White Fragility

Even though I consider myself a reasonably nice person, truth be told, I’m a racist. Being a progressive, that’s not an easy thing for me to admit. After all, racists are nasty immoral people who go around hating and hurting people simply because they’re of another race. I recall those terrible TV images from the 60s of Black people being hosed, tear-gassed, attacked by police dogs, and having their heads cracked open and cringe. No way would I ever do that! We Americans have evolved and moved on. No more slavery. Everyone’s equal now, aren’t they? And anyone can become President … even if some do question your birth papers or think you’re an ape.

But this is based on a simplistic view of race. Most of us were taught in school that there are distinct biological and genetic differences between races, which is simply not true. Things like skin color and hair are totally superficial, and there is no such thing as biological race. Race is purely a social construct. That doesn’t make it any less real. This country was founded on a presumed right to exterminate the Indigenous people and steal their land so that we could go on and create a national wealth based on slavery. White people desperately needed to construct a narrative that justified keeping fellow humans in bondage. Using junk science to demonstrate that Blacks were inferior, they managed to create a social power structure of White supremacy. Though the science has long been debunked, the myth as well as the structure persists.

I was born and raised in a White suburban neighborhood in a country of deep racial separation and inequality. I was the beneficiary of an unspoken racial dominance, given the White stamp of approval and fully entitled to all that life had to offer. Like most White Americans, I never thought of myself in racial terms. White was the only reality I knew. There were no Black kids in my school. We didn’t talk about race because it never came up. I was insulated from all racial stress. No one ever watched me suspiciously when I entered a store or forbade me to take out a girl because I was not the right color. And when I grew up, no one would redline me when I applied for a mortgage or insurance because I was a poor economic risk and not White. My privileged status would even determine where I eventually chose to live, how healthy I would be, and how long I might live.

But is it my fault that I was born into this White power structure? As a progressive, I get it. You don’t have to tell me we still have a huge racial problem in this country. I don’t judge people by the color of their skin. When I look at a person, I don’t see color. I support groups like Black Lives Matter. I have worked with and have friends who are Black people. I am the least racist person you can imagine. Sound familiar?

Sociologist, lecturer, and writer Robin DiAngelo has heard it all before in her more than twenty years as a consultant and trainer on issues of racial and social justice. Author of White Fragility and born a privileged White person herself, she tries to make us understand why discussing race is so difficult for us. Recounting her experiences conducting workshops for corporations and universities, she explains how this White socialization process and inherent sense of superiority is so deeply internalized that we are either unaware of it or can never admit to it. Thus, “we become highly fragile in conversations about race.” I’m a good, moral person, we claim. How dare you suggest I’m a racist! As DiAngelo writes,”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. These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy.” She refers to this whole process as white fragility.

To all my White readers, I cannot recommend this book enough. It is undoubtedly one of the best I’ve ever read on the subject and belongs on a shelf with works by such authors as James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou. But while I can certainly empathize with these Black writers, I think the reason this book especially resonated with me is that DiAngelo speaks to me as a fellow White person, raised and brainwashed like me with the same sense of racial superiority. For me, the best nonfiction books not only inform and inspire us, but challenge our most cherished beliefs. White progressives like me are the real problem, the author believes, and cause the most daily damage to people of color. We tell ourselves we’re woke and thus don’t need to change, too busy maintaining our self-image instead of working to become more self-aware and to find real solutions. She convinced me that for too long I’ve remained on the sidelines, silent partner in the White supremacy I grew up in. Too many times have I failed to speak up and object to racial jokes for fear of not fitting in. I feign a laugh and let it slide, telling myself it’s no big deal. I hear another racist comment from Fox News (take your pick, like history-challenged Fox News host Andrea Tantaros claiming in 2015 that President Barack Obama has contributed to making race relations worse than any time in U.S. history, or Tucker Carlson praising in 2020 the couple who defaced a Black Lives Matter street mural in Martinez, commending them for their “bravery”) and merely sigh and let it pass, silenced once again by that absurd taboo of “playing the race card.” When that is exactly the card I should play. Take the birther conspiracy that hounded President Obama. It needed to be called out from the rooftops for the egregiously ugly racism that it was. Yet how few times did I speak up to challenge friends and relatives who voted for and supported its chief promoter.

It’s not enough for me to simply talk the liberal talk. I must openly acknowledge my racist programming and seek to uncover and excise the many subtle ways it still affects me so that I can begin to undo the damage. Even at my age, there is hope that it is not too late for me to march and add my voice for true racial justice. I must walk the talk each day forward and openly challenge the destructive system of racial rot at the heart of this country.

(Note: You may have noticed that, unlike the author of this book, I have chosen to capitalize both Black and White throughout my post. There is still considerable disagreement on this among journalists and writers. I prefer to go along with a recent statement by the National Association of Black Journalists “that whenever a color is used to appropriately describe race then it should be capitalized, including White and Brown.” )