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August 3, 2020Culture

White Fragility: A Conversation on Race and Racism

Introducing a new series discussing ‘White Fragility’ with perspectives from various Christian leaders.
White Fragility: A Conversation on Race and Racism
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What comes to mind when you hear the term "White Fragility?"

The term is striking, unnerving to some degree. Maybe intimidating. What response does such a term stir? Anger, defensiveness, denial?

This is what inspired Robin DiAngelo, who wrote the book White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. She is a scholar who has studied diversity and racism for many years, but has more recently become influential in evangelical circles and that is part of why we are hosting this conversation.

White Fragility has to do with how quickly white people respond with anger and defensiveness in conversations about race. DiAngelo has found in years of diversity training and research that white people respond to these discussions with strikingly similar responses, like the white man who pounded his fist at one seminar, exclaiming out loud, "A white person can't get a job anymore!" (p. 1). Yet, he is completely oblivious to the fact that 38 of the 40 employees gathered were white. “Why,” DiAngelo asks, “is he being so careless about the impact of his anger? Why doesn’t he notice the effect this outburst is having on the people of color in the room?” (p. 1)

From the author's introduction--a perspective on history:

"The United States was founded on the principle that all people are created equal. Yet the nation began with the attempted genocide of Indigenous people and the theft of their land. American wealth was built on the labor of kidnapped and enslaved Africans and their descendants. Women were denied the right to vote until 1920, and black women were denied access to that right until 1965." (p. xiii)

Chapter 1: The Challenges of Talking to White People About Racism

DiAngelo argues two big ideologies help foster racism:

Individualism: "Individualism is a story line that creates, communicates, reproduces, and reinforces the concept that each of us is a unique individual and that our group memberships, such as race, class, or gender, are irrelevant to our opportunities." (p. 10)

"We are taught to think about racism only as discrete acts committed by individual people, rather than as a complex, interconnected system." (p. 3)

“For many white people, the mere title of this book will cause resistance because I am breaking a cardinal rule of individualism—I am generalizing.” (p. 11)

Objectivity: "Objectivity tells us that it is possible to be free of all bias. These ideologies make it very difficult for white people to explore the collective aspects of the white experience." (p. 9)

Chapter 2: Racism and White Supremacy

DiAngelo notes that people who are white tend to have little "racial stamina" for these discussions. Central to this and the concomitant "fragility" she describes comes from how we define racism.

If, as she argues most whites do, we define racism as "intentional acts of racial discrimination committed by immoral individuals," (p. 8) it's easy to see why we would defend ourselves at the notion we might be racist.

Definitions (pulled from throughout the book):

1. White Fragility: "We consider a challenge to our racial worldviews as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people. Thus, we perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as an unsettling and unfair moral offense. The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable—the mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers a range of defensive responses. These include emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation. . . " (p. 2)

2. "Prejudice is pre-judgment about another person based on the social groups to which that person belongs. Prejudice consists of thoughts and feelings, including stereotypes, attitudes, and generalizations that are based on little or no experience and then are projected onto everyone from that group." (p. 19)

"Prejudice is foundational to understanding white fragility because suggesting that white people have racial prejudice is perceived as saying that we are bad and should be ashamed. We then feel the need to defend our character rather than explore the inevitable racial prejudices we have absorbed so that we might change them. In this way, our misunderstanding about what prejudice is protects it." (p. 20)

3. Discrimination is moving from attitude to action: "Discrimination is action based on prejudice. These actions include ignoring, exclusion, threats, ridicule, slander, and violence. For example, if hatred is the emotion we feel because of our prejudice, extreme acts of discrimination, such as violence, may follow." (p. 20)

4. Racism: "When a racial group’s collective prejudice is backed by the power of legal authority and institutional control, it is transformed into racism, a far-reaching system that functions independently from the intentions or self-images of individual actors." (p. 20)

5. White privilege: "People of color are confined and shaped by forces and barriers that are not accidental, occasional, or avoidable. These forces are systematically related to each other in ways that restrict their movement. Individual whites may be 'against' racism, but they still benefit from a system that privileges whites as a group. David Wellman succinctly summarizes racism as 'a system of advantage based on race.' These advantages are referred to as white privilege, a sociological concept referring to advantages that are taken for granted by whites and that cannot be similarly enjoyed by people of color in the same context (government, community, workplace, schools, etc.)." (pp. 23-24)

6. White supremacy: DiAngelo seeks to redefine the term white supremacy to show it refers not only to radicalized right wingers but to "the all-encompassing centrality and assumed superiority of people defined and perceived as white and the practices based on this assumption. White supremacy in this context does not refer to individual white people and their individual intentions or actions but to an overarching political, economic, and social system of domination." (p. 28)

7. “Aversive racism is a manifestation of racism that well-intentioned people who see themselves as educated and progressive are more likely to exhibit. It exists under the surface of consciousness because it conflicts with consciously held beliefs of racial equality and justice. Aversive racism is a subtle but insidious form, as aversive racists enact racism in ways that allow them to maintain a positive self-image (e.g., ‘I have lots of friends of color’; ‘I judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin’).” (p. 43)

8. “White solidarity is the unspoken agreement among whites to protect white advantage and not cause another white person to feel racial discomfort by confronting them when they say or do something racially problematic.” (p. 57)

9. White Innocence: “Because we are not raised to see ourselves in racial terms or to see white space as racialized space, we position ourselves as innocent of race. . . . This idea––that racism is not a white problem–– enables us to sit back and let people of color take very real risks of invalidation and retaliation as they share their experiences." (pp. 61, 62)

What about "reverse racism? "People of color may also hold prejudices and discriminate against white people, but they lack the social and institutional power that transforms their prejudice and discrimination into racism; the impact of their prejudice on whites is temporary and contextual." (p. 22)

DiAngelo offers the Marilyn Frye illustration of a bird cage: if you get close to the cage you see not the wires but the bird, seemingly free. But if you back up, you see not one wire, but a system of wires has imprisoned the bird (p. 23).

"Whiteness rests upon a foundational premise: the definition of whites as the norm or standard for human, and people of color as a deviation from that norm." (p.25)

Statistics she provides (p 31):

2016-17 percentage who are white:

  • Ten richest Americans: 100%
  • US Congress: 90%
  • US Governors: 96%
  • Top military advisors: 100%
  • POTUS and VP: 100%
  • US House Freedom Caucus: 99%
  • Current US Presidential Cabinet: 91%
  • People who decide the TV shows we watch: 93%
  • People who decide which books we read: 90%
  • People who decide which news is covered: 85%
  • People who decide which music is produced: 95%
  • People who directed the one hundred top grossing films of all-time, worldwide: 95%
  • Teachers: 82%
  • Full-time college professors: 84%
  • Owner of NFL franchises: 97%

Geography: "In the US, race is encoded in geography. I can name every neighborhood in my city and its racial makeup. I can also tell you if a neighborhood is coming up or down in terms of home equity, and this will be based primarily on how its racial demographics are changing. Going up? It will be getting whiter. Going down? It will be getting less white.” (p. 36)

"Consider how we talk about white neighborhoods: good, safe, sheltered, clean, desirable. By definition, other spaces (not white) are bad, dangerous, crime-ridden and to be avoided; these neighborhoods are not positioned as sheltered and innocent. In these ways, the white racial frame is under construction." (p. 37)

Chapter 3: Racism After the Civil Rights Movement

“Clearly, the civil rights movement didn’t end racism; nor have claims of color blindness. . . . For example, a common response in the name of color blindness is to declare that an individual who says that race matters is the one who is racist. In other words, it is racist to acknowledge race” (p. 41).

Chapter 4: How Race Shapes White People

DiAngelo avers that as a white person, "In virtually every situation or context deemed normal, neutral or prestigious in society, I belong racially." (p. 52)

She also talks about how in conversation we never say "the white guy," but we do say, "the Asian man," or "she was black."

“We see white solidarity at the dinner table, at parties, and in work settings. Many of us can relate to the big family dinner at which Uncle Bob says something racially offensive. Everyone cringes but no one challenges him because nobody wants to ruin the dinner. Or the party where someone tells a racist joke but we keep silent because we don’t want to be accused of being too politically correct and be told to lighten up. In the workplace, we avoid naming racism for the same reasons, in addition to wanting to be seen as a team player and to avoid anything that may jeopardize our career advancement. All these familiar scenarios are examples of white solidarity (Why speaking up about racism would ruin the ambiance or threaten our career advancement is something we might want to talk about.)” (p. 58)

"For example, the criminal behavior of white juveniles is often seen as caused by external factors––the youth comes from a single-parent home, is having a hard time right now, . . . But black and Latinx youth are not afforded the same compassion." (p. 63)

“For those of us who work to raise the racial consciousness of whites, simply getting whites to acknowledge that our race gives us advantages is a major effort. The defensiveness, denial, and resistance are deep. But acknowledging advantage is only a first step, . . .” (p. 63)

“The most profound message of racial segregation may be that the absence of people of color from our lives is no real loss.” (p. 67)

Chapter 5: The Good/Bad Binary

“He’s not a racist. He’s a really nice guy.” (p. 71)

“Racist = Bad”

“Not racist = good”

She speaks of the danger of binary views:

  • Ignorant Progressive
  • Bigoted Educated
  • Prejudiced Open-minded
  • Mean-spirited Well-intentioned
  • Old Young
  • Southern Northern” (p. 72)

DiAngelo argues simplifying the discussion to such a binary “makes it nearly impossible to talk to white people about racism, what it is, how it shapes all of us, and the inevitable ways that we are conditioned to participate in it.” (p. 72)

"The simplistic idea that racism is limited to individual intentional acts committed by unkind people is at the root of virtually all white defensiveness on this topic." (p. 73)

Chapter 6: Anti-Blackness

“Carol Anderson, in her book White Rage, argues that ‘the trigger for white rage, inevitably, is black advancement.’" (p. 95)

DiAngelo believes that The Blind Side movie is shown as an example of doing exactly the opposite of what it intended. Instead of a rags-to-riches story of an inner-city black youth, it affirms stereotypes.

Chapter 7: Racial Triggers for White People

"Most white people have limited information about what racism is and how it works." (p. 100)

Here are some of the triggers DiAngelo lists:

  • Racist = bad person/Non-racist = good person
  • False binary
  • Fear and resentment toward people of color
  • Delusion that we are objective and innocent (p. 100).

DiAngelo notes that we use terms like "inner city," "urban," "disadvantaged" for neighborhoods of mainly people of color, but we don’t use terms like "overly advantaged" or "privileged” for white neighborhoods (p.100).

Chapter 8: The Result--White Fragility

She observes in her work in diversity training: "I am consistently warned that past efforts to address the lack of diversity have resulted in trauma for white employees. This is literally the term used to describe the impact of a brief and isolated workshop: trauma" (p. 110).

Bullying: The effects of white fragility are not fragile: “White fragility functions as a form of bullying; I am going to make it so miserable for you to confront me—no matter how diplomatically you try to do so—that you will simply back off, give up, and never raise the issue again. White fragility keeps people of color in line and ‘in their place.’ In this way, it is a powerful form of white racial control” (p. 112).

DiAngelo gives a powerful example for leaders: “In my workshops, I often ask people of color, ‘How often have you given white people feedback on our unaware yet inevitable racism?” They reply with eyerolls and even laughter: “Rarely, if ever. I then ask, ‘What would it be like if you could simply give us feedback, have us graciously receive it, reflect, and work to change the behavior?’ Recently a man of color sighed and said, ‘It would be revolutionary.’ I ask my fellow whites to consider the profundity of that response. It would be revolutionary if we could receive, reflect, and work to change the behavior. On the one hand, the man’s response points to how difficult and fragile we are. But on the other hand, it indicates how simple it can be to take responsibility for our racism.” (p. 113)

Chapters 9-10: White Fragility in Action, White Fragility and the Rules of Engagement

These chapters give more examples of white fragility and responses when confronted.

"I repeat: stopping our racist patterns must be more important than working to convince others that we don’t have them. We do have them, and people of color already know we have them; our efforts to prove otherwise are not convincing. An honest accounting of these patterns is no small task given the power of white fragility and white solidarity, but it is necessary." (pp. 129-130)

Chapter 11: White Women's Tears

“. . . an oft-repeated warning from my African American colleagues: ‘When a white woman cries, a black man gets hurt.’" (p. 132)

She gives some examples, including:

  • Arrogant and disingenuous invalidation of racial inequality via “just playing the devil’s advocate”
  • Simplistic and presumptuous proclamations of “the answer” to racism (“People just need to . . .”)
  • Playing the outraged victim of “reverse racism”
  • Accusations that the legendary “race card” is being played etc. (pp. 134-135)

Chapter 12: Where do we go from here?

“When white people ask me what to do about racism and white fragility, the first thing I ask is, ‘What has enabled you to be a full, educated professional adult and not know what to do about racism?’ It is a sincere question. . . . If we take that question and map out all the ways we have come to not know what to do, we will have our guide before us. For example, if my answer is that I was not educated about racism, I know that I will have to get educated. If my answer is that I don’t know people of color, I will need to build relationships. If it is because there are no people of color in my environment, I will need to get out of my comfort zone and change my environment; addressing racism is not without effort.” (pp.143-144)

Let me encourage you to get the book, read it, and then we will think it through together in this series.

Now that we are all familiar with the basic premises of DiAngelo’s argument, I am pleased to introduce the other authors who will join us in discussing White Fragility over the next several weeks. As previously mentioned, the second round of authors will be responding to the book and the initial five articles. I am pleased that George Yancey, a contributor for part one, will be contributing to the second round of articles as well.

Part One

  • Allison Ash is an experienced higher education administrator and is currently senior affiliate consultant at Credo-Higher Education Consulting. She received her PhD from Azusa Pacific University and M.Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary.
  • George Yancey is an author and professor at Baylor University in sociology and the Institute of Religious Studies. He holds a PhD from University of Texas Austin.
  • Danny Slavich is a church planting pastor, adjunct professor, and writer who recently received his PhD in Theology with a dissertation entitled: “That the World May Know: A Trinitarian Multiethnic Ecclesiology.”
  • Neil Shenvi currently homeschools his four children and tutors for Classical Conversations. He received his PhD in Theoretical Chemistry from UC Berkeley and spent several years conducting research at Duke University.
  • William Murrell is a professor of church history and the academic dean of Every Nation Seminary. He has degrees in history from Oxford (MSt) and Vanderbilt (PhD) and specializes in the history of Christian mission and the history of Islam.

Part Two

  • Sheila Caldwell is the Chief Intercultural Engagement Officer at Wheaton College, IL. She received a M.A. from Argosy University and a PhD in education from the University of Georgia.
  • Daniel Yang is the Director of the Send Institute, an institute of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. He was trained as a church planter and holds and M.Div. from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and is working on a PhD from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
  • John Richards Jr. is the pastor of assimilation at Saint Mark Baptist Church. He is a graduate of the Howard University School of Law and Fuller Theological Seminary and is currently pursuing his PhD.
  • George Yancey will write a new article in part two.
  • Sitara Roden is the Managing Editor of The Exchange and Promotions Strategist at the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center.

I look forward to all of our contributors’ perspectives on White Fragility and welcome the discourse between our authors. I have not seen what they are writing, but we’ve tried to bring some diverse views to enhance the conversation. I will offer my further commentary after our series is complete.

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White Fragility: A Conversation on Race and Racism