White Fragility

Title: White Fragility – Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism

Author: Robin DiAngelo

Thoughts: An interesting viewpoint about racism in the US from someone who trains people to recognize and deal with their racism while also recognizing her own failures in discussing topics with people of color in her life.


Not naming the groups that face barriers only serves those who already have access; the assumption is that the access enjoyed by the controlling group is universal. For example, although we are taught that women were granted suffrage in 1920, we ignore the fact that it was white women who received full access or that it was white men who granted it. Not until the 1960s, through the Voting Rights Act, were all women—regardless of race—granted full access to suffrage. Naming who has access and who doesn’t guides our efforts in challenging injustice.

like most white people raised in the US, I was not taught to see myself in racial terms and certainly not to draw attention to my race or to behave as if it mattered in any way. Of course, I was made aware that somebody’s race mattered, and if race was discussed, it would be theirs, not mine. Yet a critical component of cross-racial skill building is the ability to sit with the discomfort of being seen racially, of having to proceed as if our race matters (which it does).

Illustrating the power of our questions to shape the knowledge we validate, these scientists didn’t ask, “Are blacks (and others) inferior?” They asked, “Why are blacks (and others) inferior?” In less than a century, Jefferson’s suggestion of racial difference became commonly accepted scientific “fact.”5

Our prejudices tend to be shared because we swim in the same cultural water and absorb the same messages. All humans have prejudice; we cannot avoid it. If I am aware that a social group exists, I will have gained information about that group from the society around me. This information helps me make sense of the group from my cultural framework. People who claim not to be prejudiced are demonstrating a profound lack of self-awareness.

Everyone has prejudice, and everyone discriminates. Given this reality, inserting the qualifier “reverse” is nonsensical.

racism—like sexism and other forms of oppression—occurs when a racial group’s prejudice is backed by legal authority and institutional control. This authority and control transforms individual prejudices into a far-reaching system that no longer depends on the good intentions of individual actors; it becomes the default of the society and is reproduced automatically. Racism is a system.

When I say that only whites can be racist, I mean that in the United States, only whites have the collective social and institutional power and privilege over people of color. People of color do not have this power and privilege over white people.

For those who ask why there is no White History Month, the answer illustrates how whiteness works. White history is implied in the absence of its acknowledgment; white history is the norm for history. Thus, our need to qualify that we are speaking about black history or women’s history suggests that these contributions lie outside the norm.

A white participant said to him, “I don’t see race; I don’t see you as black.” My co-trainer’s response was, “Then how will you see racism?” He then explained to her that he was black, he was confident that she could see this, and that his race meant that he had a very different experience in life than she did. If she were ever going to understand or challenge racism, she would need to acknowledge this difference. Pretending that she did not notice that he was black was not helpful to him in any way, as it denied his reality—indeed, it refused his reality—and kept hers insular and unchallenged. This pretense that she did not notice his race assumed that he was “just like her,” and in so doing, she projected her reality onto him.

they found that whites involved in these incidents most often played predictable roles. Typically, there was a protagonist who initiated the racist act, a cheerleader who encouraged it through laughter or agreement, the spectators who stood in silence, and (very rarely) a dissenter who objected. Virtually all dissenters were subjected to a form of peer pressure in which they were told that it was only a joke and that they should lighten up.

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.

Racism is so deeply woven into the fabric of our society that I do not see myself escaping from that continuum in my lifetime. But I can continually seek to move further along it. I am not in a fixed position on the continuum; my position is dictated by what I am actually doing at a given time. Conceptualizing myself on an active continuum changes the question from whether I am or am not racist to a much more constructive question: Am I actively seeking to interrupt racism in this context? And perhaps even more importantly, how do I know?

We see anti-black sentiment in how quickly images of brutality toward black children (let alone black adults) are justified by the white assumption that it must have been deserved. Such beliefs would be unimaginable if we had been shown images of white teens being thrown across schoolrooms, of white kindergarteners handcuffed, of a white child shot while playing with a toy gun in the park. We see anti-black sentiment in the immediate rejoinder to Black Lives Matter that all lives matter, that blue lives matter. And in the absurdly false comparison between the white nationalist and “alt-right” movement (now directly connected to the White House) with the Black Panther Party of the 1960s. We see anti-blackness in how much more harshly we criticize blacks, by every measure. We see it in the president of the United States positioning the avowed white supremacist neo-Nazis marching openly in the streets—including one man who drove a car into a crowd of protesters—as equal in character to the people protesting them.

When I consult with organizations that want me to help them recruit and retain a more diverse workforce, I am consistently warned that past efforts to address the lack of diversity have resulted in trauma for white employees. This is literally the term used to describe the impact of a brief and isolated workshop: trauma. This trauma has required years of avoiding the topic altogether, and although the business leaders feel they are ready to begin again, I am cautioned to proceed slowly and be careful.

incoherent talk is a function of talking about race in a world that insists that race does not matter. This incoherence suggests that many white people are unprepared to explore, even on a preliminary level, their racial perspectives and to work to shift their understanding of racism. This reluctance maintains white power because the ability to determine which narratives are authorized and which are suppressed is the foundation of cultural domination. This reluctance has further implications, for if whites cannot explore alternate racial perspectives, they can only reinscribe white perspectives as universal.

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.

a positive white identity is an impossible goal. White identity is inherently racist; white people do not exist outside the system of white supremacy. This does not mean that we should stop identifying as white and start claiming only to be Italian or Irish. To do so is to deny the reality of racism in the here and now, and this denial would simply be color-blind racism. Rather, I strive to be “less white.” To be less white is to be less racially oppressive.