Notes on: DiAngelo, R (2011) White Fragility. International Journal of Critical Pedagogy,  3 (3) : 54-70

Dave Harris

In the USA, the social environment protects white people from 'race-based stress', and this leads to white fragility, where 'even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves… the outward display of emotion such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviour such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation'. This reinstates racial equilibrium [okay, but some race theorists have extended it to mean engaging in any sort of academic argument against their position]

An example [a story?] ensues of the session arranged by an employer to have a dialogue about race which has produced 'tension' and 'hostility'. She is the presenter, but she is white. A man in the audience is very angry and says that white people have been discriminated against as well. No people of colour are in the workshop. She wonders why this white man is so angry and why he is careless about the impact of his anger. All the other white people are sitting either in 'silent agreement' or 'tuning out' (55). She claims [surely disingenuously] that 'we have, after all, only articulated definition of racism'.

Whiteness accrues privilege and status and gets surrounded by resources, repels gossip and voyeurism and demands dignity in an overall 'insulated environment'. This builds expectations for racial comfort and lowers 'the ability to tolerate racial stress' so a single 'required multicultural education course' or 'required "cultural competency training"' is the only time white people might get a challenge to their racial understandings [I think the problem might lie in the 'required' bit], and even those rarely talked directly about racism or white privilege. They often use racially coded language to refer to urban or disadvantaged people, and often imply that race and its problems refer to 'them' and not 'us'. White facilitators often lack valid analysis and personal experience, and there is sometimes pressure from management to keep the content comfortable. If a program does directly address racism and white privilege, common white responses include 'anger, withdrawal, emotional incapacitation, guilt, argumentation, and cognitive dissonance' which further increases the pressure to avoid direct address. Even progressive whites may insulate themselves, claiming they already know this material. [ A note says that insulation 'is somewhat mediated by social class', but says the 'largest social environment insulates and protects whites as a group — 'institutions cultural representations, media, school textbooks, movies, advertising, dominant discourses etc']. There seems to be an ambiguity about this reaction from white progressives, though, whether it is resistance to internalised dominance already, or a lack of racial stamina and thus white fragility.

Mainstream definitions of racism turn on '"race prejudice" which anyone of any race can have' (56) but whiteness scholars talk about a particular system and structure that perpetuate an unequal distribution between white people and people of colour. This is not a fluid system in the USA, not benefiting whites one day and people of colour another it is always one directional and it is traditional, normalised and deeply embedded. Whiteness means the specific dimensions of racism that preserve white power over people of colour. Unlike the dominant representation of racism, it is not isolated in discrete behaviours held by individuals, nor in specific privileges. It is a matter of individual and collective consciousness shaped by racialised. These are 'theory laden constructs inseparable from systems of injustice'. Whiteness is a multi dimensional social process, and also a standpoint from which white people look at themselves and others and at society. Its cultural practices are '"usually unmarked and un-named"' [quoting Frankenberg). It is a constellation of processes and practices, not simply signified by skin colour. It is dynamic relational and operates on different levels. It includes basic rights and values purported to be commonly shared by all 'but which are actually only consistently afforded to white people' it exists both in traditional and modern forms and the point is 'rather than work to prove its existence, work to reveal it', in this case white fragility.

More examples of interruptions produced by racial stress follow — a challenge to objectivity by suggesting a racialised frame of reference; people of colour talking directly about the racial perspectives challenging white racial codes; choosing not to protect the racial feelings of white people, challenging their comfort; not being willing to tell stories answer questions about racial experience; a fellow white not agreeing with interpretations, challenging white solidarity; getting feedback that one's behaviour has racist impact, a challenge to white liberalism; suggesting that group membership is significant, challenging individualism; acknowledging that access is unequal between racial groups, challenging meritocracy; being presented with a person of colour in a position of leadership; being presented with information about other racial groups, 'through, for example movies' where people of colour are not stereotypes, as a challenge to 'white centrality'.

This often leaves whites at a loss for how to respond because the necessary skills or stamina are not part of their habitus [an open reference to Bourdieu]. Disequilibrium is produced by 'unconscious dispositions' and depends on the power the agent has [but it's not usually anger, far more likely to be patronising condescension, or some sort of relativism? The responses above are lower-middle-class or working-class?]. The US racial order is unstable depending on the state, but facing constant challenges [echoing the original notion of white fragility as arising in colonial contexts?], and this is echoed in the unstable habitus.

White fragility is inculcated by segregation on multiple levels, including geographical, 'representational and informational' this leaves white interests and perspectives as central and gives white people an inability to see any significance in the perspectives of people of colour.  They feel no loss over the absence of people of colour, and thus absence is seen as 'good' in schools or neighbourhoods. White people see their perspectives as objective and realistic, as a viewpoint of universal humans representing all of human experience, and  not racialised, not needing to be recognised — 'just people' (59) — hence the common claim that we all need to see each other as human beings, as individuals rather than any sort of 'racially socialised group'. Individualism erases history. If there is racism it is the problem of other bad white people.

A defensive response sometimes arises when whites as a group are accused of collective benefit. This is 'narcissism' (60) arising from white racial insulation, an inability to see nonwhite perspectives as significant. There are often contradictory discourses used interchangeably — for example we are unique and all the same — and these deny white privilege and the significance of race. Being an individual and outside a racial group only applies to white people. Race is disavowed, for individuals and institutions, concealing unequal distribution and 'unearned white privilege'. Individualism covers both cases. Individualism also requires a 'disavowed other', an abstract that depends on a particular, 'raced others' especially [but this needs explaining — why not gendered others, or classed others? Legacies of slavery or colonialism?]

Whites expect to be racially comfortable and need no tolerance for racial discomfort, so when it arises, something seems wrong and something needs to be blamed. Counter moves are warranted, including penalisation, retaliation and refusal to continue engagement. Racism is never faced, and those who break white codes of conduct are punished. Comfort is confused with safety, and whites feel unsafe 'when we are merely talking about racism' (61). [ignores non-verbals let alone microaggressions]

Ideological racism [not defined, it means formally organised?] has strongly positive images of whites, and strongly negative images of racial others and this means an enduring sense of entitlement: success is the results of their own efforts, racism is little understood, racial arrogance emerges from dominance, the knowledge of people who have thought 'complexly about race' can be dismissed including those with 'intelligence and expertise' who often  meet 'trivialised encounters with simplistic platitudes' [he means poor devils who try antiracist training?]'

Whites could legitimise black people's assertions of racism, but usually claim they don't understand the perspective, and then confuse this with not agreeing — 'racial arrogance'. They demand polite and rational explanations without emotion, but even there often agree better if racism is seen as something related to individual white people not themselves.

White people enjoy a deep sense of belonging in US society, because whiteness is 'embedded in the culture at large', reflected back to us in heroes, standards of beauty, role models, textbooks, media, religious iconography, virtually any image deemed valuable. Whites enjoy racial segregation. Sometimes they feel uncomfortable if segregated by race in antiracist endeavours. They prefer segregation to be euphemised in terms like 'good neighbourhoods'.

Race is a problem for people of colour, so white people don't bear any social burdens associated with it. White people often refer to their luck in growing up in an all-white neighbourhood. White people who do bring up race are still likely to be penalised, however [he speaks from experience?], But generally race is for people of colour to worry about.

White people receive constant messages that they are better and more important —  [centrality in media and culture again]. We might explicitly reject the notion that one race is better than another, but 'one cannot avoid internalising a message of white superiority, as it is ubiquitous in mainstream culture' [again no positive black stereotypes in sport, popular music or sexual prowess?].

Children apparently have ideas about race very early, perhaps in preschool, in the USA, and again this is often unnamed and explicitly denied. Unfortunately white moral objections to racism 'increases white resistance to acknowledging complicity with it' (64) and there is 'a foundation of (superficial) racial tolerance and acceptance'. Protecting a moral reputation is sometimes chosen as more important than changing participation. Other whites embrace a discourse of 'self defence' seeing themselves as victims, being blamed and attacked, even though 'nothing physically out of the ordinary has ever occurred in any interracial discussion that I am aware of' (64). Those who object claim to be morally superior, to blame others with less social power, to see discomfort as dangerous and so re-inscribe racist imagery in a 'discourse of victimisation'. Rather than seeing themselves as the beneficiaries of white privilege, they see themselves as 'victims of antiracist efforts', that 'they have been treated unfairly via a challenge to their position'.

One example is provided arising in a workplace antiracism training session. One white participant left the session clearly upset after receiving '(what appeared to the training team as) sensitive and diplomatic feedback on how some of her statements had impacted several people of colour in the room' (65). Other participants said that she was upset because the statements had been challenged. She might have been having a heart attack, they said, and thus all attention was immediately focused onto her.

Many whites use the language of violence in their antiracist encounters. This sometimes taps 'into the classic discourse of people of colour… as dangerous and violent' and is of course a perversion of the actual danger that exists between whites and others, trivialising the history of violence. It is a projection of tension onto people of colour. It authorises forms of domination. Another antiracist worker reports a new incomprehensibility because the new racial climate in America forbids the open expression of racially biased feelings — the result is 'verbal incoherence — digressions, long pauses, repetition and self correction'.  [Excessive caution is inevitable?] This might indicate a lack of preparation to engage and this maintains white power. White people do notice racial locations and discuss this freely among themselves, sometimes in coded ways, but refused to directly acknowledge their race talk: this can lead to split consciousness and incoherence. Racial misinformation like this will be left unexamined. Retreat from the discomfort of authentic engagement means and inability to form authentic connections and will preserve racism.

White people often believe that antiracist education is necessary only for those who interact with minorities, but the suggestion here is that it is critical for all white people to build their stamina to engage discussions of race. They must do this even if there are a few people of colour in their immediate environment because otherwise we preserve the view that whiteness is universal and non-whiteness is other. We will not be able to bridge crosses racial divides. If we keep retreating from discomfort, we will only work to hold racism in place.

Institutionalised racism needs to be tackled, but antiracist education 'may be most effective by starting at the micro level' (66), developing perspectives and skills to enable everyone to actively initiate change. All of us who live in a racist system are responsible 'for either perpetuating or transforming that system'— 'white racism is ultimately a white problem'. Many white people have never been given direct or complex information about racism. People of colour are more aware of racism on a personal level but 'often do not have a macrolevel framework'(67). Critical consciousness about racism also varies between groups — many Asian heritage people have never discussed racism in their homes. Overall, the signs of white fragility should be understood as 'an issue of stamina building' which should 'guide our interventions accordingly'.