Read White Fragility Online

Authors: Robin DiAngelo

White Fragility (15 page)

BOOK: White Fragility
7.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

These behaviors and the assumptions undergirding them do not in fact present the claimant as racially open; quite the opposite. They block any entry point for reflection and engagement. Further, they block the ability to repair a racial breach. They fan racial divisions as they seethe with hostility and resentment. In summary, the prevailing white racial assumptions and the behaviors they engender protect racism.


Given the dominant conceptualization of racism as individual acts of cruelty, it follows that only terrible people who consciously don't like people of color can enact racism. Though this conceptualization is misinformed, it is not benign. In fact, it functions beautifully to make it nearly impossible to engage in the necessary dialogue and self-reflection that can lead to change. Outrage at the suggestion of racism is often followed by righteous indignation about the manner in which the feedback was given. After years of working with my fellow whites, I have discovered (as, I am sure, have countless people of color) a set of unspoken rules for how to give white people feedback on our inevitable and often unconscious racist assumptions and patterns. I have found that the only way to give feedback without triggering white fragility is not to give it at all. Thus, the first rule is cardinal:

  1. Do not give me feedback on my racism under any circumstances.

If you insist on breaking the cardinal rule, then you must follow these other rules:

  2. Proper tone is crucial—feedback must be given calmly. If any emotion is displayed, the feedback is invalid and can be dismissed.

3. There must be trust between us. You must trust that I am in no way racist before you can give me feedback on my racism.

  4. Our relationship must be issue-free—if there are issues between us, you cannot give me feedback on racism until these unrelated issues are resolved.

  5. Feedback must be given immediately. If you wait too long, the feedback will be discounted because it was not given sooner.

  6. You must give feedback privately, regardless of whether the incident occurred in front of other people. To give feedback in front of any others who were involved in the situation is to commit a serious social transgression. If you cannot protect me from embarrassment, the feedback is invalid, and you are the transgressor.

  7. You must be as indirect as possible. Directness is insensitive and will invalidate the feedback and require repair.

  8. As a white person, I must feel completely safe during any discussion of race. Suggesting that I have racist assumptions or patterns will cause me to feel unsafe, so you will need to rebuild my trust by never giving me feedback again. Point of clarification: when I say “safe,” what I really mean is “comfortable.”

  9. Highlighting my racial privilege invalidates the form of oppression that
experience (e.g., classism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, transphobia). We will then need to turn our attention to how

10. You must acknowledge my intentions (always good) and agree that my good intentions cancel out the impact of my behavior.

11. To suggest my behavior had a racist impact is to have misunderstood me. You will need to allow me to explain myself until you can acknowledge that it was

The contradictions in these rules are irrelevant; their function is to obscure racism, protect white dominance, and regain white equilibrium. And they do so very effectively. Yet from an understanding of racism as
a system of unequal institutional power, we need to ask ourselves where these rules come from and whom they serve.

Many of us actively working to interrupt racism continually hear complaints about the “gotcha” culture of white antiracism. We are sometimes depicted as looking for every incident we can find so we can spring out, point our fingers, and shout, “You're a racist!” While certainly some white people arrogantly set themselves apart from other whites by acting in this way, in my experience, this is not the norm. It is far more common for sincere white people to agonize over when and how to give feedback to a fellow white person, given the ubiquity of white fragility. White fragility punishes the person giving feedback and presses them back into silence. It also maintains white solidarity—the tacit agreement that we will protect white privilege and not hold each other accountable for our racism. When the individual giving the feedback is a person of color, the charge is “playing the race card,” and the consequences of white fragility are much more penalizing.

Racism is the norm rather than an aberration. Feedback is key to our ability to recognize and repair our inevitable and often unaware collusion. In recognition of this, I try to follow these guidelines:

1.   How, where, and when you give me feedback is irrelevant—it is the feedback I want and need. Understanding that it is hard to give, I will take it any way I can get it. From my position of social, cultural, and institutional white power and privilege, I am perfectly safe and I can handle it. If I cannot handle it,
it's on me
to build my racial stamina.

2.   Thank you.

The above guidelines rest on the understanding that there is no face to save and the game is up; I know that I have blind spots and unconscious investments in racism. My investments are reinforced every day in mainstream society. I did not set this system up, but it does unfairly benefit me, I do use it to my advantage, and I am responsible for
interrupting it. I need to work hard to change my role in this system, but I can't do it alone. This understanding leads me to gratitude when others help me.

White fragility is also evidenced in the need for so many white progressives to “build trust” before they can explore racism in workshops, support groups, and other educational forums. Many who are involved in racial justice education will recognize this white call for racial trust, which surfaces in a variety of ways: facilitators devoting time to exercises intended to build trust, creating ground rules and guidelines to engender trust, and participant justifications for non-engagement (e.g., “I am not going to share, because I don't feel trust here.”). I have asked many colleagues just exactly what my fellow white people mean by the call for trust. I am confident the need for trust does not relate to having your wallet stolen or being physically assaulted, although at a subconscious level, that very well may be what is at play when the group is racially mixed, given the power of implicit bias and the relentless racist conditioning whites receive. Still, I believe that what it comes down to is this: I need to trust that you won't think I am racist before I can work on my racism.

Consider the following common guidelines that have “building trust” at their base:

Don't judge:
Refraining from judgment is not humanly possible, so this guideline cannot be achieved or enforced and is functionally meaningless.

Don't make assumptions:
The nature of an assumption is that you don't know you are making it, so this guideline cannot be achieved or enforced and is functionally meaningless.

Assume good intentions:
By emphasizing intentions over impact, this guideline privileges the intentions of the aggressor over the impact of their behavior on the target. In so doing, the aggressor's intentions become the most important issue. In essence, this guideline tells victims that as long as there was no intention to cause harm, they need to let go of the hurt and move on. In so
doing, this guideline upholds white racial innocence while minimizing the impact of racism on people of color.

Speak your truth
: The admonition to speak the truth seems to be an unnecessary guideline. I have not seen a pattern of lying in these groups. Have I seen defensiveness, distancing behavior, silence, avoidance of taking risks? Yes. But have I observed people not speaking their truth? No. More importantly, what if your truth is that you are color blind? Because no one can actually be color blind in a racist society, the claim that you are color blind is not a truth; it is a false belief. Yet this guideline can position all beliefs as truths and, as such, equally valid. Given that the goal of antiracist work is to identify and challenge racism and
the misinformation that supports it,
all perspectives are
equally valid; some are rooted in racist ideology and need to be uncovered and challenged. We must distinguish between sharing your beliefs so that we can identify how they may be upholding racism and stating your beliefs as “truths” that cannot be challenged.

The problem with this guideline is that respect is rarely defined, and what feels respectful to white people can be exactly what does not create a respectful environment for people of color. For example, white people often define as respectful an environment with no conflict, no expression of strong emotion, no challenging of racist patterns, and a focus on intentions over impact. But such an atmosphere is exactly what creates an inauthentic, white-norm-centered, and thus hostile environment for people of color.

The unexamined assumption underlying these guidelines is that they can be universally applied. But because they do not account for unequal power relations, they do not function the same way across race. These guidelines are primarily driven by white fragility, and they are accommodations made to coddle white fragility. The very conditions that most white people insist on to remain comfortable are those that support the racial status quo (white centrality, dominance, and professed
innocence). For people of color, the racial status quo is hostile and needs to be interrupted, not reinforced. The essential message of trust is
be nice.
And according to dominant white norms, the suggestion that someone is racist is not “nice.”

Guidelines such as those above can also be turned against people of color. “If you challenge my racial patterns, then you are assuming that what I did was rooted in racism, and you shouldn't make assumptions.” Or, “You are denying my truth that race has nothing to do with my actions.” Now
are the transgressor. These conditions reproduce the weight of racism that people of color must constantly carry: putting aside their own needs to focus on white needs. An antidote to white fragility is to build up our stamina to bear witness to the pain of racism that we cause, not to impose conditions that require people of color to continually validate our denial.

Of course, we would ideally guide each other in this work with compassion; it is much easier to look at something unwanted within ourselves if we don't feel judged or criticized. But what if someone does literally point a finger and boldly say, “You are racist!”? (This accusation is a deep fear of progressive whites.) It is still on me to identify my racist patterns and work to change them. If the point being made is aimed at that goal, then regardless of how carefully or indirectly it is being made, I need to focus on the overall point. The method of delivery cannot be used to delegitimize what is being illuminated or as an excuse for disengagement.

To let go of the messenger and focus on the message is an advanced skill and is especially difficult to practice if someone comes at us with a self-righteous tone. If kindness gets us there faster, I am all for it. But I do not require anything from someone giving me feedback before I can engage with that feedback. Part of my processing of that feedback will be to separate it from its delivery and ascertain the central point and its contribution to my growth. Many of us are not there yet, but this is what we need to work toward. I have been in many white racial justice groups wherein the participants expended much energy making sure people were kind and compassionate to each other and didn't “break
trust.” So much energy, in fact, that we could no longer help each other see our problematic patterns without breaking the norms of the group. So unless that kindness is combined with clarity and the courage to name and challenge racism, this approach protects white fragility and needs to be challenged.

As I have tried to show throughout this book, white people raised in Western society are conditioned into a white supremacist worldview because it is the bedrock of our society and its institutions. Regardless of whether a parent told you that everyone was equal, or the poster in the hall of your white suburban school proclaimed the value of diversity, or you have traveled abroad, or you have people of color in your workplace or family, the ubiquitous socializing power of white supremacy cannot be avoided. The messages circulate 24-7 and have little or nothing to do with intentions, awareness, or agreement. Entering the conversation with this understanding is freeing because it allows us to focus on
—rather than
—our racism is manifest. When we move beyond the good/bad binary, we can become eager to identify our racist patterns because interrupting those patterns becomes more important than managing how we think we look to others.

I repeat: stopping our racist patterns must be more important than working to convince others that we don't have them. We do have them, and people of color already know we have them; our efforts to prove otherwise are not convincing. An honest accounting of these patterns is no small task given the power of white fragility and white solidarity, but it is necessary.


But you are my sister, and I share your pain!

The term
white tears
refers to all the ways, both literally and metaphorically, that white fragility manifests itself through white people's laments over how hard racism is on
In my work, I consistently encounter these tears in their various forms, and many writers have already provided excellent critiques.
Here, I want to address one manifestation of white tears: those shed by white women in cross-racial settings. The following example illustrates both the frustration that people of color feel with those tears and white women's sense of entitlement to freely shed them.

When another police shooting of an unarmed black man occurred, my workplace called for an informal lunch gathering of people who wanted to connect and find support. Just before the gathering, a woman of color pulled me aside and told me that she wanted to attend but she was “in no mood for white women's tears today.” I assured her that I would handle it. As the meeting started, I told my fellow white participants that if they felt moved to tears, they should please leave the room. I would go with them for support, but I asked that they not cry in the mixed group. After the discussion, I spent the next hour explaining to a very outraged white woman why she was asked not to cry in the presence of the people of color.

I understand that expressing our heartfelt emotions—especially as they relate to racial injustices—is an important progressive value. To repress our feelings seems counterintuitive to being present, compassionate, and supportive. So why would my colleague of color make such a request? In short, white women's tears have a powerful impact in this setting, effectively reinscribing rather than ameliorating racism.

Many of us see emotions as naturally occurring. But emotions are political in two key ways. First, our emotions are shaped by our biases and beliefs, our cultural frameworks. For example, if I believe—consciously or unconsciously—that it is normal and appropriate for men to express anger but not women, I will have very different emotional responses to men's and women's expressions of anger. I might see a man who expresses anger as competent and in charge and may feel respect for him, while I see a woman who expresses anger as childish and out of control and may feel contempt for her. If I believe that only bad people are racist, I will feel hurt, offended, and shamed when an unaware racist assumption of mine is pointed out. If I instead believe that having racist assumptions is inevitable (but possible to change), I will feel gratitude when an unaware racist assumption is pointed out; now I am aware of and can change that assumption. In this way, emotions are not natural; they are the result of the frameworks we are using to make sense of social relations. And of course, social relations are political. Our emotions are also political because they are often externalized; our emotions drive behaviors that impact other people.

White women's tears in cross-racial interactions are problematic for several reasons connected to how they impact others. For example, there is a long historical backdrop of black men being tortured and murdered because of a white woman's distress, and we white women bring these histories with us. Our tears trigger the terrorism of this history, particularly for African Americans. A cogent and devastating example is Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old boy who reportedly flirted with a white woman—Carolyn Bryant—in a grocery store in Mississippi in 1955. She reported this alleged flirtation to her husband, Roy Bryant, and a few days later, Roy and his half-brother, J. W. Milam,
lynched Till, abducting him from his great-uncle's home. They beat him to death, mutilated his body, and sank him in the Tallahatchie River. An all-white jury acquitted the men, who later admitted to the murder. On her deathbed, in 2017, Carolyn Bryant recanted this story and admitted that she had lied. The murder of Emmett Till is just one example of the history that informs an oft-repeated warning from my African American colleagues: “When a white woman cries, a black man gets hurt.” Not knowing or being sensitive to this history is another example of white centrality, individualism, and lack of racial humility.

Because of its seeming innocence, well-meaning white women crying in cross-racial interactions is one of the more pernicious enactments of white fragility. The reasons we cry in these interactions vary. Perhaps we were given feedback on our racism. Not understanding that unaware white racism is inevitable, we hear the feedback as a moral judgment, and our feelings are hurt. A classic example occurred in a workshop I was co-leading. A black man who was struggling to express a point referred to himself as stupid. My co-facilitator, a black woman, gently countered that he was not stupid but that society would have him believe that he was. As she was explaining the power of internalized racism, a white woman interrupted with, “What he was trying to say was . . . ” When my co-facilitator pointed out that the white woman had reinforced the racist idea that she could best speak for a black man, the woman erupted in tears. The training came to a complete halt as most of the room rushed to comfort her and angrily accuse the black facilitator of unfairness. (Even though the participants were there to learn how racism works, how dare the facilitator point out an example of how racism works!) Meanwhile, the black man she had spoken for was left alone to watch her receive comfort.

A colleague of color shared an example in which a white woman—new to a racial justice organization—was offered a full-time position as the supervisor of the women of color who had worked there for years and had trained her. When the promotion was announced, the white woman tearfully requested support from the women of color as she embarked on her new learning curve. The new supervisor probably
saw her tears as an expression of humility about the limits of her racial knowledge and expected support to follow. The women of color had to deal with the injustice of the promotion, the invalidation of their abilities, and the lack of racial awareness of the white person now in charge of their livelihoods. While trying to manage their own emotional reactions, they were put on the spot; if they did not make some comforting gesture, they risked being viewed as angry and insensitive.

Whether intended or not, when a white woman cries over some aspect of racism, all the attention immediately goes to her, demanding time, energy, and attention from everyone in the room when they should be focused on ameliorating racism. While she is given attention, the people of color are yet again abandoned and/or blamed. As Stacey Patton, an assistant professor of multimedia journalism at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication, states in her critique of white women's tears, “then comes the waiting for us to comfort and reassure them that they're not bad people.”
Antiracism strategist and facilitator Reagen Price paraphrases an analogy based on the work of critical race scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw. Price says, “Imagine first responders at the scene of an accident rushing to comfort the person whose car struck a pedestrian, while the pedestrian lies bleeding on the street.” In a common but particularly subversive move, racism becomes about white distress, white suffering, and white victimization.

White men, of course, are also racially fragile, but I have not seen their fragility manifest itself in cross-racial discussions as actual crying. Their fragility most commonly shows up as varying forms of dominance and intimidation, including these:

• Control of the conversation by speaking first, last, and most often

• Arrogant and disingenuous invalidation of racial inequality via “just playing the devil's advocate”

• Simplistic and presumptuous proclamations of “the answer” to racism (“People just need to . . . ”)

• Playing the outraged victim of “reverse racism”

• Accusations that the legendary “race card” is being played

• Silence and withdrawal

• Hostile body language

• Channel-switching (“The true oppression is class!”)

• Intellectualizing and distancing (“I recommend this book . . . ”)

• “Correcting” the racial analysis of people of color and white women

• Pompously explaining away racism and the experiences of people of color

All these moves push race off the table, help white men retain control of the discussion, end the challenge to their positions, and reassert their dominance.

Because racism does not rely solely on individual actors, the racist system is reproduced automatically. To interrupt it, we need to recognize and challenge the norms, structures, and institutions that keep it in place. But because they benefit us, racially inequitable relations are comfortable for most white people. Consequently, if we whites want to interrupt this system, we have to get racially
and be willing to examine the effects of our racial engagement. This includes not indulging in whatever reactions we have—anger, defensiveness, self-pity, and so forth—in a given cross-racial encounter without first reflecting on what is driving our reactions and how they will affect other people.

Tears that are driven by white guilt are self-indulgent. When we are mired in guilt, we are narcissistic and ineffective; guilt functions as an excuse for inaction. Further, because we so seldom have authentic and sustained cross-racial relationships, our tears do not feel like solidarity to people of color we have not previously supported. Instead, our tears function as impotent reflexes that don't lead to constructive action. We need to reflect on when we cry and when we don't, and why. In other words, what does it take to move us? Since many of us have not learned how racism works and our role in it, our tears may come from shock
and distress about what we didn't know or recognize. For people of color, our tears demonstrate our racial insulation and privilege.

I asked the woman of color I refer to in the opening of this chapter if I was missing anything in this list. This is her response:

It's infuriating because of its audacity of disrespect to our experience. You are crying because you are uncomfortable with your feelings when we are barely allowed to have any. You are ashamed or some such thing and cry, but we are not allowed to have any feelings because then we are being difficult. We are supposed to remain stoic and strong because otherwise we become the angry and scary people of color. We are only allowed to have feelings for the sake of your entertainment, as in the presentation of our funerals. And even then, there are expectations of what is allowed for us to express. We are abused daily, beaten, raped, and killed but you are sad and that's what is important. That's why it is sooooo hard to take.

I have certainly been moved to tears by someone's story in cross-racial discussions. And I imagine that sometimes tears are appreciated, as they can validate and bear witness to the pain of racism for people of color. But I try to be very thoughtful about how and when I cry. I try to cry quietly so that I don't take up more space, and if people rush to comfort me, I do not accept the comfort; I let them know that I am fine so we can move on.


In addition to the general dynamics discussed thus far, white women's tears in cross-racial discussions have a very specific effect on men. I have seen our tears manipulate men of all races, but the consequences of this manipulation are not the same. White men occupy the highest positions in the race and gender hierarchy. Thus, they have the power to define their own reality and that of others. This reality includes not only whose experiences are valid, but
is fundamentally valid. In the
white racial frame, not all women are deemed worthy of recognition. For example, contrary to popular white mythology, white women—not people of color—have been the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action. When forced to do so, white men could acknowledge white women's humanity; white women were their sisters, wives, and daughters. And of course, through these relationships, white women's increased access to resources benefited white men. This humanity has yet to be granted to women of color.

White men also get to authorize what constitutes pain and whose pain is legitimate. When white men come to the rescue of white women in cross-racial settings, patriarchy is reinforced as they play savior to our damsel in distress. By legitimating white women as the targets of harm, both white men and women accrue social capital. People of color are abandoned and left to bear witness as the resources meted out to white people actually increase—yet again—on their backs.

Men of color may also come to the aid of white women in these exchanges and may also be driven by their conditioning under sexism and patriarchy. But men of color have the additional weight of racism to navigate. This weight has historically been deadly. For black men in particular, the specter of Till and countless others who have been beaten and killed over a white woman's claims of cross-racial distress is ever present. Ameliorating a white woman's distress as quickly as possible may be felt as a literal matter of survival. Yet coming to the rescue of a white woman also drives a wedge between men and women of color. Rather than receive social capital that reinforces his status, a man of color put in this position must now live with the agony of having to support a white woman over a person of color in order to survive.

White people do need to feel grief about the brutality of white supremacy and our role in it. In fact, our numbness to the racial injustice that occurs daily is key to holding it in place. But our grief must lead to sustained and transformative action. Because our emotions are indicators of our internal frameworks, they can serve as entry points into the deeper self-awareness that leads to this action. Examining what is at the root of our emotions (shame for not knowing, guilt for hurting
someone, hurt feelings because we think we must have been misunderstood) will enable us to address these frameworks. We also need to examine our responses toward other people's emotions and how they may reinscribe race and gender hierarchies. Our racial socialization sets us up to repeat racist behavior, regardless of our intentions or self-image. We must continue to ask
our racism manifests, not

BOOK: White Fragility
7.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

The Master Sniper by Stephen Hunter
Mind F*ck by Dawn, Kimber S.
His Darkest Salvation by Juliana Stone
Holiday Magick by Rich Storrs
Pagan Christmas by Christian Rätsch
Queenmaker by India Edghill
The Judge Is Reversed by Frances Lockridge
Ghost Mimic by Jonathan Moeller