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A Sociologist Examines the “White Fragility” That Prevents White Americans from Confronting Racism

A Sociologist Examines the “White Fragility” That Prevents White Americans from Confronting Racism (The New Yorker)
Robin DiAngelo argues that our largely segregated society is set up to insulate whites from racial discomfort, so that they fall to pieces at the first application of stress.
Book review of White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo in The New Yorker. View annotations in context.

In more than twenty years of running diversity-training and cultural-competency workshops for American companies, the academic and educator Robin DiAngelo has noticed that white people are sensationally, histrionically bad at discussing racism. Like waves on sand, their reactions form predictable patterns: they will insist that they “were taught to treat everyone the same,” that they are “color-blind,” that they “don’t care if you are pink, purple, or polka-dotted.” They will point to friends and family members of color, a history of civil-rights activism, or a more “salient” issue, such as class or gender. They will shout and bluster. They will cry. In 2011, DiAngelo coined the term “white fragility” to describe the disbelieving defensiveness that white people exhibit when their ideas about race and racism are challenged—and particularly when they feel implicated in white supremacy. Why, she wondered, did her feedback prompt such resistance, as if the mention of racism were more offensive than the fact or practice of it?

 

DiAngelo attempts to explicate the phenomenon of white people’s paper-thin skin. She argues that our largely segregated society is set up to insulate whites from racial discomfort, so that they fall to pieces at the first application of stress—such as, for instance, when someone suggests that “flesh-toned” may not be an appropriate name for a beige crayon. Unused to unpleasantness (more than unused to it—racial hierarchies tell white people that they are entitled to peace and deference), they lack the “racial stamina” to engage in difficult conversations. This leads them to respond to “racial triggers”—the show “Dear White People,” the term “wypipo”—with “emotions such as anger, fear and guilt,” DiAngelo writes, “and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation.”

 

And the expectation of “white solidarity”—white people will forbear from correcting each other’s racial missteps, to preserve the peace—makes genuine allyship elusive. White fragility holds racism in place.

 

DiAngelo addresses her book mostly to white people, and she reserves her harshest criticism for white liberals like herself (and like me), whom she sees as refusing to acknowledge their own participation in racist systems. “I believe,” she writes, “that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color.” Not only do these people fail to see their complicity, but they take a self-serving approach to ongoing anti-racism efforts: “To the degree that white progressives think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived.”

 

Whites profit off of an American political and economic system that showers advantages on racial “winners” and oppresses racial “losers.” Yet, DiAngelo writes, white people cling to the notion of racial innocence, a form of weaponized denial that positions black people as the “havers” of race and the guardians of racial knowledge. Whiteness, on the other hand, scans as invisible, default, a form of racelessness. “Color blindness,” the argument that race shouldn’t matter, prevents us from grappling with how it does.

 

To be perceived as an individual, to not be associated with anything negative because of your skin color, she notes, is a privilege largely afforded to white people;

 

In DiAngelo’s almost epidemiological vision of white racism, our minds and bodies play host to a pathogen that seeks to replicate itself, sickening us in the process. Like a mutating virus, racism shape-shifts in order to stay alive; when its explicit expression becomes taboo, it hides in coded language.

 

“The most effective adaptation of racism over time,” DiAngelo claims, “is the idea that racism is conscious bias held by mean people.” This “good/bad binary,” positing a world of evil racists and compassionate non-racists, is itself a racist construct, eliding systemic injustice and imbuing racism with such shattering moral meaning that white people, especially progressives, cannot bear to face their collusion in it. (Pause on that, white reader. You may have subconsciously developed your strong negative feelings about racism in order to escape having to help dismantle it.)

 

DiAngelo sets aside a whole chapter for the self-indulgent tears of white women, so distraught at the country’s legacy of racist terrorism that they force people of color to drink from the firehose of their feelings about it.

Possible solutions? Answers?

listen, don’t center yourself, get educated, think about your responses and what role they play

 

For all the paranoid American theories of being “red-pilled,” of awakening into a many-tentacled liberal/feminist/Jewish conspiracy, the most corrosive force, the ectoplasm infusing itself invisibly through media and culture and politics, is white supremacy.

 

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