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.
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).