Contemporary race relations remain reminiscent of the 1960s and don't feel much changed from when I was in high school. Conversations about the black face scandal, the Black Lives Matter movement, the Charlottesville riots, NFL protests against police brutality, the rise of white nationalism, and Make America White Again politics echo the same thought patterns. As racism continues to force itself into our national discourse, whites remain unwitting students in a course on racial dynamics—some with a growing level of white guilt, others with a defensiveness that ironically manifests itself in behaviors that reinforce racist practices.
This phenomenon, termed “white fragility,” is explained in Robin DiAngelo’s New York Times best-selling book of the same name, in which she describes the unexamined racial identity of white people and how they disassociate themselves from racism. DiAngelo’s analysis, born out of decades of anti-racism work as a white woman, attempts to equip whites with the tools they need to understand their active part in perpetuating racism and to provide insights for people of color to better understand their interactions with whites. White Fragility, rooted in a social-justice perspective, employs an enlightened yet prescriptive understanding of the interface of racial identity and racial dynamics. In doing so, the concept suffers from some blindspots that can only be understood by, well, someone who isn’t actually white.
Listening, getting educated, acting with racial humility, thinking before speaking—all actions that DiAngelo suggests whites can take to combat white fragility—are great first steps but can be perceived as self-aggrandizing ego-boosters for liberal whites unless those actions translate into caring more about voter suppression than voter fraud, supporting changes to the criminal justice system, focusing attention on the racism still embedded in our school curricula and disciplinary procedures, recruiting and promoting qualified racial minorities, and choosing to live and socialize in racially mixed settings where trusting, equal-status relationships can be formed and level playing fields can be established and maintained.
Understanding white fragility is Racial Dynamics 101, and a necessary step for white Americans. But awareness alone does not lead to behavior change, and even the most aware people can be susceptible to what researchers call a "backfire effect," in which whites become even more defensive and fragile and people of color claim this fragility as a negative, permanent personality flaw inherent to whiteness. As a result, racial dynamics remain divisive.
If understanding white fragility is Racial Dynamics 101, understanding the process of racial dynamics is the advanced course. People of color, particularly blacks, are continually enrolled in this course, and we don’t have the choice whites do to sign up for or opt out of it. So, for those who haven’t taken this course, here are a few things we’ve learned:
We’ve been there and know that. Racism is often invisible to white people, and the white-fragility perspective does not underscore how much people of color already know about whites’ limited or nonexistent understanding of racism. As noted in diversity scholar Robert Terry’s classic "The Parable of Ups and Downs," the downs always know more about the ups than the ups know about the downs. It’s what Terry calls “dumb up-ness.” Due to our socialization process and how American policies and practices are structured, we blacks know a lot more about white people than whites know about blacks. We also know that the narratives many whites hold about blacks are flawed, and more importantly, we know that, while those narratives may describe some of our experiences, they are not our stories. They are rooted in many whites’ psyches and experiences, and they neglect to recognize the role that black parents, black churches, and segregated black schools have played in contradicting them, giving blacks a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of racial dynamics than their white counterparts.
For example, one white narrative is that there are few qualified blacks for executive-level positions due to a history of racial segregation, lack of access to quality education, and a career trajectory that lags behind whites, all of which will be rectified by affirmative-action practices and movement toward a “post-racial society.” The belief is that over time there will be more blacks prepared for these leadership roles. However, the experience of blacks in that same reality is that, beyond being qualified for a position, there are other requirements—such as the ability to manage the right networks, team chemistry, appearance, communication style—that are based on a white prototype. When qualifications are held constant in hiring, whites still enjoy an advantage. Blacks must prove they are a good fit for an organization by earning trust and making whites feel comfortable with how they represent themselves as black. Still, the accepted white story remains: that there are few qualified blacks for leadership positions.
Black people have long understood that these narratives tell us more about the racist beliefs perpetuated by some white individuals and forwarded by most institutions than they do about our own racial identity. Ironically, neglecting to acknowledge this important counter-narrative is another example of white privilege—the privilege of getting to name how you experience the world as the norm and the only reality that exists.
We have left the plantation. From a white-fragility framework, talking about race and talking about racism are synonymous. White fragility equates minority racial status with victimization and marginalization. People of color are understood as victims and marginalized people rather than people who have experienced racism and marginalization by whites. Despite pervasive racism, we understand ourselves as empowered racial beings. Unfortunately, many whites with limited social or professional cross-racial relationships tend to fix upon a small number of black figures they perceive to be like themselves, and then experience those individuals as the exception rather than the norm. We do not believe this myth of racial exceptionality. We live a different reality than that every day, in our schools, in our homes, in our social settings, and in our neighborhoods. But this myth too often clouds whites’ understanding of the black experience.
We are not our skin color. From a white-fragility framework, whites resolve their racial identity by shedding racist thinking and relinquishing an entitlement that has been deeply internalized. White fragility offers no other avenue for defining whiteness. The identification of “white” with “racist” is a fixed status attached to skin color, inescapable and intrinsic to a white person’s identity. There is no positive white identity because whiteness is embedded in racism. Conversely, black identity is shrouded in racism and offers no positive resolution save for the eradication of racism. Ironically, this promotes a white-savior narrative: Black people can only achieve personal fulfillment and a healthy quality of life if whites release us from their racist behaviors and thinking. But this is simply not so.
Racism is an ugly phenomenon that exists like a cancerous tumor in our environment. It threatens our existence and erodes our capacity to develop and grow. Racism does not define who whites are as human beings. Racism does not define who people of color are as human beings. We are one race, the human race, with diverse expressions of our humanity.
We know that whites are not their skin color. If authentic racial discourse is to take place, blacks understand that we cannot act on the assumption that every white person uses their social privilege in ways that are destructive, or that whites are so fragile and lacking in racial stamina that the only meaningful way whites can have a relationship with us is by being accountable for their racism and being allies in fighting discrimination. We know that many whites are more racially facile than that, and we assume that the majority hold the capacity to become racially facile. Many black people work to encourage whites to find a way to claim a white identity that is not encased in the label of oppressor. Achieving a healthy white-identity resolution and feeling racially secure enough not to exhibit racial superiority does more for eradicating racism than just being an enlightened ally.
We are not defined by racism. Whites must move past the certainty that being marginalized, oppressed, and victimized by the racist practices that exist in this country form the core identity of every person of color. This kind of thinking sets up an unhealthy dynamic in which whites cleanse collective guilt through relationships with blacks and blacks extract their self-worth from whites. Blacks are not interested in that kind of relationship with white people.
Institutional and personal racism exists, and indeed black people experience racism all too often. Yet racism has never defined us as a people. Black Americans are a people of deep racial consciousness and high racial esteem rooted in agility, creativity, wonder, and stamina. Black Americans evolved to this identity through our own psychological work and not because whites simply changed their minds and decided that black people were now acceptable Homo sapiens.
We know that whites are still on a journey. As the recipients of white fragility, black people have known of its existence for a very, very long time. We know that not all white fragility comes from dogged adherence to social power and racial privilege. However naïve, sometimes white fragility stems from aspirational thinking and the deep desire to experience the beloved community of Dr. King, where racism doesn’t exist and being racially facile is the norm. Many blacks have experienced that kind of white fragility with their co-workers, family members, and friends. We believe that kind of white fragility can be a healthy start toward healing the racial divide and making progress toward behaviors and actions that actually result in racial equity. White fragility can also result from a profound sadness, often experienced as guilt, that comes from whites’ realization that racism does exist and that it is perpetuated by those who share their same racial identity. This kind of white fragility is a necessary and important part of the racial-identity developmental process, and has earned many whites the moniker “woke.”
Yet managing white fragility must move beyond being “woke” or rejecting racist behaviors or even calling out other whites when racist actions occur. Positive white-identity resolution is turning white fragility into white racial stamina, in practice and in witness, to achieve racial equity. This happens by eliminating persistent racial gaps in wealth, health, prison sentences, education, and employment. This, blacks know for sure.