconscious beliefs. While the idea of color blindness may have started out as a well-intentioned strategy for interrupting racism, in practice it has served to deny the reality of racism and thus hold it in place.

Racial bias is largely unconscious, and herein lies the deepest challenge—the defensiveness that ensues upon any suggestion of racial bias.
This defensiveness is classic white fragility because it protects our racial bias while simultaneously affirming our identities as open-minded. Yes, it's uncomfortable to be confronted with an aspect of ourselves that we don't like, but we can't change what we refuse to see.

Countless studies show empirically that people of color are discriminated against in the workplace.
Imagine you had empirical evidence that your coworker was unintentionally discriminating against people of color during the hiring process. Given your belief in equality, you
would probably think that it was imperative to inform the person so that he or she could stop. You pointed this discrimination out in the most diplomatic way possible. Still, what do you think your colleague's response would be? Would you hear gratitude that you had brought that fact to the person's attention? Probably not. More likely, your coworker would respond with hurt, anger, and defensiveness, insisting that he or she had not racially discriminated but had chosen the most qualified candidates. And the individual would sincerely believe that this was true, even though you had empirical evidence that it was not. This defensiveness is rooted in the false but widespread belief that racial discrimination can only be intentional. Our lack of understanding about implicit bias leads to aversive racism.


Aversive racism is a manifestation of racism that well-intentioned people who see themselves as educated and progressive are more likely to exhibit.
It exists under the surface of consciousness because it conflicts with consciously held beliefs of racial equality and justice. Aversive racism is a subtle but insidious form, as aversive racists enact racism in ways that allow them to maintain a positive self-image (e.g., “I have lots of friends of color”; “I judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin”).

Whites enact racism while maintaining a positive self-image in many ways:

• Rationalizing racial segregation as unfortunate but necessary to access “good schools”

• Rationalizing that our workplaces are virtually all white because people of color just don't apply

• Avoiding direct racial language and using racially coded terms such as
urban, underprivileged, diverse, sketchy,
good neighborhoods

• Denying that we have few cross-racial relationships by proclaiming how diverse our community or workplace is

• Attributing inequality between whites and people of color to causes other than racism

Consider a conversation I had with a white friend. She was telling me about a (white) couple she knew who had just moved to New Orleans and bought a house for a mere twenty-five thousand dollars. “Of course,” she immediately added, “they also had to buy a gun, and Joan is afraid to leave the house.” I immediately knew they had bought a home in a black neighborhood. This was a moment of white racial bonding between this couple who shared the story of racial danger and my friend, and then between my friend and me, as she repeated the story. Through this tale, the four of us fortified familiar images of the horror of black space and drew boundaries between “us” and “them” without ever having to directly name race or openly express our disdain for black space.

Notice that the need for a gun is a key part of this story—it would not have the degree of social capital it holds if the emphasis were on the price of the house alone. Rather, the story's emotional power rests on why a house would be that cheap—because it is in a black neighborhood where white people literally might not get out alive. Yet while very negative and stereotypical representations of blacks were reinforced in that exchange, not naming race provided plausible deniability. In fact, in preparing to share this incident, I texted my friend and asked her the name of the city her friends had moved to. I also wanted to confirm my assumption that she was talking about a black neighborhood. I share the text exchange here:

“Hey, what city did you say your friends had bought a house in for $25,000?”

“New Orleans. They said they live in a very bad neighborhood and they each have to have a gun to protect themselves. I wouldn't pay 5 cents for that neighborhood.”

“I assume it's a black neighborhood?”

“Yes. You get what you pay for. I'd rather pay $500,000 and live somewhere where I wasn't afraid.”

“I wasn't asking because I want to live there. I'm writing about this in my book, the way that white people talk about race without ever coming out and talking about race.”

“I wouldn't want you to live there it's too far away from me!”

Notice that when I simply ask what city the house is in, she repeats the story about the neighborhood being so bad that her friends need guns. When I ask if the neighborhood is black, she is comfortable confirming that it is. But when I tell her that I am interested in how whites talk about race without talking about race, she switches the narrative. Now her concern is about not wanting me to live so far away. This is a classic example of aversive racism: holding deep racial disdain that surfaces in daily discourse but not being able to admit it because the disdain conflicts with our self-image and professed beliefs.

Readers may be asking themselves, “But if the neighborhood is really dangerous, why is acknowledging this danger a sign of racism?” Research in implicit bias has shown that perceptions of criminal activity are influenced by race. White people will perceive danger simply by the presence of black people; we cannot trust our perceptions when it comes to race and crime.
But regardless of whether the neighborhood is actually more or less dangerous than other neighborhoods, what is salient about this exchange is how it functions racially and what that means for the white people engaged in it. For my friend and me, this conversation did not increase our awareness of the danger of some specific neighborhood. Rather, the exchange reinforced our fundamental beliefs about black people. Toni Morrison uses the term
race talk
to capture “the explicit insertion into everyday life of racial signs and symbols that have no meaning other than positioning African Americans into the lowest level of the racial hierarchy.”
Casual race talk is a key component of white racial framing because it accomplishes the interconnected goals of elevating whites while demeaning people of color; race talk always implies a racial “us” and “them.”

Consider an experience I had with aversive racism. My last academic position was in a state I had never been to before my interview. Throughout the three days of interviewing, other white people warned me not to buy a home in Springfield or Holyoke if I took the position, especially if I had children. While no one openly named race, the racial coding was not lost on me. I now knew where the people of color were concentrated in the area. At the same time, because no one directly mentioned race, we could all deny that this was what we were actually talking about. Returning to my hotel room the first night, I looked up the demographics. Sure enough, Springfield and Holyoke had significantly high populations, close to 50 percent, of black and brown people. Starting on day one of my visit, my fellow whites had communicated the racial boundaries to me.

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