If you are are a regular reader of Bookwi.se, you cannot have missed the fact that I have been reading a lot about racism, history around race and related materials over the past several years. It has not been one thing, it has been a huge number of things together that have really forced me to pay attention to both my own racist blindspots and the broader issues of culture, racism, and history. But there are really two distinct parts of the racial world that I keep running up against. One part is the hurt and history of racial minorities in the US. I have read histories about slavery and reconstruction, Jim Crow, Civil Rights Era, and contemporary racial problems. There is frankly, no end to learning about a previously unknown problems in historical or contemporary treatment of racial minorities.
The second part I think is more subtle, but also quite important, the understanding of what it is that a White person should be doing in light of the significant history of injustice that continues to be perpetrated today. I have read two books in this area that I think are both helpful, White Awake and Raising White Kids. Both I very much think are worth reading, but both are slightly different than White Fragility. Robin DiAngelo has a PhD in multicultural education and specialized in Whiteness Studies and coined the term White Fragility in 2011. Her best known book previous to this one (which I have not read) is What Does It Mean to Be White: Developing a White Racial Identity. While she has been a full time professor and still is a part time lecturer, her main job is as a consultant to business, non-profit and governmental groups in areas of race and communications.
I cracked open a paperback review copy of White Fragility (which hate reading, so I tend to never pick up) because I was interested and screen shot the fifth page to a private facebook groups I participate in. The main quote from that page that struck me was:
“This book is intended for us, for white progressives who so often—despite our conscious intentions—make life so difficult for people of color. I believe that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color. I define a white progressive as any white person who thinks he or she is not racist, or is less racist, or in the “choir,” or already “gets it.” White progressives can be the most difficult for people of color because, to the degree that we think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived. None of our energy will go into what we need to be doing for the rest of our lives: engaging in ongoing self-awareness, continuing education, relationship building, and actual antiracist practice. White progressives do indeed uphold and perpetrate racism, but our defensiveness and certitude make it virtually impossible to explain to us how we do so.”
Part of what made White Fragility so helpful was that it was both academic when necessary (I cannot think of a point when a term was introduced that I was not aware of exactly what the term that was being introduced meant in this context) and it was personal and refreshingly honest. DiAngelo’s chapter at the end, walked through a racially insensitive comment that she made in a work related meeting and how she processed it when she became aware of offense. And how she not only attempted to reconcile with the offended person after fully processing what it was that she had done wrong, but also asked after a full apology what she (DiAngelo) had not yet understood. It was such a good example of the type of every day event that a book like this needs to address.
White Fragility also does not pull punches. It has a whole chapter devoted to White Women’s Tears that talks about how Whites, (women in one way and men in others) tend to refocus attention not on the victim of racial harm, but on the perpetrator who may not have intended the harm, but was still the cause of the harm.
This is not a long book, just over 150 pages of main content. But it is full of wisdom. One thing that DiAngelo says more than a couple times, is that when she is hired by companies to teach about how racism works to largely White audiences, she is always amazed how often (as she says on page 117) “You ask me here to help you see your racism, but by god, I’d better not actually help you see your racism.” The main theme of the book is that White people work quite hard to insulate themselves from understanding racism.
The best response to why you should read White Fragility is her quote toward the end of the book:
When white people ask me what to do about racism and white fragility, the first thing I ask is, “What has enabled you to be a full, educated, professional adult and not know what to do about racism?” It is a sincere question. How have we managed not to know, when the information is all around us? When people of color have been telling us for years? If we take that question seriously and map out all the ways we have come to not know what to do, we will have our guide before us. For example, if my answer is that I was not educated about racism, I know that I will have to get educated. If my answer is that I don’t know people of color, I will need to build relationships. If it is because there are no people of color in my environment, I will need to get out of my comfort zone and change my environment; addressing racism is not without effort.
At some level, White Fragility largely focused on helping White people that are already willing to pick up a book about racism to understand their own racism. But as I noted above people hired DiAngelo or individuals paid to come to a meeting to understand racism, but were unwilling to listen. Just because we as White people identify that racism is a problem does not mean that we as White people are willing to do the work to gain enough understanding about how racism works to do something about it.
I initially started reading White Fragility in paperback because that was the review copy I was offered. I intentionally was leaving it until close to publication date so that I would be able to post the review as it released. But I left the paperback at home and was not able to finish it as I am traveling. I picked up the kindle/audiobook yesterday to finish the book. I do not often buy a book I am offered for review, but I bought this one as both audio and kindle book. And I probably will buy a couple of paperbacks to give away. Part of what I have come to see, is that in a capitalist system, part of how we support good content is by buying it. I did think the audiobook narrator was a bit mechanical in sound. I got used to it, and in some ways that lack of emotion is probably the right choice for the content. But the narrator would not have been my first choice.
The passages I highlighted are publicly available on my goodreads review. I did not read most of the book digitally so there are only 7 there. Had I read the whole book digitally, there would be many more.