The Inadequacy of White Fragility

Editor’s Note: This article is part of an ongoing symposium on white fragility and its related concepts. To view all of the essays in this series, click here.

It is a misrepresentation to argue that White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo represents all of the antiracism movement. However, it is a book that has topped the New York Times bestsellers list, and we ignore its influence at our own peril. The term “white fragility” has entered our common lexicon, and it may be the best-known expression of antiracism to the general public. An examination of the usefulness of white fragility as conceptualized by DiAngelo helps us evaluate its ability to deal with racial alienation—which I define as our inability to relate to each other and work out our problems together.

Institutional racial bias, or systematic racism, is a real phenomenon. There are institutional factors that work against people of color. A lot of ink has been spilled documenting the reality of this type of racial dysfunction and I do not want to cover old ground. Here, I will just point out a way it has personally affected me—residential segregation. When I was in high school, there were very few businesses who could hire me for a job in my predominately black neighborhood. To get a job, I had to catch a bus to go across town. It took me about 45 minutes to an hour to go one way to work. It was a barrier that those who did not live in an African-American neighborhood lacking economic resources did not have to face. Residential segregation, as a representation of institutional racism, did not make my success impossible, but it made it more difficult.

Naturally, this is not the only way institutional racial bias impacts people of color. We can talk about how it affects us in our educational systems and criminal justice administration, and how we receive health care or talk about other social institutions that perpetuate racial inequality. But often, European-Americans show little interest in investigating how systematic bias impacts people of color. If books like White Fragility help to bring awareness of such bias to majority group members, then it provides a valuable service. Only when whites become willing to deal with systematic biases will we be able to shape the type of society where racial alienation decreases.

But while White Fragility may resonate with some people, I fear that the very nature of DiAngelo’s argument limits its potential. DiAngelo’s basic thesis is that whites are socialized to have “a deeply internalized sense of superiority and entitlement.” In essence, she communicates the message that all whites are racist. Not racist in the sense that they burn crosses, but rather complicit in the internalized racism in our society. Their denial of said racism is seen as evidence of the “white fragility” after which the book is titled. It is the stress they feel when their worldview, upon which they have built an understanding of society that serves them so well, is challenged. DiAngelo argues that we must break down defensiveness and the need of whites to assert their innocence of the charges of racism if we are to move away from a white-dominated society. To be sure, this is not a complete description of her reasoning, but summarizes key points that are relevant to the arguments I will make in this essay.

There are several empirical and philosophical problems with DiAngelo’s approach. Rather than focus on all of them, I simply want to explore whether this is an approach well-suited for moral suasion, since without moral suasion we are left with forced compliance. If we assume that DiAngelo has goals that will reduce the racial tensions in our society, is her approach to achieving those goals likely to succeed? Research suggests not. If we want to engage in moral suasion then we know that we should seek to: identify where we agree with our interlocutor,  admit when he/she has made a good point, build rapport with him/her, and truly understand his/her arguments. Accomplishing these goals significantly increases our chance to convince others of our point of view.

The philosophy of White Fragility does none of this. Instead, white fragility has become a term used to stigmatize whites who do not line up with the “proper” racial attitudes that DiAngelo supports. I have no doubt that some whites go along with the demands of antiracists to avoid such stigma. But unless these “allies” develop deep and honest convictions about racially progressive ideas, then they are unlikely to be willing to work for those ideas when there is insufficient social pressure compelling them to support antiracism.

There is another path. For years I have promoted the concept of “mutual accountability.” It is a model that came to me as I conducted research on multiracial churches and interracial marriages. From that research I began to argue that interracial contact, done correctly, is a vital element for producing positive racial change in our society. In fact, I do not see how we will adequately deal with racial alienation until we interact with each other in healthier ways. Positive interracial contact alone will not be sufficient–but until we, across the racial spectrum, are willing to work with each other on ideas that go beyond serving the interest of our own racial, and at times, political, tribe—then we will not make further progress in race relations. I call it mutual accountability because we are all accountable for promoting healthy interracial conversations.

I would argue that the best way to envision my model is as collaborative conversation. Collaborative conversation has been defined as “a purposeful, outcome-driven conversation aimed at building on each other’s ideas.” The idea works by finding solutions through listening. We must listen to the concerns of others and articulate our own concerns. While we have a natural inclination to get as much as we can from others, that can backfire on us. When we try to coerce others into giving in to us, we can make them so bitter that they will sabotage whatever we gain. It is probable that antiracism efforts motivate some whites to capitulate to the demands of activists. But it is also plausible that these efforts strengthen the resolve of other whites to resist any reforms that come under the banner of antiracism. A process of collaborative communication where we prioritize productive communication with each other helps to minimize that possibility and create more unity in our search for a solution to racial alienation.

Today much of our communication across racial and political boundaries consists of us attempting to force others to meet our expectations while we minimize any compromise on our part. But without that compromise we will fail to devise paths by which we can work with, instead of against, each other. However, I argue that learning how to interact with each other in ways where we use collaborative conversations to devise solutions will result in ‘win-win’ instead of ‘win-lose’ outcomes. So much of the approach of White Fragility, and much of what has been called antiracism, is based on ensuring that people of color win and whites lose. That is an understandable sentiment given the centuries of racial abuse from which people of color have suffered. But seeking out win-win solutions creates ‘buy in’ from most Americans. With that we can create stable, sustainable solutions rather than those that alienate large sections of the population.

If we did this, then I have little doubt that the 8 billion dollars a year we spend on diversity training would yield much more powerful dividends. But as of today, there is little evidence that diversity training reduces prejudice. However, research has indicated that collaborative styles of communication lead to less prejudice and more volitional compliance in the decisions that are made by the parties involved. Research has also shown that efforts based on including whites in the decision-making process lead to more hiring of people of color in managerial positions than forcing white managers into diversity programs. In other words, bringing others into conversation is more effective in creating real racial diversity than browbeating whites with accusations of fragility. In time, I hope we develop better diversity programs based on collaborative conversations rather than antiracism. Programs that teach people how to find interracial agreement are superior to programs that sow interracial discord.

I have written two books advancing an approach of mutual accountability. My first book, Beyond Racial Gridlock, is a Christian book where I make a theological as well as practical argument that the best way to deal with racial alienation is to recognize our tendency to put our own needs over others. In that book I argue that this can be overcome with an attitude of caring about the needs of others. The second book, Transcending Racial Barriers, is an scholarly treatment of this issue where I use academic theories of contact hypothesis and group interest theory to chart a path away from antiracism and toward mutual accountability. I am currently working on another book that updates these previous efforts.

Nonetheless, I do not want to be alone in my analysis of collaborative conversations. There are important questions that need to be answered. How do we facilitate conversations that are collaborative and do not reproduce power dynamics that favor whites over non-whites? How do we make certain that individuals feel comfortable speaking their mind when there may be dramatic social costs to being seen as a racist or a complainer? How do we ensure that the important issues are the ones we have conversations about? These and others are vital questions. I do not claim to have the answers for all of them. Some will have to be learned from trial and error. If we continue to ask those questions, then we have a chance to one day answer them. In time, I hope more will join me in considering how we can use collaborative conversations to discover win-win solutions to many of the racialized problems that trouble us. This, rather than an approach inspired by ideas within White Fragility, is the key to dealing with racial alienation in our society.

Image: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona, Public Domain


5 thoughts on “The Inadequacy of White Fragility

  1. There are a number of significant problems with Prof. Yancy’s essay. Let us begin with the simplest, the most obvious, and, in some ways, the most revealing.

    “Systematic Racism” — a phrase he uses repeatedly — is a painful misnomer. It is NOT the word he believes it to be, nor does it have the meaning we can assume he intends. It does NOT mean, “racism which is deeply embedded in the ‘systems, policies, procedures, and infrastructures’ which comprise American society”….that word is “SYSTEMIC”. ‘Systematic’ means only that the thing so described is thoroughly executed in an orderly, and regulated manner, according to plan. People with OCD tend to be very systematic in their approach to life. Cancer is systemic when it’s spread throughout the body.

    This misuse is telling but not critical.

    What is critical is his off-hand presumption that SYSTEMIC racism is a “real phenomenon”. It is not. Nor does his lack of argument do anything other than illustrate the weakness of the blind assertion…. especially as it is accompanied, by his non-evidential anecdote: ‘It took me 45 minutes to go one way to work.’

    THAT is “residential segregation”??

    No, Prof. Yancy, it is not. That is simply life. There are 10 million stories like this in the Naked City, yours, mine no better no worse than all the others. Certainly this was a ‘barrier’ we all faced (trying to find a paying job in HS), but it was not one that was given to us because of our skin colors; it was given to us because we were HS kids with zero skills who lived a long way from any business willing to hire grunt labor.

    So no, a 45 minute bus ride to get a HS job has nothing whatsoever to do with so-called SYSTEMIC racism.

    Prof. Yancy goes on to wave, in passing, at the “education system” and “criminal justice administration” as additional examples of how deeply embedded racism is in the American polity. Neither works. Rather they serve to underline the significantly uncomfortable fact that both institutions and their demographic outputs reflect the nature of the communities they each serve.

    We have neither the space nor time, here, to re-review comparative studies of GPA’s, Board Scores, Dropout Rates, Graduation Rates, College Matriculation Rates, Major Choices, Out-of-Wedlock birth rates, Unemployment rates, Conviction rates, Crime rates by category, Black murder rates, etc But the story they all tell is the same. Glenn Loury describes it this way: “Nobody is coming, and, more fundamentally, no one can come into the most intimate relations between our women and men, into the families and neighborhoods where our children are being raised, so as to reorder those cultural institutions in a manner that would be more developmentally constructive.”
    “These matters,” he tells us, “are ultimately and necessarily in the hands of African-Americans alone. They require facing up to such questions as: Who are we as a people? How should we live with one another? What will we do to honor the sacrifices that our ancestors made to leave us the opportunities we now enjoy? What do we owe our children?” He describes the problem being wrestled within the Black community as a “pathology”.

    Prof. Yancy confuses this pathology with an otherwise invisible ‘systemic’ bias. He underlines this confusion when he asserts that institutions which “perpetuate racial inequality” must therefore be guilty of this baked-in bias. That also is categorically untrue.

    If I hold a track meet and you show-up to run, 50 lbs overweight and unpracticed, you’ll lose. And you’ll consistently lose to runners who are not fat, to runners who are diligently practiced. That would be a persistent inequality. My ‘institution’ would indeed, therefore, ‘perpetuate’ these evident outcome inequalities, but that does not make my track meet systemically racist. It simply means you’re not competing effectively against better runners.

    Ibram Kendi, in his racist, “How to be an Anti-Racist” screed makes this irrationality explicit. Racism, to Kendi (and Yancy, we must unfortunately presume) is outcome inequality. It is not hatred and acts of bigoted discrimination, it is only demographic outcome imbalance. DiAngelo agrees, writing “if we truly believe that all humans are equal, then disparity in condition can only be the result of systemic discrimination.” Kendi pushes this a step further, saying: “If discrimination is creating equity, then it is anti-racist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racist.”

    To Kendi, Yancy, and DiAngelo…my Track Meet therefore must be racist because my track meet does nothing to rebalance, demographically, the race results. How could I fix it? Per Kendi, et al, only by deliberately discriminating to ensure an equal number of Black runners win (regardless of winning qualifications).

    This is insane.

    Systemic racism in the United States simply does not exist. We have no laws, or policies which are race-based. There are no organizations which admit, hire, fire, or promote on the basis of race (Affirmative Action, of course, being a glaring exception). Banks do not loan because of skin color. There are no venues which refuse admittance because one is lighter or darker. No public office you cannot occupy if you White or Black. No job you may not have. These things are not happening and haven’t happened for generations. And if – in some backwater – some instance of this despicable bias is uncovered, then it is exposed by the media and abhorred by the American Public. We are not a racist nation.

    Are there racists, still, who walk among us? Of course there are. Racism as a particular variant of human hatred will be with us as long as humans continue to hate. But racism as state policy, THAT institutionally systemic monster died a long time ago.

    So how is all this solved?

    Yancy tells us, “Only when whites become willing to deal with systematic (sic) biases will we be able to shape the type of society where racial alienation decreases.”

    No. This is utterly wrong.
    And the wrongness begins with the horrendously inaccurate conviction that outcome inequality proves systemic bias. No, it doesn’t. Outcome inequality is the inevitable result of natural human inequality. We walk into the unequal lives our unequal parents unequally made, each one of us carrying our own, unequal genetic baggage. We live these unequal lives according to our own, unequal priorities, applying our own unequal talents and abilities in individually unequal ways. Of course the outcomes we generate as different individuals living different lives are themselves different and unequal. They couldn’t be anything else. And just as we see individual differences reflected in outcome imbalances, so too do we see group & cultural differences equally outcome reflected.

    The question is not are our lives unequal – for of course they are and always will be – the question is: what will we do, each one of us, with these unequal lives we have been given. Choices carry consequences, and different choices will shape different consequences

    Glenn Loury, in his essay, “Why does Inequality Persist?” describes it thusly: “The 21st-century failures of too many African-Americans to take advantage of the opportunities created by the civil rights revolution are palpable, yet they are denied at every turn. This position is untenable. The end of Jim Crow segregation and the advent of equal rights for blacks were game changers. A half-century later, the deep disparities that remain are shameful and are due in large part to the behaviors of black people.”

    “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves”
    And that is a very hard pill to swallow.

  2. My freshman year I had to walk 7+ miles — each way — to a minimum wage job. The summer before that, I’d worked on a fishing boat for what averaged out to be a sub-minimum wage.

    I’d like to know what fire trucking white privilege that I’ve ever enjoyed…

  3. I’ve lived a long life. I’ve read MLK, Baldwin (starting as an astonished 11 year-old – me, that is, not James) Wright, Hughes (Langston) and later Coleman, though not quite bookish as yet, Loury, Sowell, Riley, McWhorter, Steele.
    I was raised on blues. I listened to the Last Poets as a teenager, capable of being suspicious and critical of my own race.

    The current offerings of CRT leave me wondering, that’s all? That’s all they’ve got? That’s the best they can offer up?

    I’ve also read a library’s worth of Utopia’s best and most famous backfirings – the Stalinist, Maoist tragic failures, Pol Pot’s criminal confusion, the meltdown in Rwanda, and no end of Holocaust memoirs, some of them excellent.
    People are capable of incredible inhumanity.

    I believe that some several hundreds of millions of white skinned people now dwell upon this sad little blue planet, who are not at all convinced that their best and bravest gut hunches are not in fact, capable of following the order of a reasonably healthy conscience – that says some Golden Rule still allowed to exist, and still followed in spite of ourselves, does not still teach us the value and the glory of the greatest Identity Group of all – the human race.
    Yet when that becomes somehow, not good enough….ah, then that long slow process of de-humanization quickly accelerates into the quick decline that has historians one day marveling while looking back at a big collective shrug.

    As if it was nothing more than human nature.

    When the year 1965 rolled over in my young life, I was barely old enough to have myself a simple notion: that mere children perhaps one day might be capable of transcending the sins of their fathers (and quite a few generations further back than that!) and make real friends across any divide.
    Which means, conversation, collaboration, romance, matrimony, and just about anything imaginable shared as a true commonality, under the skin. With all the attendant empathies, sympathies, compassion, and the deep understanding of shared struggles, triumphs and tragedies.
    Hell, the thing that attracted me to the blues was nothing other than the oppression I knew as a child. I could relate.
    This was no attraction to a shallow stereotype. There was far too much blood, sweat and tears in it.

    And I would now be made to believe that….politics? Owns all of that? I say nuts to narrow minds.
    For it is a narrow mind that trades nothing more than revenge, in the place of all those things that make humans in all their stripes, stronger, braver, truer, and woven into that societal fabric that is no so easily torn asunder.

  4. The author says “Institutional racial bias, or systematic racism, is a real phenomenon. There are institutional factors that work against people of color.”

    I notice, and here is no exception, that actual examples are never provided. We’re just supposed to accept this notion as fact.

    1. Most of my own learning in school(1947-1982) was at least partially collaborative. I watched Cornell teaching(1964-1971) become less so and saw some students with guns take over and change the learning environment. I switched fields to try to get in a classroom and put my finger in the dike. Texas A&M gave me total control of two sections of Freshman Comp. My classes were entirely discussion and after one semester I had long waiting lists for my sections despite the fact that grades in my sections were slightly below average. I was a star teacher for my eleven years there. Then I went into the real world of teaching where administrators and a handful of students want lock-step syllabi and answers that are easy to regurgitate or somehow produce by cheating. As years went by more and more of my colleagues began to adhere to the lecture-regurgitate model and I became more and more vilified. My chair for the last twelve years said that I should not expect students to do the reading because they needed to be told the answers. He removed me from teaching any English majors and canceled four literature courses that I had designed.
      I continued to be a popular teacher using my semi-Socratic methods but that infuriated him and more of the newer colleagues.
      I think collaborative methods like Dr. Yancey suggests are a good idea but am quite sure that the current denizens of the wokeworld wouldn’t and couldn’t do it.

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