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Authors: Robin DiAngelo

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Carol Anderson, in her book
White Rage,
argues that “the trigger for white rage, inevitably, is black advancement. It is not the mere presence of black people that is the problem; rather, it is blackness with ambition, with drive, with purpose, with aspirations, and with demands for full and equal citizenship. It is blackness that refuses to accept subjugation, to give up.” She continues: “The truth is that, despite all this, a black man was elected president of the United States: the ultimate advancement, and thus the ultimate affront. Perhaps not surprisingly, voting rights were severely curtailed, the federal government was shut down, and more than once the Office of the President was shockingly, openly, and publicly disrespected by other elected officials.”

Anti-blackness is a complex and confusing stew of resentment and benevolence, for we also use blacks to feel warmhearted and noble. We are drawn to those who cast their eyes downward in our presence, the ones we can “save” from the horrors of their black lives with our abundance and kindness. Consider an example I often use in my presentations:
The Blind Side,
a hugely popular movie for which Sandra Bullock received an Academy Award. This film is a cogent example of whites as the racially benevolent side of the coin. The film is based on the “true” story of a family—the Tuohys—who rescued Michael Oher, a black man who came from impoverished family circumstances and who went on to become an NFL player. Although the movie was popular with white audiences, many problematic racial narratives are reinscribed in the film. In fact, there are no black characters who do
reinforce negative racial stereotypes. Oher himself is portrayed as a childlike gentle giant who lives in abject poverty. Sprinkled in are his drug-addicted single mother with multiple children from unknown fathers, the incompetent welfare worker, the uppity lawyer, and the menacing gang members in his drug-infested and crime-ridden neighborhood.

In one pivotal scene, Oher returns to his former neighborhood. As he walks down the street, he is surrounded by a gang that tries to intimidate him. While he considers his limited options, Mrs. Tuohy arrives and confronts the gang members, who quickly back down and retreat. Rescued by Mrs. Tuohy, Oher is returned back to safe white suburbia. The scene makes it clear: the only way Oher could be saved from the terrors of his own black community is through the benevolence and bravery of a white family.

In the film, white professionals discuss Oher as if he were developmentally disabled (he certainly comes off as such—he is passive and inarticulate throughout the movie). His teachers note that on his IQ test, he scored in the bottom percentile in “ability to learn” but in the top percentile in “protective instinct”! As a professor of education who has never heard of a test measuring “protective instinct,” I have been unable to find evidence of this bizarre measurement. It is highly problematic that Oher, as a black male, is portrayed as severely lacking in intellectual abilities but exceptional in something instinctual. His limited intellectual capacity is reinforced throughout the film, for example, when the youngest child of the Tuohy household has to teach Oher how to play football.

According to the film, Oher is never able to understand the rules of the game, so Mrs. Tuohy appeals to his “protective instinct” by telling him to pretend one of his new white family members is going to be hurt. Once his instincts are engaged (rather than his intellect), he is unstoppable on the field. In a particularly insulting scene, the white child who tried unsuccessfully to teach Oher how to play football sits at a table negotiating a contract for him with powerful adult men while Oher sits in the background, mute.

This film, told from the white perspective and enthusiastically received by audiences, reinforces some very important dominant ideologies:

• White people are the saviors of black people.

• Some black children may be innocent, but black adults are morally and criminally corrupt.

• Whites who are willing to save or otherwise help black people, at seemingly great personal cost, are noble, courageous, and morally superior to other whites.

• Individual black people can overcome their circumstances, but usually only with the help of white people.

• Black neighborhoods are inherently dangerous and criminal.

• Virtually all blacks are poor, incompetent, and unqualified for their jobs; they belong to gangs, are addicted to drugs, and are bad parents.

• The most dependable route for black males to escape the “inner city” is through sports.

• White people are willing to deal with individual “deserving” black people, but whites do not become a part of the black community in any meaningful way (beyond charity work).

Of course, Oher also brings redemption to the whites who save him. The film ends with a voice-over from Mrs. Tuohy, a Christian, claiming it was God's will that this boy be saved (presumably because his talent on the field made him more profitable and thus valuable to white people). The Tuohys, of course, are the good whites, who have to deal with the prejudice of the individual bad whites they encounter at the country club and other places. In this way, the racist = bad / not racist = good binary is also reinforced. The film is fundamentally and insidiously anti-black.

White racial socialization engenders many conflicting feelings toward African Americans: benevolence, resentment, superiority, hatred, and guilt roil barely below the surface and erupt at the slightest breach, yet can never be explicitly acknowledged. Our need to deny the bewildering manifestations of anti-blackness that reside so close to the surface makes us irrational, and that irrationality is at the heart of white fragility and the pain it causes people of color.


In a cross-racial dialogue at an organization that is trying to increase its staff's racial understanding, the participants of color repeatedly challenge the problematic assumptions in a white woman's statements. “I feel like everything I say is thrown back at me!” she exclaims. “White people are being attacked and blamed, and we have to defend ourselves or just be used as punching bags. I give up! I am not saying anything else.”

The only black woman on a workplace planning team listens attentively to her white colleagues for the first hour of a meeting and then asks a question about their proposal. After the meeting, her supervisor calls her into her office and informs her that the other women felt attacked by her.

The factors discussed in the previous chapters insulate white people from race-based stress. Although white racial insulation is somewhat mediated by social class (with poor and working-class urban whites being generally less racially insulated than suburban or rural whites), the larger social environment protects whites as a group through institutions, cultural representations, media, school textbooks, movies, advertising,
dominant discourses, and the like. Whiteness studies scholar Michelle Fine describes this insulation: “Whiteness accrues privilege and status; gets itself surrounded by protective pillows of resources and/or benefits of the doubt; how Whiteness repels gossip and voyeurism and instead demands dignity.”
White people seldom find themselves without this protection. Or if they do, it is because they have chosen to temporarily step outside this area of safety. But within their insulated environment of racial privilege, whites both expect racial comfort and become less tolerant of racial stress.

When ideologies such as color blindness, meritocracy, and individualism are challenged, intense emotional reactions are common. I have discussed several reasons why whites are so defensive about the suggestion that we benefit from, and are complicit in, a racist system:

• Social taboos against talking openly about race

• The racist = bad / not racist = good binary

• Fear and resentment toward people of color

• Our delusion that we are objective individuals

• Our guilty knowledge that there is more going on than we can or will admit to

• Deep investment in a system that benefits us and that we have been conditioned to see as fair

• Internalized superiority and sense of a right to rule

• A deep cultural legacy of anti-black sentiment

Most white people have limited information about what racism is and how it works. For many white people, an isolated course taken in college or required “cultural competency training” in their workplace is the only time they may encounter a direct and sustained challenge to their racial reality. But even in this arena, not all multicultural courses or training programs talk directly about racism, much less address white privilege. It is far more the norm for these courses and programs to use racially coded language such as “urban,” “inner city,” and “disadvantaged,” but rarely use “white” or “over-advantaged” or “privileged.”

This racially coded language reproduces racist images and perspectives while simultaneously reproducing the comfortable illusion that race and its problems are what “they” have, not us. Reasons that the facilitators of these courses and trainings may not directly name the dynamics and beneficiaries of racism range from the lack of a valid analysis of racism by white facilitators, personal and economic survival strategies for facilitators of color, and pressure from management to keep the content comfortable and palatable for whites.

However, if and when an educational program does directly address racism and the privileging of whites, common white responses include anger, withdrawal, emotional incapacitation, guilt, argumentation, and cognitive dissonance (all of which reinforce the pressure on facilitators to avoid directly addressing racism). So-called progressive whites may not respond with anger but still insulate themselves via claims that they are beyond the need for engaging with the content because they “already had a class on this” or “already know this.” All these responses constitute white fragility—the result of the reduced psychosocial stamina that racial insulation inculcates.

I was a full adult, a parent, and a college graduate before I ever experienced a challenge to my racial identity or position, and that experience was only because I had taken a position as a diversity trainer. When you combine this rarity with my lifetime of racial centrality, internalized superiority, sense of myself as a unique individual, and expectation for racial comfort that our culture engenders, I simply never had been called upon to build my capacity to endure racial stress.

Anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu's concept of
is very useful for understanding white fragility—the predictability of the white response to having our racial positions challenged.
According to Bourdieu, habitus is the result of socialization, the repetitive practices of actors and their interactions with each other and with the rest of their social environment. Because it is repetitive, our socialization produces and reproduces thoughts, perceptions, expressions, and actions. Thus, habitus can be thought of as a person's familiar ways of perceiving, interpreting, and responding to the social cues around him or her.

There are three key aspects of Bourdieu's theory that are relevant to white fragility: field, habitus, and capital.
is the specific social context the person is in—a party, the workplace, or a school. If we take a school as an example, there is the macro field of school as a whole, and within the school are micro fields—the teacher's lounge, the staff room, the classroom, the playground, the principal's office, the nurses' office, the janitor's supply room, and so on.

is the social value people hold in a particular field; how they perceive themselves and are perceived by others in terms of their power or status. For example, compare the capital of a teacher and a student, a teacher and a principal, a middle-class student and a student on free or reduced lunch, an English language learner and a native English speaker, a popular girl and an unpopular one, a custodian and a receptionist, a kindergarten teacher and a sixth-grade teacher, and so on.

Capital can shift with the field, for example, when the custodian comes “upstairs” to speak to the receptionist—the custodian in work clothes and the receptionist in business attire—the office worker has more capital than does the maintenance person. But when the receptionist goes “down” to the supply room, which the custodian controls, to request more whiteboard markers, those power lines shift; this is the domain of the custodian, who can fulfill the request quickly or can make the transaction difficult. Notice how race, class, and gender will also be at play in negotiations of power. The custodian is most likely to be male, and the receptionist female; the custodian more likely a person of color and the receptionist more likely white. These complex and intersecting layers of capital are being negotiated automatically.

Habitus includes a person's internalized awareness of his or her status, as well as responses to the status of others. In every field, people are (often unconsciously) vying for power, and each field will have rules of the game.
Habitus will depend on the power position the person occupies in the social structure. Returning to the school example, there will be different rules to gain power at the reception desk versus the custodian's supply room. These rules do not have to be thought about
consciously—I automatically shift into them as I enter each field. If I don't follow these rules, I will be pushed out of that field through various means. Some of these rules are explicitly taught to us, while others are unwritten and learned by picking up consistent social patterns. For example, the rules spell out what we do or don't talk about in a given field and how to respond when someone talks about something considered taboo in that field.

When there is disequilibrium in the habitus—when social cues are unfamiliar and/or when they challenge our capital—we use strategies to regain our balance. Habitus maintains our social comfort and helps us regain it when those around us do not act in familiar and acceptable ways. We don't respond consciously to disequilibrium in the habitus; we respond unconsciously. Bourdieu explains that “habitus is neither a result of free will, nor determined by structures, but created by a kind of interplay between the two over time: dispositions that are both shaped by past events and structures, and that shape current practices and structures and also, importantly, that condition our very perceptions of these.”
In this sense, habitus is created and reproduced “without any deliberate pursuit of coherence . . . without any conscious concentration.”
In the rare situation in which the white position is challenged, disequilibrium results.

Thus, white fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress in the habitus becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, reinstate white racial equilibrium. Racial stress results from an interruption to the racially familiar. These interruptions can take a variety of forms and come from a range of sources, including

• Suggesting that a white person's viewpoint comes from a racialized frame of reference (challenge to objectivity)

• People of color talking directly about their own racial perspectives (challenge to white taboos on talking openly about race)

• People of color choosing not to protect white people's feelings about race (challenge to white racial expectations and the need for, or entitlement to, racial comfort)

• People of color being unwilling to tell their stories or answer questions about their racial experiences (challenge to the expectation that people of color will serve us)

• A fellow white disagreeing with our racial beliefs (challenge to white solidarity)

• Receiving feedback that our behavior had a racist impact (challenge to white racial innocence)

• Suggesting that group membership is significant (challenge to individualism)

• An acknowledgment that access is unequal between racial groups (challenge to meritocracy)

• Being presented with a person of color in a position of leadership (challenge to white authority)

• Being presented with information about other racial groups through, for example, movies in which people of color drive the action but are not in stereotypical roles, or multicultural education (challenge to white centrality)

• Suggesting that white people do not represent or speak for all of humanity (challenge to universalism)

In a society in which whites are dominant, each of these challenges becomes exceptional. In turn, we are often at a loss for how to respond constructively. For example, I was once asked to provide one-on-one mentoring for a white male teacher who had made inappropriate racial comments to a black female student. When the girl's mother complained, the teacher became defensive and the conflict escalated. The incident ended up in the newspaper, and potential legal action was discussed. I will call this teacher Mr. Roberts. During one of our sessions, Mr. Roberts told me about his colleague, a white female teacher, who recently had two black students at her desk. She prefaced something she said to one of them with “Girl.” The student was clearly taken aback
and asked, “Did you just call me girl?” The other student said it was OK; the teacher called all her students girl.

In relaying this story to me, Mr. Roberts expressed his and his colleague's anger about having to be “so careful” and not being able to “say anything anymore.” They perceived my intervention as a form of punishment and believed that because of the incident with him, students of color were now “oversensitive” and complaining about racism where it did not exist. For these teachers, the student's reaction to being called “Girl” was an example of this oversensitivity. This accusation is a familiar white narrative, and in this instance, it was rationalized for two reasons: First, because the teacher called all her female students “Girl,” the comment had nothing to do with race. Second, one of the students didn't have an issue with the comment, so the student who did was seen as overreacting.

These white teachers' responses illustrate several dynamics of white fragility. First, the teachers never considered that in not understanding the student's reaction, they might be lacking some knowledge or context. They demonstrated no curiosity about the student's perspective or why she might have taken offense. Nor did they show concern about the student's feelings. They were unable to separate intentions from impact. Despite Mr. Roberts's lack of cross-racial skills and understanding—a lack that led to a racial violation with potential legal repercussions—he arrogantly remained confident that he was right and that the student was wrong. His colleague, aware that Mr. Roberts was in serious trouble about a cross-racial incident, still maintained white solidarity with him by validating their shared perspective and invalidating that of the student of color. The teachers used the student witness who excused the comment as proof that the other student was wrong. According to them, the witness was the correct student because she denied any racial implications. Finally, the teachers used this interaction as an opportunity to increase racial divides rather than bridge them and to protect their worldviews and positions.

White fragility may be conceptualized as a response or “condition” produced and reproduced by the continual social and material advantages
of whiteness. When disequilibrium occurs—when there is an interruption to that which is familiar and taken for granted—white fragility restores equilibrium and returns the capital “lost” via the challenge. This capital includes self-image, control, and white solidarity. Anger toward the trigger, shutting down and/or tuning out, indulgence in emotional incapacitation such as guilt or “hurt feelings,” exiting, or a combination of these responses results. Again, these strategies are reflexive and seldom conscious, but that does not make them benign.

BOOK: White Fragility
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