Robin DiAngelo – ‘White Fragility’

robin diangelo
Robin DiAngelo

This week’s self-woke-ification got off to a magnificent start with me reading an article on race by a white person.

Robin DiAngelo’s ‘White Fragility’ tries to explain why it’s so difficult to talk to white people about racism.

She argues that socialisation renders us racially illiterate. We’re taught to see racism as a binary phenomenon – that you’re either racist, or you’re not racist.

We think that if you’re consciously, morally against racism, it’s impossible for you to be racist.

In other words, our understanding of race and racism is laughably shallow and individualistic.

DiAngelo argues we need to look at race like social scientists do – as a complex, multidimensional, adaptive system.

It’s not just a case of individual prejudices. It’s a system of institutionalised power favouring white people.

White people built, have dominated and still dominate all major institutions, often using the uncompensated labour of other racial groups.

Society reinforces and reproduces our own racial interests and prejudices as a result. It serves us at the expense of non-whites.

That means that while a white person can be passionately anti-racist, they still benefit from racism.

It also means that white people can’t be victims of racism. We can experience all kinds of hardships and disadvantages in life – but never that level of systemic prejudice.

In our culture, ‘white’ is treated as the default setting. White people are allowed to represent the whole of humanity. People of colour, on the other hand, are only ever allowed to represent their racialised selves.

We’ve got so used to that situation that we tend to react very badly when our cultural centrality is challenged or questioned. And it’s this that DiAngelo labels ‘White Fragility’.

She runs through examples of White Fragility in action.

White people often hate being told their viewpoints come from a racialised perspective – and having the objectivity and/or universality of their outlook challenged.

We often can’t take people of colour talking about their own racial perspectives. Anyone openly talking about race makes us uncomfortable.

We don’t like it when people of colour won’t answer our questions about race. We hate other white people not agreeing with our own racial perspectives. And above all else, we hate being told something we said or did had a racist impact.

Our simplistic, binary understanding of race means we think racism is a bias held by bad people – not something we’re instilled with by society.

This means two things – one, that we feel personally attacked when someone accuses us of racist behaviour, and react angrily rather than examining our actions. And two – we effectively erase hundreds of years of white people oppressing people of colour by focusing on individuals rather than the history of society.

So what can white people do to try and avoid these pitfalls? DiAngelo has suggestions.

She thinks we need to be willing to tolerate racial discomfort, and discuss racial privilege and internalised notions of white superiority.

She thinks we need to acknowledge ourselves as racial beings, with limited perspectives on race. White people aren’t neutral. Our experiences aren’t universal, and our assumption that they are means we don’t take race seriously.

We need to have authentic, substantial interactions with people of colour so we can begin to grasp the extent of racial inequality in society.

And – perhaps slipping into no shit Sherlock territory – she says we need to ‘take action’, challenging our own racism, that of other white people, and the racism embedded in institutions.

This isn’t a very ‘deep’ essay – I found aspects of it thought-provoking, but a lot of it is fairly shallow and obvious.

It’s entry-level anti-racism, I’d say – but to be fair, some of us need that, and this is clearly a heavily condensed version of arguments DiAngelo makes in more detail in books and lectures and other forms.

I will say this, though – I found the ending a bit uncomfortable. After expending hundreds of words talking about the need to recognise racism as a complex, multidimensional system, she finishes by going on about how fulfilling waking up to race and racism has been to her as an individual.

Frankly, I’m not interested in anti-racism as some sort of personal development exercise. I’m interested in doing my bit to right centuries of injustice, and wipe out wrenching inequalities that still ruin hundreds of millions of lives around the world.

A decent essay, then – but one that leaves a weird aftertaste.