Photo by Paul Jerry via Wikimedia Commons
“White fragility” describes a real thing. But it’s possible to carry it too far in the service of a might makes right mentality. People who use that term should keep that potential in mind.
Before I go further, I’ll note three points.
First, Robin DiAngelo, who coined the term, has published a book recently (in 2018) where she expands on her ideas about “white fragility.” I have not read that book, and this blog posts speaks only about the article in which she introduced the concept, which was published in 2011.
Second, I’m focusing on a reductio and not on what I think DiAngelo, or even most people who use the term “white fragility,” intend. I’m not saying she, or they, endorse a “might makes right” mentality. I’m suggesting, rather, that a “might makes right” mentality is one potential direction in which one can take the idea of “white fragility.”
Third, I really, really mean my second point. Please, please, please don’t say I’m accusing DiAngelo or most people who use the term “white fragility” of endorsing a “might makes right” mentality. If you do, I’ll get really peevish.
White fragility defined
DiAngelo defines white fragility as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable [to white people], triggering a range of defensive moves.” Those defensive moves “function to reinstate white racial equilibrium” and close off productive conversations about racism.
Why are white people fragile? DiAngelo says they
live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress.
[All quotes in this section come from DiAngelo 2011, p. 54.]
DiAngelo describes a real thing. Two of her examples illustrate why. They come from workplace racial sensitivity seminars, which she formerly has had the unenviable (but remunerated) task of leading, often in settings where the participants are all or mostly white and not disposed to discuss racism.
Example 1: The flummoxed white woman
In one seminar, a white woman received “sensitive and diplomatic feedback on how some of her statements had impacted several persons of color in the room.” That feedback made the woman so upset that she began to exhibit signs of what at first appeared to be a heart attack, but instead turned out to have (probably) been a panic attack. [DiAngelo 2011, p. 64-5]
Example 2: The angry white man
In a different seminar, DiAngelo notes that
A white man is pounding his fist on the table. His face is red and he is furious. As he pounds he yells, “White people have been discriminated against for 25 years! A white person can’t get a job anymore!” I [DiAngelo] look around the room and see 40 employed people, all white. There are no people of color in the workplace.” [DiAngelo 2011, p. 54-5]
What DiAngelo gets right
The people in those examples are so vulnerable, so “fragile,” that they respond viscerally to these attempts to discuss racism. They seem to feel as if they are being attacked. Whatever else their reactions signify, the people in the two examples shift the topic of discussion to the display of heart palpitations and shortness of breath that mark a panic attack and to the claim of anti-white discrimination.
DiAngelo is for the most part careful in her language. She doesn’t say that all “racial stress” is the same. She focuses specifically on instances where “merely talking about racism” causes the putative racial stress that evokes the white fragility. [DiAngelo 2011, p. 61, emphasis in original] She is also careful to focus on function rather than intention. Whitely fragile people don’t necessarily intend to maintain racial hierarchy, but the practical effect of their fragility is to maintain that hierarchy.
Further, DiAngelo recognizes that focusing on white fragility works somewhat at cross purposes against her own focus on what she calls “structural racism.” At least, that’s how I interpret the italicized (by me) portion of this quote [DiAngelo 2011, p. 66]:
While anti-racist efforts ultimately seek to transform institutionalized racism, anti-racist education may be most effective by starting at the micro level. The goal is to generate the development of perspectives and skills that enable all people, regardless of racial location, to be active initiators of change.
DiAngelo sometimes presents white fragility as an almost unavoidable trait of white persons in the United States, something like original sin. I see it more as a strong tendency that white persons can unlearn. But I agree with her that white fragility is a thing and that it often or even usually works in the way she says it does. It derails discussions about racism.
But…beware where this might take us
At the same time, focusing on “white fragility” may inadvertently feed a might makes right mentality. If we use the term too much as a crutch in discussions about racism, we might find the fact of fragility itself as something to be condemned and the fact of strength as something to be honored simply because it’s strength.
Let’s return to the above examples.
The flummoxed woman, again
The woman who suffered a panic attack seems, from DiAngelo’s description, not to have been faking it. She apparently really felt those symptoms. It’s easy to look at that display of symptoms and say she just can’t take criticism, however “sensitive and diplomatic” it was.
But let us remember that while there may be some exceptions, people don’t as a rule choose to have a panic attack. True, one might learn to look at the world in such a way that the triggers don’t trigger as much as they used to. Or one might learn how to deal with the symptoms in such a way that they don’t escalate or that they pass quickly. But in the first instance, people don’t usually choose to have those symptoms.
The woman in that example is vulnerable. Maybe she has made others feel vulnerable in the past and maybe the turnaround against her is, in a cosmic sense, fair play. But anyone who wants to point out the role that woman’s weakness plays in derailing what (we are supposed to presume) was a very productive conversation about race should keep their eyes on the prize and refrain from shaming that woman for her weakness.
The angry white man, again
The issue is a bit more complicated, and less tailor-made to my point, when it comes to the “angry white man” who makes the facially ridiculous claim that white people cannot get a job anymore. That seems an indisputable example of white defensiveness, read as white weakness, or “fragility.”
DiAngelo likely doesn’t know that man’s whole story, and if she knows more, she is withholding. Maybe his employer is considering layoffs and maybe he needs the health insurance. Maybe he feels himself in a zero-sum competition with other potential workers and therefore believes any gain by a person of color is necessarily a loss to him. Maybe–probably–the seminar is a work requirement, and he must listen to something that sounds to him a lot like preaching. True, he probably gets paid to be there. Also true: the hypothetical problems I’ve just mentioned have, if anything, only a tangential relationship to the alleged reverse discrimination he complains about.
Of course, maybe he’s just a bigot. Or more likely, he’s some combination of “person who indulges bigoted tropes” and “person who is facing real problems” and “person who is put on the spot in a racial sensitivity seminar that feels to him a lot like a sermon.”
His angry words and his pounding the table are strong markers of incivility. But I’m also reminded of the claim that we shouldn’t insist overmuch on civility until we’ve heard out the uncivil person’s complaint, especially when that person is in a position of proximate powerlessness. It’s at least arguable that he subjectively did feel powerless in that situation, however otherwise it may look to you or me reading about it from a distance. If, as DiAngelo suggests, that man’s incivility does come from weakness, from “fragility,” then maybe we should incorporate that possibility in our judgment against him.
I’m not big on the “it’s okay to be uncivil” argument. I don’t reject it out of hand, but I do think we should generally presume and expect civility. If we focus, as I think we should, on that man’s choice to engage in uncivil, even threatening, actions and speech, we should criticize that choice, and not shame him for the underlying weakness that choice seems to represent.
The might-makes-right reductio
DiAngelo almost definitely doesn’t intend to shame weakness as such, and she almost definitely would reject the reductio if I asked her about it.
Even so, it’s not too hard to go from “that criticism elicited such a defensive response” to “that criticism oughtn’t elicit such a defensive response” to “someone is to be criticized for exhibiting such a defensive response” to “that person is just weak and therefore worthy of condemnation” to “others are strong and therefore are better people.”
Yes, I’m committing the slippery slope fallacy. While I don’t believe slippery slopes are always fallacious, I confess it’s fallacious in this instance. I can find no evidence in DiAngelo’s article that she intends that reductio. I do detect a certain condescension and mocking tone in the piece, but you might read it differently and might be right to do so. She is certainly exasperated, but that’s not surprising given the job she had at the time. Even if you disagree with the idea of racial sensitivity seminars, you have to admit that it’s hard work. And I, personally, have done worse things for money.
But if we take certain assumptions implicit in DiAngelo’s white fragility thesis and carry them to one logical conclusion, we can come up with that fragility itself is bad and strength is perforce good. That’s not an inevitable conclusion and not the only conclusion, but it is a possible one.
How much of a problem is it?
I don’t know the answer to that question. I can say anecdotally that I know at least one (white) person who brings up “conversations about race” in a way that in my opinion is very confrontational, and then that person gets perplexed or offended or upset when their interlocutor reacts defensively. That person then accuses their interlocutor of “white fragility.” To me, that person’s behavior borders on bullying and then criticizing the bullied for being to weak to “take it.”
But that’s only one anecdatum. I don’t have any others at the ready. I mustn’t generalize from it. And you, dear reader, are at a disadvantage because you don’t know that person or the events to which I refer. Maybe you’d interpret them differently.
I write this as a warning, though. Valorizing the strength that supposedly comes form “race-based stress” and criticizing the fragility that comes from being insulated from that stress could take you to some dark places, where you end up affirming the proposition that only the strong should survive.
Everyone’s a little bit snowflake
Ruti Regan, who has written a blog concerning disability, warned a couple years ago against ordering people to feel safe [I’ve edited one typo from the original, and I’ve italicized three sentences below]:
Feeling unsafe isn’t always privilege talking. It’s always a possibility, but it’s never the only possibility. Sometimes, presenters aren’t actually as knowledgeable and perceptive as they think they are. Sometimes, presenters get things wrong in ways that make the space unsafe for the most marginalized participants in the room.
We have power as teachers and presenters, and it is possible to abuse that power. Even when the people we’re teaching are more privileged than we are in every relevant way, it matters how we treat them. Being privileged in society is not the same thing as being safe in a classroom. We are all capable of making mistakes that hurt people, and when we make those mistakes, it matters.
Most of us are fragile in some way. In best of all worlds, we’d all own up to our imperfections and seek personal growth, and we’ll confront those instances of fragility to “do the hard work” (as some activists call it) of challenging our assumptions. I agree with that. But I don’t always want to. And neither do you.
But maybe it’s not always a bad thing for people to respect themselves and their safety enough to honor their own fragility and on occasion (not always, but sometimes) disengage. Maybe it’s not always or necessarily a bad thing to refrain from doing the “hard work,” at least some of the time.
Of course, I also acknowledge that I have more avenues for escaping those uncomfortable discussions than more marginalized people do. But maybe–just maybe–that’s an advantage and a courtesy I, and we, can extend to others. If we acknowledge our own fragility, we can respect the fact that others, differently situated, might sometimes also be fragile.
The notion of white fragility, in its most constructive iteration, reminds us of how often and how easy it is for a white person like me to disregard other persons’ real concerns about the problems they face. It can also remind us of our common humanity. If I’m fragile, maybe my interlocutor is, too. Maybe realizing that is one step toward understanding.
DiAngelo, Robin. 2006. “My Class Didn’t Trump My Race: Using Oppression to Face Privilege.” Multicultural Perspectives, v. 8, n. 3: 51-56.
DiAngelo, Robin. 2011. “White Fragility.” International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, v. 3, n. 3: 55-70