White fragility (1970s- ) is that thing where White Americans get highly upset when you try to talk to them about racism, particularly their own racism. It can lead to discomfort, anger, guilt, fear, sometimes even violence or murder. Instead of listening and learning, they defend their self-image. It is a part of colour-blind racism. It leads to tropes like the R-word, White feelings, White fauxpologies, derailing and the tone argument.
The term comes from Robin DiAngelo, a professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University. She has a PhD in race relations and White racial identity. Since the 1990s she has been doing diversity training, coming across White fragility all the time. She uses the idea of White fragility to help fellow Whites understand what it is they are doing wrong and why.
At the heart of White fragility is what Whites mislearned from the civil rights movement of the 1960s:
- Racism is personal, not institutional or structural. It is caused by bad people, not by how society is built.
- Racism is a matter of intentions. If your intentions are good, you cannot possibly be racist, despite whatever ill effect you actions may have on people of colour.
- To be a racist is to be a completely terrible, evil person. There are no degrees of racism. It is all or nothing, either-or (dichotomous, black-and-white thinking).
This is why when you point out a White person’s racism, they see it as a threat to their self-image, which they protect at all costs. It is why they make it about their intentions. It is why they give such lame apologies. It is why they are blind to their own racism.
It gets worse: Racism calls into question the justice of their position in society. That threatens their self-image as good and moral people yet further. It goes against the messages US society constantly feeds them of what good and wonderful people they are. Not just Hollywood films, fashion magazines and high school history books, but even the fact, say, that Whites tend to live in better neighbourhoods and go to better schools than Blacks.
They want all the advantages of living in a racist society, but do not want to face up to the fact that that is what they are doing. Because that would mean they are terrible, evil people.
And US society is built so that most Whites never have to face up to that fact. About 75% of them live in Whitelandia (my word, not DiAngelo’s), that place you see on television: White neighbourhoods, White schools, White churches, White families, White friends, White teachers, White managers, White magazines – all White everything.
And, in my experience, even those who do not live in Whitelandia – probably most of the White commenters on this blog – even many of them still have some White fragility. Because they are still caught in the same bind: no matter how many people of colour are in their family or neighbourhood, they still base their self-image on lies.
– Abagond, 2015.
- colour-blind racism
- My own take on White fragility:
- psychopathic racial personality