Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility delves into the psyche of whiteness and its’ interwoven counterpart — racism. DiAngelo dissects and discusses the ways in which the external manifestations of whiteness and racism can present itself through the phenomenon of ‘white fragility’, which DiAngelo states is in fact situated in historical and institutional power and control. DiAngelo defines white fragility as best “conceptualized as a response or “condition” produced and reproduced by the continual social and material advantages of whiteness.” continuing — “[w]hen 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.”
Moments in which white fragility are invoked and displayed are, as DiAngelo states, centred in control, white solidarity and self-image. In other words, the ways in which white folk protect their positionality within society is to invoke a discourse of self-defense in light of being challenged on race. This allows the narrative of the event at hand to be re-centred back to them, where they now are characterised as the victim, someone who is under attack and targeted. Nonetheless, equilibrium has been restored despite the damage done to People of Colour. DiAngelo explains that while this discourse is characterized through victimhood and so on, the effects of these responses “are not fragile at all; they are quite powerful because they take advantage of historical and institutional power and control.” As a Person of Colour there have been innumerous moments in which I have witnessed this happening, and those around are also able to attest to their experience of this. An example is the need to cry once faced with the challenge of race — we see this often exercised by middle-class white women, and certainly has been continuously documented through videos posted online including — what society has now dubbed these white women as — “Karens”. Certainly, as DiAngelo pens “If we need to take umbrage and respond with righteous outrage, then we will take umbrage. If we need to argue, minimize, explain, play devil’s advocate, pout, tune out, or withdraw to stop the challenge, then we will.” However, this is not to minimise the act to simple defensiveness or whining — it is not benign, rather it is a deeply rooted reflexive strategy that requires actual work to be unlearned.
Certainly, White Fragility provides a simplified breakdown of the ways in which white fragility is exhibited, one of which is explained in Chapter 5, titled “The Good/Bad Binary” — DiAngelo argues this dichotomy is perhaps “the most effective adaptation of racism in recent history”. What this refers to is the obscuring of the structural nature of racism. Through conceptualising racism as exhibited only by bad people, white folk absolve themselves from any further action required to be anti-racist as they perceive themselves as simply not-racist. As DiAngelo writes —
“If, as a white person, I conceptualize racism as a binary and I place myself on the “not racist” side, what further action is required of me? No action is required, because I am not a racist. Therefore, racism is not my problem; it doesn’t concern me and there is nothing further I need to do. This worldview guarantees that I will not build my skills in thinking critically about racism or use my position to challenge racial inequality.”
DiAngelo organises narratives birthed out of the good/bad dichotomy into two categories — colour-blindness and colour-celebrate. Though, it is worth noting that while they are two separate categories, they can and often are used interchangeably. Colour-blind statements often are phrased along the lines of “I was taught to treat everyone the same” or “Race is not an issue” and so on. Likewise, colour-celebrate claims include statements such as “I have people of colour in my family” or, “I went to a very diverse school/live in a very diverse neighbourhood.” On face value you may wonder what is so wrong with these statements, well, DiAngelo provides a great filter through which you can clarify the why about these statements. The filter is to simply ask — “How does this claim function in this conversation?” Once you apply this to either colour-blind and colour-celebrate narratives you will find that these claims function in ultimately similar ways: “they all exempt the person from any responsibility for or participation in the problem. They take race off the table, and they close (rather than open) any further exploration. In so doing, they protect the racial status quo.”
Moving onto anti-blackness, DiAngelo states in White Fragility, that “anti-blackness goes deeper than the negative stereotypes all of us have absorbed; anti-blackness is foundational to our very identities as white people.” What DiAngelo is referring to here is the historically embedded and documented need to create an “inferior” black race while simultaneously also creating a “superior” white race. In other words, “blackness is essential to the creation of white identity.” Yet, while anti-blackness is cemented in “misinformation, fables, perversions, projections, and lies[,] [i]t is also rooted in a lack of historical knowledge and an inability or unwillingness to trace the effects of history into the present.” In turn, this allows for the dehumanization and blaming of the victim by the oppressor, and in doing so, allows the narrative of black people as not human the same way whites are, the mistreatment does not count because “[i]f they are bad, it isn’t unfair. In fact, it is righteous.” Likewise, anti-blackness can be at the heart of white saviour complex. For, as DiAngelo notes black people are also used “to feel warmhearted and noble. [White people] 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.” We see this play out in the ‘I need to find myself’ voluntourism years abroad in Africa, the dire need to display poor black children on social media as trophies of white saviour-hood, to the media and film propaganda — an example which DiAngelo pulls on is The Blind Side featuring Sandra Bullock.
Overall, DiAngelo provides a seamless analysis of the white fragility phenomenon. While this summation only covers what I believe are more of the foundational factions for dismantling white fragility, DiAngelo certainly provides an array of divisions within the novel — varying from concrete definitions of racism, prejudice, discrimination and white supremacy to delving into the socialization of white folk. DiAngelo is sure to discuss these further through highlighting the ways in which the socialization is reflected in the segregated lives white folk lead, as well as, reflected in the white racial frame. Aside from the aforementioned, DiAngelo explores the social construction of race through highlighting the category of ‘white’ changes over time. Thereby, making sure to affirm to her readers, especially white readers, that while Irish, Italian and Polish were excluded in the past, and may have originally divided in terms of origin, European immigrants become racially united through assimilation. While DiAngelo speaks within the context of the US, it certainly translates within the UK also. Furthermore, DiAngelo firmly positioning herself within the text as a white woman further reflects on the importance and need of the ongoing work required to be specifically and deliberately anti-racist. Ultimately, DiAngelo’s White Fragility is to a large extent an uncomplicated starting point to waking up from a racial slumber you may or may not know you are in. It does not ask too much other than a moment of genuine reflection, thus, for those well versed within the race dialogue and scholarship, DiAngelo does not provide an insight into vibrant new information. Rather, DiAngelo poses White Fragility as an a,b,c guide to otherwise critical literature through which one is able to inaugurate their anti-racist life.