I re-read White Fragility to participate in an online book discussion. And I continue to think that while White Fragility is very helpful and worth reading that there are issues with it. A number of people object to the title because they do not believe that being called fragile is helpful. The objections go in several directions. This piece, “It’s not White Fragility, it’s White Flammability” is an argument that the term fragile does not adequately take into account the harmful backlash that many White people express in response to being confronted with racism.
Of all the countless encounters I’ve had with white fragility, I may have thought, no matter what I say, this white person is going to react with anger and accusations and exclamations of their own innocence and my wrongness for attacking them, and nothing good will come of it. I never thought, this white person is fragile, this white person’s whiteness is fragile, or even this white person’s idea of themselves is fragile.
I thought, and felt in my body, this white person is dangerous. Because they don’t know they’re white. They don’t know they are not an individual. They think they’re an original. They think what they’re about to say is something they came up with, that came to them as a person, not as a white person. They are living a script, they are in a play, and I am caught in it with them. – from White Flammability article
Mark Charles, in his book Unsettling Truths, has a chapter on Participation-Induced Traumatic Stress Disorder. He discusses why he thinks that labeling what DiAngelo understands as White Fragility as PITS makes more sense. I generally agree with the content of what Charles is saying in that chapter, but I am not sure that the problems of labeling it as a psychiatric disorder are any less than the current term.
And then there are the complaints in the other direction that say that a term like fragility creates an opposition within White people to hearing the actual problems being raised. I think it is easier to respond to this point from the book:
Because we are not raised to see ourselves in racial terms or to see white space as racialized space, we position ourselves as innocent of race. On countless occasions, I have heard white people claim that because they grew up in segregation, they were sheltered from race. At the same time, we turn to people of color, who may also have grown up in racially segregated spaces (because of decades of de jure and de facto policies that blocked them from moving into white neighborhoods) to learn about racism. But why aren’t people of color who grew up in segregation also innocent of race?
I continue to think that the audience for this book is mainly miscast. White Fragility is a book that was written primarily for White progressives that are already trying to pay attention to racial issues and confront their racism. DiAngelo expressly says that in the introduction. White Fragility is not a particularly helpful book for people that do not think that systemic racism exists or believes that racism is solely about individual personal animus based on skin color.
One of the reasons I think White Fragility has become so ubiquitous is that generally, White people do not listen to Black and other racial minorities talk about race. It is why White people tend to like to be moderators of conversations about race and direct the discussion instead of stepping aside and listening.
James Baldwin made these points decades ago: “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” or ” There isn’t any Negro problem; there is only a White problem.” Many others have made similar points, what I like about White Fragility is that it is attempting to directly confront the reality of the ‘White problem’ of race in America. What I get frustrated about with White Fragility is that part of the problem of the book is resistance to understanding the actual problem of race and the desire to make it about sociological reality alone.
Read in the right frame, and in context with history and other Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Asian voices White Fragility can be a very helpful book. But read by itself in a particular mode, I think it can become a book that helps dismiss.
When I first read it, I thought it was one of the best books to explain what it means to be White to White people. I still think it can be very helpful, but there have been a number of books that have either been written since or I have read since. Here is a list of some that I think should also be considered:
- So You Want to Talk about Race
- Good White Racist
- Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria
- White Awake
- Be the Bridge
And that does not include a number of books about history or specialized subtopics that are significantly helpful.