Activism, Top Stories

A Closer Look at ‘White Fragility’ Theory

Elizabeth* is a progressive activist who signed up for a multi-day racial equity training course. The organizers opened by telling participants—which included white, black, and multi-racial people—that they were creating a safe space to discuss difficult topics. However, white attendees were then informed that, as beneficiaries of institutional racism, they were complicit in racial injustice and that expressions of dismay or guilt were inappropriate and unwelcome. “I’m tired,” announced the course leader, “of white women’s tears.” During the course, Elizabeth—who is white—kept many of her feelings to herself.

Morgan, a progressive leader in a voter organizing coalition, also learned over time to hold her tongue. “I can’t disagree publicly with one of my peers of color,” she said, without the risk of being perceived as a racist.” A biologist working on rural land management made a similar comment, noting that several colleagues had moved on as disagreements with a black manager about species at risk got interpreted through a racial lens.

Peter, a white male, sat on the board of an environmental organization known for strong analytics. An internal memo from the DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) Committee described an emergency storm response as racially biased. Peter acknowledged the plausibility of the claim, but since it was likely to find its way into a newsletter to the organization’s entire membership, he requested more information. He asked if this bias was due to the race-based economic inequities created by centuries of systemic racism, or if there was an additional and separate racist dimension, and if so, whether there was data to help support the claim. An email from the committee to the staff and board described such a request as racist. No staff or board members objected to this publicly. Several of them, including some on the committee, later told Peter in private that they disagreed with the email but needed “to keep their heads down.” Peter left the board shortly thereafter.

Some will say that these people all overreacted—that they were each exhibiting a psychological pattern that sociologist Robin DiAngelo has called “white fragility.” Her popular book of the same title has made the rounds in progressive communities in recent years for good reason. Exploring or confronting the effects of racism in society—or confronting one’s own ignorance or unintended insensitivity—is hard. But DiAngelo’s analysis at best overlooks relevant complexities and at worst reinforces counterproductive dynamics.

According to the DiAngelo analysis, white people are all the unconscious beneficiaries of racism. But because they are insulated from this fact, they react defensively when confronted with racial realities. This is what DiAngelo calls “white fragility.” In her own words, “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, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.”

DiAngelo describes these feelings and behaviors as mechanisms that protect white privilege by shutting down discourse and restoring white racial dominance. Such mechanisms, she argues, are evidence of weakness, demonstrating that white people lack the mental and emotional stamina to process unfamiliar situations involving racial conflict. According to DiAngelo, when a person of color confronts a white person with stories of their racial experience, or informs them that behavior thought to be innocuous is in fact racist or that opportunity is affected by race, it causes the white interlocutor “disequilibrium [that] becomes intolerable.”

Some writers have pointed out that the concept of white fragility is so broad and loose that it doesn’t qualify for social science research. As a psychologist, I tend to agree. Anything from academic critique to individual expressions of grief about race-based suffering can invite the label. To decide whether white fragility is a scientifically valid (specific, explanatory, predictive) hypothesis, one should ask and answer the following questions:

  • Is this pattern of emotions and behaviors specific to white people? Is it specific to conversations about race?
  • Is it in fact a single pattern, or are anger, arguing, silence, and guilt different kinds of reactions to race-related experiences?
  • Do the responses that DiAngelo calls fragility actually function to restore a “white racial equilibrium,” as she claims?
  • Are these patterns changing over time? If so, how? (Much of DiAngelo’s analysis draws on academic writings that are pre-millennial.)

These are all empirical questions. So, research should allow us to determine whether white fragility is pandemic or hogwash or something in between. This hasn’t happened yet, although a deep body of research exists documenting racial biases in individuals and social institutions and disparities in well-being. “Unfortunately, one finds not one example in [DiAngelo’s] work of rigorous, statistical hypothesis testing that stands the test of time,” the economist Jonathan Church has remarked. But a dearth of scholarship notwithstanding, the idea of white fragility has spread widely—it is now included in corporate DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) trainings, popular press articles, and college courses.

Why might a social psychological concept gain such broad traction despite being poorly defined and weakly researched? Perhaps because it is true. Sometimes in social science, a new term captures a widespread phenomenon that was simply awaiting a label. But there are other possibilities—ideas can be sticky or contagious for lots of reasons, independent of their truth. In the case of white fragility, at least part of the stickiness may result from the way the concept is defined and deployed.

  • Circular logic: An accusation of white fragility will tend to elicit the very feelings it is said to reveal. People will naturally react angrily or defensively if they feel they are being attacked, and these reactions are said to be defining characteristics of white fragility. In this sense, it is like telling a woman that women are hypersensitive, then watching her get upset and saying, “See?”
  • Opacity: When a concept is poorly or loosely defined, it is easier to find examples that seem to fit. This is called the Barnum effect—a psychological phenomenon exploited by mediums, horoscope writers, prophets, and evangelists, all of whom can make a vague description seem supernaturally accurate. The Barnum effect relies on confirmatory thinking: our brains identify the parts that match and ignore the rest.
  • Rejecting research: Some gender justice and racial justice advocates are working to change modern theories of knowledge. They want to elevate lived experience, anecdote, intuition, narrative, and traditional wisdom so that testimony is equal—or even preferable—to aggregated data and research. Science (with its limitations and potential abuses) is seen as a white male way of knowing, whereas lived experience is equally available to all, including those with limited access to education and other means of empowerment. Truth is defined by whether something feels real to those affected. In this context, the lack of research around white fragility may be a matter of indifference or even a plus to those who find the idea resonant.
  • A subtle yet satisfying insult? Discourse about white fragility seeks to change or suppress certain emotions and behaviors by shaming them. If attached to a different tribal moniker—female fragility, Arab fragility, Muslim fragility—it would surely be considered an unacceptable slur. But attached to “white,” fragility functions as an equalizer. For people weary of racism and inequity, this can provide a sense of morally righteous satisfaction.

The idea of white fragility may also resonate because it is consonant with the current dominant paradigm for examining race relations, which academics call critical race theory.

  • Tribes, not individuals: Critical theories (e.g. critical race theory, critical gender theory) divide the world into tribes of oppressed and oppressors, members of which are thought to either benefit or suffer from oppression. Since the focus is on group history and norms by design, discourse doesn’t necessarily reflect the complexity and variation in individual lives. (Indeed, in critical theory a focus on individual differences or personal agency is actively rejected as perpetuating racism or sexism.) But those who don’t fit the group mean balk at narratives that don’t reflect their experience.
  • Competition vs. inclusion: Anti-racism rooted in critical theory tends to take a breaking rather than bridging approach to conversations about race—focusing on inter-group differences and power hierarchies rather than the human universals that undergird more traditional social liberalism. Activists vie for greater power through practices including “calling-out,” “reverse discourse,” “racial caucuses,” and “punching up.” Unsurprisingly, this confrontational approach provokes defensiveness from those asked to relinquish power more than anti-racism work that focusses on our shared humanity.
  • Guilty either way: In critical theory, the concept of racism operates in much the same way that original sin operates in biblical Christianity—people are guilty by virtue of birth. The only correct response is the acceptance of sin, repentance, and conversion. Other responses, such as disagreement, critiquing, or rejecting culpability, are taken as proof of guilt. If someone protests that they don’t need Jesus, that is proof that they do. Regardless of setting, double-binds of this sort often elicit confessional tears or defense and withdrawal rather than self-examination and reflection.
  • Denying progress: It’s not uncommon for an activist steeped in critical theory to insist that racism is as bad today as it was before the Civil Rights Movement. This might seem odd given the trajectory of history, but the concern is that there is a lot of work left to do and acknowledging progress encourages complacency. Perhaps if members of both oppressed and oppressor tribes feel bad enough about the status quo, they will do something about it. They may, but the opposite can also be true. Failure to acknowledge progress can lead people to become skeptical about factual accuracy, or mutually resentful, or hopeless and disengaged—all of which looks a lot like fragility.

Those who promote white fragility theory say they hope to advance racial equity. They say they want white people to listen to others whose experiences differ from their own. They say they want greater recognition of the residual racism that can bedevil social structures, laws, and institutions, and greater recognition of how related harms cascade through generations. They say they want to create a larger army of anti-racist warriors. These are laudable goals.

And to some degree, the approach may work. Certainly, the concept of white fragility has resonated with millions of progressive activists. But there is at least some evidence that high pressure, judgment-laced DEI trainings can cause backlash that only aggravates racial animus. What pulls some people into greater cross-racial sympathy may erect an unnecessary barrier for others by fostering a sense of difference rather than solidarity. Even those who share goals may react negatively to such tactics.

“I’ve struggled with PTSD most of my life,” says Skyler, a white progressive activist who finds the fragility label demeaning. “I know what it means to have a generalized reaction to everyone who looks like the people who hurt you. My default response to my friends of color is to assume they’re walking around with possibly even bigger loads of this same reactive fear, and it doesn’t take much to trigger it. I get that they’re processing this oppression shit all the time, just as I am. I understand; truly, I do. But understanding doesn’t mean that I have to silence myself, or give up my basic human dignity, or even do what I’m told.”

Worse than alienating activists like Skyler, is the risk that lumping people into racial boxes, even when tactically effective, strengthens the very cognitive frameworks that we hope to dismantle, making it a near-term win with a long-term cost. Social reformers since biblical times have fought long and hard to combat humanity’s tendency toward racial essentialism—the belief that inborn differences based on race define us as individuals, whether Jews and Samaritans or Han and Tibetan or American white and black.

People who write about “whiteness,” like DiAngelo, say repeatedly that they are talking about social structures, not about biology and skin color. But in practical application this distinction disappears: At the level of individuals and group dynamics, “whiteness” and white skin color become synonymous. Inborn characteristics rather than degree of participation in racist social structures defines a person’s social standing and the value of their lived experience or ideas.

Racial bias is a powerful human tendency—a part of the broader phenomenon that psychologists call “similar-to-me bias.” Even committed anti-racists have a hard time getting away from humanity’s tribal instincts. White fragility theory simultaneously rejects racial essentialism and embraces it. Perhaps this paradox reflects where many Americans are in the long arc of struggle toward equity and justice. Most Americans agree that racism is bad, but we also find oversimplified tribal labels appealing. The concept of white fragility plays to both sides of our ambivalence on the topic, and that is where it fails. It excuses us from wrestling more personally with racial essentialism and humanity’s tendency toward bigotry.

 

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer based in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings.  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at the Huffington Post, Salon, the Independent, Free Inquiry, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.  Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

*Elizabeth, Morgan, Peter, and Skyler are pseudonyms.

Featured Image: Pxhere.

Filed under: Activism, Top Stories

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Valerie Tarico PhD, is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. Her articles have featured at Alternet, Salon and Huffington Post and she is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light.

Comments

  1. She got published in Salon? I’m not interested in her thoughts.

  2. No shit!

    “Those who promote white fragility theory say they hope to advance racial equity. They say they want white people to listen to others whose experiences differ from their own. They say they want greater recognition of the residual racism that can bedevil social structures, laws, and institutions, and greater recognition of how related harms cascade through generations. They say they want to create a larger army of anti-racist warriors. These are laudable goals.”

    :unamused:

  3. We are very lucky in Australia that we don’t get too much of this loony left-wing behaviour by race baiters and racists of the left.

    For what is the concept of white fragility if not the most egregious example of open racism in the Western world today. Anyone who uses this pernicious term seriously should be scorned by society.

  4. I think ridiculed would be better. As I read through the article I kept thinking this would be perfect material —from the author down to her victims —for someone good at writing sharp satires. Or maybe an opera bouffe. Where’s our era’s Offenbach?

  5. Truth is defined by whether something feels real to those affected.

    Well fuck. Tomorrow morning first thing I am going to the bank. I’ll tell the teller, this check in my hand for $10 mil feels pretty real to me.

  6. “To decide whether white fragility is a scientifically valid (specific, explanatory, predictive) hypothesis…”

    No it isn’t. It’s absurd to even take this crap seriously.

    I think this year and next year we are going to see some very serious tears in the social fabric of the West. The far left will really lose it when Trump wins reelection and people are starting to push back hard against this woke nonsense. Looking at Greece and its resistance to invasion and the lack of condemnation from the previously pro-migrant countries, the white fragility is not looking too fragile anymore.

  7. “These are all empirical questions. So, research should allow us to determine whether white fragility is pandemic or hogwash or something in between.”

    Leftist theories tend not to be falsifiable. In other words every action, reaction or occurrence is proof the theory is correct.

    “My default response to my friends of color …”

    I don’t have friends of color or gay friends. I just have friends that I don’t segregate into separate tribes or categories.

    Unserious times produce unserious people who in turn produce unserious books. Books and notions regarding intersectionality have no audience apart from the ivory towers of academia.

  8. Anyone who’s met me knows I’m anti-feminist. But I lock horns with MGTOW too. And that’s a MGTOW fallacy move. It’s a complex ad hominem fallacy and the is/ought fallacy among other logical fallacies: we can’t help being born as and when we are. I can’t help being born with or without the privilege some dickhead has decided I am.

    She’s talking about cognitive dissonance. It’s not a special understanding.

    But I still haven’t worked up the courage to tell anyone why I flinch when interviewed for a job by a Samoan person because I’ve been badly bullied at work several times by Samoans who have higher rank than me.

    Spot on. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. It’s the problem of unfalsifiability. As I said earlier to some bigot elsewhere:

  9. Andrew

    As usual you try to bring reason to the debate and argue against your own side if you think it is wrong.

    In regard to the opinion expreessed by @Sawfile I would say that the important words are ‘‘they say that’’

    My biggest problem with the left as far as race issues are concerned isn’t so much with their stated aims but the fact that in fact they are really acting to ensure that those aims aren’t met. Lefties are like dogs chasing cars. They wouldn’t know what to do if they actually caught one. Lefties aren’t trying to end racism, but to perpetuate it byinventing it. After all if the races were equal then the lefties would have no clients and no real function.

  10. I actually think white fragility exists, but not in the way that most activists have come to understand the theory. Say you were a woman around the period of the Salem Witch Trials, and one of the accusers said that women who wore green on Thursdays were practising witchcraft, would your natural reaction be to push back against this absurdity, or keep quite about it and hope that nobody remembers that you wore green three Thursdays ago.

    A better way to understand white fragility would be to call it what it really is, the dread white fear of the accusation of racism itself. Ironically, it is this white fear of racism that allows many of the sources of structural and systemic racism that the Left is so determined to root out, to persist to this day. One of the ways that this operates is through the removal of mechanisms that might appear in a negative light in the short-term, but have a real and positive impact over the longer term.

    The most striking example of this relates to teaching. We know that there are measurably better results from African American kids being taught by Black teachers, compared to White teachers, but why? Some of the disparity probably lies from seeing a working example of a positive role model of ones own race. Crucially, we know that the inculcation of a sense of agency is incredibly important to develop, in terms of life outcomes, and perhaps a Black teachers empathy is better able to achieve this effect.

    But how much of the disparity lies in the failure of White teachers across the board to dig their heels in when an African American pupil is being unruly, disruptive, or not putting the work in, because of the fear of the accusation of racism? How many Black kids are allowed to sit around at the back of the class, play around and shirk, because of the fear that their parents will be up at the school complaining of racism, if they are given detention?

    I’m not saying that this white fear is prevalent in all cases, or even in the majority, but even one or two teachers acting in manner which is effectively synonymous with grossly ineffective teaching for their African American pupils, can have a devastating impact on educational achievement. The fact that White teachers routinely underestimate the potential of their black students to the tune of 40%, is surely a damning indictment of this failure to engage rooted in white fear- and doubtless the real source of the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’.

    To understand the extent and pervasiveness of this white fear across Western cultures, we only need to look to the cases of grooming gangs in Rotherham and across the North of England. Now it easy to put blame for this abuse of working-class white girls on the authorities and police. But it was teachers, social workers, police, the Crown Prosecution Service, local councillors and politicians, journalists and the media that all failed to act, out of a collective sense of white fear. The only exceptions to this white wall of silence, comprised of thousands of officials and caregivers, were Labour MP Ann Cryer and Times journalist Andrew Norfolk. Both suffered for their sense of duty, and desire to see justice done:

    And of course the irony is, if their response had been more commonplace, then the whole story and it’s subsequent effects, could have been limited to an understanding that it was a tiny minority of a very specific Muslim ethnic group that had committed these crimes, and that they were largely abetted by a significant demographic of white women acting as facilitators and go-betweens for these gangs. Swift action could have limited the damage, leading to targeted police investigations to stamp out the phenomenon. Instead, the extreme right happily seized upon the opportunity presented to them, in a way far worse than the institution paralysis and inertia feared, as justification for their inaction. But the larger lesson lies in understanding, that in all probability, when assessing the role of systemic and structural racism, White Fear accounts for the lions share of all the unintentional barriers that are laid in minorities path- with class likely to account for a considerable portion of the remainder.

    In 2014, Mellody Hobson on TED asked us to be Color Brave, rather than Color Blind. It was one of the causative moments that made many take on such an activist mantle, especially within the rarified reaches of the Tech Industry. I took the challenge seriously. But perhaps because of my contrarian nature, and an embedded belief in the power of knowledge and empirical evidence, I decided to do my research. I read The New Jim Crow, but I also read The War on Cops. I watched 13th, but I also watched (and read) Thomas Sowell. I found the work of Adam Foss particularly inspiring, Trevor Philips was a game-changer, particularly his seminal documentary for Channel 4 Things We Won’t Say About Race (That Are True), and Glenn Loury, John McWhorter and Coleman Hughes have all been influences. I have even watched and read Tricia Rose, believe it or not.

    Slowly, a tentative theory emerged as I looked at the similarities and differences between the ways that crime was handled in New York during the stop and frisk era, and the way identical techniques were used in Scotland, to combat the rise of Knife Crime in a 99% ethically white community. It’s not racism, or at not racism in the way that we conventionally think about racism- although we have all seen racism, and know it exists. No, the real problem resides in the fact that the mere suggestion of racism seems to rob us of our reason, our sense, and our truth determining faculties.

    Our societies exist in a tenuous balance where diversity of thought allows for the truth to emerge over time, and through competition. It’s not a perfect system- it’s crap basically, often taking decades or even hundreds of years to assemble a reasonable proximation of the objective truth. But that being said, it’s the best we’ve got and polarisation harms it. It disarms the normal dialogue, discourse and disputation that allows us to sift through possible answers like a bucket of mud, until we find the rare nugget that glisters. Race is a flashbang thrown into an orderly room, it blinds us, deafens us and pushes us apart. It makes polarisation that much more of a problem.

    Crucially, it wipes out whole segments of the Overton Window when it comes to delving into our toolboox for both diagnostic purposes, and fixing the problem. Teachers become more liberal, and not less so, and see any form of disparate imposition of discipline as problematic, even if it’s desperately needed. Senior Police Chiefs and prosecutors become even more convinced that their critics are deluded, that only deterrence and punishment work, and that all this talk about reform-based Criminal Justice won’t work. Their often liberal leaders decide that the prosecution of lesser offences is no longer required, unable to head the advice that bad behaviour escalates.

    We do need to become braver, and less fragile, whilst simultaneously opening our minds that we might be wrong about a great many things. Above all, we need to hone our truth-gathering capacities to the sheer edge of a Katana, whilst acknowledging that a blade has two sides. Making one involves going back to the same problem over and over again hundreds of times, until you are left with perfection. We need to become better investigators and realise that racism always operates in the ways that we least expect it- whilst recognising that it can flow many ways.

    The perfect example of this principal lies in sentencing disparities in the UK. Largely, we still have a functional Criminal Justice System, in which money can’t buy you an acquittal- but it was still found to have significant disparities in sentencing by race. Further investigation found that a lack of trust was responsible for the overwhelming majority of the disparities. People from BAME backgrounds simply didn’t believe that they would get a fair shake, they didn’t plead guilty and they didn’t avail themselves of the not insubstantial discounts in sentencing that their solicitors and barristers recommended. So, whilst the circumstances may be complex, the solutions are often infuriatingly simple. This YouTube video by Triggernometry discusses this issue and more:

    Predictably, the politicians took no action to broadcast these findings, given their incumbent fear of accusations of racism- so maybe it is time that ordinary people had more resolve. We all possess the capacity for courage and should have a sense of duty towards our own societies- perhaps it is time to recognise that white fragility does exist, but not in the way that the intersectional theorists anticipated it operating. If White Fear accounts for a sizeable portion of the disparate outcomes we see, then perhaps it it time we all got over it.

  11. I actually admire the chutzpah of whoever came up with the concept of “white fragility.” It’s like some white-hating racists were sitting around griping about the refusal of some whites to just take their beatings. Then one racist sat up and said “I know! What if we can make the whites ashamed of putting their hands in front of their faces when we go to punch them?”

  12. White women should take to heart the message that coloured people are tired of their tears and simply stop caring at all about these issues. Not only is there no structural racism oppressing coloured people, legalized discrimination cuts in their favour.

    The current problems facing the coloured communities stems from their own poor decisions. What can I do about the fact black people are having unprotected casual sex and having babies neither parent is ready to properly care for? That’s none of my business, they need to fix that themselves.

    I agree with @Geary_Johansen2020 that if there is such a thing as white fragility, it lies in the near-pathological fear some white people have of being called racist. These are the same white people who dumb down their language when talking to coloured people and expect less of them than they do of white people. It is time we demand these people stop projecting their own racism towards coloured people onto everyone else.

  13. I am outraged at the many posts here that belittle white fragility and white privilege. As a white person, I certainly benefit from white privilege and institutional racism. Here are just a few ways I unfairly profit from living in a majority white society:

    (1) There are no activists who loudly claim to speak for me because they share my superficial characteristics. For example, I never have to hear, “As a white heterosexual male, I…”
    (2) No one refers to me and others with white skin as “white bodies”, like I am a member of a herd of mindless animals.
    (3) I don’t have to endure people pandering to me about “white causes” and the importance of white people in history.
    (4) No one constantly insists that I am a perpetual victim and the focus of unrelenting oppression.

    True, every mainstream news source and college campus portrays me as the embodiment of evil, but that is much easier to take.

  14. This is the microaggression thing. For some people, sure,

    But I’d say those people lack the necessary resilience to achieve baseline comfort in life. Those are really negative people who fixate on bad things and sweat the small stuff—absolute perfect recipes for misery. It’s a leftist game. I’ve met people like this and I’m thinking of one woman in particular. A truly unhappy and unpleasant (though quite ethical) woman who would frequently recite her litany of misfortune and who, no matter what was done for her, would never say thank you. She seemed incapable of seeing anything good in life or appreciating any kindness.

    People who respond to microaggressions are unwell in the personality. The world need not change around them—they need to adapt to the world.

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