White Fragility

Earlier this week I read the book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, which is about how resistant white people can be when it comes to discussing and learning about systemic racism.

I thought the book had some interesting insights, although it was more academic and less emotional than I expected. I was expecting something punchier and more story-based whereas sometimes this book felt like a corporate training manual. I also thought it was a bit short relative to the weightiness of the topic. Overall I still found it worth reading, so I’d recommend it if you’re curious about it.

I took the main lesson to be the importance of considering other perspectives and being sensitive to them, especially when communicating. There isn’t necessarily a single clear and correct approach.

For example, suppose I tell a story on my blog that involves a black friend of mine (with his permission). Should I mention his race or not? Should I begin the story with “A friend and I…” or “A black friend and I…”?

My previous inclination would be not to mention his race unless I thought it was critical to the story. But am I attempting to be racially color blind then? Note that this isn’t the same as being racially aware.

Who am I to say that race isn’t a factor in the story? Am I trying to dodge some potential judgment by leaving out that detail, which may actually matter to some people and could change what the story means to them?

Many stories could be interpreted differently when considered against the backdrop of systemic racism, such as a story about academic or business success or failure. And as White Fragility points out, this backdrop is always present when people of different races interact.

So this book helped me understand that being racially color blind isn’t a good standard to adopt – it’s a pretty fake one actually, and it doesn’t help.

What if I do the opposite and tell a story about “my black friend.” Now it introduces another issue, like I’m trying to prove to the world that I have black friends. Regardless of my actual intention, many people could interpret this as a really inauthentic effort to wrap myself in interracial friendliness. I can understand that perspective.

Note that even publicly acknowledging that I read White Fragility may induce different reactions in different people. Some may be happy (or even delighted) that I read it and that I’m blogging about it. Others may see it as a statement like, “Hey, look at me. I care about social justice too!” Some may appreciate that I read it but dislike what I have to say about it.

If you want to know the actual truth, I wasn’t super enthusiastic to read this book. Some people nudged me to read it many weeks ago, but at the time I was much more interested in other topics. I only opted to read this one after finishing all the other books that were in my queue, partly because I saw that it had a strong effect on a friend. If not for curiosity about her reaction, I might not have read this book this year. One source of resistance is that I thought the title was a marketing trick to bait people, and after reading the book, I still feel that way about it. I found the title a turnoff much like I’m turned off by books that have “F*ck” in their titles. I think a more accurate title for this book would be: Lessons from Corporate Racial Sensitivity Training.

I think some white people who read this book may be frustrated by it, concluding that no matter what they do in certain situations, they can’t win – you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. I think that attitude misses the point though. I see the point as being more about listening, sensitivity, and consideration and then making decisions based on awareness. It’s not about following tight rules to be error-free with everyone, which would be an untenable goal anyway.

I’ve already learned from 16 years of blogging that if I write about sensitive topics, someone is likely to interpret what I say very differently than my intentions. So in one sense, it’s true that I can’t win per se. But I don’t need to win, which really means to offend no one. That’s a pretty ego-based way of looking at the situation and not particularly helpful. This isn’t about winning or losing as an individual.

I can still be sensitive to different potential interpretations when I write. And that awareness can help me write more clearly. Sometimes I’ll add extra clarifying words or statements to stave off potential misinterpretations. If I can anticipate a misunderstanding before it happens, I can put in a little more effort to prevent it. It still won’t be perfect, but it’s an improvement over being tone deaf and ignorant.

You will still make mistakes, and you’ll still be judged for them. But when you do stumble on some issue, can you discover why? Can you lean towards greater sensitivity and understanding? Can you turn it into a growth experience?

Most of the ideas in White Fragility weren’t new or surprising to me, but there were a few angles I picked up that did surprise me, so I like that the book educated me on these blind spots.

For instance, I didn’t know how problematic it could be for a white woman to cry during a racially mixed discussion or training on race, especially after someone of a different race shares a story about racial injustice. Now I have a better understanding of why that can be a really bad turn of events and why extra care ought to be taken to avoid tears in that context.

One perspective is that the white woman is genuinely moved and can’t help herself. But another perspective is that it can too easily lead right into a negative downward spiral that derails the discussion and could lead to a conflict where some people are offended by her tears while others feel a need to defend her. Such situations can even descend into violence. Moreover, there’s a huge negative history around white women’s tears leading to black people getting hurt. So when considering the other perspectives on this, I can see why stifling those tears or leaving the room might be a sensible option and why crying in such a context could be a really bad idea. I can also see how this situation can be so perilous due to different people assigning different meanings to those tears.

I don’t feel that this book gave me clear cut answers, but I do feel that it increased my awareness about how people may assign meaning differently when race is part of the context. I didn’t always agree with some of the book’s conclusions and recommendations, but I can understand why it recommends what it does.

Overall I found it easy to relate to the general idea of white fragility due to how closely it connects with a context I have a lot more experience with: the fragility of people who eat animal products. I see a lot of parallels between the avoidance of discussions on systemic violence and oppression in both contexts.

I can’t really know how it feels to a black person when a white person acts racially color blind, but I sure know how ridiculously lame it feels to a vegan when a meat-eater pretends to respect veganism, especially while eating a meal of animal flesh. I know these aren’t the same, but connecting these contexts helps me to better understand how pathetic such fragility looks and how utterly oblivious people are when demonstrating it. This realization also makes me want to push back more when I see people doing the fragility dance, regardless of the context.

I feel like I got the most value not directly from the book but from doing my own inner processing and journaling afterwards. What I most value isn’t what the book taught me but rather how it served as a catalyst for thinking about some deeper issues. I don’t want to detract from the book’s core focus on racial issues; however, I do feel I gained more from reading this book that extends well beyond the area of race. The issue of fragility is a powerful one that shows up in many other areas of life too.

What White Fragility doesn’t provide are long-term solutions to systemic racism itself. It doesn’t share how to overturn and replace the old systems. It’s more about confronting and acknowledging that we all have a relationship with this system, even if that relationship has been hidden. It invites consideration of other perspectives and how our actions may be interpreted differently that we’d expect. It invites us to become less fragile (i.e. avoidant) and more honest and aware.