Patton's Picks from the PMA Library: White Fragility

July 2020

"White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism" by Robin DiAngelo

If you're looking for book recommendations in the productivity and professional development genre, Patton offers a weekly summary of some of the essential and emerging titles from the PMA Library. 

White Fragility is a fascinating, instructive, and sometimes unsettling explanation as to why we white people are so easily angered and confused while talking about racism. After leading an anti-bias training course for years, author Robin DiAngelo realized that many of the aggressive and defensive white people in her classes responded to her course in intense and predictable ways. As a white woman herself, DiAngelo uses the book to teach a white audience how to recognize and understand the defensiveness, anger, and other emotional responses that come so easily from white people when these conversations take place. DiAngelo acknowledges that it is not a question IF white people are racist, but HOW white people are defensive about racism. She warns readers of the dangers of these habits, especially how defensiveness serves as yet another mechanism that keeps racist structures in place. White Fragility was also Michael Ward's pick from Episode #41 of The Path Podcast, and a good complement to another PMA recommendation, Ibram Kendi's How to Be An Antiracist

  1. White people who see "Racist"/"Not Racist" as a good/bad binary. Many white people imagine racism as people who committed overtly racist acts leading up to the civil rights movement in the 60's. Some believe that racism no longer exists, or that overt racism only comes from violent, self-proclaimed white supremacist groups: populations which very much exist but certainly don't excuse other covert acts of racism. Instead of acknowledging that an act or statement is racially problematic, many white people enter "fight or flight" mode, desperately trying to convince the accuser that they have misunderstood, and deny vehemently the accusation that "they are racist," as they believe that that would mean they are a morally bad person. This is AVERSIVE racism, and is a way that white people rationalize and enable racism but maintain their un-racist self image.
  2. White people threatened by conversations about racism employ a variety defense mechanisms. Even acknowledging "white people" as a group rather than acknowledging them as individuals makes white people uncomfortable, but to do so about other racial groups feels normal. Everything white is considered the norm, while blacks who achieve are considered "exceptional." Many white people employ myths of "meritocracy," an argument implying everyone has the same chance if they work hard, despite the systematic roadblocks which have historically limited non-white populations. Many also argue that they have struggled and endured various hardships of their own, without acknowledging that race was never one of those hardships. White people have a convenient response "I don't see color," but the fact is clear we are a racist society and our social structures are based on race. Phrases like these only allow white people to shut down the conversation, ignore the experiences of people of color, and return to the comfort of their lives (benefitting from white privilege).
  3. White people hope to avoid racial discomfort at all cost. White people only want to talk about race when it is safe for them, and avoid or aggressively resist the discomfort of being confronted, called out, or corrected. One of the most poignant sections of the book is DiAngelo's list of conditions which must exist for a white person to calmly and peacefully handle conversations about racism, which involve feeling safe, understood, comforted, listened to, and so much more. We only want to discuss racism on our terms and want Black people to reassure us we are good people, and that jokes or casual micro-aggressions don't mean anything.

About the Author:
Robin J. DiAngelo is an American academic, lecturer, and author working in the fields of critical discourse analysis and whiteness studies.