What is White Fragility?

I am a white woman. I am standing beside a black woman. We are facing a group of white people who are seated in front of us. We are in their workplace, and have been hired by their employer to lead them in a dialogue about race. The room is filled with tension and charged with hostility. I have just presented a definition of racism that includes the acknowledgment that whites hold social and institutional power over people of color. A white man is pounding his fist on the table. His face is red and he is furious. As he pounds he yells, “White people have been discriminated against for 25 years! A white person can’t get a job anymore!” I look around the room and see 40 employed people, all white. There are no people of color in this workplace. Something is happening here, and it isn’t based in the racial reality of the workplace. I am feeling unnerved by this man’s disconnection with that reality, and his lack of sensitivity to the impact this is having on my co-facilitator, the only person of color in the room. Why is this white man so angry? Why is he being so careless about the impact of his anger? Why are all the other white people either sitting in silent agreement with him or tuning out? We have, after all, only articulated a definition of racism.
(Excerpt from Robin DiAngelo’s 2011 article, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard To Talk To White People About Racism).

There is an assumption by white people that, if they want something (job, school admission, etc.), it’s theirs, they’re entitled to it. When they don’t get what they want or need, and especially if a person of color does have this desired thing, whites become angry and complain that they are being discriminated against.

Whiteness is dynamic, relational, and operating at all times and on myriad levels. These processes and practices include basic rights, values, beliefs, perspectives and experiences purported to be commonly shared by all but which are actually only consistently afforded to white people.1

Non-whites are saddled with having to deal with racial stress while whites have the luxury of ignoring racism and its consequences.  White fragility is triggered when whites are confronted with this racial reality.

Racial stress is often triggered in whites when someone:

  • informs them that they have white privilege
  • implies that a white person benefits from racism
  • suggests that whites hold racist beliefs or perspectives
  • points out how a white person’s behavior excludes or discriminates against people of color
  • in a position of authority is a person of color
  • exposes them to multicultural education or media where people of color are the focus and in non-stereotyped roles
  • discusses racial history in which white people are in the role of the oppressor
  • reveals inequities between races that exist within our institutions

White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.1

Defensive moves are used to return the white person to a state of comfort and calm and tend to end the uncomfortable interaction.  What does white fragility look like?  White people can act out with anger or hostility as in the opening passage,  express guilt or complain that they feel threatened or unwelcome.   Other reactions include becoming argumentative, going silent, refusing to listen, trying to insert humor or “positivity” to deflect, changing the subject, or leaving the situation.    All of these behaviors are intended to end the discomfort the white person is feeling but also serve as obstacles to needed discussions about racism.  And without dialogue there is no understanding, no justice, no peace.  The path to racial justice is not a comfortable one, and white people need to get used to that.

  1. Robin DiAngelo – International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol 3 (2011)

I'm an African-American, black woman atheist and feminist. My goal is to educate others about racism, white supremacy, racial and social justice in order to exact changes in our system that will lead to true equality for all.