White Fragility Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

Review :

An excellent, powerful book I would recommend to all white people. It scares me a bit to write that because I imagine some white people may take offense to that statement (an emotional reaction Robin DiAngelo discusses in the book), and at the same time I stand by it. I will write a little about this book's high quality, though I want to start with a personal story that may help explain why this book means a lot to me.

Around a year ago, I called a white woman colleague out on a behavior of hers that involved racism and colonization. Before I did so, I tried very hard to make sure that I delivered my concern in a gentle and affirming way. I put in extra effort to validate her as a person and I acted even nicer than perhaps I should have felt obligated to. This white woman asked me to meet in person after I emailed her my concern, and because I had trusted her, I agreed to this meeting.

In this meeting, this white woman displayed the exact set of behaviors DiAngelo describes in this book - white fragility. She said that she felt offended and hurt that I would accuse her of behaving in a colonizing/racist way. She said that no one in her life had ever or would ever call her out on this behavior. She said that I acted "aggressively" and that I should have "trusted" her more instead of blaming her. I want to reiterate that throughout this in-person meeting, I tried again and again to placate her with gentle reassurances while standing my ground. Still, she said that she felt hurt and centered her feelings over mine.

After this meeting, I felt devastated. I walked to my office, shut the door, and practiced a lot of deep breathing to calm down. I felt so misunderstood and tone-policed - I had just tried to offer this white woman gentle feedback on a problematic behavior, and she acted as if I had attacked her. Luckily, I was able to reach out to my friends (both people of color and white friends) who validated my experience and I read a ton of articles on tone-policing to understand that other people of color, especially black women, undergo the same discriminatory behavior.

I share this experience for the specific purpose of highlighting why I feel so grateful for Robin DiAngelo. Due to this incident and others, there are times where I feel fearful of sharing my true self and my authentic reactions around white people, because a lot of white people practice tone policing and white fragility. DiAngelo names these behaviors and explains how they hurt people of color. She breaks down the common ways white people collude in white supremacy, the problematic nature of the good/bad binary in relation to racism, and common racial triggers for white people. Here is a quote I appreciated about why white fragility acts as a form of bullying:

"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."

I know that I should not applaud DiAngelo for doing the work that all white people should do, and again, I feel grateful to know that there are white people who will do the work of racial justice. Allies matter. For better or worse, white people listen to fellow white people more than they listen to people of color when it comes to racism, so we need white allies to show up to help dismantle white supremacy. Reading this book validated the experiences I have undergone as a person of color and helped reassure me that while there are a lot of white people who will hurt me, like the white woman in the incident described above, there are others, hopefully, who will use their privilege to fight for people of color. Here is another quote about how emotions are political and related to issues of social justice:

"Many of us see emotions as naturally occurring. But emotions are political in two key ways. First, our emotions are shaped by our biases and beliefs, our cultural frameworks. For example, if I believe - consciously or unconsciously - that it is normal and appropriate for men to express anger but not women, I will have very different emotional responses to men's and women's expressions of anger. I might see a man who expresses anger as competent and in charge and may feel respect for him, while I see a woman who expresses anger as childish and out of control and may feel contempt for her. If I believe that only bad people are racist, I will feel hurt, offended, and shamed when an unaware racist assumption of mine is pointed out. If I instead believe that having racist assumptions is inevitable (but possible to change), I will feel gratitude when an unaware racist assumption is pointed out; now I am aware of and can change that assumption. In this way, emotions are not natural; they are the result of the frameworks we are using to make sense of social relations. And of course, social relations are political. Our emotions are also political because they are often externalized; our emotions drive behaviors that impact other people."

Again, highly recommended to all white people and also people of color interested in this topic. DiAngelo's writing is clear, straightforward, and intelligent. She analyzes the issue of white fragility with great depth while providing tangible actions white people can take to address this issue. I hope white people who read this book will utilize its lessons and apply them to their own lives, whether or not anyone else watches. I hope that my fellow people of color know that you are not alone in experiencing white fragility and its painful repercussions.


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