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The Problem with 'White Fragility' Theory

The suggestion that a viewpoint comes from a “racialized frame of reference” is, in fact, an expression of doubt about my ability to be objective.

· 10 min read
The Problem with 'White Fragility' Theory

If you are conversant with the vocabulary of progressive discourse on racism, you have probably heard of the term ‘white fragility.’ The brainchild of sociologist Dr. Robin DiAngelo, ‘white fragility’ has gained much currency in academic and progressive circles in recent years as a concept that goes a long way in ostensibly explaining why it’s so hard to talk to white people about racism.

According to DiAngelo, white people have been “[s]ocialized” to live with “a deeply internalized sense of superiority and entitlement” but they aren’t consciously aware of it. As a result, they experience “race-based stress” when faced with a challenge to their “racial worldview” because they perceive it to be an affront to their “identities as good, moral people”—an “unfair moral offense,” as well as an attack on their “rightful place in the hierarchy.” This makes it hard to talk to white people about how their attitudes and beliefs make them complicit in the perpetuation of “institutional racism.”

In other words, white people don’t want to be called racists. Of course, the idea that white people don’t like to be called racists is not an especially unique or compelling insight. Psychological defense mechanisms are commonplace in human nature. But DiAngelo wants to convince white people to let down their guard by claiming that their sensitivity is produced by a misunderstanding of the nature of racism. Racism, she claims, is not so much about explicit beliefs white people consciously hold about people of color, but about implicit—or unconscious—biases that sustain institutional inequities in the distribution of societal resources across different racial groups.

I can appreciate the difficulty of presenting social science research to a general audience unschooled in the data that have been examined and the techniques employed to examine the data to arrive at systematic results. The scientific method is demanding and is not readily accessible to everyone. For a social scientist, it is critical to the integrity of one’s work. But for a general audience unaccustomed to the rigorous and methodological nature of scientific inquiry, it can run up against long-held preconceptions about a topic, creating a degree of cognitive dissonance that impedes receptivity to new ideas and insights, especially about sensitive topics like race and racism.

But while conservatism bias is common among general audiences who are unacquainted with Bayesian reasoning (i.e. the updating of beliefs about the probability of events based on the receipt of new information), it is not always a one-way street. Scientists themselves can become so wedded to their theories that they give short shrift to reasonable objections that may arise from their audience, especially audiences not trained in their discipline. In fact, it appears that DiAngelo and her disciples have become so focused on white ‘illiteracy’ in the conversation about race that they are prepared to sacrifice the scientific method on the altar of fighting ‘institutional racism.’

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I first came across the notion of ‘white fragility’ when I began raising concerns that, in many cases, progressive activism is inspired by ideas that lack sufficient support from social science research.

For example, elsewhere I have questioned whether confirmation bias affects the judgment of social justice activists. I have lamented how progressives such as Claudia Rankine have turned the Emmy-award-winning show Breaking Bad into a paradigm of ‘whiteness’ by misinterpreting the motives that drove Walter White to become a modern Macbeth (failing, I might add, to see the irony that Walter White’s final act is the murder of white supremacists). I have questioned whether micro-aggressions really are a thing, drawing attention to a devastating critique of the micro-aggression research paradigm (MRP) written by eminent Emory University psychologist Scott O. Lilienfeld in his review of the psychological literature published in January 2017, in which he writes that the MRP “is far too underdeveloped on the conceptual and methodological fronts to warrant real-world application.” I have pointed out empirical limitations and conceptual complications in the notion of ‘white privilege.’

Finally, I have come across serious critiques of the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which is credited by many, as Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard has quipped, with “divining hidden racial attitudes, or what the trade calls ‘implicit bias’.” For example, in a 2008 paper, Gregory Mitchell of the University of Virginia and Philip Tetlock of the University of Pennsylvania highlight “psychometric flaws” in the research underlying “the elusive construct of unconscious prejudice.” In a paper entitled “Popularity as a Poor Proxy for Utility,” Mitchell and Tetlock summarize the literature on IAT as follows:

On issue after issue, there is little evidence of positive impacts from IAT research: theories and understandings of prejudice have not converged as a result of the IAT research; bold claims about the superior predictive validity of the IAT over explicit measures have been falsified; IAT scores have been found to add practically no explanatory power in studies of discriminatory behavior; and IAT research has not led to new practical solutions to discrimination.

If the science on ‘unconscious prejudice’ and the IAT is unsound, then there may be something amiss in DiAngelo’s insistence that the implicit biases of white people are a central force in perpetuating systemic inequities in the distribution of societal resources—what she calls “institutional racism.” In raising these objections with progressive friends and family, however, I have often been ignored, or met with skepticism. In essence, I have been asked, explicitly or implicitly: why are you so uptight? Why do you have a problem with the pursuit of social justice? Why do you get defensive about white privilege? I am then directed to the work of Dr. Robin DiAngelo on ‘white fragility.’

Robin DiAngelo’s Misreading of Michel Foucault
Sydney. London. Toronto.

As a career economist with an undergraduate degree in philosophy, I have found myself distraught by this unwillingness to engage in debate about the merits of progressive ideas and the social science research that underlies them. I am not interested in what DiAngelo might call “protecting white feelings.” As someone whose first allegiance is to the scientific method, I consider everything fair game when the truth is at stake. ‘White solidarity’ should not get in the way when it comes to thinking critically about the hows and whys of social and economic outcomes. Thus, I do not experience any discomfort acknowledging that racial inequities still prevail in our society. I might be inclined to avoid the racism treadmill and highlight the progress we’ve made, but the data on social and economic outcomes across racial groups are clear. White people, on average, by a number of measures, fare better than ethnic and racial minorities.

While a sampling of data makes the racial divide clear, it is not clear what should be done about it. Hence, the policy debates that drive news cycles, motivate social science research, and galvanize the tirades rampant on social media. This is to be expected in a large and diverse society. But what has become regrettable—intolerable, even—is the fervor with which progressives claim the moral high ground even when confronted with social science research which should make them pause and reconsider their convictions.

The notion of ‘white fragility’ is an unambiguous example of the slippery slope that can ensue. Invoking ‘white fragility’ when presented with serious critiques of the conceptual and methodological underpinnings of the IAT, the micro-aggression research paradigm, white privilege, and other progressive ideas, is like hearing someone blithely dismiss a rigorous critique of communism as ‘bourgeois.’ One does not have to invoke communism’s worst abuses to appreciate the hostility to scientific inquiry of those who wave away objections by attributing them to a white ‘racialized’ perspective (to use DiAngelo’s word). Socialization and acculturation are powerful forces in the development of one’s capacity to think critically about social, political, and economic issues, but they do not make it impossible. To believe otherwise is to replace the scientific method (ironically enough) with a reactionary reflexive need to categorize any objections—reasonable or otherwise—as manifestations of ‘white fragility.’ In other words, ‘white fragility’ becomes an Orwellian device to dismiss objections from white people in the same way that ‘bourgeois’ was a semantic weapon to dismiss the objections of ‘capitalists’ to communist doctrine.

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DiAngelo is intent on disrupting the ‘comfort’ that white people have allegedly come to expect in their daily lives. Whether going about their business or engaging in normal conversation, she perceives them as people steeped in the privilege of the dominant social group. As someone with years of experience in the study of race and racism, and in the practice of confronting white people about the nature of racism, DiAngelo has encountered many emotional reactions in her years running diversity-training workshops. For example, she writes: “In this position, I have observed countless enactments of white fragility. One of the most common is outrage: ‘How dare you suggest that I could have said or done something racist!’”

As DiAngelo emphasizes, “implicit bias” is the where the fault line erupts. It does not matter to her that numerous problems have been discovered in the social science research that underlies the idea that implicit bias is a driving force is systemic racial inequality. Though her approach has apparently become more conciliatory over time, DiAngelo remains determined to demonstrate to “red-faced” white people that they have been socialized into a “racialized” worldview. In her stubborn persistence, invoking ‘white fragility’ elevates a banal observation about universal defense mechanisms into an old Marxist storyline about ‘false consciousness’ as a central force in the perpetuation of systemic exploitation.

As I have argued elsewhere, the specter of Marxism haunts the contemporary social justice movement. The Frankfurt School of German philosophers, writing in the aftermath of World War II, theorized that ‘false consciousness’ is a condition in which “[t]here is no visceral consciousness given to the inherent justice of the social order in which the material conditions of life are enjoyed.” They were concerned with capitalist exploitation, but the same paradigm perfectly applies to DiAngelo’s preoccupation with racial privilege and injustice.

The Frankfurt School and Postmodern Philosophy
Sydney. London. Toronto.

There is, however, a supreme arrogance in presuming to have unlocked the secret of “self-imposed immaturity” (Immanuel Kant’s definition of being ‘unenlightened’) hidden in a psychological vault of ‘false consciousness.’ If arrogance were the end of it, however, I’d be content to ignore the pious divinity of this kind of social justice activism. But there is something more insidious at work. DiAngelo wants to confront white people with their complicity in the perpetuation of institutional racism. She insists that “systemic and institutional control allows those of us who are white in North America to live in a social environment that protects and insulates us from race-based stress.” In a bullet point list of examples, Dr. DiAngelo’s first example of a challenge “that trigger(s) racial stress for white people” is “that a white person’s viewpoint comes from a racialized frame of reference,” which is interpreted as a “challenge to (their presumption of) objectivity.”

I will be the first to admit that I am skeptical when presented with the suggestion that my viewpoint comes from a “racialized frame of reference.” This is not because I believe myself omniscient, invariably objective, or immune to cognitive and emotional biases. It is because I believe in the scientific method. The suggestion that a viewpoint comes from a “racialized frame of reference” is, in fact, an expression of doubt about my ability to be objective. Of course, objectivity demands that I question my claim of objectivity. In keeping with the scientific method, however, introspection should lead to testable hypotheses about whether my thoughts stem from a subjective or objective frame of reference. I have done this many times in my career as an economist.

The inconvenient truth is that the available social science research does not currently provide support for the ‘implicit bias’ hypothesis, so DiAngelo should reconsider her assumptions about the nature of racism, as well as her claims about the role of ‘white fragility’ in its perpetuation. She does not, however, appear keen to do so, despite being a trained social scientist with a PhD. For anyone who cares about the scientific method, that is both unfortunate and indicative of a willingness to subordinate facts and data to ideology.

This kind of thinking has a tendency to transform education into indoctrination. When the scientific method is subordinated to the eradication of ‘racialized’ perspectives, we cease to learn about the hows and whys of social and economic disparities across racial groups and instead become immersed in the propagation of ideas that lack support from social science research. At which point it becomes difficult to dismiss concerns that progressive activism is not about social justice at all, but about ideological intolerance and conformity, driven by agendas reminiscent of Marxist thought and activism. ‘White fragility’ has become the new ‘bourgeois’—an accusation sufficient to invalidate any heterodox opinion at a stroke.

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