Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism
(Boston: Beacon Press, 2018)
by Robin DiAngelo
A review by Cliff Williams
This book is an expansion of an article with the same title that the author published in 2016.* The article listed a number of reasons why it is hard for white people to talk about racism, and the book adds an extensive discussion of issues connected to those reasons. I am going to list representative quotations from some of chapters and say a little about each quotation.
From the introduction
“White people in North America live in a society that is deeply separate and unequal by race, and white people are the beneficiaries of that separation and inequality. As a result, we are insulated from racial stress, at the same time that we come to feel entitled to and deserving of our advantage” (page 1).
This very first statement in the book contains a number of ideas:
White people in North America live in deeply separate “worlds” from other races.
These separate “worlds” are very unequal.
Because of these first two points, white people do not experience racial stress.
An unstated implication of this last point is that non-white people do feel racial stress.
White people feel entitled to and deserving of their advantage.
DiAngelo uses “we” in this quote, because she herself is white. She makes it clear that she is talking in generalities—some white people, a very small number she seems to think, might not experience these things. Nearly all do, however.
From Chapter 1, The Challenges to Talking to White People About Racism
“Like most white people raised in the U.S., I was not taught to see myself in racial terms” (7). White people think of black people and other non-white people as belonging to a race, but do not regard themselves as belonging to a race.
“Nothing in mainstream U.S. culture gives us the information we need to have the nuanced understanding of arguably the most complex and enduring social dynamic of the last several hundred years” (8).
This quotation contains several thoughts:
Racial issues are nuanced and complex.
Race is the most enduring social dynamic of the last several hundred years.
Nothing in mainstream U.S. culture gives us enough information to understand the complex issues surrounding race. In different words, if we do not study the issues surrounding race in the U.S., our understanding of it will be inadequate. In still different words, many people think that they understand racial issues, but if they rely only on mainstream U.S. culture, they do not really do so.
“In the post-civil rights era, we have been taught that racists are mean people who intentionally dislike others because of their race” (13). This is a main theme of White Fragility. There are other forms of racism than is exhibited in mean people who intentionally dislike people of color.
From Chapter 2, Racism and White Supremacy
“Racism . . . occurs when a racial group’s prejudice is backed by legal authority and institutional control” (21). When DiAngelo talks about racism, she is not just talking about individual prejudice. She is talking about a social and political condition that exercises control over people of color.
This definition mirrors the definition of Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton in their Black Power: The Politics of Liberation: “By ‘racism’ we mean the predication of decisions and policies on consideration of race for the purpose of subordinating a racial group and maintaining control over that group” (3).*
DiAngelo writes, “Racism is deeply embedded in the fabric of our society. . . .Whites hold the social and institutional positions in society to infuse their racial prejudice into the laws, policies, practices, and norms of society in a way that people of color do not” (22).
Again, racism for DiAngelo is not just scattered among small numbers of individuals in the U.S. but is woven throughout American culture. This is echoed in her statement that “individual whites may be ‘against’ racism, but they still benefit from a system that privileges whites as a group” (24). And this is true to a significant degree today, she states, even though it may have been true to a greater extent fifty years ago.
“Whiteness rests upon a foundational premise: the definition of whites as the norm or standard for human, and people of color as a deviation from that norm” (25).
This “normativity” is a crucial feature of whiteness, according to DiAngelo: to be white is normal, and to be a person of color is to be “other.” This otherness, however, is not just being different. It is also inferiority: whites view themselves as “superior in culture and achievement and people of color as generally of less social, economic, and political consequence” (34).
For these reasons, DiAngelo states, “white supremacy is something much more pervasive and subtle than the actions of explicit white nationalists. White supremacy describes the culture we live in” (33). It surrounds us. We are enveloped in it. Yet it is not nearly as noticeable as the explicit racism of white nationalists, she says.
“Whiteness is not acknowledged by white people” (25). The normalness of being white goes unnoticed by white people just because it is thought to be universal, the normal way of being human.
From Chapter 3, Racism After the Civil Rights Movement
“Racial bias is largely unconscious, and herein lies the deeper challenge—the defensiveness that ensues upon any suggestion of racial bias. This defensiveness is classic white fragility” (42). Because the racial bias of white people is largely unconscious, they do not think of themselves as being racist. So they are defensive when they are said to exhibit or embody racism. This is white fragility.
“Research in implicit bias has shown that perceptions of criminal activity are influenced by race. White people will perceive danger simply by the presence of black people” (45).*
This perception may not be fully conscious, but it reveals itself in overt behavior, including bodily comportment. For an objective test that is designed to detect implicit bias, see the Harvard implicit bias test at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html.
“The body of research about children and race demonstrates that white children develop a sense of white superiority as early as preschool” (47).*
DiAngelo uses this statement to support her claim that white people breathe in racism their whole lives, starting at an early age. Racism is so much a part of white culture in the U.S. that white people absorb it without noticing that they do.
From Chapter 4, How Does Race Shape the Lives of White People?
“In virtually every situation or context deemed normal, neutral or prestigious in society, I belong racially. This belonging is a deep and ever present feeling that has always been with me” (53). DiAngelo means to contrast this sense of belonging that she experiences with a sense of not belonging that black people often experience.
“Because I haven’t been socialized to see myself or to be seen by other whites in racial terms. I don’t carry the psychic weight of race” (54)—unlike black people who constantly carry the psychic weight of race.
“I am free to move in virtually any space seen as normal, neutral, or valuable. . . . I will not have to worry about my race” (55). Again, this contrasts with the experience of black people in the U.S., who often have to worry about race when they go into white spaces.
“For those of us who work to raise the racial consciousness of whites, simply getting whites to acknowledge that our race gives us advantages is a major effort. The defensiveness, denial, and resistance are deep” (63).
DiAngelo has conducted numerous sessions on race awareness, so she has seen firsthand the defensiveness, denial, and resistance that constitute white fragility. Given these components of white fragility, one might say that the term “white fragility” is something of a euphemism to soften the ideas of defensiveness, denial, and resistance.
From Chapter 5, The Good/Bad Binary
“The simplistic idea that racism is limited to individual intentional acts committed by unkind people is at the root of virtually all white defensiveness” (73).
White people who adopt this simplistic idea of racism, DiAngelo states, will not regard themselves as having been imbued with racist attitudes by virtue of having lived in a predominantly white culture. This will make them defensive when confronted with the suggestion that they have racist attitudes in them.
“If, as a white person, I conceptualize racism as a binary and I place myself on the ‘not racist’ side, what further action is required of me? No action is required, because I am not a racist” (73).
The racist/not racist binary, she says, is responsible for white fragility, for unless one intentionally acts unkindly or meanly to black people, one will regard oneself as being on the “not racist” side of the binary. This, however, does not acknowledge the unconscious attitudes that have been instilled in one by a white culture and the implicit bias that consequently operates below the threshold of awareness.
“I have found it much more useful to think of myself as on a continuum. Racism is so deeply woven into the fabric of our society that I do not see myself escaping from that continuum in my lifetime. But I can continually seek to move further along it” (87).
Here is part of DiAngelo’s solution to white fragility: whites should not regard themselves as on the “not racist” side of two mutually exclusive categories, but as on a continuum that at each point contains more or less racially charged attitudes and feelings that are more or less submerged.
From Chapter 12, Where Do We Go from Here?
Another part of the solution to white fragility is racial education: “In chapter 4, I warned readers not to depend on people of color for our racial education and explained why this dependency is problematic. Readers may have been left wondering how we would get this information if we don’t ask people of color to give it to us. We can get it in several interconnected ways. We can seek out the information from books, websites, films, and other available sources. . . . We can also demand that we be given this information in schools and universities. . . . We can build authentic cross-racial relationships. . . . And we can unearth [our own] knowledge [of race and racism] with some minimal reflection” (147).
Given the truth of what DiAngelo has said about the extensive embeddedness of racism in the white psyche, her solution of racial education entails that every white adult in the U.S. should racially educate themselves, that public schools should include such education, and that colleges and universities have a duty to require their students to be so educated.
Some people will find DiAngelo’s solution too radical. If, however, there has been extensive harm done to black people in the U.S., both in the past and in the present, and if white fragility and its causes are as extensive as DiAngelo says they are, then her solution needs to be adopted. Severe damage and deeply embedded racist attitudes require a comprehensive and persistent remedy.
The article on which White Fragility is based is Robin DiAngelo, “White Fragility,” International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol. 3 (2011), 54-70. https://robindiangelo.com/2014site/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/White-Fragility-Published.-1.pdf
Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation (Vintage Books, 1967). Carmichael was a prominent black activist in the 1960s, and Hamilton became a political science professor at Columbia University in New York City. https://www.amazon.com/Politics-Liberation-Hamilton-Carmichael-1967-01-01/dp/B01A0C6OXY/
The article DiAngelo uses to support her assertion that perceptions of criminal activity are influenced by race is Lincoln Quillian and Devah Pager, “Black Neighbors, Higher Crime? The Role of Racial Stereotypes in Evaluations of Neighborhood Crime,” American Journal of Sociology 107, no. 3 (November 2001): 717-767.
The article and book DiAngelo uses to support her assertion that white children develop a sense of white superiority as early as preschool are Kenneth B. Clark and Mamie P. Clark, “Emotional Factors in Racial Identification and Preference in Negro Children,” Journal of Negro Education 19, no. 3 (1950): 341-350; and Louise Derman-Sparks, Patricia G. Ramsey, and Julie Olsen Edwards, What If All the Kids Are White? Anti-Bias Multicultural Education with Young Children and Families (New York: Teachers College Press, 2006).
© 2018 by Cliff Williams