Book Review: White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

book cover: White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, whose background is education and who is white herself, looks at racism and why she believes white people don’t want to talk about it. I went into the book knowing that it was popular but having doubts about the effectiveness of the title at accomplishing the intended effect.

White fragility is described this way:

“The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable—the mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers a range of defensive responses… These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy.”

Social learning and implicit/explicit beliefs

The author writes about people not being aware of socialization and the way we learn about different groups, and she seems to expect that they should somehow automatically have that knowledge. She talks around, but doesn’t actually explain, key concepts like the difference between implicit and explicit beliefs, which is unfortunate given how relevant it is.

Explicit beliefs are what we come up with consciously, but implicit beliefs are often based on early social learning that creates stereotypes to represent different social groups. Stereotypes aren’t always a bad thing; that’s how we know what to expect from a teacher, a cashier, a police officer, etc. When I see a police officer, for example, my implicit beliefs about what it means to be a police officer kick in before any conscious thoughts about that particular individual kick in. It’s the same deal with race. The problem comes when we rigidly apply stereotypes to every member of a group whether they’re accurate or not.

The thing that the author doesn’t seem to grasp is that none of that is apparent if you haven’t learned about it. The only reason I have any familiarity with the topic is in relation to mental illness stigma. That information about social learning is important to properly contextualize the author’s arguments, so I think it was a major mistake for her not to go there.

Ashkenazi Jews?

Another mistake, at least from my perspective, was this:

“… Perhaps you grew up in poverty, or are an Ashkenazi Jew of European heritage, or were raised in a military family. Perhaps you grew up in Canada, Hawaii, or Germany, or had people of color in your family. None of these situations exempts you from the forces of racism, because no aspect of society is outside of these forces.”

I can see where she’s trying to go with this, but come on now. During the Holocaust, 6 million Jews, the majority of whom were Ashkenazi, were systematically murdered by the Nazis. To put that group in the same example with Canadians and Hawaiians is all kinds of tasteless when writing about racism. It doesn’t get much more racist than having a dictator try his best to wipe the Jewish people as a whole off the face of the planet. Bad example for the point she was trying to make about the power of being white.

Racism as a white supremacist system

DiAngelo describes racism as a social system rather than something that occurs on an individual level or in terms of specific actions, which I agree with, yet it seems like she likes to beat people over the head with it on an individual basis. She argues that even though people are resistant to it, we need to name the racist system as being white supremacist. Well, someone might say Bernie Sanders should start up a National Socialist Party, and sure, the words might work, but that name has already got some pretty powerful connotations, especially for those Ashkenazi Jews of European origin she was talking about, so it’s not a great idea to recycle that name.

Besides that, though, someone who has implicit racial bias but neutral/positive explicit views is going to be a whole lot more likely to entertain change than a skinhead with a swastika tattoo that broadcasts his explicit views for all to see. But if you tell that implicit-only person that they’re the same as the skinhead, they’re likely to run as far and as fast in the opposite direction as they can, which is probably a very good thing.

How should we learn about racism?

The book also talks about white people’s expectations that people of colour should teach us about racism, and gives several reasons why this is inappropriate. I’ve heard that idea raised before, and I can see that people need to take responsibility for their own learning. However, given that contact with people with mental illness sharing their stories is the most effective way to reduce mental illness stigma, I wonder how effective the non-teaching angle is.

We learn that stereotypes aren’t universally true by having those stereotypes disconfirmed, and genuine conversations are an important part of that. As with mental illness stigma, education alone is unlikely to do much to budge implicit beliefs. Stereotyping white people, as the author seems to do very enthusiastically, seems like an odd way of going about challenging the stereotyping of Black people.

The book includes a list of rules of engagement that people expect to be followed if they’re given feedback on their racism. What was missing for me in all of that was that most people have socially learned, albeit relatively recently, that racism is bad, and it’s probably not going to work that well to try to address the racist social learning without also navigating around the anti-racist social learning. If people have learned that racism is bad, you have to successfully stickhandle around that to get at the existing implicit bias.

Being “less white”

The final chapter looks at ways to move forward, which I thought were pretty flimsy. The author mentions that an approach that’s sometimes suggested is to develop a positive white identity, but she shoots this down as being an impossible goal because it’s a contradiction in terms. She writes that she strives to be “less white,” which she sees as being synonymous with “less racially oppressive.” Given that society often tells black people to be less black, which is definitely not a good thing, to flip it and arrive at “be less white” seems a bit odd.

Does this book actually promote change?

While there are ideas that I agree with in this book, I don’t think the presentation is particularly effective. I wonder if calling it white fragility increases or decreases the chances of the target audience making desired changes to attitudes and behaviours. Because if the answer is decrease (and I’m guessing that’s the case), then the whole thing is a bit of a waste of time. Of course, the author would say that in itself is an example of white fragility (as in, if you agree with me, I’m right, and if you disagree with me, that’s further proof I’m right), but if an approach isn’t working in the sense of producing attitude change, what’s the point? From the examples that are offered in the book, it sounds like the diversity trainings she leads have done a whole lot of offending with very little eye-opening. Perhaps it’s worth asking why white people don’t want to talk about racism with her.

My guess is that this book is likely to alienate the people who most need to hear the underlying concepts, but appeal to people who already think of themselves, or at least want to think of themselves, as anti-racist. Written differently, but drawing on many of the same ideas, I think it could easily have appealed to a wider audience and been more likely to prompt positive change.

WhiteFragility is available on Amazon (affiliate link).

You can find my other reviews on the MH@H book review index or on Goodreads.

49 thoughts on “Book Review: White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo”

  1. Johnzelle Anderson

    I started reading that book once and too found it poorly written – Also the title is laughable to this particular POC…

  2. I had heard about this book, usually bracketed with Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, but I haven’t read it. Your review seemed balanced.

    I do think this aggressive approach to race can be counter-productive. I’ve read a number of accounts of how white supremacists (neo-Nazi/KKK-type white supremacists, not white people with mild prejudices) were de-radicalised and, while it is only anecdotal evidence, mostly it seems it was being confronted with the humanity of the “other” that shocked them out of their views, rather than being publicly “called out” on their prejudices, which would probably just have entrenched them defensively.

    The bit about Ashkenazi Jews just seems to reflect the problem some people on the left have with fitting Jews into their worldview. The Nazis, incidentally, labelled the Jews as “negroid” because Nazi racism was based on supposed ideas about “blood purity” rather than skin colour.

    1. I hadn’t heard that before about Jews being labelled as negroid. I guess when people are keen to “other”, there will always be some kind of excuse that can be made up.

  3. Thanks for the book review – it prompted me to think about how I perceive of race. The book you describe sounds well-intended but a little confusing and maybe full of back and forth. What I got from your discussion is that implicit racism is important to tackle and may be more difficult to do than tackling explicit racism. A tactic that I use is to have a conversation with myself every time I identify someone by the color of their skin be it black or white or purple or orange. I seek to identify that person by characteristics other than race or skin color which may not always be the same thing. I seek to describe that person based on characteristics other than skin color or race or creed. This is my little way of keeping honest within myself about how I may have existing preconceptions about a particular skin color or race or creed. I find I can talk to myself about this. Often but not always I come back on the other side of the observation having told myself that race or color are not important indicators for that person. I often find another way to describe that person. I am no expert on racism. But I would be interested in knowing if other people do this or do something similar to keep the conversation honest?

  4. Wonderful and NEEDED topic. I agree with you. The title is cringe-worthy imo. It almost invites folks to have their dukes up, automatically. This is a super sensitive subject, on BOTH POC side AND white folks sides. I can understand why white folks would want to defend themselves, almost by default, by the name alone. Also, you are right, unless a THOROUGH explanations, with concrete and understandable examples, are given, off top, most will not even begin to understand. Non POC have NO idea what it is like to have to be concerned about what clothing to wear, voice tones used, facial expressions, speaking or not speaking, speaking too loudly etc. NON Poc, particularly men, can freely wear hoodies, sweatpants, etc, head bands and not be considered a ‘threat’. As children, POC are taught to act in ways to not make ‘white folk ‘uncomfortable’. Why? White folks don’t hire POC who are too loud, lazy, ‘disrespectful’, too large, too tall, on and on. We are told we have to work ten times harder to receive 100 times less. In addition, white folks now hearing about ‘reckoning’. Who really wants to reckon with this or that? Who wants to even, go there, when it comes to others being horribly treated, or NOT depending on the color of their skin?! I thank you, for broaching the subject. At all. In any way. It is much needed. Yet, most are scared to broach the subject. Good on you. Thank you for being an ally, whether known or unknown ally for folks of color. 🙂

    1. I completely agree, non-POC can’t possibly have any idea what POC live every day, and the only way to even begin to grasp it is to hear directly from individual POC what their experience is. And that means listening, really listening.

      1. I am also trying to learn yalls side. Is so upsetting for us knowing folks don’t have a clue, don’t want to have a clue, pretend there is no issue at all. It’s exhausting having to teach folk and forever take the high road but just the way it is until it’s not. Makes me sad for us all. When I post and call folk beloved I am talking to EVERYONE. I don’t cordon folk off in colors and orientations and the like. Yea, we all are different but more alike as well. We all we got, beloveds, but we all we need!❤😎

  5. I agree that most people who are non-POC are reluctant to start or continue the dialogue on racism out of fear or simply out of ignorance of how to move forward. As a person with a Mental Illness, I can try to understand the stigma associated with mental health and how that might be similar to racial bias. I agree with Ashley though that being open to listening to others’ stories about race is really the key. Might we start with the stories about race that we tell our children? How are they the same? If at all? How do they differ? What is important to communicate within our families? On both sides of the racial divide? In order to lessen it? Not sure how valuable an approach like this would be but it is possibly a start?

  6. Hi Ashlea, thanks for this book review. I have it on my reading list but am wondering now if I should bother. I read Xendi’s ” How to be an Anti-racist” and Ta-Nehisi Coates ” Between the world and me”. I found both very engaging in showing their POC experience.

    There is just one thing I do not understand in your review: how do get from that quote “I ask readers to make the specific adjustments they think are necessary to their situation, rather than reject the evidence entirely. For example, perhaps you grew up in poverty, or are an Ashkenazi Jew of European heritage, or were raised in a military family. Perhaps you grew up in Canada, Hawaii, or Germany, or had people of color in your family. None of these situations exempts you from the forces of racism, because no aspect of society is outside of these forces.” that she means the Germans of the 1930s and 40s? To me it sounds like she means today’s Germans. Or is there more in the book that would explain it?

    1. I think she was trying to say that if people are white, even if they have other characteristics that would make them less racist, they are still fully benefiting from their whiteness in a racist system. Throughout the book, she described white people as a uniform, monolithic group. It was also very US-centric.

      I haven’t read either of those books you mentioned, but they sound interesting.

      1. Ah, ok. Now I understand. I think I’ll skip it and rather read some POC authors instead 😊. I liked both books very much even though I didn’t agree with everything they said. Xendi’s book is brilliant. He shows his lessons on the basis of his life but also questions his own biases which I found very engaging. Coates book is a letter to his son but full of compassion. Both are definitely worth reading. 🤗

  7. I just would like to see a well-written book on how white people hate to hear of any other race living amongst them, and why this is so. Bonus points for how to change these individuals’ perspective (ie how to be an anti-racist is a good one).

  8. I haven’t read it yet, but have noticed that it seems to be “required reading” among most of the academics I know in this college town. Reading your review, I think I’ll just skim it and meet the requirement.

    1. Oh that’s interesting. I’ve always been a bit puzzled by the term woke, but after reading this book it sort of crystallized the idea of wokeness into the segment of the population I can imagine this book appealing to.

  9. That might describe the academic environment here, though “woke” is probably only a contingent. I tend to describe the atmosphere as “party line liberal.” It’s considered improper to hold an opinion that in some way opposes the Democratic platform, even if one votes 90% Democrat.

      1. Maybe you guys up in Canada have a more “classically liberal” University environment, but from what I see here, at least of the colleges I’ve been exposed to, diversity of thought is not a protected class.

        1. My perspective is probably pretty narrow. My undergrad years were at university that’s big enough that diversity is hard to avoid. I did my master’s at a small school, but it was by distance ed, so I didn’t have contact with a lot of people. They were sufficiently liberal, though, to be okay with me doing autoethnographic work exploring my mental illness for my thesis.

          1. Being as I live in nearly All-White State where there are more Eskimos than there are Black people, it’s unsurprising that there isn’t much diversity of thought among the (relatively small) University populace. The mores of etiquette and courtesy that have prevailed in White culture in past decades are still very dominant here. So even when people disagree, they are unlikely to show it or argue about it.

            What exactly was your thesis on? What’s the title? Can you send it to me, or is it owned by the university?

            1. Maybe I’m only meant to skim it then. But it’s interesting because that’s the kind of thing that’s up my alley. I love studying how my form of mental illness displays itself in various subcultures and social groups that I’ve belonged to. It sort of combines psychology and sociology to study it. I’ll definitely click on that link.

            2. It’s fascinating how mental illness has a biological element, but there’s a socially constructed element that shapes how we experience it.

            3. By the way, I believe my friend Kurt — the linguistics professor, PhD from Stanford — just “liked” your post on political correctness.

  10. I haven’t read the book. I get the impression from your review and others that alienation, rather than positive change, is the real effect of this book. I wonder if it is actually the intention (I’m pessimistic and cynical and that may be unfair – I know nothing about this author)

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