Robin DiAngelo: White Fragility (Lecture Review)

How white people defend their racist tendencies, and what to do about it

Annie Windholz
7 min readApr 30, 2017

Robin DiAngelo is an social justice, anti-racism academic who is known for coining the term, “white fragility,” (a state in which even a small amount of racial stress “becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves”). She was in town for the “White Privilege Conference,” and gave a free lecture for the public titled “Seeing the Water: Whiteness in Daily Life.”


White Discomfort

DiAngelo begins the lecture by explaining “positioning,” meaning how our perceptions about reality are shaped by our own positions within society. DiAngelo bluntly draws the attention of the room to the fact that she is a white person. She does not have a “human” experience, she has a “white” experience. She explains that in our racist culture, white people are not raised to see themselves as having a race, and are not encouraged to draw attention to their race except in relation to people of other races. She argues that this is just a new form of continuing institutional racism and privilege and benefits for the white race.

She explains that she knows what she knows today because of hundreds of years or experience and teachings from people of color. If she does a good job with this lecture, the white people in the room won’t be comfortable for the next hour and a half. It’s exceptional in our society for white people to be uncomfortable. When white people are uncomfortable, the decisive key and the turning point is what they do with that discomfort. They can get defensive and take the door out, or they can critically analyse the lens they have been viewing the world as up til now, and open the door in.

Institutional Oppression

The dominant narrative in our society post civil rights era is that “race doesn’t matter.” DiAngelo says this is just patently ridiculous. How can race not matter when we see daily that it obviously has dramatic effects on the population? If you look at any institution in the US, or use any measurement, people of color are always at the bottom. By continually teaching our children the lie that “race doesn’t matter,” we are implying that everyone is starting on equal footing, and “those that don’t rise to the top chose that path”. This fits into the American myth of “rugged individualism,” and it places blame for misfortune on marginalized groups.

DiAngelo believes that young people are not more progressive or less racist than older people, but just reframe the concept into a more politically correct way with each coming generation.

Prejudice is an internal “pre-judgement” that all humans are guilty of. Discrimination is an external acting out on these judgements. This is also a human quality we cannot avoid. However, institutional oppression is a “collective prejudice backed by legal authority and institutional control.” Institutional prejudice defines who is beautiful, who is successful, who is bad, who is safe, who is trustworthy, who is hardworking.

DiAngelo uses the issue of women’s suffrage for an example (using cis-terms for the audience). Could women as a group deny men their civil rights to vote? No. Could men deny women their civil rights to vote? Yes. And today, it is an overwhelming proportion of men in positions of power over the population (particularly white men). Could men deny women their civil liberties if they wanted? There is silence from the audience, so DiAngelo comes up with statistics:

Of Fortune 500 CEOs, 98% are male. Congress is 81% male (90% on the conservative side). The presidential office has always been 100% male. His cabinet: 91% male. As far as the media goes, the top 100 films worldwide last year were produced by 99% male directors, mostly white. Media is what shapes our societal narrative we tell ourselves, and white men are the least likely population to be in touch with marginalized experiences. She asks us again, could men deny women their civil liberties if they wanted to?

Yes, the audience says aloud.

Could women deny men their civil liberties? No, because they don’t hold enough positions of power.

Did the patriarchy end with the right to vote? Or would it have ended with an election of Hillary Clinton? Of course not. It’s a long road to combating the systemic institutional sexism in our nation. The same for race relations. There is no “reverse racism” or “reverse sexism.” There is a clear oppressor and oppressed: populations who hold the power and populations who don’t.

“If that statement bugs you, go inside yourself and ask yourself why,” DiAngelo encourages the majority white audience.

New Racism: The Binary

With the new racist binary, you can’t be a good person and also be a racist. Racists are bad people, and if you are caught acting out a racist tendency you must deny it or else admit you’re a horrible person. This binary is harmful, because it stops people from actually critically looking at themselves. They hide their unconscious biases even from themselves, because to acknowledge them within ourselves (according to our dominant narrative) would be to admit you’re a bad person. This makes it virtually almost impossible to talk to white people about racist absorption in our racist culture, and has everything to do with white defensiveness when someone calls them out.

“If you believe racists are bad, you’re going to hear me call you a racist tonight. And you’re going to want to defend your moral character. You’re going to do this by arguing that what you said or did was not racist,” DiAngelo states.

What dominant narratives are prompting us to discuss race so defensively and uncritically? These are the myths we have told ourselves:

  1. We were taught to “treat everyone the same.” (We in fact can’t be taught, we are only told. We are taught in actions and other discourses that people have different values based on where they come from and what they look like)
  2. The statement, “I see everyone as equals. “ (This is problematic, because, again, you see differences whether you admit it to yourself or others or not.
  3. “Race has no meaning for me.” (Again, untrue and an erasure of marginalized people’s histories which makes their skin color have a lot of meaning to them.)
  4. “Everyone struggles, but if you work hard…” (This is just a sheltered white person who can’t get outside of their own perceptions and believes everyone had the same start to life they did.)
  5. “My parent’s were racist, so I learned that phrase from them.” (You still have control to change your actions as an individual)
  6. “My parent’s weren’t racist, so I can’t be.” (You can be. And they probably were too, because we live in a racist society.)
  7. “Racism is in the past.” (Again, you’re erasing people of color’s actual real life experiences, and placing your own opinion and lack of experience as fact.)
  8. “Regardless of race…” (There is no regardless of race. Racism is an ugly part of institutionalized society and with every critique on society, we must include that in our lens)
  9. “At the human level…” (Again, and erasure of the experience of people of color, and grouping them into the “white experience”).

All of the above are phrases from the post 70s “Colorbind” culture that we live in today. They are not helpful to moving forward in social justice, yet they are very commonly used to defend a person’s honor from the “stain” of racism. Those of us who are progressive white people can be even worse than the mainstream public in defending our racist tendencies as well, because progressives think they already have it “figured out,” and don’t need to learn anymore. You always have to be learning when you’re swimming in the waters of a racist world. Some of the ways that progressive white people defend their racism is by saying:

  1. They “live/work/teach/in a diverse or lower income environment”. Or that they “tutored kids on a reservation for a summer, or teach in an urban school”
  2. They “used to live in New York City, Canada or were in the military.” (Because we all know that if you have contact with a person of color, you are now definitely not going to perpetuate a racist culture. NOT.)
  3. “I marched in the 60s.” (Okay, but how are you continuing to learn now?)
  4. “I already know all this.” (Just by making that statement, you are telling everyone that you actually don’t know much.)
  5. “I’ve been to Costa Rica/I had a class in college…” (Just, no.)
  6. “I don’t like our white neighborhood, but we had to move here for the schools.” (Okay, so it’s okay for other people’s kids to have a bad education? Because that’s what you’re saying. For your kids to have a “better” education, others must have a worse one.)

This is your basic college discourse analysis. A person is called out for a racist comment, action or viewpoint, and then they defend themselves with evidence that they are not a racist.

Guess what? You can’t defend yourself from being a racist. We all were brought up with a racist worldview, unless we were raised in a bubble out in the wilderness and have never interacted with any culture or society. That is why, DiAngelo comments, she has dedicated her life to challenging and divesting from these racist tendencies. And she makes sure that she is constantly being held accountable by people of color, as no one is immune from sliding back toward the racist paradigm. And, a lot of times white people just aren’t even aware of the racist things happening in society, because they don’t need to notice it. It doesn’t affect them, and if it does, it generally helps them.

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