White Fragility

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= concept, and book about the concept

The Concept

Description

Jonathan Church:

"According to DiAngelo, white people have been “[s]ocialized” to live with “a deeply internalized sense of superiority and entitlement” but they aren’t consciously aware of it. As a result, they experience “race-based stress” when faced with a challenge to their “racial worldview” because they perceive it to be an affront to their “identities as good, moral people”—an “unfair moral offense,” as well as an attack on their “rightful place in the hierarchy.” This makes it hard to talk to white people about how their attitudes and beliefs make them complicit in the perpetuation of “institutional racism.”

In other words, white people don’t want to be called racists. Of course, the idea that white people don’t like to be called racists is not an especially unique or compelling insight. Psychological defense mechanisms are commonplace in human nature. But DiAngelo wants to convince white people to let down their guard by claiming that their sensitivity is produced by a misunderstanding of the nature of racism. Racism, she claims, is not so much about explicit beliefs white people consciously hold about people of color, but about implicit—or unconscious—biases that sustain institutional inequities in the distribution of societal resources across different racial groups." (https://quillette.com/2018/08/24/the-problem-with-white-fragility-theory/)


Characteristics

Of whiteness/white fragility as defined by Di Angelo, by Helen Pluckrose:

"the belief system around these concepts of whiteness, privilege and fragility includes the truth claims that:

  • An invisible power system exists that perpetuates racism throughout every aspect of society.
  • Racist systems require power, therefore only white people can be racist and all white people are racist. This invisible racist power system is called whiteness.
  • Whiteness pervades everything and so is always present whenever white people do or say anything. It is impossible for white people not to behave in racist ways.
  • White people are generally unable to see the invisible force of whiteness and need theorists like DiAngelo to explain it to them.
  • Whiteness results in white people being privileged and it is always essential to focus on this privilege to the exclusion of all other factors that could help or hinder a person.
  • White people cannot bear to be confronted by DiAngelo’s beliefs in their racism. This is because they are psychologically fragile and not because they know their own minds.
  • Any attempt to disagree with this definition of racism, whiteness or privilege is simply a manifestation of this fragility. Being quiet or going away is also a sign of it.
  • White people therefore have two choices: they can be racist and admit it or racist and deny it. Both are bad, but the latter is willfully ignorant and therefore really bad."

(https://areomagazine.com/2020/06/26/is-white-fragility-training-ethical/?)


Discussion

White Fragility Theory is an Ideology

Jonathan Church:

"the theory of white fragility is based on the dubious premise of implicit bias, relies on research methodology that is underwhelming at best and makes claims about white racial illiteracy that avoid statistical analysis. Underlying each of these criticisms is a fundamental conviction that Robin DiAngelo, who introduced the theory of white fragility, does not know as much as she claims to know about white racial literacy, the causes of racial disparities and the nature of racism.

There is a striking contrast between DiAngelo’s presumption of omniscience about racism and the zeal with which she implores white people to show humility when attempting to learn about the problem. In her many years of studying racism, DiAngelo has encountered much resistance from white people, resistance which led her to coin the term white fragility—a condition in which “even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.” DiAngelo presumes to approach the problem of racism from the standpoint of someone who has worked over several years not only to learn about the causes and effects of racism in America, but to build the stamina necessary to come to terms with her own inherent racism as a white person.

DiAngelo posits that white fragility stems from a misunderstanding of what racism is and how it works. Racism, according to DiAngelo, is inextricably tied to the powerful grip that white people have on the levers of institutional control, a grip that will remain ironclad until white people learn to let go of their biases and allow DiAngelo and her ilk to explain to them how everything they say and do is racist—i.e. functions as a scaffold of socialization on which white supremacy survives, against the gravitational pull of social justice activists, who seek to bring about its collapse.

Admittedly, DiAngelo draws upon a vast corpus of Whiteness Studies literature, has many years of experience in antiracist and multicultural education and has several publications to her name. Unfortunately, however, she also avoids debate, is reluctant to consider conflicting evidence and, most importantly, has a propensity to present her claims as doctrines to be instilled, rather than as hypotheses, which can be rigorously evaluated." (https://areomagazine.com/2019/01/25/the-theory-of-white-fragility-scholarship-or-proselytization/)


The problem of imposing one particular ideology through workshops

Helen Pluckrose:

"It is perfectly reasonable for employers to require employees to commit to not discriminating against anybody on the basis of race, and to not expressing racist beliefs. Because this is an important issue and employers will want to be very clear about it, a talk or meeting could be necessary and employees might be required to confirm that they understand and commit to following the rules. However, it is also important that the focus is on expected attitudes and behaviours at work and does not require anyone to affirm their commitment to any particular belief system that they may not believe in and should not be coerced into.

The ethical problem with requiring ideological conformity is often understood better by people on the political left when it comes to a belief system like Christianity, which is a majority view and often combined with conservative politics. It is usually clear to leftists that, unless the role is a specifically religious one, an employer should not require their atheist, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist or even Christian employees to affirm the Christian faith. It is less clear to a certain subset of them that they should not be required to affirm a belief in concepts of invisible systems of power and privilege such as whiteness. This is because Social Justice beliefs are not currently recognised as ones to which the concept of secularism should be applied. They should be.

If employers are holding meetings to go over the rules of non-discrimination and the expectation of non-racist attitudes at work and requiring employees to commit to this, they really need to make these requirements inclusive of diverse viewpoints. Employers must be able to demand certain behaviours from employees, but not specific beliefs. Of course, it is likely that many of them do still operate this way. The people who are not being compelled to affirm Critical Social Justice beliefs at work will not be writing to us to tell us so and ask us what they can do about it. However, the sheer volume of these emails is reason to think that there has been a sudden surge in Critical Social Justice anti-racist training since the death of Mr Floyd. That Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility has sold out in that same period and become the bestseller in the US again suggests that the Critical Social Justice approach to anti-racism, focusing on whiteness as a pervasive but largely invisible system, has seen a rapid surge in popularity. The fact that the unlawful and brutal killing of a black man by a white police officer in the US has led to white computer technicians in Australia being asked to confront their complicity in whiteness and brown librarians in England being expected to testify to very theoretically specific experiences of racism makes it very clear that we are looking at a particular conception of systemic racism." (https://areomagazine.com/2020/06/26/is-white-fragility-training-ethical/?)


The problem of locating systemic racism in 'Whiteness'

Helen Pluckrose:

"When we hear people speak of systemic racism, we might associate this with institutional racism in a literal sense: an institution has been found to be discriminating against non-white people and this can be measured and, in principle, remedied. However, this is not really how systemic racism is understood in the work of theorists like DiAngelo. Instead, this systemic racism refers to everything said and done in a society by white people. DiAngelo writes:

The system of racism begins with ideology, which refers to the big ideas that are reinforced throughout society. From birth, we are conditioned into accepting and not questioning these ideas. Ideology is reinforced across society, for example, in schools and textbooks, political speeches, movies, advertising, holiday celebrations, and words and phrases. These ideas are also reinforced through social penalties when someone questions an ideology and through the limited availability of alternative ideas. Ideologies are the frameworks through which we are taught to represent, interpret, understand and make sense of social existence. Because these ideas are constantly reinforced, they are very hard to avoid believing and internalizing.

This is known as discourse theory and it owes a great deal to the thought of the French postmodernist, Michel Foucault. Foucault understood knowledge as a construct of power, which is perpetuated by common ways of speaking about things. That is, certain ways of speaking about things get legitimised as true by powerful forces in society and are then repeated as true by people on all levels of society, which works to maintain oppressive power imbalances. In this case, racism is maintained by the way white people speak about things, but white people usually don’t even realise this and they need people like DiAngelo to help them see it. The word woke makes much more sense when this conception of society is understood. Consequently, racism is defined not as prejudice on the grounds of race, which can consistently be recognised as wrong but as a power system that only works one way. DiAngelo says,

Racism is a society-wide dynamic that occurs at the group level. When I say that only whites can be racist, I mean that in the United States, only whites have the collective social and institutional power and privilege over people of color. People of color do not have this power and privilege over white people.

So, this is systemic racism in the Critical Social Justice sense and that system of big ideas and discourses that are largely invisible to the non-woke is known as whiteness and it really does apply to everything.

According to DiAngelo,

We might think of Whiteness as all the aspects of being white—aspects that go beyond mere physical differences and are related to the meaning and resultant material advantage of being defined as white in society: what is granted and how it is granted based on that meaning.


  • Whiteness is structural:

To say that whiteness is a location of structural advantage is to recognize that to be white is to be in a privileged position within society and its institutions—to be seen as an insider and to be granted the benefits of belonging. This position automatically bestows unearned advantages.


  • Whiteness is a particularly privileged perspective:

To say that whiteness is a standpoint is to say that a significant aspect of white identity is to see oneself as an individual, outside or innocent of race—“just human.” This standpoint views white people and their interests as central to, and representative of, humanity. Whites also produce and reinforce the dominant narratives of society—such as individualism and meritocracy—and use these narratives to explain the positions of other racial groups.


  • Whiteness is culture:

To say that whiteness includes a set of cultural practices that are not recognized by white people is to understand racism as a network of norms and actions that consistently create advantage for whites and disadvantage for people of color. These norms and actions include basic rights and benefits of the doubt, purportedly granted to all but which are actually only consistently afforded to white people.

So whiteness is to be understood as this all-pervasive but invisible system of racism that white people perpetuate without even knowing they are doing it. This is a radically different understanding of racism from the commonly accepted one, which holds that racism is prejudice on the grounds of race, usually accompanied by an acknowledgment that, in modern western history, it has overwhelmingly been perpetrated by white people against non-white people. Nevertheless, in the common understanding of racism, white individuals can choose whether to uphold or reject racist ideas, and moral progress, particularly over the last sixty years, has resulted in a consensus that it is morally wrong to hold racist ideas and morally good to reject them. This is a very positive development, which DiAngelo herself acknowledges when she says:


The final challenge we need to address is our definition of “racist.” In the post-civil rights era, we have been taught that racists are mean people who intentionally dislike others because of their race; racists are immoral. Therefore, if I am saying that my readers are racist or, even worse, that all white people are racist, I am saying something deeply offensive; I am questioning my readers’ very moral character.

She goes on to argue for the Critical Social Justice concept of racism as a power system that results in white privilege, which she defines as “a sociological concept referring to advantages that are taken for granted by whites and that cannot be similarly enjoyed by people of color in the same context,” but she is never very clear about what these advantages are. In particular, very little attention is paid to class or individual advantages and disadvantages.

Unsurprisingly, many white people are not delighted to be told that they are inherently racist and maintaining a racist system simply by existing and interacting with others. They may not respond well to the mind-reading approach taken by DiAngelo and her ilk, which insists that the whiteness scholars know the white mind better than the individual owners of those minds. Those who have been through particular hardship might become quite annoyed to be told that they are more privileged than someone who has never been through any such hardship, but has darker skin, and to be also told that they are actively oppressing that person. This leads many white people to disagree with or refuse to engage with DiAngelo. This led her to produce her theory of white fragility which explains away all the people who disagree with her:

Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, [white people] become highly fragile in conversations about race. We consider a challenge to our racial worldviews as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people. Thus, we perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as an unsettling and unfair moral offense. The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable—the mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers a range of defensive responses. These include emotions such as anger, fear and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation. These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy. I conceptualize this process as white fragility." (https://areomagazine.com/2020/06/26/is-white-fragility-training-ethical/?)


The Book

Review

By Coleman Hughes:

"At first glance, it may be hard to understand why such a punishing message would appeal to a white audience. But on closer inspection, the appeal of DiAngelo’s message derives from her masterful exploitation of white guilt. As Shelby Steele has observed, white guilt is less a guilt than a terror—terror at the thought that one might be racist. If one has never felt this terror, then it may be hard to understand how intolerable it can be, and how welcome any alleviation is.

DiAngelo understands all this and exploits it masterfully. Like most antiracist literature, White Fragility spends considerable time telling white people that they’re racist, but with a crucial twist—it’s not their fault. “A racism-free upbringing is not possible,” she writes, “because racism is a social system embedded in the culture and its institutions. We are born into this system and have no say in whether we will be affected by it.” For DiAngelo, white supremacy is like the English language. If you’re born in America, you learn it without trying. Racism, in her view, transforms from a shameful sin to be avoided into a guiltless birthmark to be acknowledged and accepted.

The late writer and atheist Christopher Hitchens had a riff about what he called the “cruel experiment” of Christian Original Sin: “We are created sick,” he would often say, “and commanded to be well.” In other words, the doctrine lures you in by preemptively forgiving your shortcomings—yes, you’re a miserable sinner, but it’s not your fault—then goes on to demand your compliance with a never-ending program of recovery on pain of eternal hellfire.

If you understand how the doctrine of Original Sin could be seductive, then you should have no trouble understanding the appeal of White Fragility; it operates the same way. DiAngelo expiates guilt by telling white people that they’re not to blame for their racism, then commands them to adopt her version of “antiracism”—on pain of social ostracism and cancellation.

A key element of her program is for whites to eliminate a set of normal behaviors when talking to black people about race: the aforementioned “silence, defensiveness, argumentation, withdrawal, certitude, and other forms of pushback.” Of course, a skilled communicator may want to avoid silence, defensiveness, withdrawal, and certitude. But how exactly does one avoid “argumentation” and “other forms of pushback” as well? If you eliminate all these behaviors, only one option remains: enthusiastic agreement. Try to obey these instructions in a real conversation, and you’ll find at least two things: first, you must utterly shut down your mind and personality in order to accomplish it; and second, developing any kind of emotional intimacy with your conversation partner is simply not possible. That is hardly a recipe for fostering healthy interracial relationships.

White Fragility has two unstated assumptions about nonwhite people in general, and black people in particular. The first is that we are a homogenous mass of settled opinion with little, if any, diversity of thought—a kind of CRT-aligned hive mind. I could marshal all the opinion polls in the world to refute this calumny, but it wouldn’t move DiAngelo an inch. She needs nonwhites to think as a unit, or else her thesis falls apart. How could she tell whites to shut up and listen to the consensus view of nonwhites if that consensus doesn’t exist?

The second unstated assumption in White Fragility—and this is where the book borders on actual racism—is that black people are emotionally immature and essentially child-like. Blacks, as portrayed in DiAngelo’s writing, can neither be expected to show maturity during disagreement nor to exercise emotional self-control of any kind. The hidden premise of the book is that blacks, not whites, are too fragile.

Some will say that I’m reading DiAngelo too uncharitably—but how else can one make sense of her guidelines for whites? During her CRT training sessions, for example, DiAngelo asks whites to refrain from crying around blacks. Why? Because historically, white tears have often accompanied false rape accusations that led to lynchings. Thus, for black people, she explains, white tears “trigger the terrorism of this history.”

Holding back tears to spare others’ emotions is not something that adults do around their equals; it’s what parents do around children. Indeed, DiAngelo’s picture of the ideal relationship between whites and blacks bears a disturbing resemblance to the relationship between an exasperated parent and a spoiled child: the one constantly practicing emotional self-control, the other triggered by the smallest things and helplessly expressing every emotion as soon as it comes. These are the roles she expects—even encourages—whites and blacks to play. That people can call this anti-racist with a straight face shows how far language has strayed from reality.

If White Fragility is the only book you read about race this year, then you will come away with a horribly one-sided education. You will learn, to take a representative example, that “it has not been African-Americans who resist integration efforts; it has always been whites”—as if Zora Neale Hurston did not exist; as if the Hyde County boycott and similar black anti-integration efforts did not happen all over the South. The book’s fundamental one-sidedness, however, should not be surprising, because White Fragility is zealotry disguised as scholarship.

You will read many controversial and unscholarly claims in White Fragility, but you will not find any sustained attempt to improve the nation by means of public policy. You will read much about how white people should and should not feel, but you will find scarcely a sentence that puts forth ideas about how to reform the police, for instance. To be fair, improving life for black people living in intergenerational poverty is not the aim of White Fragility. But we should wonder, then, why this book is being held up as the answer to America’s current racial woes, despite offering little by way of concrete solutions. We should worry, in other words, that our national conversation about race has become unmoored from the goal of real progress and attached instead to an unending quest for spiritual absolution." (https://www.city-journal.org/white-fragility?)

More information

  • John McWhorter Reviews “White Fragility” for The Atlantic, July , 2020 [1]