Robin DiAngelo


‘White fragility’ is a defensive response to real conversations about race.

When it comes to talking about race, it’s seemingly the last thing a lot of white people feel comfortable doing. Which is irony within itself, because typically in the U.S., white people have the trademark on racism. Sometimes it’s just fun to watch white people squirm when the subject comes up. Especially if it’s being discussed in person.

Robin DiAngelo, professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University and author of What Does it Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacycame up with an interesting term in 2011 called ‘white fragility’ which she describes as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include outward display of emotions such as anger, fear and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence and leaving the stress-inducing situation.”

White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium. — The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Over the last several months, white fragility has become increasingly visible, especially with the advent of “Black Lives Matter.” White people, who took issue with the statement, quickly turned it into “All Lives Matter,” because of their fragility.

In an interview with AltnerNet, DiAngelo discussed the term, and why she came up with it.

Sam Adler-Bell: How did you come to write about “white fragility”?
Robin DiAngelo: To be honest, I wanted to take it on because it’s a frustrating dynamic that I encounter a lot. I don’t have a lot of patience for it. And I wanted to put a mirror to it.

I do atypical work for a white person, which is that I lead primarily white audiences in discussions on race every day, in workshops all over the country. That has allowed me to observe very predictable patterns. And one of those patterns is this inability to tolerate any kind of challenge to our racial reality. We shut down or lash out or in whatever way possible block any reflection from taking place.

Of course, it functions as means of resistance, but I think it’s also useful to think about it as fragility, as inability to handle the stress of conversations about race and racism.

Sometimes it’s strategic, a very intentional push back and rebuttal. But a lot of the time, the person simply cannot function. They regress into an emotional state that prevents anybody from moving forward.

SAB: What causes white fragility to set in?
RD: For white people, their identities rest on the idea of racism as about good or bad people, about moral or immoral singular acts, and if we’re good, moral people we can’t be racist – we don’t engage in those acts. This is one of the most effective adaptations of racism over time—that we can think of racism as only something that individuals either are or are not “doing.”

In large part, white fragility—the defensiveness, the fear of conflict—is rooted in this good/bad binary. If you call someone out, they think to themselves, “What you just said was that I am a bad person, and that is intolerable to me.” It’s a deep challenge to the core of our identity as good, moral people.

The good/bad binary is also what leads to the very unhelpful phenomenon of un-friending on Facebook.

To read more of the interview click here.

Clutchettes, what do you think about the term “white fragility”?

Image Credits: AlterNet/Robin DiAngelo

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