Review: White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

I started reading this book on a Melbourne tram. Sitting in public, I was conscious of the big bold letters on the front screaming “White Fragility”. I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t want my reading to seem like a performance. And I was wary that reading a book with such a title may be perceived as a challenge to other white people.

What I just described is white fragility in action. I was letting my own racial insecurities get in the way of addressing racism. White fragility in essence is the emotions and behaviours that keep white people on top of the racial hierarchy. Robin DiAngelo’s book is a measured, deeply considered and provoking guide to taking it apart.

DiAngelo is a sociologist who does workplace training in dealing with racism. Her focus is the US, which obviously has a particular history around slavery and African-Americans. But, as she argues, it is applicable to any white nation in the West, including settler societies like Australia. Reading this book, it was easy to identify the same processes at work in Australia: the panic about “African gangs”, our response to terrorism, how we approach China, our treatment of Indigenous people, as well as our general participation in a global white culture that sees itself as superior to all others.

So this is a book for white people. In particular it a book for white progressives, who DiAngelo believes “cause the most daily damage to people of colour”. I baulked when I first read that sentence. Surely explicitly racist white people who murder black people do more damage? But this is a very carefully formed belief. Most white people, including those that hold that vast majority of power, would not conceive of themselves as racist (even the most conservative of politicians). But every day those same people make decisions and act in ways that harm people of colour, even if we don’t recognise them as racist.

Before we can deal with white fragility, we have to understand what racism is. To recap: biological race is not a thing; differences between people are not explained by superficial differences in appearance. Race is a social construct that was created to make white people feel better about enslaving people of colour, particularly black people. Despite the efforts of civil rights activists, race continues to have an enduring effect on equality.

Let’s break it down. Everyone, inevitably, has prejudices about people based on their social groups. These prejudices can lead to discrimination, which can include violence. When these prejudices and behaviours are enshrined in law and institutions, they become racism. To find evidence of racism, look at any measure between white people and people of colour: life expectancy, representation in employment or the criminal justice system, health, education… it goes on and on. If our goal is equality between people, then we have to end racism.

It sounds like a working definition that could be applied to any society. In reality, racism is an exclusively white domain. That’s because, as DiAngelo writes, “only whites have the collective social and institutional power and priviledge over people of colour”.

As white people, we’ve been socialised into a culture of white supremacy. (Initially I was surprised to see DiAngelo use this term beyond alt-right Nazis, but in typical measured prose she demonstrates its application society-wide). This culture is a system of advantages that white people enjoy. These advantages are both obvious (better job prospects) and subtle (being able to walk down the street without fear of being challenged). It also, significantly, absolves us of the burden of race: we don’t feel “white”, even as we immediately see the race of people of colour.

Understanding racism like this has an important and liberating effect. To be called racist is does not automatically mean that I’m a bad person (well, I still might be). Rather, it’s an inevitability of being white in a racist system. But for a number of reasons, including misunderstanding what racism is, being challenged on racism is extremely uncomfortable for white people. In a world where we never have to think about our race, unlike people of colour, we have no capacity to carry its burden, something DiAngelo usefully conceptualises as racial stamina. So we act out. We get defensive, we get aggressive, we cry, we argue. These emotions and behaviours are white fragility.

You might think these are just standard responses to discomfort, but they are much more insidious. By shutting out feedback on our racism, we’re actually helping to maintain the racist system.

DiAngelo’s book spends a lot of time unpacking how and why white fragility is a thing. Drawing on sociological concepts, she pokes and prods at racism and white supremacy from many different angles. Parts of this book are quite technical. Even as an arts graduate, I found some of these concepts a workout, and often repetitive. But I began to realise this repetitiveness was necessary: you have to come at this topic again and again in the hope that something will stick. It is also useful to build a repertoire of recognisable racist behaviours. Some might be surprising: one woman of colour DiAngelo speaks to is upset at DiAngelo’s dismissal of a task the woman has asked her to do in a workplace. How is that racist? Well, black people have been asked over and over again to justify their intelligence and leadership.

At the pointy end of this though are guidelines for working through white fragility. These are incredibly sensible and practical and clearly honed from DiAngelo’s years as a race educator. The examples she lifts from her work are as enlightening as they are frustrating. This is a call for white people to increase their racial stamina, embrace discomfort and mature racially. It’s long past the time to grow up.

Gay rating: a necessary 0/5 that reminds us queers that we need to support people of colour in the struggle for equality

White Fragility: why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism, is published by Beacon Press.

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