In White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo sought to explain and combat the anger and defensiveness that many white people allegedly have when discussing race and racism in order to uplift the voices of people of color. Has she achieved this goal? George Yancey considers the issue to have been made worse by DiAngelo’s work and other similar rhetoric.
As Yancey writes:
“Bottling up the expressions of whites is not the path towards addressing the racial alienation that troubles our society. Rather it is the path to guarantee that efforts to deal with the historical and contemporary effects of racism will have a strong constituency that will fight against it.”
Instead of easing the discomfort in conversations surrounding race, DiAngelo has forced white people to either disengage or become threatened by any mention of race or racism. While Yancey may disagree with DiAngelo’s conceptualization of white fragility, he is not at complete odds with DiAngelo.
In fact, Yancey agrees with several of her basic assumptions:
“Okay I believe in institutional racism. I believe that many whites would prefer to deny the existence of such racism. I believe that many whites are defensive and do not want to confront the reality of our racist past and the current manifestations of that past. To this end some of DiAngelo’s statements I support.”
Both Yancey and DiAngelo agree that institutional racism exists and that it is a reality many white people would prefer to ignore. This leads many whites to suppress, often not maliciously, the truth about racism in its past and present forms.
While they may agree on these basic tenants, Yancey would shy away from the far-reaching, possibly alienating claims that DiAngelo makes. Yancey’s critique targets the legitimacy DiAngelo’s theory.
As a social scientist himself, Yancey draws our attention to a striking lack of empirical evidence and reasoning. One of the most salient examples of this lack of evidence is that there is no data to defend the claim that whites experience a unique form of “frailty” compared to other racial groups. As this frailty is the fundamental claim that DiAngelo states about white people, this should be immensely troubling to any reader.
Yancey also critiques the operationalization of such bold, empirically unfounded claims. In Yancey’s view, DiAngelo’s rhetoric has the potential to cause far more division than solutions:
“As far as I can tell the only way a white person can react and not be guilty of white fragility is to agree that he or she is a racist and then do whatever the person of color asks him or her to do. Any defensiveness, crying, arguments, requests for evidence of racism or any other reaction is taken as evidence of white fragility. It is the ultimate in heads I win, tails you lose rhetoric that is great for a Facebook argument, but not useful as far as the creation of a conceptual tool that you can use for hypothesis testing.”
Employing white fragility within discourse about race and racism creates an end to the conversation, not engagement. This only encourages whites to continue to ignore racial issues, as they are no longer allowed to speak into discourse. Meanwhile, the group that is given a platform will likely become overzealous in their demands. This is basic group interest theory, which “indicates that allowing either group total control of what we are going to do means that this group will create rules that benefit them but put others at a disadvantage.”
There is no guarantee that whatever solution posed by such a one-sided conversation will benefit all parties of society. In fact, group interest theory shows that the group in total power will likely use this authority to better their own standing, oftentimes at the cost of others.
Beyond simply critiquing DiAngelo, Yancey provides an alternate solution to the division and discomfort found in conversation about race and racism.:
“We must find common ground and do what we can so that we all can win. This very process can bring us together and reduce the racial animosity that never seems to go away in our society. But it will be hard work. We will not easily give up the idea that we can get everything we want or that we are right but those who disagree with us have no clue. But if we can overcome these tendencies and learn how to fashion win-win solutions, then we have a chance to move forward.”
The “mutual accountability model,” as Yancey calls it, seeks to provide realistic solutions for all parties. This cannot be done without healthy interaction from all groups, not just one. Part of learning how to healthily interact with each other is to participate in active listening. Yancey defines active listening as “listening for understanding and not argument.” Rather than trying to make your next great point, active listening requires a genuine consideration of your opposition’s narrative. This means putting aside our own assumptions, even when they are correct, in order to understand one another before making a judgement.
Yancey acknowledges that the mutual accountability model may be more difficult for people of color to accept, as the group that has suffered more. It isn’t quite fair, and Yancey is aware of this. However, in the interest of long-term solutions, cooperation will likely be more effective, as Yancey illustrates:
“We might get nearly 100 percent of what we want but it will be temporary. Because the backlash against us means that about half the population will work to sabotage whatever solution we get implemented. Or we can get 70-80 percent of what we want though active listening and working with other people who will help, instead of hinder, us. So that 70-80 percent we receive is sustainable as we pull together as a group across racial and ideological lines. The practical smart play is to engage in active listening to work out win-win solutions if what we want is long term success.”
White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo may provide short-term solutions to placate our present racial controversies. However, long-term solutions will only be found in mutual cooperation and mutual accountability.