Review of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism
by Robin DiAngelo
I am white. I am extremely white, because I grew up (and currently live) in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Despite this city being situated on the lands of Fort William First Nation, it remains incredibly white and segregated (see Seven Fallen Feathers for more info). That’s changing a little now, and we have more people of colour coming here as immigrants and refugees. But I grew up largely sheltered from socializing with children of immigrants or with Anishinaabe children. It took me a long time in my young adulthood and twenties to unpack what all this meant, and I’ve had a lot of learning to do, especially now that many of my students come from Indigenous backgrounds.
So I was very interested in what Robin DiAngelo has to say about White Fragility. It seems perfectly calibrated for someone in my position. I don’t need to read another book about how racism is a thing; you’ve convinced me of that! Although DiAngelo does provide a brief summary on the interrelated concepts of racism and race as a social construct, and the ways in which these influence people’s status and experiences in life, White Fragility is more about how white people participate in and prop up racist systems through our denial of racism, racist attitudes, or racist behaviours within ourselves. DiAngelo acknowledges in her introduction the risks of centreing her voice, as a white person, when talking about racism. Yet I agree with her that she’s using her privilege to talk to a white audience, which is how we should be engaging with racism as white people. By and large, I think DiAngelo is very successful at that.
Despite its brevity, this is a dense book. It would be a great textbook for a post-secondary class, and I could see an academic class in high school reading chapters from it. DiAngelo takes us on a journey through stages of being aware of racism and white people’s responses to it. She begins by explaining why it is necessary and fruitful to construct whiteness as a racial identity, not in the nationalist/supremacist sense that some people deploy it, but as a way of understanding our racial privilege vis-à-vis the people of colour who experience discrimination and oppression on a daily basis. As DiAngelo points out, referencing Coates, white people didn’t exist as white people until we had other groups we wanted to exploit economically. When I read that point in Between the World and Me (which I now really want to reread), it kind of blew my mind. It helped so many pieces click into place regarding my understanding of the interconnectedness of racism, capitalism, colonialism, etc.
I had some trepidation near the beginning that, if anything, this book might just retread so much of what I already know. DiAngelo actually refers to this later in the book, however, mentioning that sometimes white people are resistant to racial/cultural awareness workshops because they “already know this.” Oops! Certainly I’ve been guilty of this in the past—although I think it’s also important to be honest with the people arranging these workshops (not the presenters, but like your company or whoever put it on for you) if you feel like you’re ready to step it up and go beyond the basics. My school board, bless its heart, does the same sort of training about residential schools, etc., on a roughly annual basis. This is vital training, yet I want to go deeper into those subjects. (We had a really good set of sessions arranged through Facing History and Ourselves that actually did this, and it was some of the most valuable PD I’ve ever done.)
So I carefully set aside my presumption and pride and listened to what DiAngelo had to say. And, yes, I’ve heard a lot of it before. But her examples are great. Her writing is precise in an academic yet accessible way. I appreciate the carefulness with which she presents definitions—such as salience, the idea that different identities and axes of oppression are salient to someone depending on context in the moment. DiAngelo seeks not just to educate the reader but to provide them with a complete framework for unpacking and challenging their internalized white privilege in a productive, ongoing way. Because one point she makes throughout the book, although it’s often understated until the very end, is that people of colour are not responsible for educating us, challenging us, or telling us if we’re doing a “good” or “bad” job at anti-racist work. We need to approach fellow white people for assistance, for reality checks, etc., so as not to put that burden on the people of colour we know.
I spend a lot of time thinking about how to avoid acting woke. And here’s where I learned something from White Fragility for sure.
By “avoiding acting woke” I mean that I don’t want to come across as that obnoxious white person who seems to know everything about anti-racism already, who uses all the latest buzzwords, and who is constantly talking about race/racism but never actually acting in any way that challenges racist paradigms. There is a danger for us as white people, as we learn more about anti-racism, to embrace it as a label without taking on the work that it entails, just like as a man it’s easy for me to loudly declaim my feminist thinking without actually challenging sexism in my workplace or private life.
DiAngelo makes it clear that challenging our internalized whiteness is going to be uncomfortable. (This I already knew.) And that fretting about how we come across when we do it is counterproductive. It’s another way of centreing ourselves and our experience (our white fragility). As I considered what she says on these ideas, I realized how right she was: my anxiety around this is in part due to my own underlying social anxiety around being assertive/confrontational but also greatly owing to my lack of racial stamina. As a white person, I am so used to feeling comfortable, safe, and to having my authority rarely challenged (doubleplus because I’m educated and male). So when I engage in anti-racist work and risk pushback—from fellow white people being fragile or resistant, or from people of colour who are graciously attempting to correct me—of course it’s going to be extra uncomfortable. And part of that discomfort is the risk of messing up and coming across as some rando woke white boi—but that should be beside the point.
This is very important considering my profession. I teach high school to adults who don’t yet have their diploma. Many of my students are Indigenous, because our education system in particular and our society in general tends to fail Indigenous youth. Some of my students are older people of various racial backgrounds, including older white people who maybe never received in the paucity of racially-aware education we now have in our curriculum. So my classroom can often be truly diverse in terms of experiences and understandings of race and racism.
And here I am, a 30-year-old skinny white guy, standing at the front of the room pretending to be an expert sometimes.
I screw up. A lot. I’ve bungled teaching residential schools to an all-Indigenous class—I’m lucky they were vocal enough, and felt safe enough with me, to express their disappointment in my lesson plan and ask me to change what I was doing. I did, and we moved on. I’ve come across as a know-it-all sometimes, in my eagerness to educate my fellow white people in the room about the learning I’ve already done. I’ve spoken over people when I should have listened.
DiAngelo’s thesis is that true anti-racism work must be done in spite of what personal feelings of embarrassment, shame, or guilt you might encounter along the way. If white fragility is to be avoided, racial stamina must be built: this idea that we have to get used to people challenging us, owing to our whiteness, because people of colour are challenged owing to their racial identity all the time. And as much as I liked to think I knew what I was talking about before I started reading this book, turns out I still got to learn a lot from this—and of course, I have more learning to do. The fact that learning must be ongoing was never something I doubted.
Here’s a little aside. This book’s ratings statistics are a good cautionary tale on why we can’t rely on such stats as a metric for the quality of a book. It has one of the highest average ratings (4.49 at time of writing) I’ve seen, and 90% of the ratings are 4 or 5 stars. Does that mean this book is “great”? No (although I do think it is great)—it likely means that the people who self-select to read this book are almost certain to enjoy it, because they are open-minded enough to challenge themselves (they have racial stamina as DiAngelo might frame it). The majority of 1- and 2-star reviews are from people who were open to the book’s ideas but disappointed because it’s too short, too long, doesn’t go far enough, goes too far, etc. Chances are, if you are not at least a little bit open to anti-racism education, you aren’t even going to pick up this book.
Is that a problem with the book? Should DiAngelo find a way to modulate her discussion to make it more acceptable to the most fragile and most resistant white people? Again, no. I’m not saying to abandon those people. But I don’t think any book, no matter how gentle, is going to be the White Person Whisperer when it comes to white fragility. You have to be willing to listen before you can learn, and as DiAngelo points out here, the problem is that many white people say they are willing to listen, but when you criticize them for speaking instead of listening, they get upset and proclaim they just won’t talk at all (lol). White Fragility is not a book for the most fragile of white people. It’s a book for white people who want to work on anti-racism and are open to a better framework for challenging the racism within themselves, the society in which we all benefit from white privilege, and within our friends (who may or may not be more fragile than us).
I will conclude by saying that, although my library has correctly filed this book under 305.8 (Ethnic and national groups; racism, multiculturalism), there is a sticker on the inside of the cover, below the barcode sticker, that says “Self-Help.” And that is the perfect label for a book about White Fragility. We white people really need help, and we need to do a lot of the work ourselves!
I do think the book cover designers missed an opportunity to make a “contents may be fragile” joke by not putting a cardboard box and a warning label on the cover.