Book: White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
Reviewer: Jeriann and Deana
Age/Genre: Adult Nonfiction
Preferred Reading Environment: In a group, where you can discuss the concepts as you read them.
Reading Accoutrements: yummy snacks.
Content Notes: This book focuses on racism, but also talks about sexism, classism, and other methods of oppression. It specifically analyzes the defensive mechanisms used by white people to deflect accusations of racism and continue to perpetuate racist systems.
Jeriann: When I went to the Compassionate Communities: We Choose all of Us Conference in November 2017, one of the keynote speakers was Robin DiAngelo. She talked about the subject of her book, White Fragility, walking us through the many ways that people divert conversations about racism to center the feelings of white people rather than solve issues of oppression. Being in Idaho, most of the people in the room were white, which is exactly DiAngelo’s goal: to talk to fellow white people about how they interact with racism. Her talks were engaging and necessarily uncomfortable, and I knew that someday I wanted to read her book and delve into the issues more deeply.
Well, that time finally came! Deana and I have been having a lot of conversations about racism, sexism, ableism, and other isms, and we thought it was time to delve into some research, rather than just talk about our feelings and experiences.
Deana: Because Jeriann and I have such in-depth conversations, we approached White Fragility in a way that would help us keep an open dialogue about the book. We decided to read it out loud to each other, chapter by chapter — and I think this might be the best way to read White Fragility. We had the opportunity to really reflect on what DiAngelo was saying, and voice our thoughts as they came to us.
My initial reaction to this book has been… WOW. I have kind of dragged my feet on reviewing it, because there are a lot of difficult concepts in White Fragility and it has been hard to wrap my head around it. Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely appreciate everything about White Fragility, and I have suggested it to several people since reading it. But as a white person who didn’t consider myself racist, this book has really opened my eyes.
In White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo explains how racism exists on a spectrum and is inherently unavoidable. Because racism is something that is ingrained in our society, being a white person and identifying as “not racist” are two traits that can’t necessarily go together.
Jeriann: This illustrates what DiAngelo calls the racist=bad/non-racist=good binary. Since racism is unquestionably a bad thing, anyone who is racist is bad. So a good person can’t do anything racist. Of course, this framing is used to excuse behavior that hurts people of color because “they didn’t mean it that way” or “they’re such a good person, they just weren’t raised with knowledge of this stuff.”
White Fragility outlines many common reactions to accusations of racism, and shows how hard white people make it for people of color, primarily black people, to confront them about harmful behaviors. All this does is maintain the status quo and keep us from fixing the problems systemic racism has caused. A big part of the problem is the focus on whether or not something “is racist” rather than the effect of the behavior.
DiAngelo works with companies to find and fix racial inequalities that exist in the company, and though she is always asked to come, and often the participants are volunteers, she is repeatedly met with defensiveness and anger. People don’t want to change their behavior – they just want to be told that their behavior is acceptable.
Deana: That is why I think of White Fragility as a tough read. I try my best to strongly advocate for people of color, and I put forth a lot of effort to acknowledge racial division — but DiAngelo explains that oftentimes, perfectly well-meaning white people still possess toxic behaviors.
During one of the workplace meetings DiAngelo was conducting, she met a teacher who decided to tell the group a story about her interaction with a black parent. The white woman telling the story thought she was being helpful, and adding positivity to their conversation about race. DiAngelo had to explain to her that, while her intentions in telling the story may have been genuine, the presentation, imitating the black mother in a racially stereotypical way, was still harmful. Instead of taking constructive criticism and using DiAngelo’s feedback as an opportunity to grow, the participant became increasingly defensive and overwhelmed, and eventually left the group. Though it was an uncomfortable conversation for DiAngelo to have, she pointed out that it was necessary to show the white participants in the room an example of how to break with white solidarity.
Jeriann: I thought this book was a great opportunity for observing defensiveness. I know I can get defensive sometimes when people point out my mistakes, but most of the time, that defensiveness doesn’t help anything. It just stresses people out, while denying myself the opportunity to learn. In the case of being called out on words and actions that perpetuate racism, DiAngelo points out the function of defensiveness and denial: to redirect the conversation. If you claim to be anti-racist but will not acknowledge that you exist in a racist system and your actions contribute to that system, then you cannot actually fight racism. This redirection not only perpetuates racism, but also increases the burden on people of color. It becomes risky to point out problematic actions, even to white people who are “on their side,” because the reaction can be anywhere from uncomfortable to dangerous.
I really enjoyed reading this aloud with Deana, as we were able to stop and discuss specific points as they arose. DiAngelo’s framing made this kind of feel like reading a long lecture, or an engaging textbook. It was educational in a way that prompted self-reflection. We talked about our own experiences, and more than once questioned our own past behaviors. Even as we read, we had to remind ourselves that the point was not to be able to say “I’ve never done a racist thing,” but to acknowledge that our actions could have been harmful and to strive to do better in the future.
Deana: White Fragility is extremely thought provoking, and gave us a really good foundation to discuss race. Her book provides really good tools in an effort to be a solution when it comes to racism and the prejudices black people experience in their everyday lives. Though reading White Fragility won’t automatically make you a better person, if you take to heart it’s lessons, you’ll definitely be less shitty – and more mindful of how, as a white person, you can make an impact in actually fighting racism versus being “not racist.”
What is the last book you read that was kind of difficult, but definitely worth it? Let us know so we can add it to our lists!