The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

White fragility is real. But ‘White Fragility’ is flawed.

Placeholder while article actions load

WHITE FRAGILITY: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

By Robin DiAngelo. Beacon Press. 169 pp. $16.

“Race relations are profoundly complex,” Robin DiAngelo writes in “White Fragility,” a book that, two years after a best-selling debut, is having a new burst of popularity and urgency. In the midst of a nationwide debate on institutional racism and police violence, Americans are binge-reading (or at least bulk-buying) recent texts on race to help them grapple with that complexity. Alongside books such as Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist,” Carol Anderson’s “White Rage” and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me,” DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” — the No. 1 bestseller on the New York Times nonfiction list this week, and The Post’s No. 4 — is officially now part of a new canon.

Except it doesn’t deserve that distinction. Even as it introduces a memorable concept, “White Fragility” presents oversimplified arguments that are self-fulfilling, even self-serving. The book flattens people of any ancestry into two-dimensional beings fitting predetermined narratives. And reading DiAngelo offers little insight into how a national reckoning such as the one we’re experiencing today could have come about. In a “White Fragility” world, nothing ever changes, because change would violate its premise.

The killing of George Floyd and the widespread protests that followed have brought into the open, yet again, the systems of racism embedded in powerful Americans institutions such as law enforcement. Reimagining those institutions so they earn the trust of all Americans is the work of today but also of generations to come, an arduous and complicated effort. In DiAngelo’s telling, however, race relations in America are actually not “profoundly complex,” as she initially puts it, but simple and binary. White people should be regarded not as individuals but as an undifferentiated racist collective, socialized to “fundamentally hate blackness” and to institutionalize that prejudice in politics and culture. People of color, by contrast, are almost entirely powerless, and the few with influence do not wield it in the service of racial justice. People of color rarely emerge as fully formed characters in these pages, except to provide opportunities for white Americans to engage in an “authentic exploration of racial realities” — that is, to help them know when they are doing better.

But white people don’t like to engage, as DiAngelo has often gleaned in her capacity as a diversity consultant for companies and other organizations. Whenever they are told that their race affords them systemic advantages, or that they can’t help being racist or benefiting from racism, or that their behavior is racially “problematic,” white people respond with anger, denial, guilt or tears — with white fragility. “Their responses are so predictable I sometimes feel as though we are all reciting lines from a shared script,” she writes.

Such reactions “reinstate white equilibrium” by repelling the challenge against racism and maintaining white dominance in the racial hierarchy, DiAngelo writes. “White fragility is not weakness per se. In fact, it is a powerful means of white racial control and the protection of white advantage.”

In her training workshops, DiAngelo witnesses white fragility at work. She finds it in the white schoolteacher who, after imitating the speech pattern of a black parent, recoils when DiAngelo asks her to tell the story differently. In the Italian American who argues that white people experience racism too, because his own ancestors suffered discrimination. In the white woman who contends that because she grew up in a country with few black people, she had not developed racist feelings; when DiAngelo challenges that self-image, the woman is angered and vows to never participate in such programs again. These episodes occur because “the smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable,” the author explains.

DiAngelo provides a vital service in pushing white Americans to interrogate their own role in structures of racism. One irony of the book, however, is that many of the people she condemns for white fragility were at least attempting to carry out such an interrogation, participating voluntarily in the author’s seminars with some semblance of good faith. The schoolteacher, for instance, was explaining how a black parent had protested that she did not understand children of color, and the teacher finished her story by concluding that the parent was right. But after DiAngelo’s intervention (“I am offering you a teachable moment,” the author told her), the teacher decided to quit the group. Once intimidated by such episodes, DiAngelo says she now finds them unpleasant but also “rather amusing.” DiAngelo’s setbacks as consultant led to her success as author; what fails in person works in print. “I have found that the only way to give feedback without triggering white fragility,” she decides, “is not to give it at all.”

Review of ‘Self-Portrait in Black and White’ by Thomas Chatterton Williams

White fragility is the sort of powerful notion that, once articulated, becomes easily recognizable and widely applicable. (DiAngelo, for instance, uses it to explain Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election.) But stare at it a little longer, and one realizes how slippery it is, too. As defined by DiAngelo, white fragility is irrefutable; any alternative perspective or counterargument is defeated by the concept itself. Either white people admit their inherent and unending racism and vow to work on their white fragility, in which case DiAngelo was correct in her assessment, or they resist such categorizations or question the interpretation of a particular incident, in which case they are only proving her point.

Any dissent from “White Fragility” is itself white fragility. From such circular logic do thought leaders and bestsellers arise.

This book exists for white readers. “I am white and am addressing a common white dynamic,” DiAngelo explains. “I am mainly writing to a white audience; when I use the terms us and we, I am referring to the white collective.” It is always a collective, because DiAngelo regards individualism as an insidious ideology. “White people do not exist outside the system of white supremacy,” DiAngelo writes, a system “we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves.” And even if, for just a moment, white people could perceive and challenge the racist attitudes they have long internalized, their racism “would be reinforced all over again just by virtue of living in the culture.” Step outside the human-resources training session, and you’re infected once more.

Progressive whites, those who consider themselves attuned to racial justice, are not exempt from DiAngelo’s analysis. If anything, they are more susceptible to it. “I believe that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color,” she writes. “[T]o 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.”

Anti-racism: You may be doing it wrong. Here’s why.

It is a bleak view, one in which all political and moral beliefs are reduced to posturing and hypocrisy. In fact, the more that white progressives oppose racism, the more fragile they are. “White people’s moral objection to racism increases their resistance to acknowledging their complicity with it,” DiAngelo argues, drawing her circle ever tighter. And if you’re a white person who finds that logic unreasonable — well, we all know what that means.

To her credit, DiAngelo does not exempt herself from racism and fragility. “I know that I have blind spots and unconscious investments in racism,” she writes. But she also emphasizes her close relationships with black people. “I have friends who are black and whom I love deeply. I do not have to suppress feelings of hatred and contempt. . . . I see their humanity.”

Even so, her conversations with actual black people have a stilted awkwardness to them. After DiAngelo makes an inappropriate joke in a work meeting — suggesting that a company’s white employees might be afraid of a black woman’s braided hair — she hears that another black woman present had been offended. DiAngelo reconsiders her behavior in consultation with a white friend who has “a solid understanding of cross-racial dynamics,” and then approaches the offended woman. “Would you be willing to grant me the opportunity to repair the racism I perpetrated toward you in that meeting?” DiAngelo asks. She urges white readers not to burden people of color with the sole responsibility to speak to racial issues, yet she concludes that only a person of color can tell DiAngelo whether she “doing well” in addressing racial transgressions. People of color are always vulnerable and always wise, even if never entirely real.

The wide appeal of “White Fragility” is understandable. People suddenly rethinking their past indifference to racial injustice have a text that explains them collectively without faulting them individually. Others, who have long decried systemic racism and implicit bias, have found an advocate who confronts such forces from within. “Though I am centering the white voice,” DiAngelo explains, “I am also using my insider status to challenge racism”— a sort of whiteness whistleblower.

Anyone reading “White Fragility” along with Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist” will face contrasting views on how to define and identify racism. Though Kendi endorses systemic interpretations of racism, he warns against branding all white people as racist. “Generalizing the behavior of racist White individuals to all White people is as perilous as generalizing the individual faults of people of color to entire races,” he writes. Kendi is also less dismissive of the individual agency of nonwhite people — including the power to be racist themselves. The notion that people of color are too weak, politically and culturally, to be racist “underestimates Black people and overestimates White people,” he writes. “It erases the small amount of Black power and expands the already expansive reach of White power.”

In Kendi’s view, all people are either racist or anti-racist; indifference is complicity. But these identities are not immutable. “We can be a racist one minute and an antiracist the next,” he argues. “What we say about race, what we do about race, in each moment, determines what — not who — we are.” This vision, unlike DiAngelo’s, feels consistent with the political and cultural moment in which both works are gaining attention. A recent Washington Post-Schar School poll finds that an overwhelming proportion of the country supports the ongoing protests against police violence and believes that the problems are systemic. (More than two out of three white respondents agreed.)

That is the sort of transformational possibility absent from DiAngelo’s analysis. And yet, if the battle against racism can become less about unchangeable conditions than about tangible actions, less about workshops and more about life, perhaps the reality of white fragility can someday prove as fragile as the construct.

Follow Carlos Lozada on Twitter and read his latest book reviews, including:

Stacey Abrams wants to be Biden’s veep. But her new book is about bigger hopes.

Review of ‘Surviving Autocracy’ by Masha Gessen

Review of ‘Trumpocracy: Restoring American Democracy’ by David Frum