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Authors: Robin DiAngelo

White Fragility (10 page)

BOOK: White Fragility

Second, this request requires nothing of us and reinforces unequal power relations by asking people of color to do our work. There are copious resources available on the subject generated by people of color who are willing to share the information; why haven't we sought it out before this conversation?

Third, the request ignores the historical dimensions of race relations. It disregards how often people of color have indeed tried to tell us what racism is like for them and how often they have been dismissed. To ask people of color to tell us how they experience racism without first building a trusting relationship and being willing to meet them
halfway by also being vulnerable shows that we are not racially aware and that this exchange will probably be invalidating for them.


On a television talk show in 1965, James Baldwin responded passionately to a Yale professor's argument that Baldwin always concentrated on color:

I don't know if white Christians hate Negros or not, but I know that we have a Christian church that is white and a Christian church which is black. I know that the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday. . . . I don't know whether the labor unions and their bosses really hate me . . . but I know I am not in their unions. I don't know if the real estate lobby is against black people but I know that the real estate lobbyists keep me in the ghetto. I don't know if the Board of Education hates Black people, but I know the textbooks they give my children to read and the schools that we have to go to. Now this is the evidence. You want me to make an act of faith risking . . . my life . . . on some idealism which you assure me exists in America which I have never seen.

Life in the United States is deeply shaped by racial segregation. Of all racial groups, whites are the most likely to choose segregation and are the group most likely to be in the social and economic position to do so.
Growing up in segregation (our schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, shopping districts, places of worship, entertainment, social gatherings, and elsewhere) reinforces the message that our experiences and perspectives are the only ones that matter. We don't see people of color around us, and few if any adults acknowledge a lack of racial diversity as a problem. In fact, the classification of which neighborhoods are good and which are bad is always based on race. These assessments may also be based on economic divisions among whites, but if black and Latinx students attend a school in significant numbers
(significant in the white mind), whites will perceive the school as bad. If there
people of color around us, we are seldom encouraged to build cross-racial friendships.

Segregation is often lessened somewhat for poor urban whites who may live near and have friendships with people of color on the local level because white poverty brings white people into proximity with people of color in a way that suburban and middle-class life does not (except during gentrification, when the mixing is temporary). Urban whites from the lower classes may have more integrated lives on the micro level, but we still receive the message that achievement means moving away from the neighborhoods and schools that illuminate our poverty. Upward mobility is the great class goal in the United States, and the social environment gets tangibly whiter the higher up you climb. Whiter environments, in turn, are seen as the most desirable.

For upwardly mobile whites from the lower classes, reaching toward the most valuable places in society usually means leaving friends and neighbors of color behind. For example, I grew up urban and poor and lived in apartment buildings in crowded rental-based neighborhoods. In my childhood, there were many people of color around me. But I knew that if I was to improve my life, I would not stay in these neighborhoods; upward mobility would take me to whiter spaces, and it has. I did not maintain those early relationships with people of color, and no one who guided me encouraged me to do so. Segregation was still operating in my life at the wider societal level: it dictated what I learned in school, read in books, saw on TV, and learned to value if I wanted to improve my life.

Meritocracy is a precious ideology in the United States, but neighborhoods and schools are demonstrably not equal; they are separate and unequal. Tax bases, school resources, curricula, textbooks, opportunities for extracurricular activities, and the quality of the teaching staff differ widely between school districts. Who is not aware that schools in the United States are vastly unequal? Without white people's interest or effort invested in changing a system that serves them at the expense of others, advantage is passed down from generation to generation. Rather
than change these conditions so that public education is equal for all, we allow other people's children to endure conditions that would be unacceptable for our own.

A 2009 study published in the
American Journal of Education
found that while suburban parents, who are mostly white, say they are selecting schools on the basis of test scores, the racial makeup of a school actually plays a larger role in their school decisions. Amy Stuart Wells, a professor of sociology and education at Columbia University's Teachers College, found the same coded language when she studied how white parents choose schools in New York City. She writes, “In a postracial era, we don't have to say it's about race or the color of the kids in the building. . . . We can concentrate poverty and kids of color and then fail to provide the resources to support and sustain those schools, and then we can see a school full of black kids and say, ‘Oh, look at their test scores.' It's all very tidy now, this whole system.”
Readers have no doubt heard schools and neighborhoods discussed in these terms and know that this talk is racially coded; “urban” and “low test scores” are code for “not white” and therefore less desirable.

While many whites see spaces inhabited by more than a few people of color as undesirable and even dangerous, consider another perspective. I have heard countless people of color describe how painful an experience it was to be one of only a few people of color in their schools and neighborhoods. Although many parents of color want the advantages granted by attending predominantly white schools, they also worry about the stress and even the danger they are putting their children in. These parents understand that the predominantly white teaching force has little if any authentic knowledge about children of color and has been socialized (often unconsciously) to see children of color as inferior and even to fear them. Imagine how unsafe white schools, which are so precious to white parents, might appear to parents of color.

The most profound message of racial segregation may be that the absence of people of color from our lives is no real loss. Not one person who loved me, guided me, or taught me ever conveyed that segregation deprived me of anything of value. I could live my entire life without a
friend or loved one of color and not see that as a diminishment of my life. In fact, my life trajectory would almost certainly ensure that I had few, if any, people of color in my life. I might meet a few people of color if I played certain sports in school, or if there happened to be one or two persons of color in my class, but when I was outside of that context, I had no proximity to people of color, much less any authentic relationships. Most whites who recall having a friend of color in childhood rarely keep these friendships into adulthood. Yet if my parents had thought it was valuable to have cross-racial relationships, they would have ensured that I had them, even if it took effort—the same effort so many white parents expend to send their children across town so they can attend a better (whiter) school.

Pause for a moment and consider the profundity of this message: we are taught that we lose nothing of value through racial segregation. Consider the message we send to our children—as well as to children of color—when we describe white segregation as good.

In summary, our socialization engenders a common set of racial patterns. These patterns are the foundation of white fragility:

• Preference for racial segregation, and a lack of a sense of loss about segregation

• Lack of understanding about what racism is

• Seeing ourselves as individuals, exempt from the forces of racial socialization

• Failure to understand that we bring our group's history with us, that history matters

• Assuming everyone is having or can have our experience

• Lack of racial humility, and unwillingness to listen

• Dismissing what we don't understand

• Lack of authentic interest in the perspectives of people of color

• Wanting to jump over the hard, personal work and get to “solutions”

• Confusing disagreement with not understanding

• Need to maintain white solidarity, to save face, to look good

• Guilt that paralyzes or allows inaction

• Defensiveness about any suggestion that we are connected to racism

• A focus on intentions over impact

My psychosocial development was inculcated in a white supremacist culture in which I am in the superior group. Telling me to treat everyone the same is not enough to override this socialization; nor is it humanly possible. I was raised in a society that taught me that there was no loss in the absence of people of color—that their absence was a good and desirable thing to be sought and maintained—while simutaneously denying that fact. This attitude has shaped every aspect of my self-identity: my interests and investments, what I care about or don't care about, what I see or don't see, what I am drawn to and what I am repelled by, what I can take for granted, where I can go, how others respond to me, and what I can ignore. Most of us would not choose to be socialized into racism and white supremacy. Unfortunately, we didn't have that choice. While there is variation in how these messages are conveyed and how much we internalize them, nothing could have exempted us from these messages completely. Now it is our responsibility to grapple with how this socialization manifests itself in our daily lives and how it shapes our responses when it is challenged.


He's not a racist. He is a really nice guy.

This chapter explores what is perhaps the most effective adaptation of racism in recent history: the good/bad binary.
Prior to the civil rights movement, it was socially acceptable for white people to openly proclaim their belief in their racial superiority. But when white Northerners saw the violence black people—including women and children—endured during the civil rights protests, they were appalled. These images became the archetypes of racists. After the civil rights movement, to be a good, moral person and to be complicit with racism became mutually exclusive. You could not be a good person and participate in racism; only bad people were racist. (These images of black persecution in the South during the civil rights movement of the 1960s also allowed Northern whites to position racists as always Southern.)

To accomplish this adaptation, racism first needed to be reduced to simple, isolated, and extreme acts of prejudice. These acts must be intentional, malicious, and based on conscious dislike of someone because of race. Racists were those white people in the South, smiling and picnicking at the base of lynching trees; store owners posting Whites Only signs over drinking fountains; and good ol' boys beating innocent children such as Emmett Till to death. In other words, racists were mean, ignorant, old, uneducated, Southern whites. Nice people,
well-intended people, open-minded middle-class people, people raised in the “enlightened North,” could not be racist.


While making racism bad seems like a positive change, we have to look at how this functions in practice. Within this paradigm, to suggest that I am racist is to deliver a deep moral blow—a kind of character assassination. Having received this blow, I must defend my character, and that is where all my energy will go—to deflecting the charge, rather than reflecting on my behavior. In this way, the good/bad 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. If we cannot discuss these dynamics or see ourselves within them, we cannot stop participating in racism. The good/bad binary made it effectively impossible for the average white person to understand—much less interrupt—racism.

As African American scholar and filmmaker Omowale Akintunde says: “Racism is a systemic, societal, institutional, omnipresent, and epistemologically embedded phenomenon that pervades every vestige of our reality. For most whites, however, racism is like murder: the concept exists, but someone has to commit it in order for it to happen. This limited view of such a multilayered syndrome cultivates the sinister nature of racism and, in fact, perpetuates racist phenomena rather than eradicates them.”

The good/bad frame is a false dichotomy. All people hold prejudices, especially across racial lines in a society deeply divided by race. I can be told that everyone is equal by my parents, I can have friends of
color, and I may not tell racist jokes. Yet I am still affected by the forces of racism as a member of a society in which racism is the bedrock. I will still be seen as white, treated as white, and experience life as a white person. My identity, personality, interests, and investments will develop from a white perspective. I will have a white worldview and a white frame of reference. In a society in which race clearly matters, our race profoundly shapes us. If we want to challenge this construct, we must make an honest accounting of how it is manifest in our own lives and in the society around us.

Although individual racist acts do occur, these acts are part of a larger system of interlocking dynamics. The focus on individual incidences masks the personal, interpersonal, cultural, historical, and structural analysis that is necessary to challenge this larger system. 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. To move beyond defensiveness, we have to let go of this common belief.

The good/bad binary certainly obscures the structural nature of racism and makes it difficult for us to see or understand. Equally problematic is the impact of such a worldview on our actions. If, as a white person, I conceptualize racism as a binary and I place myself on the “not racist” side, what further action is required of me? No action is required, because I am not a racist. Therefore, racism is not my problem; it doesn't concern me and there is nothing further I need to do. This worldview guarantees that I will not build my skills in thinking critically about racism or use my position to challenge racial inequality.

The good/bad binary is at play virtually every day in my work as a consultant on issues of racial justice. My job is to help individuals and organizations see how racism is manifesting itself in their practices and outcomes. I am typically received well when speaking in general terms—for example, “Your requirement that applicants have an advanced degree rather than equivalent experience is automatically disqualifying some of the applicants that could bring the perspectives and experiences you say you are looking for.” Yet when I point out a
concrete moment in the room in which someone's racism is manifesting itself, white fragility erupts.

For example, I was working with a group of educators who had been meeting regularly for at least eight sessions. The group was composed of the equity teams for a public school system, self-selected by people who wanted to support equity efforts in their schools. I had just finished an hour-long presentation titled “Seeing the Water: Whiteness in Daily Life.” This presentation is designed to make visible the relentless messages of white superiority and the resulting and inevitable internalization of these messages for white people. The room appeared to be with me—open and receptive, with many nodding along in agreement. Then a white teacher raised her hand and told a story about an interaction she had as she drove alongside a group of parents protesting the achievement gap in her school. She then proceeded to imitate one mother in particular who offended her. “You don't understand our children!” this mother had called out to her as she drove by. By the stereotypical way that the white teacher imitated the mother, we all knew that the mother was black. The room seemed to collectively hold its breath at her imitation, which was bordering on racial mockery. While the teacher's concluding point was that, on reflection, she came to realize that the mother was right and that she really didn't understand children of color, the emotional thrust of the story was her umbrage at the mother for making this assumption. For the room, the emotional impact was on her stereotypical imitation of an angry black woman.

As this story came to a close, I had a decision to make. Should I act with integrity and point out what was racially problematic about the story? After all, making racism visible was literally what I had been hired to do. Further, several African American teachers in the room had certainly noticed the reinforcement of a racist stereotype. To not intervene would be, yet again, another white person choosing to protect white feelings rather than interrupt racism—a white person who billed herself as a racial justice consultant, no less! Yet I would be taking the risk of losing the group, given the likelihood that the woman would
become defensive and shut down and the room would split into those who thought I had mistreated her and those who didn't. I decided to do what would retain my moral and professional integrity and serve as a model for other white people.

As diplomatically as possible, I said, “I understand that you gained valuable insight from that interaction and I thank you for sharing that insight with us. And I am going to ask you to consider not telling that story in that way again.”

When she immediately began to protest, I interrupted her to continue. “I am offering you a teachable moment,” I said, “and I am only asking that you to try to listen with openness.” I then laid out what was racially problematic about how she told the story and offered her a way to share her learning without reinforcing racist stereotypes, for the same story could easily be told and the same conclusions drawn without the racially charged imitation of the mother.

She defensively interrupted me several times but eventually appeared to be listening. Shortly after this intervention, we took a break. Several African American teachers came up to thank me, as did one white teacher who found my intervention a refreshing and much-needed example of how to break with white solidarity. Several white people also approached to let me know how upset the teacher was and that she was quitting the group.

Thus is the power of the good/bad binary and how it informs white fragility. Even a white person on an equity team participating in a class based on the premise that racism is structured into our society and that white complicity is an inevitable result could not handle feedback on how her racism was unintentionally manifesting itself.

If you are white and have ever been challenged to look at your own racism—perhaps you told a problematic joke or made a prejudiced assumption and someone brought it to your attention—it is common to feel defensive. If you believe that you are being told you are a bad person, all your energy is likely to go toward denying this possibility and invalidating the messenger rather than trying to understand why what
you've said or done is hurtful. You will probably respond with white fragility. But unfortunately, white fragility can only protect the problematic behavior you feel so defensive about; it does not demonstrate that you are an open person who has no problematic racial behavior.

The dominant paradigm of racism as discrete, individual, intentional, and malicious acts makes it unlikely that whites will acknowledge any of our actions as racism. For example, I often read about a government official, a teacher, or another public servant expressing shockingly racist statements and still insisting that he or she is not racist. Readers may recall a West Virginia county employee—Pamela Ramsey Taylor—who held a high-level position as director of county development and was suspended after posting racist remarks about First Lady Michelle Obama on Facebook (“It will be so refreshing to have a classy, beautiful, dignified First Lady back in the White House. I'm tired of seeing a [
] Ape in heels”). The mayor of the city responded, “Just made my day Pam.” Taylor's response to the ensuing uproar was, “My comment was not intended to be racist at all. I was referring to my day being made for change in the White House! I am truly sorry for any hard feeling this may have caused! Those who know me know that I'm not in any way racist!” Although Taylor was suspended (but eventually got her job back), I am left wondering what actually qualifies as racism in the white mind.

When I talk to white people about racism, I hear the same claims—rooted in the good/bad binary—made again and again. I organize these claims into two overall categories, both of which label the person as good and therefore not racist. The first set claims color blindness: “I don't see color [
race has no meaning to me]; therefore, I am free of racism.” The second set claims to value diversity: “I know people of color [
have been near people of color,
have general fond regard for people of color]; therefore, I am free of racism.” Both categories fundamentally rest on the good/bad binary. Although I organize these narratives into two overall categories, they can be and often are used interchangeably. They don't need to make sense; they
just need to position the speaker as a good person—free of racism—and end the discussion.

Color-blind statements insist that people do not see race, or if they see it, it has no meaning to them. Color-blind claims include the following:

• I was taught to treat everyone the same.

• I don't see color.

• I don't care if you are pink, purple, or polka-dotted.

• Race doesn't have any meaning to me.

• My parents were/weren't racist, so that is why I am not racist.

• Everyone struggles, but if you work hard . . .

• So-and-so just happens to be black, but that has nothing to do with what I am about to tell you.

• Focusing on race is what divides us.

• If people are respectful to me, I am respectful to them, regardless of race.

• Children today are so much more open.

• I'm not racist; I'm from Canada.

• I was picked on because I was white/I grew up poor (so I don't have race privilege).

The second set I term
This set claims that the person sees and embraces racial difference. Color-celebrate claims include statements such as these:

• I work in a very diverse environment.

• I have people of color in my family/married a person of color/have children of color.

• I was in the military.

• I used to live in New York/Hawaii.

• We don't like how white our neighborhood is, but we had to move here for the schools.

• I was in the Peace Corps.

• I marched in the sixties.

• We adopted a child from China.

• Our grandchildren are multiracial.

• I was on a mission in Africa.

• I went to a very diverse school/lived in a very diverse neighborhood.

• I lived in Japan and was a minority, so I know what it is like to be a minority.

• I lived among the [
] people, so I am actually a person of color.

• My great-grandmother was a Native American princess.

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