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Authors: Robin DiAngelo

White Fragility (9 page)

BOOK: White Fragility

We see white solidarity at the dinner table, at parties, and in work settings. Many of us can relate to the big family dinner at which Uncle Bob says something racially offensive. Everyone cringes but no one challenges him because nobody wants to ruin the dinner. Or the party where someone tells a racist joke but we keep silent because we don't want to be accused of being too politically correct and be told to lighten up. In the workplace, we avoid naming racism for the same reasons, in addition to wanting to be seen as a team player and to avoid anything that may jeopardize our career advancement. All these familiar scenarios are examples of white solidarity. (Why speaking up about racism would ruin the ambiance or threaten our career advancement is something we might want to talk about.)

The very real consequences of breaking white solidarity play a fundamental role in maintaining white supremacy. We do indeed risk censure and other penalties from our fellow whites. We might be accused of being politically correct or might be perceived as angry, humorless, combative, and not suited to go far in an organization. In my own life, these penalties have worked as a form of social coercion. Seeking to avoid conflict and wanting to be liked, I have chosen silence all too often.

Conversely, when I kept quiet about racism, I was rewarded with social capital such as being seen as fun, cooperative, and a team player. Notice that within a white supremacist society, I am rewarded for not interrupting racism and punished in a range of ways—big and small—when I do. I can justify my silence by telling myself that at least I am not the one who made the joke and that therefore I am not at fault. But my silence is not benign because it protects and maintains the racial hierarchy and my place within it. Each uninterrupted joke furthers the circulation of racism through the culture, and the ability for the joke to circulate depends on my complicity.

People of color certainly experience white solidarity as a form of racism, wherein we fail to hold each other accountable, to challenge
racism when we see it, or to support people of color in the struggle for racial justice.


As a white person, I can openly and unabashedly reminisce about “the good old days.” Romanticized recollections of the past and calls for a return to former ways are a function of white privilege, which manifests itself in the ability to remain oblivious to our racial history. Claiming that the past was socially better than the present is also a hallmark of white supremacy. Consider any period in the past from the perspective of people of color: 246 years of brutal enslavement; the rape of black women for the pleasure of white men and to produce more enslaved workers; the selling off of black children; the attempted genocide of Indigenous people, Indian removal acts, and reservations; indentured servitude, lynching, and mob violence; sharecropping; Chinese exclusion laws; Japanese American internment; Jim Crow laws of mandatory segregation; black codes; bans on black jury service; bans on voting; imprisoning people for unpaid work; medical sterilization and experimentation; employment discrimination; educational discrimination; inferior schools; biased laws and policing practices; redlining and subprime mortgages; mass incarceration; racist media representations; cultural erasures, attacks, and mockery; and untold and perverted historical accounts, and you can see how a romanticized past is strictly a white construct. But it is a powerful construct because it calls out to a deeply internalized sense of superiority and entitlement and the sense that any advancement for people of color is an encroachment on this entitlement.

The past was great for white people (and white men in particular) because their positions went largely unchallenged. In understanding the power of white fragility, we have to notice that the mere questioning of those positions triggered the white fragility that Trump capitalized on. There has been no actual loss of power for the white elite, who have always controlled our institutions and continue to do so by a very wide margin. Of the fifty richest people on earth, twenty-nine are American.
Of these twenty-nine, all are white, and all but two are men (Lauren Jobs inherited her husband's wealth, and Alice Walton her father's).

Similarly, the white working class has always held the top positions within blue-collar fields (the overseers, labor leaders, and fire and police chiefs). And although globalization and the erosion of workers' rights has had a profound impact on the white working class, white fragility enabled the white elite to direct the white working class's resentment toward people of color. The resentment is clearly misdirected, given that the people who control the economy and who have managed to concentrate more wealth into fewer (white) hands than ever before in human history are the white elite.

Consider this data on the distribution of wealth:

• Since 2015, the richest 1 percent has owned more wealth than the rest of the planet owns.

• Eight men own the same amount of wealth as do the poorest half of the world.

• The incomes of the poorest 10 percent of people increased by less than three dollars a year between 1988 and 2011, while the incomes of the richest 1 percent increased 182 times as much.

• In Bloomberg's daily ranking of the world's five hundred richest people, the world's wealthiest three (Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Jeff Bezos), all white American men, have total net worths of $85 billion, $79 billion, and $73 billion, respectively.
By comparison, the 2015 gross domestic product of Sri Lanka was $82 billion; Luxembourg $58 billion; and Iceland, $16 billion.

• Of the world's ten richest people, nine are white men.

• In 2015–2016, the world's ten biggest corporations together had revenue greater than that of the government revenues of 180 countries combined.

• In the US, over the last thirty years, the growth in the incomes of the bottom 50 percent has been zero, whereas incomes of the top 1 percent have grown by 300 percent.

The call to Make America Great Again worked powerfully in service of the racial manipulation of white people, diverting blame away from the white elite and toward various peoples of color—for example, undocumented workers, immigrants, and the Chinese—for the current conditions of the white working class.

The romanticized “traditional” family values of the past are also racially problematic. White families fled from cities to the suburbs to escape the influx of people of color, a process socialogists term
white flight.
They wrote covenants to keep schools and neighborhoods segregated and forbade cross-racial dating.

Consider the extreme resistance to busing and other forms of school integration from white parents. In the landmark Supreme Court decision
Brown v. Board of Education,
the court ruled that separate was inherently unequal and that schools needed to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.” Busing children from one neighborhood into a school in another to account for residential segregation became a major strategy of desegregation (notably, white children were generally not bused into predominately black schools; instead, black children endured long bus rides to attend predominately white schools). Regina Williams, a black student from Roxbury, Massachusetts, was bused into a school in South Boston. She described her first day in a formerly all-white school as “like a war zone.” School officials, politicians, the courts, and the media gave precedence to the desires of white parents who overwhelmingly and vehemently opposed school desegregation. It has not been African Americans who resist integration efforts; it has always been whites.
The practice of our lives as a white collective has rarely been in alignment with the values we profess.

At the minimum, this idealization of the past is another example of white experiences and perceptions positioned as universal. How might this nostalgia sound to any person of color who is aware of this country's history? The ability to erase this racial history and actually believe that the past was better than the present “for everybody” has inculcated a false consciousness for me personally and as a national citizen.


Because we are not raised to see ourselves in racial terms or to see white space as racialized space, we position ourselves as innocent of race. On countless occasions, I have heard white people claim that because they grew up in segregation, they were sheltered from race. At the same time, we turn to people of color, who may also have grown up in racially segregated spaces (because of decades of de jure and de facto policies that blocked them from moving into white neighborhoods) to learn about racism. But why aren't people of color who grew up in segregation also innocent of race? I ask my readers to reflect deeply on the idea that white segregation is racially innocent.

Because people of color are not seen as racially innocent, they are expected to speak to issues of race (but must do so on white terms). This idea—that racism is not a white problem—enables us to sit back and let people of color take very real risks of invalidation and retaliation as they share their experiences. But we are not required to take similar cross-racial risks. They—not we—have race, and thus they are the holders of racial knowledge. In this way, we position ourselves as standing outside hierarchical social relations.

White flight may be seen as another aspect of white racial innocence, as it is often justified by beliefs that people of color (again, especially black people) are more prone to crime and that if “too many” black people move into a neighborhood, crime will increase, home values will go down, and the neighborhood will deteriorate. For example, in a study of race and perceptions of crime conducted by sociologists Heather Johnson and Thomas Shapiro, white families consistently discussed fear of crime and associated crime with people of color. In their minds, the more people of color in an area (specifically, blacks and Latinos), the more dangerous the area was perceived to be. Research matching census data and police department crime statistics show that this association does not hold, but these statistics do not quell white fears. For most whites, the percentage of young men of color in a neighborhood is directly correlated with perceptions of the neighborhood crime level.

Deeply held white associations of black people with crime distort reality and the actual direction of danger that has historically existed between whites and blacks. The vast history of extensive and brutal explicit violence perpetrated by whites and their ideological rationalizations are all trivialized through white claims of racial innocence. The power we now wield and have wielded for centuries is thus obscured.

It has been well documented that blacks and Latinos are stopped by police more often than whites are for the same activities and that they receive harsher sentences than whites do for the same crimes. Research has also shown that a major reason for this racial disparity can be attributed to the beliefs held by judges and others about the cause of the criminal behavior.
For example, the criminal behavior of white juveniles is often seen as caused by external factors—the youth comes from a single-parent home, is having a hard time right now, just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, or was bullied at school. Attributing the cause of the action to external factors lessens the person's responsibility and classifies the person as a victim him or herself. But black and Latinx youth are not afforded this same compassion.

When black and Latinx youth go before a judge, the cause of the crime is more often attributed to something internal to the person—the youth is naturally more prone to crime, is more animalistic, and has less capacity for remorse (similarly, a 2016 study found that half of a sample of medical students and residents believe that blacks feel less pain
). Whites continually receive the benefit of the doubt not granted to people of color—our race alone helps establish our innocence.

For those of us who work to raise the racial consciousness of whites, simply getting whites to acknowledge that our race gives us advantages is a major effort. The defensiveness, denial, and resistance are deep. But acknowledging advantage is only a first step, and this acknowledgment can be used in a way that renders it meaningless and allows us white people to exempt ourselves from further responsibility. For example, I have often heard whites dismissively say, “Just because of the color of my skin, I have privilege.” Statements like this describe privilege as if
it's a fluke—something that just happens to us as we move through life, with no involvement or complicity on our part.

Critical race scholar Zeus Leonardo critiques the concept of white privilege as something white people receive unwittingly. He says that this concept is analogous to suggesting that a person could walk through life with other people stuffing money into his or her pockets without any awareness or consent on the walker's part. Leonardo challenges this conceptualization, which positions white privilege as innocence, by arguing that “for white racial hegemony to saturate everyday life, it has to be secured by a process of domination, or those acts, decisions, and policies that white subjects perpetrate on people of color.”
Viewing privilege as something that white people are just handed obscures the systematic dimensions of racism that must be actively and passively, consciously and unconsciously, maintained.

The expectation that people of color should teach white people about racism is another aspect of white racial innocence that reinforces several problematic racial assumptions. First, it implies that racism is something that happens to people of color and has nothing to do with us and that we consequently cannot be expected to have any knowledge of it. This framework denies that racism is a relationship in which both groups are involved. By leaving it to people of color to tackle racial issues, we offload the tensions and social dangers of speaking openly onto them. We can ignore the risks ourselves and remain silent on questions of our own culpability.

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