Thinking (and Reading) about White Fragility

In the spirit of last week’s post, I’ve been working to better educate myself about white privilege and systemic racism. This is ongoing work that will never be finished, but it’s important for us white people to be willing to learn and embrace change when it comes to our attitudes about racism. With that in mind, one book that I’d like to talk about today is Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Race. If you’re a white person who’s new to thinking about race and privilege, I recommend it because it’s a succinct, clearly-written, yet thorough introduction to white fragility. It’s less than 200 pages, so you’ll get through it in a couple of days. It’s also an instance of someone using their white privilege to positive ends, as the author is a white woman talking to white readers about systemic racism and how we’re all complicit in it. For white readers who want to learn about systemic racism but are feeling intimidated about confronting their own privilege, DiAngelo’s text can get you acquainted with some of the major questions and issues before you begin exploring the engaging, challenging work that Black scholars have written.

Before we go further, let me clarify that we’ll be talking primary about white privilege in relation to Black lives, as that is what DiAngelo concentrates on. Also, let me also emphasize that this book is an introduction when it comes to thinking about race. Don’t think that you’ve mastered antiracism when you finish it. Instead, you should continue your education by reading the numerous books out there that Black scholars and other academics have written. Check out last week’s post for some reading lists. DiAngelo also includes a list of resources.

DiAngelo frames white fragility as the emotional reaction white people have when confronted with race. She argues that as people raised in a racialized society that privileges whiteness as the norm, white people are not well-equipped to talk about race because we haven’t been socialized to think in racial terms. Because we live in a society where we are welcomed as the norm, we assume that our experiences and perspectives are universal when it comes to being human. Compounding this naive outlook is an oversimplified view of racism that we conflate with personal prejudices. Essentially, white people view racism as a good/bad binary. During the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, white viewers saw violence against Black people on TV, were horrified, and decided that overt racism is bad. If you say something racist, you’re a bad person. We don’t want to be seen as bad people, so we say we’re not racist, calling ourselves “colorblind” or proclaiming that “all lives matter.” (as Brandon puts it, we’ve been taught to conflate any racist expression with being a part of the KKK, so rather than examine our responses critically we retreat from them altogether).

What makes this so insidious is that this behavior actually masks racism. As DiAngelo points out, as humans we practice discrimination because that’s what human behavior does. We notice when people don’t look like us, and make judgments about that. Because we’ve been taught that racism is bad, we don’t articulate it. But since we’re human, we implicitly judge, which again makes us feel bad. Since we don’t like feeling badly, we retreat from thinking about these issues altogether and tell ourselves that we’re not racists. This is further compunded by our individualistic values. Because we’ve been taught to believe that we’re unique and special, white people feel uncomfortable being labeled as a group that practices group behaviors, even though that’s exactly what we do when we look at other racial groups. Couple that with the guilt we do experience when we witness the suffering of Black people, and the comfort we’re used to experiencing as the benefactors of white privilege, and you’ve got a group of people who aren’t well equipped to discuss race at all. Instead, white people tend to deflect with dismissive statements like “but you always make it about race,” which turns the onus of racism back on Black people, or resort to emotional outbursts like crying or anger that puts the attention back on them, thereby restoring the system. Not helpful responses at all.

The only way to address this, DiAngelo asserts, is to have white people learn to recognize their white fragility and work past it. We need to recognize that we live in a racist society that privileges whiteness, and that as white people, we have and will make mistakes when it comes to talking about race because we haven’t been taught to think through a racialized lens. We need to distinguish personal prejudice from systemic racism, and realize that we are complicit in racism even if we proclaim that we don’t feel prejudiced toward Black people or other groups that don’t look like us. Rather than react with feelings of defense, anger, or guilt, we need to learn to be uncomfortable with our racial standing as white people, stop making everything about us and our feelings, be open to feedback from Black people and other people of color, and learn to change our behavior. We also need to accept that this work will never be complete, and that we’ll have to continually strive to be better when it comes to racism. Most importantly, we need to use our privilege to demand real systemic change, because as white people, we’re the ones who have the power to make it happen.

While I’ve encountered facets of DiAngelo’s argument in different sources, her book offers a succinct synthesis, so it’s a good resource for white people who are looking for a place to start learning about their privilege. She also makes an effort to teach white people to recognize that their experiences as white people are not universal. She also distinguishes between prejudice and racism, and disrupts the good/bad binary of systemic racism by suggesting a continuum model. Rather than be ashamed of our racism or try to hide it, she argues that we acknowledge it, and critically, be open to change. As she puts it, Black people aren’t buying it when we claim we aren’t racist, because we’ve been raised in a racist society and are complicit just by living in it. By recognizing that complicity and realizing that systemic racism extends beyond a simple good/bad binary, we’re much more likely to be open to feedback and change. Instead of concealing or ignoring our racism, we need to dedicate ourselves to a lifetime of learning and change.

An analogy that I’ve found strangely helpful when thinking about this book is Purgatory as described in Dante’s Divine Comedy. According to Catholic doctrine (though it’s by no means universally agreed upon), Purgatory is the place you go to after you die to work off your sins. As creatures of sin, we are imperfect and prone to mistakes. Unless you have the faithly fortitude of a saint, you probably won’t be good enough to get into Heaven when you die. But rather than be condemned outright to Hell, you go to Purgatory, where you slowly get purified to worthiness. Like Hell, it’s torturous and grueling, but instead of being stuck there for eternity, you gradually ascend to lighter ordeals as your soul gets purged of sin. If the primary emotion defining Hell is regret or doom, what underpins Purgatory is hope.

It’s not a perfect analogy (not least because of the danger of slipping into a white savior narrative or saying that a less racist society can wait indefinitely), but I see parallels when it comes to striving toward antiracism on an individual level. As white people living in and benefiting from a racist society, we’re all racist and we’re going to make mistakes when talking about race, even if our intentions are good. That’s a given. But rather than retreat into feelings of guilt or self-righteousness, which may be self-soothing to us but useless when it comes to enacting change, we can consciously work toward a less racist society through learning and activism. It’s hard work that makes us uncomfortable, but through that work we become better people and work toward a more equal society. Will you or I become fully antiracist in our lifetime? Probably not, but we can consistently work on making ourselves better by looking beyond our own emotions to see how our words and actions affect Black people and other people of color. We can learn to recognize our privilege and check it. We can teach what we’re learning to our children so that they become less fragile. We can donate to organizations that support Black lives. We can protest. And we can use our privilege to amplify Black voices and enact change.

White people, if you’ve read White Fragility, what are your thoughts on it? If you haven’t, what antiracist texts or media have you been using to educate yourself? And if you haven’t started with your antiracist education, what are you waiting for?

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