White Fragility: Complete Summary & Analysis

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Race

Robin DiAngelo. Beacon Press, 2018. Boston, MA

BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front)

Do not treat this book as scripture. It is built on knowledge created and shared by people of color. The book is poorly organized and written, and it will likely confuse and/or mislead you. White fragility does exist, but likely not to the extent DiAngelo claims.

Remember, if you begin to feel defensive when someone is critiquing whiteness, white identity, or is pointing out an idea, action, or phrase you said is racist you need to stop and check yourself before you do something worse.

Intro

If you’ve bought or picked up this book, and after reading the first 10 to 15 pages you wondered “What the hell am I reading?” you’re not alone. DiAngelo’s White Fragility is a difficult read for many reasons, such as:

–The overabundance of academic language

–Her argument isn’t clearly defined and spelled out in the beginning, because of…

–Ineffective organization and design that leaves readers confused or disinterested in continuing (can’t hold the audience’s attention)

–It is dense. DiAngelo is trying to consolidate 500 plus years of white supremacy (its origins, affects, manifestations, and legacy) and numerous lessons drawn from academics and writers of color who have focused on race into a 150 page product.

And those are just the obvious problems that come to mind. Despite this, there still are important ideas and lessons that can be extracted from this book. And because so many people have either bought, downloaded, or checked it out from local libraries it feels like there should be some kind of guide to help break this monstrosity down to its nuts and bolts. Hopefully SJ/AR Guides is up to the task.

Within this guide you’ll find a brief overview, main takeaways, chapter descriptions with a link to a more in-depth summary/analysis/commentary, reflection exercises either taken from or inspired by the text, critiques of the text, and some common misunderstandings of the text addressed.

White Fragility, the Overview

Oh God, where to begin…

The foundation of DiAngelo’s theory is that white supremacy—through a long history of subjugation of people of color, as well as socialization through verbal and non-verbal messaging that carries consequences when broken—has created a highly internalized identity of superiority within white people. Let’s call this identity whiteness. When whiteness is combined with a culture that promotes individuality and objectivity, as well as a society that does not teach its full history or what institutional/systemic inequities are, you have this identity that is encapsulated in a tight, proud bubble that’s oblivious to the suffering of and challenges/barriers to others around it.

When this whiteness is challenged by others (either by people of color or other white people), or when white people say/do/think something racist and it is called out for what it is, a white person could act in a manner so defensively that it squashes any kind of conversation or learning. This type of defensive reaction is white fragility. It is believed white fragility happens when a white person is so deep into whiteness that they cannot reconcile their identity or actions are problematic.

That’s it.

In short: white fragility = a defensive reaction so severe it stops any conversation or learning about race or racism and maintains a dominant culture of white supremacy.

Granted, the reasons why white fragility exists is much more complicated (re: that first paragraph on the foundation of DiAngelo’s theory), but for all intents and purposes this is the main takeaway from the book. The details on white supremacy and white cultural socialization are handled much better in other texts that will be covered in SJ/AR Guides later. DiAngelo tries to cover these topics in her book, but 150 pages doesn’t do these topics any justice. As a result, the book seems to confuse the hell out of people rather than educate.

Main Takeaways

[Note: I use the term “white supremacy culture” a lot. Basically, it describes a culture that reinforces whiteness in many facets while rejecting and erasing other cultures. Do not confuse this with “white supremacists,” those white folks who violently act out their prejudices. The next article SJ/AR covers will go over white supremacy culture in greater detail.]

After revisiting the chapter summaries and analyses, here’s the list of what I’d consider to be the main takeaways from the book:    

–Our white supremacy culture has created a society that benefits white people over people of color and has protected white people from seeing themselves in terms of race.

–Our culture has taught us to see ourselves as individuals and that we are the only one’s responsible for our success and failures. You likely know this by the phrase “picking yourself up by your boot-straps.”

–Despite being taught this individuality, there are many institutions in our society that are ran by white people to the benefit of other white people

–Our culture has also taught us that we are objective thinkers and we have no biases

–Despite being taught objectivity, our culture transmits many verbal and non-verbal messages and behaviors about whiteness being preferred over blackness, or any other ethnic culture. Because these messages and behaviors create a norm, we pass these same messages to successive generations thinking that there is nothing wrong.

–Our educational institutions do not teach institutional racism and white supremacy. Rather, we are taught that racists and white supremacists are only people who act violently. This creates a good/bad binary that reduces racism to an overly simplistic image. The consequence is that messages and behaviors that have been normed as acceptable by whites are actually offensive and racist to many people of color.

–Racism changes over time with its environment. It changes because white supremacy needs it in order to survive.

–When the behaviors and messages we reenact are called out for being racist, or when our white identities are challenged, some people will become overly defensive to the point where they shut down any conversation or opportunity for growth.

Chapter Descriptions

[Note: Each summary and analysis PDF interprets the author’s writing, specifically focusing on the important info the author is trying to communicate. The summaries and analyses do not point out the problematic aspects of each chapter.]

Hopefully I haven’t lost you by this point. If you’re still here, but you’re confused by any of the points made above, maybe these chapter summaries and analyses could help.

For others who have attempted to read the book but don’t understand what exactly they’re reading, hopefully these could help too.

Author’s Note, Intro, & Chapter 1: An explanation of identity politics in relation to civil rights, how white people are protected from racial stress, and a breakdown of individuality, objectivity, and socialization.

Chapter 2: The invention of race, clearer definitions of prejudice, discrimination, racism, and white supremacy, and how white people control the institutions the shape the lives of others.

Chapter 3: How racism has changed since the 1960’s; color-blind racism, aversive racism, and cultural racism.

Chapter 4: Growing up around whiteness, the white racial perspective, whiteness and white solidarity, the problem with the “good old days,” racial “innocence,” a white preference toward segregation, the pillars of whiteness.

Chapter 5: What we’re taught racism and racists look like, why thinking of racism in either/or terms sets us up for failure, and a list of claims and counterclaims when white people begin getting defensive when they’re called out for racist behavior

Chapter 6: Whiteness in relation to blackness, ways that white society projects its problems onto the Black community, whiteness using Black Americans to feel better about itself

Chapter 7, 8, 9: the creation of insulation from racial stress, white people’s need to return to equilibrium when challenged about their identity or behavior (Habitus), white fragility in action, feelings/behaviors/actions associated with white fragility

Chapter 10 and 11: The unspoken rules white people who suffer from white fragility need, the significance of white women’s tears in cross-racial settings

Chapter 12: A new frame of mind that can prevent white fragility, three points of advice from DiAngelo, a note about white guilt, the question of a positive white identity

Reflection Exercises

[Note: A possible way to make the most of these exercises is to keep a journal or notepad where you can jot down your thoughts, feelings, and answers that way it’s not crammed inside your head, or good information and insight that can be referred to again and not possibly lost or forgotten]

From Chapter 2, DiAngelo’s reflection questions concerning racial messaging we’ve received:

–Did your parents tell you that race didn’t matter and that everyone was equal?

–Did you have many friends of color? If no, why not?

–If people of color did not live in your community, why didn’t they? Where did they live?

–What images, sounds, and smells do you associate with these other neighborhoods?

–What activities happened in these other neighborhoods? Were you encouraged to visit these

neighborhoods?

–What makes a school good? Who goes to good schools? Who goes to bad schools?

–If your school was diverse, did kids all sit together? Were all classes equally diverse in race? Why or why not?

–Did you have teachers of your same race? Did you have teachers of a different race?

From Chapter 4: Recall the first time you became aware of your own race (especially if you are white). Do not confuse this with the first time you realized someone else was another race other than your’s, or the first time a person of color you know had this realization. For white people, this realization of your race should also be about how your whiteness carries certain privileges and burdens. [If you’re scratching your head on this one, download the Chapter 4 summary and analysis for my example of when I first realized I was white]

From Chapter 5: Gut-Check questions developed in response to why we white people get defensive when challenged,

–Why are we unable to take responsibility for our words and actions when someone calls us out on it?

–Why do we feel the need to defend ourselves constantly?

–What is it about our society and socialization that makes it hard for us to admit we’ve made a mistake?  –Why are we not willing to listen to the views and experiences of others when all they’re trying to do is help make us better?

–Why do we have a tendency to stay firmly planted in one way of thought instead of learning and growing with a new way of thought?

–Why are we afraid of accepting the truth about our society?

From Chapter 6: Two exercises: One, write down what comes to mind when you recall lessons of Reconstruction from your high school history classes. And two, think of a movie or TV series that doesn’t accurately represent a community of color or perpetuates either negative stereotypes or the myth of the white savior (DiAngelo’s example is The Blind Side)

From Chapter 12: Rephrasing of DiAngelo’s first point of advice (which is a reflection question), “How come you as a functioning adult don’t know how to disrupt racism?” The question makes you consider what forces have kept you away from learning about racism and how to address it. Also, inspired by the chapter, if we are to reinvent/reimagine a white identity to become more positive, what would it look like and what would it take to get there?

Strongest Critiques on White Fragility

Main points from John McWhorter’s “The Dehumanizing Condescension of White Fragility”:

–DiAngelo tends to speak on behalf of all Black Americans when she cannot possibly know what goes on in the minds of all Black Americans. This generalization treats the Black community as a monolith, that they all have the same opinions and feelings.

–While describing systemic barriers facing Black Americans, DiAngelo writes as if all Black Americans are do not obtain upward mobility

–There is no connection between DiAngelo’s activism and the issues facing the Black community. Instead, there is an overemphasis on how to be sensitive toward Black Americans when that oversensitivity isn’t exactly warranted.

–By being overly sensitive, and generalization the thoughts of the Black community, DiAngelo’s solution to white fragility is so condescending to Black Americans that it is dehumanizing and a different form of racism

Main points from Lauren Michele Jackson’s “What’s Missing from White Fragility

–If Black Americans are experts in race knowledge, then why doesn’t DiAngelo’s book contain more excerpts and lessons from Black writers and thinkers?

–The text gives white people terms and concepts that can be used in performance dialogues—a sort of script that makes white people appear to know about the trouble aspects of being white yet doesn’t address a complete knowledge of why this troubling aspect exists and how this aspect manifests in a white person’s daily life.

— Talking about whiteness without actually doing anything to disrupt whiteness and racism renders it superficial and narcissistic

–“To address whiteness properly, white people must ‘turn towards and away’ from whiteness, ‘turning towards their role and responsibility in these histories of racism’ as they ‘turn away from themselves, and towards others.’ Right now we are stuck in the first turn…” with the implication that DiAngelo leaves the responsibility for that turn away from whiteness on other whites, yet they’ll be stuck without guidance.

Other Issues Regarding White Fragility

Academic Appropriation: DiAngelo, a white woman, is profiting off of concepts of racism and white supremacy that were made known to white folks by writers and thinkers of color.

This Book is “Scripture”: An issue many are brining up is how the book has a religious air to it, like this book is scripture in the quest toward becoming more anti-racist. I didn’t get that feel when reading it only because I never viewed DiAngelo as top expert in racism and white studies. Early in the book she establishes her credentials to be an authority in this arena, but because the book was poorly organized and written it is clear this is no scripture.

No Cure to White Racists: I’ve seen a lot of blow back where white people more or less say “This book says I’m always going to be a racist no matter what I do!” From my interpretation of the book, DiAngelo is trying to convey you yourself aren’t necessarily a racist person, but because you were raised in a white supremacist culture you’ll always have an internal bias and prejudice against people of color. As such, if we’re not conscious of our thoughts and feelings we may inadvertently say or do racist things. Again, you may not be a racist, but what you think, feel, say, or do may be racist. I think this misinterpretation comes from how DiAngelo doesn’t spend much time covering what implicit/unconscious bias is.

An Overgeneralization of White People: DiAngelo gives her credentials as to why she can make generalizations about white people, however her generalizations are overgeneralizations built on experiences she has had with a slice of the white population. It seems like she has primarily led seminars in corporate/business settings, and that is not a wide sampling of white people. Because of this, not all white people will feel or perform white fragility.

SJ/AR Bottom Line:

Do not treat this book as scripture. It is built on knowledge created and shared by people of color. It is poorly organized and written, and it will likely confuse and/or mislead you. White fragility does exist, but likely not to the extent DiAngelo claims.

Remember, if you begin to feel defensive when someone is critiquing whiteness, white identity, or is pointing out an idea, action, or phrase you said is racist you need to stop and check yourself before you do something worse.

Additional Resources:

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