White Fragility

“White people need to feel comfortable around race conversations, never mind the discomfort of Black people living in a racist system, for white supremacy to stay intact.”

— Hari Ziyad

The following is an extract from Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s paper on White Fragility:

“I am a white woman. I am standing beside a black woman. We are facing a group of white people who are seated in front of us. We are in their workplace, and have been hired by their employer to lead them in a dialogue about race. The room is filled with tension and charged with hostility. I have just presented a definition of racism that includes the acknowledgement that whites hold social and institutional power over people of colour. A white man is pounding his st 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 look around the room and see 40 employed people, all white. There are no people of colour in this workplace. Something is happening here, and it isn’t based in the racial reality of the workplace. I am feeling unnerved by this man’s disconnection with that reality, and his lack of sensitivity to the impact this is having on my co- facilitator, the only person of colour in the room. Why is this white man so angry? Why is he being so careless about the impact of his anger? Why are all the other white people either sitting in silent agreement with him or tuning out? We have, after all, only articulated a definition of racism.”

White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress be- comes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviours such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviours, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium. Racial stress results from an interruption to what is racially familiar. These interruptions can take a variety of forms and come from a range of sources, including:

  • Suggesting that a white person’s viewpoint comes from a racialized frame of reference (challenge to objectivity);
  • People of colour talking directly about their racial perspectives (challenge to white racial codes);
  • People of colour choosing not to protect the racial feelings of white people in regards to race (challenge to white racial expectations and need/entitlement to racial comfort);
  • People of colour not being willing to tell their stories or answer questions about their racial experiences (challenge to colonialist relations);
  • A fellow white not providing agreement with one’s interpretations (challenge to white solidarity);
  • Receiving feedback that one’s behaviour had a racist impact (challenge to white liberalism);
  • Suggesting that group membership is significant (challenge to individualism);
  • An acknowledgement that access is unequal between racial groups (challenge to meritocracy);
  • Being presented with a person of colour in a position of leadership (challenge to white authority);
  • Being presented with information about other racial groups through, for example, movies in which people of colour drive the action but are not in stereotypical roles, or multicultural education (challenge to white centrality).

In a white dominant environment, each of these challenges becomes exceptional. In turn, whites are often at a loss for how to respond in constructive ways. Whites have not had to build the cognitive or affective skills or develop the stamina that would allow for constructive engagement across racial divides. Bourdieu’s concept of habitus (1993) may be useful here. According to Bourdieu, habitus is a socialised subjectivity; a set of dispositions which generate practices and perceptions. As such, habitus only exists in, through and because of the practices of actors and their interaction with each other and with the rest of their environment. Based on the previous conditions and experiences that produce it, habitus produces and reproduces thoughts, perceptions, expressions and actions. Strategies of response to “disequilibrium” in the habitus are not based on conscious intentionality but rather result from unconscious dispositions towards practice, and depend on the power position the agent occupies in the social structure. White Fragility may be conceptualised as a product of the habitus, a response or “condition” produced and reproduced by the continual social and material advantages of the white structural position.

To read Dr. DiAngelo’s full paper, click here.

Here’s a funny satirical video detailing some examples of White Fragility: