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White Fragility

by

Robin DiAngelo [a white woman]

(with minor editing by me)

White people in North America live in a social environment that protects & 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 & guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence & leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium. This document explicates the dynamics of White Fragility.

I am a white woman. I am standing beside a black woman. We are facing a group of white people who are seated in front of us. We are in their workplace, and have been hired by their employer to lead them in a dialogue about race. The room is filled with tension and charged with hostility. I have just presented a definition of racism that includes the acknowledgment that whites hold social & institutional power over people of color [PoC]. A white man is pounding his fist on the table. His face is red and he is furious. As he pounds he yells, “White people have been discriminated against for 25 years! A white person can’t get a job anymore!” I look around the room & see 40 employed people, all white. There are no PoC in this workplace. Something is happening here, and it isn’t based in the racial reality of the workplace. I am feeling unnerved by this man’s disconnection with that reality & his lack of sensitivity to the impact this is having on my co-facilitator, the only person of color in the room. Why is this white man so angry? Why is he being so careless about the impact of his anger? Why are all the other white people either sitting in silent agreement with him or tuning out? We have, after all, only articulated a definition of racism.

White people in North America live in a social environment that protects & insulates them from race-based stress. Fine identifies this insulation when she observes “… how Whiteness accrues privilege & status; gets itself surrounded by protective pillows of resources and/or benefits of the doubt; how Whiteness repels gossip & voyeurism and instead demands dignity…” [Although white racial insulation is somewhat mediated by social class (with poor & working class urban whites being generally less racially insulated than suburban or rural whites), the larger social environment insulates & protects whites as a group through institutions, cultural representations, media, school textbooks, movies, advertising, dominant discourses, etc] Whites are rarely without these “protective pillows,” and when they are, it is usually temporary & by choice. This insulated environment of racial privilege builds white expectations for racial comfort, while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress.

For many white people, a single required multicultural education course taken in college, or required “cultural competency training” in their workplace, is the only time they may encounter a direct & sustained challenge to their racial understandings. But even in this arena, not all multicultural courses or training programs talk directly about racism, much less address white privilege. It is far more the norm for these courses & programs to use racially coded language such as “urban,” “inner city,” & “disadvantaged” but to rarely use “white” or “over-advantaged” or “privileged.” This racially coded language reproduces racist images & perspectives while it simultaneously reproduces the comfortable illusion that race & its problems are what “they” have, not us.

Reasons why the facilitators of these courses & trainings may not directly name the dynamics & beneficiaries of racism range from the lack of a valid analysis of racism by white facilitators, personal & economic survival strategies for facilitators of color, and the overall pressure from management to keep the content comfortable & palatable for whites. However, if & when an educational program does directly address racism & the privileging of whites, common white responses include anger, withdrawal, emotional incapacitation, guilt, argumentation & cognitive dissonance (all of which reinforce the pressure on facilitators to avoid directly addressing racism).

So-called progressive whites may not respond with anger, but may still insulate themselves via claims that they are beyond the need for engaging with the content because they “already had a class on this” or “already know this.” These reactions are often seen in anti-racist education endeavors as forms of resistance to the challenge of internalized dominance. These reactions do indeed function as resistance, but it may be useful to also conceptualize them as the result of the reduced psychosocial stamina that racial insulation inculcates. I call this lack of racial stamina White Fragility.

Although mainstream definitions of racism are typically some variation of individual “race prejudice”, which anyone of any race can have, Whiteness scholars define racism as encompassing economic, political, social, and cultural structures, actions, and beliefs that systematize and perpetuate an unequal distribution of privileges, resources and power between white people and PoC. This unequal distribution benefits whites and disadvantages PoC overall and as a group. Racism is not fluid in the U.S.; it does not flow back & forth, one day benefiting whites & another day (or even era) benefiting PoC. The direction of power between whites & PoC is historic, traditional, normalized & deeply embedded in the fabric of U.S. society.

Whiteness itself refers to the specific dimensions of racism that serve to elevate white people over PoC. This definition counters the dominant representation of racism in mainstream education as isolated in discrete behaviors that some individuals may or may not demonstrate & goes beyond naming specific privileges. Whites are theorized as actively shaped, affected, defined & elevated through their racialization & the individual & collective consciousness’ formed within it. Recognizing that the terms I am using are not “theory-neutral ‘descriptors’” but theory-laden constructs inseparable from systems of injustice”, I use the terms white & Whiteness to describe a social process. Frankenberg defines Whiteness as multi-dimensional:

Whiteness is a location of structural advantage, of race privilege. Second, it is a ‘standpoint,’ a place from which White people look at ourselves, at others, and at society. Third, ‘Whiteness’ refers to a set of cultural practices that are usually unmarked and unnamed.

Frankenberg & other theorists use Whiteness to signify a set of locations that are historically, socially, politically & culturally produced, and which are intrinsically linked to dynamic relations of domination. Whiteness is thus conceptualized as a constellation of processes & practices rather than as a discrete entity (i.e. skin color alone). Whiteness is dynamic, relational, and operating at all times & on myriad levels. These processes & practices include basic rights, values, beliefs, perspectives & experiences purported to be commonly shared by all, but which are actually only consistently afforded to white people. Whiteness Studies begin with the premise that racism & white privilege exist in both traditional & modern forms, and rather than work to prove its existence, work to reveal it. This document explores the dynamics of one aspect of Whiteness & its effects, White Fragility.

Triggers

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, & guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence & leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium. Racial stress results from an interruption to what is racially familiar. These interruptions can take a variety of forms and come from a range of sources, including:

• Suggesting that a white person’s viewpoint comes from a racialized frame of reference (challenge to objectivity)
• PoC talking directly about their racial perspectives (challenge to white racial codes)
• PoC choosing not to protect the racial feelings of white people in regards to race (challenge to white racial expectations and need/entitlement to racial comfort)
• PoC not being willing to tell their stories or answer questions about their racial experiences (challenge to colonialist relations)
• A fellow white not providing agreement with one’s interpretations (challenge to white solidarity)
• Receiving feedback that one’s behavior had a racist impact (challenge to white liberalism)
• Suggesting that group membership is significant (challenge to individualism)
• An acknowledgment that access is unequal between racial groups (challenge to meritocracy)
• Being presented with a person of color in a position of leadership (challenge to white authority);
• Being presented with information about other racial groups through, for example, movies in which PoC drive the action but are not in stereotypical roles, or multicultural education (challenge to white centrality).

In a white dominant environment, each of these challenges becomes exceptional. In turn, whites are often at a loss for how to respond in constructive ways. Whites have not had to build the cognitive or affective skills, or develop the stamina that would allow for constructive engagement across racial divides. Bourdieu’s concept of habitus may be useful here. According to Bourdieu, habitus is a socialized subjectivity; a set of dispositions which generate practices & perceptions. As such, habitus only exists in, through, and because of the practices of agents & their interaction with each other & with the rest of their environment. Based on the previous conditions & experiences that produce it, habitus produces & reproduces thoughts, perceptions, expressions & actions. Strategies of response to “disequilibrium” in the habitus are not based on conscious intentionality, but rather result from unconscious dispositions towards practice, and depend on the power position the agent occupies in the social structure.

White Fragility may be conceptualized as a product of the habitus, a response or “condition” produced & reproduced by the continual social & material advantages of the white structural position. Omi & Winant posit the U.S. racial order as an “unstable equilibrium,” kept equilibrated by the State, but still unstable due to continual conflicts of interests & challenges to the racial order. Using Omi & Winant’s concept of unstable racial equilibrium, white privilege can be thought of as unstable racial equilibrium at the level of habitus. When any of the above triggers (challenges in the habitus) occur, the resulting disequilibrium becomes intolerable. Because White Fragility finds its support in & is a function of white privilege, fragility & privilege result in responses that function to restore equilibrium & return the resources “lost” via the challenge – resistance towards the trigger, shutting down and/or tuning out, indulgence in emotional incapacitation such as guilt or “hurt feelings”, exiting, or a combination of these responses.

whiteContinued below: See White Fragility 2

White Fragility 2

Factors that inculcate White Fragility
Segregation
The first factor leading to White Fragility is the segregated lives which most white people live. Even if whites live in physical proximity to PoC (& this would be exceptional outside of an urban or temporarily mixed class neighborhood), segregation occurs on multiple levels, including representational & informational. Because whites live primarily segregated lives in a white-dominated society, they receive little or no authentic information about racism & are thus unprepared to think about it critically or with complexity. Growing up in segregated environments (schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, media images & historical perspectives), white interests & perspectives are almost always central, resulting in an inability to see or consider significance in the perspectives of PoC.

Further, white people are taught not to feel any loss over the absence of PoC in their lives & in fact, this absence is what defines their schools & neighborhoods as “good;” whites come to understand that a “good school” or “good neighborhood” is coded language for “white”. The quality of white space being in large part measured via the absence of PoC (Blacks in particular) is a profound message indeed, one that is deeply internalized & reinforced daily through normalized discourses about good schools & neighborhoods. This dynamic of gain rather than loss via racial segregation may be the most profound aspect of white racial socialization of all. Yet, while discourses about what makes a space good are tacitly understood as racially coded, this coding is explicitly denied by whites.


Universalism & Individualism
Whites are taught to see their perspectives as objective & representative of reality. The belief in objectivity, coupled with positioning white people as outside of culture (& thus the norm for humanity), allows whites to view themselves as universal humans who can represent all of human experience. This is evidenced through an unracialized identity or location, which functions as a kind of blindness; an inability to think about Whiteness as an identity or as a “state” of being that would or could have an impact on one’s life. In this position, Whiteness is not recognized or named by white people & a universal reference point is assumed. White people are just people. Within this construction, whites can represent humanity, while PoC, who are never just people but always most particularly black people, Asian people, etc., can only represent their own racialized experiences.

The discourse of universalism functions similarly to the discourse of individualism but instead of declaring that we all need to see each other as individuals (everyone is different), the person declares that we all need to see each other as human beings (everyone is the same). Of course we are all humans & I do not critique universalism in general, but when applied to racism, universalism functions to deny the significance of race & the advantages of being white. Further, universalism assumes that whites & PoC have the same realities, the same experiences in the same contexts (i.e. I feel comfortable in this majority white classroom, so you must too), the same responses from others & assumes that the same doors are open to all. Acknowledging racism as a system of privilege conferred on whites challenges claims to universalism.


At the same time that whites are taught to see their interests & perspectives as universal, they are also taught to value the individual & to see themselves as individuals rather than as part of a racially socialized group. Individualism erases history & hides the ways in which wealth has been distributed & accumulated over generations to benefit whites today. It allows whites to view themselves as unique & original, outside of socialization & unaffected by the relentless racial messages in the culture. Individualism also allows whites to distance themselves from the actions of their racial group & demand to be granted the benefit of the doubt, as individuals, in all cases.

 A corollary to this unracialized identity is the ability to recognize Whiteness as something that is significant & that operates in society, but to not see how it relates to one’s own life. In this form, a white person recognizes Whiteness as real, but as the individual problem of other “bad” white people. Given the ideology of individualism, whites often respond defensively when linked to other whites as a group or “accused” of collectively benefiting from racism, because as individuals, each white person is “different” from any other white person & expects to be seen as such. This narcissism is not necessarily the result of a consciously held belief that whites are superior to others (although that may play a role), but a result of the white racial insulation ubiquitous in dominant culture; a general white inability to see non-white perspectives as significant, except in sporadic & impotent reflexes, which have little or no long-term momentum or political usefulness.
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Whites invoke these seemingly contradictory discourses—we are either all unique or we are all the same—interchangeably. Both discourses work to deny white privilege & the significance of race. Further, on the cultural level, being an individual or being a human outside of a racial group is a privilege only afforded to white people. In other words, PoC are almost always seen as “having a race” & described in racial terms (“the black man”) but whites rarely are (“the man”), allowing whites to see themselves as objective & non-racialized. In turn, being seen (& seeing ourselves) as individuals outside of race frees whites from the psychic burden of race in a wholly racialized society. Race & racism become their problems, not ours. Challenging these frameworks becomes a kind of unwelcome shock to the system.


The disavowal of race as an organizing factor, both of individual white consciousness & the institutions of society at large, is necessary to support current structures of capitalism & domination, for without it, the correlation between the distribution of social resources & unearned white privilege would be evident. The existence of structural inequality undermines the claim that privilege is simply a reflection of hard work & virtue. Therefore, inequality must be hidden or justified as resulting from lack of effort. Individualism accomplishes both of these tasks. At the same time, the individual presented as outside these relations cannot exist without its disavowed other. Thus, an essential dichotomy is formed between specifically raced others & the unracialized individual. Whites have deep investments in race, for the abstract depends on the particular; they need raced others as the backdrop against which they may rise. Exposing this dichotomy destabilizes white identity.


Entitlement to racial comfort
In the dominant position, whites are almost always racially comfortable & thus have developed unchallenged expectations to remain so. Whites have not had to build tolerance for racial discomfort & thus when racial discomfort arises, whites typically respond as if something is “wrong,” & blame the person or event that triggered the discomfort (usually a person of color). This blame results in a socially-sanctioned array of counter-moves against the perceived source of the discomfort, including: penalization; retaliation; isolation; ostracization & refusal to continue engagement. Whites insistence on racial comfort ensures that racism will not be faced. This insistence also functions to punish those who break white codes of comfort. Whites often confuse comfort with safety & state that we don’t feel safe when what we really mean is that we don’t feel comfortable. This trivializes our history of brutality towards PoC & perverts the reality of that history. Because we don’t think complexly about racism, we don’t ask ourselves what safety means from a position of societal dominance, or the impact on PoC, given our history, for whites to complain about our safety when we are merely talking about racism.
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Racial Arrogance
Ideological racism includes strongly positive images of the white self as well as strongly negative images of racial “others”. This self-image engenders a self-perpetuating sense of entitlement because many whites believe their financial & professional successes are the result of their own efforts while ignoring the fact of white privilege. Because most whites have not been trained to think complexly about racism in schools or mainstream discourse & because it benefits white dominance not to do so, we have a very limited understanding of racism. Yet dominance leads to racial arrogance & in this racial arrogance, whites have no compunction about debating the knowledge of people who have thought complexly about race. Whites generally feel free to dismiss these informed perspectives rather than have the humility to acknowledge that they are unfamiliar, reflect on them further, or seek more information. This intelligence & expertise are often trivialized & countered with simplistic platitudes (i.e. “People just need to…”).
white4
Because of white social, economic & political power within a white dominant culture, whites are positioned to legitimize PoC’s assertions of racism. Yet whites are the least likely to see, understand, or be invested in validating those assertions & being honest about their consequences, which leads whites to claim that they disagree with perspectives that challenge their worldview, when in fact, they don’t understand the perspective.Thus, they confuse not understanding with not agreeing. This racial arrogance, coupled with the need for racial comfort, also has whites insisting that PoC explain white racism in the “right” way. The right way is generally politely & rationally, without any show of emotional upset. When explained in a way that white people can see & understand, racism’s validity may be granted (references to dynamics of racism that white people do not understand are usually rejected out of hand). However, whites are usually more receptive to validating white racism if that racism is constructed as residing in individual white people other than themselves.

Continued below: See White Fragility 3

Reverse Racism: DEBUNKED

Racism consists of both prejudice & discrimination based on social perceptions of biological differences between peoples. It often takes the form of social actions, practices or beliefs, or political systems that consider different races to be ranked as inherently superior or inferior to each other, based on presumed shared inheritable traits, abilities, or qualities.

Prejudice is a feeling of dislike towards a racial or ethnic group & discrimination is action taken to harm those whom you have prejudices against. The only persons on the planet who suffer from institutionalized prejudices are people of color (PoC), i.e. those of African descent, indigenous peoples, ‘Mexicans‘ & Asians (including those that are mixed with one or more of these ethnic groups), under the guise of white supremacy.

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Historically & including modern society, all of these groups have been oppressed based solely on their race/ethnicity by those who had the power & strong enough desire to do so: white people. Via laws, social norms, ideals & customs, discrimination has been institutionalized & has been able to continue by shared beliefs in white supremacy, which rationalizes racist actions & mindsets. White privilege is the fact that all white people benefit from the ongoing legacy of practiced racism (whether they are personally racist or not). Those who do not believe that white privilege exists are those who are enjoying the benefits of it. White people often tell black people not to attribute slavery to their current situations & positions despite the fact that slavery & the following systematic racism is how whites got into theirs!

yoyoo

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Reverse racism does not exist because PoC do not have any institutions in operation that specifically work against whites that they are able to benefit from, nor is there any historical evidence to suggest that any attempts to do so by PoC have ever been made. The reverse racism theory was concocted as a weak defense for white supremacist ideals. The reverse of racism would be NO racism at all, would it not? Some PoC are indeed prejudiced against whites, but even that is mainly based on generation after generation of them living under the institutionalized racism that is white supremacy. It’s not like racism, which is irrational & oppressive.

None of us asked to be born, nor did we get to choose our race. We are not responsible for the actions of our ancestors, but today’s whites do hold responsibility for allowing white supremacy to continue. If you’re not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. So just living comfortably within white privilege without actively attempting to put racism to an end makes you no better than your predecessors who crafted it.

Being able to enjoy the benefits of white privilege does not mean that all white peoples lives are, or have the capability of being ‘perfect’ – everyone has problems. That doesn’t mean that the benefits can’t be reaped in the other various layers of a white persons life. Having an inherit unfair advantage doesn’t mean you’ll always win. There are lots of minorities who are doing far better than many whites. Whites can face oppression too via sexism & homophobia (just like straight black men are able to benefit from straight & male privileges), but they cannot face oppression based on their race alone because again, there isn’t any racism being institutionalized against them (not even the Irish). There’s really no debating who is being oppressed more (& in much harsher ways) than who; that is crystal clear…

Programs like welfare & Affirmative Action, or the NAACP (which was actually established & controlled by white Jews) were enacted to help people overcome the obstacle of institutionalized racism (not to expand racial inequalities or seek preferential treatment), but they have not succeeded in eliminating white supremacy & about 40% of welfare recipients are whites & that’s who welfare was originally erected to help, not PoC. There is no doubt in my mind that many whites are more than happy to pay into the welfare system, which many times has the tendency to cause it’s recipients to become apathetic. This retains them in low income neighborhoods, which keeps them out of many predominately white, economically sound communities. Quoting Dick Gregory, regarding the term neighborhood: a hood is something you put over something else that you don’t want anybody to see. They’d much rather PoC be in the slums & out of their sight, than living just as well as them & their children playing with & procreating with their sons & daughters.

Claiming to be “colorblind” (to not recognize people by their race at all) is actually quite disrespectful & also an act of racism. It prevents people from acknowledging & being sympathetic to all the struggles of PoC, erasing their cultures, history & personal experiences. Pretending that we’re all equal now because Obama is POTUS & Oprah is a billionaire & that just not talking about race at all will make racism magically go away, is a less than half-assed attempt to rid the world of racial injustices. Different ethnic backgrounds & cultures are real & do exist, so to be colorblind (albeit well intentioned) & overlook them is to deny part of a persons identity & is passively racist. Diversity is not the root of racism, white supremacy is.

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So if you’re white & reading this, now fully aware of your privilege & that reverse racism is nothing more than a myth & you are genuinely a decent person, you will use your privileges to help put an end to white supremacy. This requires reeducating other whites who are in denial & actively pursing other ways to stop racial injustices from continuing. Without such efforts, true equality will never exist!

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor ~ Desmond Tutu

The Negro Project

Michael Brown is all over social media & the news… Yet another unarmed African-American teen shot down dead by the police, an organization whose supposed intent is to protect the public. This is nothing new, it’s no longer shocking, yet it is still hurtful.

A serious lack of empathy, respect & value for human life has always loomed in America, especially for those of African descent…

The Ku Klux Klan at it’s peak was 4 million members deep, some of them governors, mayors & senators. Today they only claim to have only a few thousand members, yet that does not mean their ideals do not still reside in the mindsets of far more. It was recently discovered that a couple of Florida police were members. Most police officers, mayors, governors & senators probably aren’t members either, but that doesn’t mean they don’t share their sentiments!

The police departments in America were originally formed to protect Caucasian people & their neighborhoods, not African people & theirs. Jim Crow laws were formed & implemented & still being exercised today. Planned Parenthood was originally called The Negro Project, formed to attempt to rid society of their undesireables. When an entire race of people is deemed to not be fully human, of course their lives will matter less & be dismissed as expendable.

abortionWhen cases like Mike Browns come about, a great sadness befalls the African American community & many of it’s parents become fearful for their own sons & daughters lives. Some even become afraid to reproduce. Some have been convinced that the tiny persons developing in their wombs are not human either, just like many of their oppressors believe about them. Only a few years ago, abortion ended the lives of more African American people than their top seven leading causes combined. So in some ways, The Negro Project has been a success.

Side Note: I am not trying to spark a debate about abortion rights, or if it’s murder. Technically, it’s not because murder is the illegal ending of a human life & abortion is the legal ending of a human life. I do not argue the aspect of morality regarding abortion either; that is based on personal beliefs & my perspective is not based on that. Mine are based on facts, and the Universe proves to us when human life begins, which is at conception. The laws of nature are not debatable.

Black on black violence is a major issue in America, and is often brought up when incidents like Mike Brown’s generate outrage. They wonder where the outrage is when we kill each other. Trust me, it’s there, but it doesn’t garner the same level of backlash from the community, because it’s not based in the same ideals; It’s not racially motivated. Logically, there is no reason to even compare the two. Most violent crime happens within racial lines, not across them.

Today in America, you will find people of all backgrounds struggling. However, even within that struggle, there are privileges to not being of African descent. Most Asians & whites do not have to live in fear of being harassed or killed by the police in their own neighborhoods just because of their appearance. Monsanto buried toxic sludge in predominantly African American neighborhoods that have caused serious health problems throughout those communities, including death; There are no predominantly white neighborhoods that this would ever happen in. When African Americans gather for peaceful protests & vigils for their fallen, they are greeted with a heavy police presence, dogs & tanks. You will not find such things at gatherings held for people of any other color.

Marching & protesting doesn’t help the situation or change anything. The justice system in America does not typically work in the favor of African people, so it’s pointless for us to trust & believe in it. Awareness alone does nothing; Action is the only solution. It seems like tragedy is the only thing that brings the African American community together. We need to continue this unity at all times. We’re so busy fighting & competing with each other, we’re not able to stand up against our common enemies to better our situations.

No matter what we do, we’re still living under their system & must live by their rules, even when those rules do not benefit us in any way. In America, we have no power. We own nothing & run nothing in comparison to all that our oppressors own & operate, such as land, shelter, utilities, media outlets, clothing companies, banks, court systems, law enforcement, etc. We rely on all these industries that they control. That’s why we need an infrastructure of our own, because we’re not faring well under theirs & it’s modeled in such a way to make sure that we never will. We could be thriving instead of just surviving, but we first must learn to value ourselves & each other!

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