Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility is an anti-racist conduct book for white people, based on DiAngelo’s theories of race and experiences of working as a corporate diversity trainer. Since the killing of George Floyd in police custody the book has topped the New York Times nonfiction best seller’s list and has sold more than half a million copies. More than just being a successful non-fiction title, the book has spurred a wider cultural phenomenon with workplaces making specialist White Fragility inspired training for employees mandatory. The influence of White Fragility can also be seen among the recent Black Lives Matter protests.
Although I believe that Robin DiAngelo is sincere I also believe that she is very misguided. The book White Fragility, and the wider white fragility phenomenon, are an assault on individuality, personal autonomy, freedom of conscience and humanism. It has also been criticised for its “dehumanising condescension” towards black people. Unfortunately, putting the theories of this book into practice could have devastating effects on individual liberties as well as personal relationships.
What is Robin DiAngelo’s Worldview?
It should be said that this writer strongly disagrees with Robin DiAngelo’s ideology. But we should explain what she believes to better understand the concept of white fragility.
DiAngelo explains in the book that she follows a sociological school of thought called critical race theory or CRT. Critical race theory applies Marxist doctrines of class to race. Within this worldview, we as people do not exist as individuals, but as collectives, such as racial collectives. In Western countries, they argue, the white collective overpower and oppress all other races (which are referred to in White Fragility as people of colour, or POC, so we will use that term here). Equality between the races can only be achieved by overthrowing the system of white rule, which they often refer to as “white supremacy”.
Critical race theory also draws upon postmodernist theories about language, which focus on disrupting or redefining the meaning of words. This school of thought places a lot of focus on the power of who is speaking. Because the movement argues that ethnic minorities in Western countries have no power, speech and other forms of expression need to be taken from white people and given to people of colour. Hence the onslaught of content on social media telling white men and now white women, to “shut up and listen to people of colour”. Ironically white followers of this movement are often quite vocal about how they have sacrificed their freedom of speech in order to amplify black and/or minority voices and don’t hold back in telling other white people to do the same.
Given this racial worldview, words such as “racism” take on an entirely new meaning. Critical race theorists redefine racism to reflect their belief in an invisible system of power, which, like two escalators running in opposite directions, “privileges” white people by sending them straight to the top of society and “oppresses” people of colour by sending them straight to the bottom. This is known as structural racism or systemic racism. Therefore, critical race theorists believe that all white people are born into white supremacy, and have white privilege endowed upon them by societal structures in a similar way that many Christians believe that children are born into original sin. In White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo argues that all white people are inherently racist because they are socialised into a system of racism that they benefit from at the expense of others. “White identity,” she writes in White Fragility, “is inherently racist; white people do not exist outside of the system of white supremacy”.
How Does White Fragility Come Into Play?
The latter part of the book focuses on Robin DiAngelo’s work as a diversity trainer, mostly working for large corporations and educational institutions. Although we are not told under what premise DiAngelo is hired to train staff at these organisations, she sees it as her job to educate her white trainees into accepting her racial worldview. “It is my job, to help individuals and organisations see how racism is manifesting itself in their practices and outcomes”, she explains. It is easy to see why someone who follows a more liberal, humanist worldview may reject DiAngelo’s theories of race and racism. Critical race theory is, after all, a value system based on race. Liberal values such as seeing the inherent worth of individuals, judging people by their merit rather than their immutable characteristics and advocating for personal freedoms such as freedom of speech are all greatly diminished by critical race theory. What’s more, forsaking the sanctity of the individual and portraying white people as a collective perpetuates the idea of white people being collectively to blame for racism and racial atrocities. In the past collective blame, such as blaming all Muslims for acts of jihadists terrorists, has created a lot more problems than it has solved. It is understandable that many people would want to challenge these ideas.
However, according to Robin DiAngelo there is no conversation to be had on the subject. Any push back or resistance to her ideology is what she terms “white fragility”, hence the title of her book. When a person is experiencing white fragility, they may become defensive, emotionally fraught, argumentative, hostile or silent. They may appear to be emotionally distressed but DiAngelo perceives this defensiveness is actually a technique to reinforce the person’s inherent racism. As she writes: “White fragility is much more than defensiveness or whining. It can be conceptualised as the sociology of dominance […] a means to protect, maintain and produce white supremacy”.
If you are white, using colourblind arguments to defend your character and argue that you are not racist, such as “I was taught to treat everyone the same”, is proof of your white fragility and hence your racism. Similarly defending oneself by making what DiAngelo terms a “colour celebrate” statement, such as “I have people of color in my family/married a person of color/have children of color”, is another example of white fragility in DiAngelo’s eyes. Many critics of the book view the process whereby DiAngelo educates her trainees as something of an inquisition, in which DiAngelo plays a witchfinder general role. Because the denial of racism is white fragility, which is proof of racism, it is impossible to argue against Robin DiAngelo’s premise. In this sense, it can be argued that DiAngelo’s theories are not falsifiable. Moreover, the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty is removed.
Keri Smith, who is the writer and host of the YouTube channel Unsafe Space explains that Robin DiAngelo gives white individuals one choice: be labelled a racist or “Give up your autonomy and become a mouthpiece for (DiAngelo’s) belief system”. Because a white person can never be “exempt from the forces of racism” they must make a lifelong commitment to DiAngelo’s brand of anti-racism.
Applying White Fragility to Real Life
Traditionally, racism is seen as a belief that your race is superior to that of others. As a result, racism often manifests itself as acts of abuse, discrimination or expressions of hatred. Racism (by this definition) is rightfully seen as a taboo in many societies and to be seen as racist can ruin one’s reputation. Robin DiAngelo does not define racism in this manner, but she does know the weight the term carries. Sadly, when DiAngelo applies her theories to real life, she seems to be using the weight of the term “racist” to interfere in people’s professional and personal lives, asserting that racism is at the route of every conflict no matter how small. This has a terribly destructive effect on relationships, as we see here.
In White Fragility, Robin Diangelo applies her grand narratives of structural racism to personal relationships at work and elsewhere. If a person of colour takes offence to anything a white person has done, or a white person and person of colour are in disagreement, DiAngelo interprets every interaction as racism on the part of the white person. Intentions, we are told, do not matter. DiAngelo gives several examples in the book of small scale interpersonal conflicts, which she portrays as evidence of her theories of an inherently racist social structure in action. DiAngelo’s postmodern definition of racism makes her something of an unreliable narrator. We are often not given much information about what happened so it is hard to look at what has happened objectively and judge whether the person who has been accused of racism in these scenarios is actually guilty or not.
Here is an example from White Fragility of one of these said conflicts:
I am coaching a small group of white employees on how racism manifests in the workplace. One member of the group, Karen, is upset about a request from Joan, her only colleague of color, to stop talking over her. Karen doesn’t understand what talking over Joan has to do with race; she is an extrovert and tends to talk over everyone. I try to explain how the impact is different when we interrupt across race because we bring our histories with us. While Karen sees herself as a unique individual, Joan sees Karen as a white individual. Being interrupted and talked over by white people is not a unique experience for Joan; nor is it separate from a larger cultural context. Karen exclaims, “Forget it! I can’t say anything right, so I am just going to stop talking.Robin DiAngelo
Many people reading this passage would find Karen’s behaviour rude and may believe she has to work on improving her manners. However, it is unclear whether her interrupting Joan signifies a sense of racial entitlement and/or superiority, as she herself says that she “talks over everyone”. This interpersonal conflict could have been dealt with in a constructive way that could have given Karen some points to work on, and the working relationship between the two women may have been improved. Instead, DiAngelo escalates the conflict to the point that it represents historical racial injustices and a large-scale sense of systematic oppression. Although DiAngelo takes Karen’s defensive response as a symptom of her white fragility, it could be that Karen was legitimately upset that a personal fault of hers was exaggerated to assassinate her character at work.
To end systemic racism, DiAngelo believes that white people must undergo an ideological and spiritual transformation. First of all, they must recognise the inherent racism she believes that they are born into and realise “It is inevitable that I have this pattern. I want to change it”. They must also recognise that “I bring my group’s history with me and history matters”. If a white person receives feedback that their behaviour is racist or reflects racist patterns, they must submissively accept this feedback with grace. A good assumption to make is: “Given my socialisation, it is much more likely that I am the one who doesn’t understand the issue.” “Reflection”, “listening”, “seeking more understanding” and “apology” are suggested as acceptable responses instead.
This writer believes that being open to negative feedback is generally a positive thing. Sometimes having a knee-jerk reaction when someone criticises your behaviour or actions can stop you from learning from mistakes and engaging in much needed personal growth. However, there should still be room to defend yourself or your ideas if you believe that you are not in the wrong or correct the person if you believe they have misinterpreted your actions or intentions. In the eyes of this writer, good working relationships, marriages, friendships and family relationships are based on mutual respect, open communication and the ability to compromise. The code of conduct that White Fragility demands from white people is so submissive, passive and demeaning that it makes genuine relationships between people of different races almost impossible to build. This is why I believe the book is less about promoting racial harmony than about imposing a certain orthodoxy onto society.
Do People of Colour Really Have a Say?
One thing that is quite ironic about White Fragility is that Robin Diangelo asserts that white people must listen to and learn from people of colour. The term “listen”, is redefined to mean passively absorb everything they say, rather than actively engage with it. This reflects the tenet of critical race theory that less powerful voices must be raised above more powerful ones. Therefore, people of colour are cast in the role of high priests and priestesses within DiAngelo’s religion, who are charged with the task of enforcing her brand of anti-racist orthodoxy onto the world. Not only does this diminish personal freedom of expression and conscience for white people, but it also makes out that people of colour are a monolith who all think the same. DiAngelo completely takes it for granted that all people of colour share her belief system. At one point in the book, she suggests that disagreement amongst people of colour about whether an action was racist or not may only happen because of external pressure from white people.
When a person of color gives me feedback that I consider unfair, I am tempted to go to another person of color for reassurance that I am a good person [… B]ut the search for reassurance from people of colour is inappropriate. My need functions as a kind of divide and conquer wedge. […] no matter how diplomatically or indirectly I try to mask my complaint, I am pressuring a person of color to collude with my racism.Robin DiAngelo
Thus, a person of colour who shows disagreement is not depicted as a rational actor but as a victim who has been manipulated into agreeing with a white person by the invisible forces of white supremacy. Although it may be unintended, this is a very condescending depiction of people of colour, suggesting that they cannot think independently.
This is not just a problem with the book White Fragility but a problem within the wider anti-racist movement of today. People of colour who critique or refuse to subscribe to the tenets of critical race theory are not accepted as autonomous individuals who have the right to refuse certain political theories or ideals. Instead, they are often portrayed as traitors or ingrates. In the UK, figures who have not complied with this ideology such as Munira Murza, Trevor Phillips, Katherine Birbalsingh and Calvin Robinson have all received racist abuse as a result, getting called names such as “coconut” which means white on the inside. It is important to be clear that Robin DiAngelo hasn’t used this sort of language or condoned it. However, the book does reflect a real problem that some people within the modern-day anti-racist movement seem to believe that they “own” minority voices.
Another problem with the book is that it assumes that people of colour can only be liberated if white populations make a psycho-spiritual transformation. In White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo writes:
I strive to be ‘less white.’ To be less white is to be less racially oppressive. This requires me to be more racially aware, to be better educated about racism, and to continually challenge racial certitude and arrogance […] Ultimately, I strive for a less white identity for my own liberation and sense of justice, not to save people of color.Robin DiAngelo
This mentality has very much spilt out into the mainstream. For example, host of web series Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man, Emmanuel Acho, has stated: “I fervently believe that if the white person is your problem, only the white person can be your solution”. There is something about this approach that is very paternalistic, implying that white people must become the guardians of people of colour and take responsibility for their psychological well being. It is not dissimilar to the concept of the “white man’s burden” that white people were responsible for running “uncivilised” nations, which was used to justify 19th-century colonialism.
Part of this paternalism stems from the way DiAngelo depicts small scale interpersonal conflicts and disagreements between white people and people of colour as a way of white people enforcing racial dominance. This worldview essentially depicts white people as apex predators, who are unknowingly inflicting deep, hurtful wounds on their victims in their everyday interactions. As a result, the book portrays people of colour as so weak and childlike that they can’t navigate the ups and downs of normal, everyday communications and require special protections.
The linguist John McWhorter has been one of the most vocal critics of White Fragility. Although he doesn’t believe Robin DiAngelo intended to be patronising, he believes the book sends a condescending message to the African American community he comes from. He explains in an interview with NPR:
when I say that White Fragility is a racist book, what I mean is it does not allow Black people to be full human beings, because full human beings deal with the imperfections of life […] By the imperfections of life […] I’m not talking about actual abuse. I’m talking about the more abstract sorts of things that we’re familiar with.John McWhorter
Intended or not, the depiction of people of colour in this book is ultimately infantilising. Many proactive, aspirational individuals who happen to belong to minority groups will probably find it very insulting to read.
The Effect of the White Fragility Phenomenon
In his 2006 book, White Guilt, writer Shelby Steele explains the “rage of invisibility” he feels when he encounters
someone who cannot see you, even as he stands before you, because of all the presumptions he has made about you […] out of a conviction that there is nothing of you worth seeing beyond his own thin preconception of you. So you cease to exist in your own right and exist, instead, as a figment of his imagination.Shelby Steele
Steele explains he experienced this rage when he encountered “open racists” as a young black man in the US when segregation was enforced, and he continues to experience this rage as an adult when he encounters anti-racists who can’t accept that he doesn’t see himself as a victim. They “always miss the human being inside the black skin”, he remarks.
Whomever she is talking to, Robin DiAngelo always misses the human being inside the skin of any colour. Based on her narrow racial essentialism and her very misanthropic view of society, she forces her preconceived notions of the oppressor or oppressed onto everyone. As a result, White Fragility ultimately forsakes everybody’s individual worth. Although this movement is very popular at the moment, it is hoped that more like-minded people will speak out against White Fragility and the critical race theory it is based on. And, as a result, the movement will eventually die a natural but long overdue death.