White Fragility
NOTES / Raw notes on Robin DiAngelo's book by the same name

June 3, 2020 
  • Consolidated notes here, added first pass comments, and shared the notes in Rickshaw.

Raw notes

  • Nothing in dominant society gives us the information we need to have the complex, nuanced understanding of arguably the most complex, nuanced social dilemma since the beginning of this country.
  • You have to spend years of sustained study to not have an uninformed position on this.
  • We spend our energy communicating that we’re good to go.
  • Actual strategic antiracist action.
  • Niceness will not end racism. Niceness is not courageous. It’s not strategic. And it will not keep it on the table when everyone wants it off the table.
  • Individualism is a precious idea. Protects us against socialization.
  • Nothing exempts us from the forces of racism.
  • Bad definition of racism: An individual who consciously does not like people based on race and is intentionally mean to them.
  • It’s a system, not an event, and nothing exempts us from its forces.

Book notes

Most of this is direct excerpts from the book that I cut and pasted out as I was reading it. 

  • Contrary to popular belief, race isn’t a genetic reality. That may seem counterintuitive because of the physical differences between people of different races, such as their skin colors and eye shapes. But these differences do not reliably correlate with underlying genetic variations between people. They’re superficial differences that simply reflect the geographies to which people’s ancestors adapted.
  • Rather than a biological truth, race is a social construct – a set of ideas created within a particular culture that guides people’s thoughts and actions. The social construct of race teaches members of society to see and treat certain groups of people in certain ways, which, in turn, serves particular functions within that society. To understand race is therefore to answer the question, “What function does the construct serve?”
  • To reconcile this contradiction, many eighteenth-century European Americans turned to race science – a form of pseudoscience that claimed African Americans were naturally inferior to certain groups of European Americans, who were naturally superior. From this false premise, they then argued that African Americans deserved fewer rights than European Americans, who, by the same token, deserved certain privileges. Inequality between the two groups was therefore natural and justified, they concluded.
  • Thus, rather than a natural distinction between two pre-existing groups of people, “white” and “black” became shiftable markers of social superiority and inferiority. The resulting inequality between white and black people extended far beyond US legal codes; it was systemic – meaning it seeped into the country’s underlying social, cultural, political and economic realities.
  • Racism must be distinguished from racial prejudice and discrimination.
  • To say that you’re racially prejudiced against another person means that you prejudge them on the basis of the racial group to which he belongs.
  • The logic here goes as follows: “This person belongs to racial group X. People from group X have characteristic Y. Therefore, this person has characteristic Y as well.” This judgment is made before you have any empirical evidence that the person has the characteristic in question. That’s why it’s called a prejudgment, or prejudice.
  • Scholar Marilyn Frye uses the metaphor of a birdcage to describe the interlocking forces of oppression. If you stand close to a birdcage and press your face against the wires, your perception of the bars will disappear and you will have an almost unobstructed view of the bird. If you turn your head to examine one wire of the cage closely, you will not be able to see the other wires. If your understanding of the cage is based on this myopic view, you may not understand why the bird doesn’t just go around the single wire and fly away. You might even assume that the bird liked or chose its place in the cage. But if you stepped back and took a wider view, you would begin to see that the wires come together in an interlocking pattern—a pattern that works to hold the bird firmly in place. It now becomes clear that a network of systematically related barriers surrounds the bird. Taken individually, none of these barriers would be that difficult for the bird to get around, but because they interlock with each other, they thoroughly restrict the bird. While some birds may escape from the cage, most will not. And certainly those that do escape will have to navigate many barriers that birds outside the cage do not. The birdcage metaphor helps us understand why racism can be so hard to see and recognize: we have a limited view.
  • David Wellman succinctly summarizes racism as “a system of advantage based on race.”
  • But let me be clear: stating that racism privileges whites does not mean that individual white people do not struggle or face barriers. It does mean that we do not face the particular barriers of racism.
  • By according whiteness an actual legal status, an aspect of identity was converted into an external object of property, moving whiteness from privileged identity to a vested interest. The law’s construction of whiteness defined and affirmed critical aspects of identity (who is white); of privilege (what benefits accrue to that status); and, of property (what legal entitlements arise from that status). Whiteness at various times signifies and is deployed as identity, status, and property, sometimes singularly, sometimes in tandem.
  • 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. These narratives allow us to congratulate ourselves on our success within the institutions of society and blame others for their lack of success.
  • White supremacy in this context does not refer to individual white people and their individual intentions or actions but to an overarching political, economic, and social system of domination. Again, racism is a structure, not an event.
  • He notes that although white supremacy has shaped Western political thought for hundreds of years, it is never named. In this way, white supremacy is rendered invisible while other political systems—socialism, capitalism, fascism—are identified and studied.
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates: [W] hite supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.
  • While Karen sees herself as a unique individual, Joan sees Karen as a white individual. Being interrupted and talked over by white people is not a unique experience for Joan; nor is it separate from the larger cultural context. Karen exclaims, “Forget it! I can’t say anything right, so I am going to stop talking!” The preceding episode highlights Karen’s white fragility. She is unable to see herself in racial terms.
  • If we become adults who explicitly oppose racism, as do many, we often organize our identity around a denial of our racially based privileges that reinforce racist disadvantage for others.
  • What is particularly problematic about this contradiction is that white people’s moral objection to racism increases their resistance to acknowledging their complicity with it.
  • The claims blame others with less social power for their discomfort and falsely describe that discomfort as dangerous.
  • When I consult with organizations that want me to help them recruit and retain a more diverse workforce, I am consistently warned that past efforts to address the lack of diversity have resulted in trauma for white employees. This is literally the term used to describe the impact of a brief and isolated workshop: trauma.
  • “If privilege is defined as a legitimization of one’s entitlement to resources, it can also be defined as permission to escape or avoid any challenges to this entitlement.”
  • Let me be clear: while the capacity for white people to sustain challenges to our racial positions is limited—and, in this way, fragile—the effects of our responses are not fragile at all; they are quite powerful because they take advantage of historical and institutional power and control. We wield this power and control in whatever way is most useful in the moment to protect our positions.
  • If we need to cry so that all the resources rush back to us and attention is diverted away from a discussion of our racism, then we will cry (a strategy most commonly employed by white middle-class women). If we need to take umbrage and respond with righteous outrage, then we will take umbrage. If we need to argue, minimize, explain, play devil’s advocate, pout, tune out, or withdraw to stop the challenge, then we will.
  • White fragility functions as a form of bullying; I am going to make it so miserable for you to confront me—no matter how diplomatically you try to do so—that you will simply back off, give up, and never raise the issue again.
  • White fragility keeps people of color in line and “in their place.” In this way, it is a powerful form of white racial control. Social power is not fixed; it is constantly challenged and needs to be maintained. We might think of the triggers of white fragility discussed in chapter 7 as challenges to white power and control, and of white fragility as the means to end the challenge and maintain that power and control.
  • Let me also be clear that the term “white fragility” is intended to describe a very specific white phenomenon. White fragility is much more than mere defensiveness or whining. It may be conceptualized as the sociology of dominance: an outcome of white people’s socialization into white supremacy and a means to protect, maintain, and reproduce white supremacy. The term is not applicable to other groups who may register complaints or otherwise be deemed difficult (e.g., “student fragility”).
  • One of the most common is outrage: “How dare you suggest that I could have said or done something racist!” Although these are unpleasant moments for me, they are also rather amusing.
  • The moment I name some racially problematic dynamic or action happening in the room in the moment—for example, “Sharon, may I give you some feedback? While I understand it wasn’t intentional, your response to Jason’s story invalidates his experience as a black man”—white fragility erupts.
  • Throughout this book, I have attempted to make visible the inevitable racist assumptions held and patterns displayed by white people conditioned by living in a white supremacist culture. When these patterns are named or questioned, we have predictable responses. The responses begin with a set of unexamined assumptions, which, when questioned, trigger various emotions, which activate some expected behaviors. These behaviors are then justified by numerous claims. These responses, emotions, behaviors, and claims are illustrated in the following example of a recent eruption of white fragility.