White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism is a 2018 book written by Robin DiAngelo about race relations in the United States. An academic with experience in diversity training, DiAngelo coined the term "white fragility" in 2011 to describe any defensive instincts or reactions that a white person experiences when questioned about race or made to consider their own race. In White Fragility, DiAngelo views racism in the United States as systemic and often perpetuated unconsciously by individuals. She recommends against viewing racism as committed intentionally by "bad people".
|June 26, 2018|
Published on June 26, 2018, the book entered the New York Times Bestseller List that month, remaining on the list for well over a year and experiencing a resurgence in demand during the George Floyd protests beginning in May 2020. As of the July 26, 2020 edition, the book is in its 97th week on the list in the Paperback Nonfiction category, where it is ranked number one. Critically, the book received generally positive reviews following its publication. It received more mixed reviews in the aftermath of the George Floyd protests two years later. Some reviewers lauded the book for being thoughtful and instructive, but characterized it as diagnostic rather than solution-oriented. Other reviewers criticized the book for making false claims about race and racism in America, for putting whites in a situation where anything they say is used against them, for infantilizing black people, and for doing nothing to promote racial justice.
Author Robin DiAngelo is a white American academic. She worked for 20 years in providing diversity training for businesses. Identifying as "progressive" at the time, she found her view on race changing as she began working with people of color and experienced hostility from white people when talking about race during the training. After five years in the job, she began studying for a PhD in multicultural education at the University of Washington. DiAngelo became a tenured professor at Westfield State University, working in the areas of critical discourse analysis and whiteness studies. White Fragility draws heavily on her experiences in her diversity training job. The book is targeted at a white audience.
DiAngelo coined the term "white fragility" in 2011, to describe defensive behavior by a white person when their conception of racism is questioned. White Fragility is DiAngelo's third book, following What Does It Mean to Be White?: Developing White Racial Literacy (2012). White Fragility was published on June 26, 2018 by Beacon Press. To accompany the book, Beacon Press's website offers: a Reading Guide by DiAngelo and Özlem Sensoy; a Discussion Guide for Educators by Valeria Brown; and a Discussion Guide for Unitarian Universalist Association meetings by Gail Forsyth-Vail. The book was published in early 2019 in the United Kingdom by Penguin Books.
DiAngelo describes white fragility to be a defensive response by a white person when their whiteness is highlighted or mentioned, or their racial worldview is challenged, whether this response is conscious or otherwise. She gives examples including a white man accusing someone of "playing the race card" or a white woman crying to avoid conflict. DiAngelo proposes that white people are used to viewing themselves as "raceless" or the "default" race, and as such are insulated from feelings of racial discomfort. She describes racism as systematic rather than overt and conscious, arguing that racial segregation has shaped the United States. She points to research that children aged 3 upwards believe it better to be white in the U.S.
DiAngelo says that people associate racism with extremists such as neo-Nazis or self-identified white supremacists, who they label as "bad people", and conclude that because they are a "good person" that they cannot be racist. She criticizes white liberals, arguing that white people who identify as "progressive" view themselves as "woke" to avoid questioning any issue of racism in themselves. She terms these reactions "aversive racism" and writes that it prevents people from addressing unconscious racist bias, which she believes everyone has. Contrastingly, she uses the term "avowed racists" to refer to those who she believes are intentionally perpetrating racism.
The author writes that "color blindness", the idea that one should not notice or think about a person's race, is unhelpful as it prevents people from understanding how race does matter in the current world. She criticizes individualism, the American Dream and the philosophical concept of objectivity. Instead, she promotes utilitarianism. The book describes the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955, a child who was accused of harassing a white woman. It also uses as an example Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball (MLB). DiAngelo says that a stereotype of black men as violent and dangerous is untrue and used to justify continuing racist brutality.
White Fragility became a New York Times bestseller for more than a year. In September 2019, Slate noted that "White Fragility has yet to leave the New York Times bestseller list since its debut in June 2018, making it the fastest-selling book in the history of Beacon Press." In June 2020, during the George Floyd protests, it reached no. 1 on the New York Times list. The July 26, 2020 edition of the list marked the book's 97th week in the Paperback Nonfiction category, where it was ranked number 1.
The Los Angeles Review of Books review by David Roediger reviewed the book very positively and praised DiAngelo's "keen perception, long experience, and deep commitment" and said the book is "uncommonly honest about the duration and extent of entrenched injustice and provocative on the especially destructive role of progressive whites at critical junctures." He concluded that the book "reads better as evidence of where we are mired than as a how-to guide on where we are on the cusp of going."
The Publishers Weekly review called it "a thoughtful, instructive, and comprehensive book on challenging racism" and "impressive in its scope and complexity". The New Statesman review described it as "a clear-sighted, methodical guide seeking to help readers 'navigate the roiling racial waters of daily life', though stops short of prescribing any concrete solutions." It asserted that DiAngelo's "overarching aim is not for her readers to feel guilty about their white identity. Rather it is to encourage them to understand that there will be no change if they are just 'really nice… smile at people of colour… go to lunch together on occasion'."
For The New Yorker in 2018, staff writer Katy Waldman wrote about White Fragility that "[t]he book is more diagnostic than solutions-oriented, and the guidelines it offers toward the end—listen, don't center yourself, get educated, think about your responses and what role they play—won't shock any nervous systems. The value in White Fragility lies in its methodical, irrefutable exposure of racism in thought and action, and its call for humility and vigilance." Nosheen Iqbal, an editor for The Guardian, wrote that "DiAngelo's book is a radical statement at a time when the debate is so polarised." Also writing in The Guardian, Kenan Malik countered in 2020 that the book is "psychobabble" which counter-productively shifts the focus from structural change to individual bias, thus "leaving the real issues untouched."
In a June 2019 article for The Federalist, Jesse Lile argued that the DiAngelo's concept of white fragility places white people in a double bind, first enjoining them to engage in a conversation on racism, then treating any active engagement on their part as an exercise of white privilege, and finally labelling them as fragile when they object to their ideas being dismissed on the basis of their skin color.
In an August 2019 article for The New Yorker, the columnist Kelefa Sanneh characterized DiAngelo as "perhaps the country's most visible expert in anti-bias training, a practice that is also an industry, and from all appearances a prospering one". He suggested that DiAngelo "reduces all of humanity to two categories: white and other" and that she presents people of color as "sages, speaking truths that white people must cherish, and not challenge." Sanneh was also critical of what he saw as DiAngelo's tendency to be "endlessly deferential—for her, racism is basically whatever any person of color thinks it is".
Reviewing Sanneh's comments, professor Lauren Michele Jackson "consider[s] DiAngelo's inclusion of seemingly incongruous grievances a strength. Etiquette is never beside the point. As DiAngelo has said, neither White Fragility nor her workshops intend to convert the gleefully racist; she speaks to the well-intended whose banal blusters make racial stress routine." However, Jackson found the lack of cited scholars troubling: "I couldn't help but notice the relative dearth of contemporary black studies scholarship cited in White Fragility."
Carlos Lozada, the Washington Post's nonfiction book critic, raised a point about circular reasoning: "any alternative perspective or counterargument is defeated by the concept itself. Either white people admit their inherent and unending racism and vow to work on their white fragility, in which case DiAngelo was correct in her assessment, or they resist such categorizations or question the interpretation of a particular incident, in which case they are only proving her point."
In a January 2020 article for The New Republic, J.C. Pan situates DiAngelo's work among "other white anti-racist educators" such as Tim Wise and Peggy McIntosh who provide "therapeutic rather than policy-based" approaches. Pan writes that "the major shortcoming of White Fragility is that it offers almost nothing in the way of concrete political action." Justin Lee makes a similar argument in an essay in The Independent, which views the book as part of a discourse which does not in fact promote racial justice but rather protects class privilege.
The book received a surge of negative reviews after the George Floyd protests. Journalist and author, Matt Taibbi, strongly criticized the book as having a corporate vision of racism, labeling the book "pseudo-intellectual horseshit" that is likely to have pernicious effects for race relations.
Linguist John McWhorter, writing in The Atlantic, called the book "a racist tract", saying it infantilized and condescended towards black people. He also stated the book was "replete with claims that are either plain wrong or bizarrely disconnected from reality". As examples, he cited DiAngelo's claim that white baseball fans believe that Jackie Robinson was the first Black person qualified to be a Major League player and her claim that in the American higher-education system no one ever talks about racism. He argued that the book contradicts itself about white racial identity and leaves white people with no way to avoid being racist. He further criticized the book for not explaining why or how its instructions will help to accomplish social change.
Political scientist Yascha Mounk faulted the book for interpreting things such as white people interrupting black people in conversations as being necessarily white supremacist. Mounk characterized the book as hurtful to the cause of anti-racism by encouraging white people to take on a white identity which is likely to lead to more racial division, rather than less.
Sociologist and specialist in race relations George Yancey criticized the book for poor quality scholarship, multiple factual errors, and lack of empirical support for DiAngelo's assertions concerning white fragility. He also commented that the white fragility concept is not a falsifiable conceptual tool, and that the book is more likely to worsen racial hostilities than make them better.
- Roediger, David (September 6, 2018). "On the Defensive: Navigating White Advantage and White Fragility". Los Angeles Review of Books. Retrieved July 18, 2020.
- Doyle, Sady (July 27, 2018). "Why Are White Women So Terrified Of Being Called Racist?". Elle. Retrieved July 17, 2020.
- Chotiner, Isaac (August 2, 2018). "Why White Liberals Are So Unwilling to Recognize Their Own Racism". Slate. Retrieved July 18, 2020.
- Waldman, Katy (July 23, 2018). "A Sociologist Examines the "White Fragility" That Prevents White Americans from Confronting Racism". The New Yorker. Retrieved July 18, 2020.
- Brodeur, Nicole (November 21, 2018). "Why white people should see color, and more from the author of 'White Fragility'". Seattle Times. Retrieved July 17, 2020.
- Jackson, Lauren Michele (September 4, 2019). "What's Missing From "White Fragility"". Slate. Retrieved July 19, 2020.
- Pan, J.C. (January 7, 2020). "Why Diversity Training Isn't Enough". The New Republic. Retrieved July 18, 2020.
- "Nonfiction book review: White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism". Publishers Weekly. April 23, 2018. Retrieved July 18, 2020.
- [www.beacon.org/White-Fragility-P1631.aspx "Beacon Press: White Fragility"] Check
|url=value (help). Beacon Press. Retrieved July 18, 2020.
- Sensoy, Özlem; DiAngelo, Robin. [www.beacon.org/assets/pdfs/whitefragilityreadingguide.pdf "Reading Guide"] Check
|url=value (help) (PDF). Beacon Press. Retrieved July 18, 2020.
- Brown, Valeria. [beacon.org/assets/pdfs/DiAngelo-EducatorsProfDevGuide.pdf "Discussion Guide for Educators"] Check
|url=value (help) (PDF). Beacon Press. Retrieved July 18, 2020.
- Forsyth-Vail, Gail (November 2018). [www.beacon.org/Assets/PDFs/white_fragility_disc_guide.pdf "Discussion Guide"] Check
|url=value (help) (PDF). Beacon Press. Retrieved July 18, 2020.
- Iqbal, Nosheen (February 16, 2019). "Academic Robin DiAngelo: 'We have to stop thinking about racism as someone who says the N-word'". The Observer. Retrieved July 18, 2020.
- Biswas, K. (March 27, 2019). "How not to be a racist". New Statesman. Retrieved July 18, 2020.
- McWhorter, John (July 15, 2020). "The Dehumanizing Condescension of 'White Fragility'". The Atlantic. Retrieved July 18, 2020.
- Jackson, Lauren Michele (September 5, 2019). "What's Missing From "White Fragility"". Slate Magazine. Retrieved January 20, 2020.
- Lozada, Carlos (June 18, 2020). "Review | White fragility is real. But 'White Fragility' is flawed". The Washington Post. Retrieved July 19, 2020.
- "Paperback Nonfiction". The New York Times Best Seller list. July 26, 2020. Retrieved July 19, 2020.
- "Nonfiction book review: White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism". www.publishersweekly.com. Retrieved January 20, 2020.
- Iqbal, Nosheen (February 16, 2019). "Academic Robin DiAngelo: 'We have to stop thinking about racism as someone who says the N-word'". The Observer. ISSN 0029-7712. Retrieved January 20, 2020.
- "Enough of the psychobabble. Racism is not something to fix with therapy". the Guardian. July 12, 2020. Retrieved July 16, 2020.
- Lile, Jesse (June 18, 2019). "'White Fragility' Is A Racist Idea That Should Be Retired Immediately". The Federalist. Retrieved July 18, 2019.
- Sanneh, Kelefa (August 12, 2019). "The Fight to Redefine Racism". The New Yorker. Retrieved July 18, 2020.
- "Opinion: Reading 'White Fragility' and canceling your friends won't make you an anti-racist". The Independent. July 3, 2020. Retrieved July 16, 2020.
- Halperin, Reed Dunlea,Daniel; Dunlea, Reed; Halperin, Daniel (July 3, 2020). "Useful Idiots: Professor Adolph Reed on Identity Politics". Rolling Stone. Retrieved July 19, 2020.
- "Matt Taibbi slams bestseller 'White Fragility' as corporate vision on racism". The Hill. Retrieved July 19, 2020.
- "The Ezra Klein Show - "Free speech, safety, and 'the letter' - about 15 min in". www.vox.com. Retrieved July 26, 2020.
- "The Ezra Klein Show - "Free speech, safety, and 'the letter' - about 20 min in". www.vox.com. Retrieved July 26, 2020.
- Paradigms, Shattering (July 15, 2020). "Not White Fragility, Mutual Responsibility". Shattering Paradigms. Retrieved August 14, 2020.
- "How 'white fragility' reinforces racism – video explainer". The Guardian. June 26, 2020.
- "Robin DiAngelo On White People's 'Fragility'". NPR. August 18, 2018.
- "We Blaxplain Blaxplaining". The New York Times. August 2, 2018.