Culture1 min read

Book Review: White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

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

Seven years after coining the phrase white fragility, Robin DiAngelo unpacks her uncomfortable but game-changing concept. The result is a short but intensive personal workshop that impels the (presumed white) reader to take accountability for racist patterns in their behavior and get ready to brace against the headwind of their own white fragility.

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All rights reserved by Beacon Press.

🔥 The hot take

Anger. Fear. Denial. Tears. White fragility describes the emotions and actions of white people when confronted with their part in racism. After decades of running diversity training sessions, DiAngelo is a “from practice to theory” expert in the everyday ways that white fragility serves to reinforce systems of power. Without keen awareness and strategy, warns DiAngelo, white fragility is a barrier to ‘racial growth’.

The first hard-to-swallow pill is that white fragility applies to all white people. Failure to recognize it in yourself equates failure to understand socialization and appreciate that your racial worldview is shaped by your own race.

White fragility can be triggered in many situations. Standing center stage in White Fragility are conversations about race and, in particular, being called out for a racist comment or action.

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The white state is “fragile” because white people have outsized emotional reactions when their comfortable racial norms are challenged (“I am not a white person, I am just a person.”, “I am a good, non-racist person.”, “I am not over-advantaged by my whiteness, the reason others are disadvantaged has nothing to do with me.”)

In practice, white fragility looks like:

💬 Deflection or denial (“I don’t see color.”)

💬 Bargaining (“I know about this and I have black friends!”)

💬 Defensiveness or belittling the argument (“You’re just playing the race card.”)

💬 Silence, withdrawal

💬 Channel-switching (“It’s about class, not race.”)

💬 Treating being called racist as worse than being on the receiving end of said racism

Bringing together academic research, ideas from thought leaders, quotes from friends, sociological theories, anecdotes from her sessions and raw stories of her own white fragility, DiAngelo builds a thorough and instantly recognizable portrait of how white fragility looks and feels — and why it makes white people (especially white progressives) more resistant to productive conversations about racism.

At times, the book takes on a cognitive behavioral therapy character. That’s how systematic DiAngelo is in her delineation of how you should replace the emotions and actions of white fragility with the productive ones of growth. In this way, White Fragility achieves balance in its promise: the new approach within is practical and codified but also personally and deeply transformative.

White Fragility isn’t intended to shame and guilt white people. Indeed, these emotions are dealt with at length. As the Audre Lorde quote that DiAngelo shares explains, “all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication.”. Instead, White Fragility is a training workshop DiAngelo has invited you to take with her in private. DiAngelo strategically steers you to a working understanding of racism and white people’s socialization within it. Armed with this clarity, you can then process your own white fragility. This is essential if you’re to live the rest of your life making any difference to racial inequality.

🗺️ Where this book will take you

  1. White Fragility plunges you in at the deep end with a lesson in how modern-day America came to operate against a backdrop of systemic racism, earmarking white people’s lack of understanding of socialization as a contributor to both this system and their fragility when confronted with it.
  2. Next comes a wake-up call to many in the idea of ‘new racism’. New racism is enacting and rationalizing racist-patterned behavior produced with good-intentions or subconsciously. In this vein, DiAngelo firmly but unfalsifiably calls up and names ‘white racial innocence’ as a sinister, doe-eyed enemy to accountability.
  3. Getting steadily granular, DiAngelo impresses upon us that the ways we internalize racist messages differ for different groups. Specifically, DiAngelo explores how no white person in America is exempt from internalizing anti-black sentiments.
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     Addressing a common objection, DiAngelo reminds us that messages are generalized. Being socialized as a white person doesn’t stop you from caring for your black friends, colleagues and loved ones as individuals… but having these relationships are not enough to stop the internalized messages arising in racist patterns.
  4. The true meat of White Fragility begins to sear with the chapter about white people’s racial triggers. White people’s ‘racial stress’ is raised when the familiar is challenged. DiAngelo presents a comprehensive and unsparing list of example triggers and the white comforts they rock.Here, what you have learned in the previous chapters gets brought together and applied in new concepts like white solidarity, entitlement to racial comfort and white centrality. This is where you begin to dissect white fragility and see it in your immediate and everyday life.
  5. The heart of the book is bound to hit closest to home for any white reader. The next three chapters (White Fragility in Action, White Fragility and the Rules of Engagement and White Women’s Tears) swivel the lens from the collective and the abstract to the individual. And they take no prisonersWhile DiAngelo scaffolds these chapters in a level and calm way, empathy and relatability bleed from every page. Bitingly specific examples perfectly illustrate what it’s like to be any party in the scenarios. With the concept of white fragility as a new tool, you can’t help but groan in chagrin or horror and resolve to be better.
  6. Finally, DiAngelo offers hope. Not fluffy, inspirational hope that a mantra or sheer awareness will overthrow white fragility. Instead, grounded, clear instructions for how a white reader can work hard to take action going forward.

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🔧 What this book wants you to do differently

If you are white…

✅ Seek out info about race and racism: books, films, news, websites… but do not expect or ask people of color in your life to do the labor for you.

✅ Build authentic relationships with people of color.

✅ Follow a process like this to tackle your white fragility
 when you are confronted about a racist behavior.

  • Accept the ‘racist pattern’ is from the way society socialized you
  • Process emotions with a white person that will hold you accountable
  • Identify your emotions in the moment (hot tip: stop and breathe)
  • Identify how you reinforced racism
  • Meet to apologize with anyone you offended. Do not focus on intentions, focus on your behavior and the impact
  • After the apology, ask what you have missed
  • Accept feedback and be grateful for the opportunity for growth
  • Take what you have learned and use it to drive a new curiosity

If you are a person of color…

✅ Set standards: use what you have read in White Fragility to see examples all around you and establish the things you will not tolerate.

✅ Hold white people accountable: if you feel safe doing so, be honest and direct when you see a racist behavior.

✅ Recommend this title, or the concept as a Google search term, to white friends if they ask you to teach them more.

⚡ The must-discuss parts

White people’s racial triggers. The defensive moves of white fragility are triggered by challenges to perceived objectivity, white solidarity, meritocracy among other things that shape white racial comfort. Can you and your conversation partner face the reality of these comforts? Have you met these triggers?

White women’s tears. A particular brand of white fragility? When a white person makes a race conversation about them. This is often seen when a white woman’s tears of guilt or grief halt a conversation so others can comfort and absolve her.

  • Learning there’s a label for this is likely to be a light bulb moment. What sort of spaces and conversations have you seen this in? Why is it a behavior ascribed to women?

How to process your emotions when your racism is pointed out. What to do, who to seek counsel from (spoiler: it’s a white person that will hold you accountable) and the thoughts and emotions conducive to growth which should prevail over those that exist in synergy with white fragility. Rewiring your reactions is no mean feat, so grab a friend and talk through it.

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🛒 Where to buy

If you are in the US, get your copy from:

If you are in the UK, get your copy from:

📺 Further watching

This book review was first published in the Inclusion Works Leaders Network – a digital community for D&I leaders to swap challenges and ideas. If you have views you’d like to discuss, you can sign up here.

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