White Fragility: What's It All About?

Given the name of this column, it seems useful to discuss in more detail what white fragility actually is! 

White fragility is a concept coined by the white author and professor, Robin DiAngelo in her 2018 book of the same name. The book was published during the protests about the murder of George Floyd and topped best seller lists. According to DiAngelo, (2020):

‘White fragility’ is meant to capture the predictable response of defensiveness that so many white people have whenever it is suggested that being white has meaning and advantage. For a lot of white people, just saying ‘white people’ will cause great umbrage. But the impact is not fragile at all. It becomes a sort of weaponised defensiveness. Because it marshals behind it the weight of history and institutional control. And ‘white fragility’ ends up functioning as a form of white racial bullying.

White people consistently make it so punitive for people of colour to challenge us, to talk to us about their experiences, that most of the time they don’t bother. Because they risk things actually getting worse for them, not better. And in that way, white fragility functions as a really effective form of white racial control. And that maintains our positions of advantage within a society that is set up to advantage us.”

So What Does White Fragility Actually Look Like In Action?

Personally I see my white fragility showing up in innumerable ways. Here are just a few of the biggest offenders (see how much work there is to be done?):

  • My white tears when hearing about racist incidents/murders 

My tears put Black and Brown people into a situation of having to comfort my sorry white ass while they are already having to re experience the trauma of racism. When I do this there is a veiled threat (the weaponisation) that says ‘you can’t expect me to actually DO anything about this,  just hearing about it is too much for me to cope with’. There is also an energy of ‘I’m crying tears for YOUR cause’ - shifting the responsibility for dealing with racism away from myself and white people generally.

  • Minimising racist incidents to protect other white people (or even questioning if it was racist)

The words ‘is it really that bad?’ have often flooded my brain and have led me to gaslight the Brown members of my own family, rather than have to stand up to other white people. This puts me in the role of arbiter (something white people frequently do around racism) where we see ourselves as neutral and capable of being judge and jury about IF something ‘counts’ as racism. This smacks of colonialist pomposity and superiority and is a weapon because as white people, we believe OUR opinion still counts for more and in doing this, we prioritise our own comfort so we don’t actually have to do anything that might disrupt it.

  • Getting defensive/huffy when challenged

I am still learning how to respond well when I am challenged on something in a way that is not fragile or harmful. Frequently (especially in my marriage) I get defensive and huffy about it, a classic tool of fragility, making it about me (because, let’s face it, I’m going to whinge about quite how awful I must be. Sigh) thus making it unpleasant for Black or Brown people to approach me with feedback or challenge me again.

So What Can We Do About Our Fragility?

DiAngelo talks about white people learning to build up our racial stamina, by which she means us having regular direct contact with Black or Brown people, including having conversations where we are challenged. I know I have to confront my racism on a whole other level now because I am married to a Brown person and have Brown step-kids.

Given that one of the reasons white fragility has festered is because white people tend to live segregated lives having little to no real contact with Black or Brown people, putting ourselves out there and not staying in our comfortable white enclaves seems imperative. The work is not allowing our fragility to cause us to give up when (and it will be when) we are challenged. 

I have seen this ‘fragility when challenged’ in action on two recent occasions...

One when a white leader at a group our kids attended refused to take our concerns about racist behaviour seriously, or accept the feedback on her problematic anti-racism policy that used dated language and stated that white people could experience racism too. Her fragility involved stubbornly shutting down, stating that it was HER land (which felt very colonial!), finding a Black person who agreed with her and clumsily centering photos of the (very few) Black or Brown kids at her setting in all her publicity.

Similarly in the workplace I have seen the CEO of a self-proclaimed, anti-racist company hear challenge until it became too personal, reflecting as it did on her own poor performance, performative anti-racism and white saviourism.

I’m not relaying these tales from any position of superiority. My fragility shows up daily in my marriage and beyond. And many days I, too, want to go off in a fit of major fragile pique (some days I actually do!) But here’s the rub. Black and Brown people don’t have that luxury.

As a kid I grew up in a rural area, I have had very few Black and Brown people in my networks, even at University. There were only two Black kids at my secondary school, they were related and had white parents. I had no Black or Brown teachers. I saw my white children heading down the same path as me. Living in a very white area and having little to no communications with anyone other than white people, never mind friendships! We now live in the middle of a city and I am grateful for the diversity, both for my Brown family who get to see themselves represented all around us, and for me and my white children, who get to step out of our limiting white enclave and challenge our fragility, daily.

On ‘White Fragility’ Being A Big White Earner...

While white fragility has become a well used and useful term, DiAngelo has been criticised for directly profiting, heavily, from her anti-racism work, something that many Black and Brown people rightly take issue with. 

Which begs the wider question, is it ever ok for white people to work in anti-racism spaces and should they profit from it?

Join me next time as I discuss the thorny issue of paid social justice work and reparations. Plenty to get fragile about right there! 

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