Disagreement or raw feelings in race-forward situations can have many causes, and overly-broad use of concepts like white fragility may do more harm than good to the mission of reducing racism.
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 began withholding thoughts. “I can’t disagree publicly with one of my peers of color,” they said, “without the risk of being perceived as a racist.” .
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 posited racism in impacts from a weather event. Peter acknowledged the likely truth of the claim, but since it was likely to find its way into a newsletter to the entire organization membership, he asked if there were data to help support it. An email reply from the committee to the staff and board described such requests for supporting data as racist. No staff or board members objected to this publicly. Afterward several of them, including some on the committee, told Peter in private that they disagreed with the reply but needed “to keep their heads down.” Soon after, Peter left the board.
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’s 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 a white racial equilibrium. She also frames them as weakness, saying that white people lack the mental and emotional stamina to process through unfamiliar situations that elevate race. Examples of such situations include when a white person faces a person of color talking about their racial experience, or is told that their behavior had a racist effect, or is informed that opportunity is affected by race, or sees a person of color in a leadership position. “When any of the above triggers (challenges in the habitus) occur, the resulting disequilibrium becomes intolerable” (DiAngelo, p. 58).
Some writers have pointed out that the concept of white fragility is broad and loose to a degree that doesn’t fit in social science research. As a psychologist, I tend to agree. Anything from academic critique to individual expressions of grief about race-based suffering can evoke the label. I’m white, and writing a critical article about the concept can itself be interpreted as a symptom of fragility.
It’s hard to evaluate whether “white fragility” is a thing, because it is so many things.
To decide whether white fragility is a valid (specific, explanatory, predictive) psychological construct one would have to ask and answer questions like the following:
- 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-forward experiences?
- Do the responses that DiAngelo calls fragility actually function to restore a white racial equilibrium, as she posits?
- Are these patterns changing over time? If so, how? (Much of DiAngelo’s analysis draws on academic writings that are pre-millennial.)
All of these are empirical questions, meaning they could be answered by research. That would allow us to determine whether white fragility is pandemic or hogwash or something in between.
This hasn’t happened yet, by contrast with the deep body of research that documents racial biases in individuals and social institutions and disparities in well-being. “Unfortunately, one finds not one example in her work of rigorous, statistical hypothesis testing that stands the test of time,” economist Jonathan Church says of DiAngelo. His critique may overstate the case, but it seems clear that the idea of white fragility has spread widely—disproportionate to the scholarship—getting incorporated into corporate DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) trainings, popular press articles, and college courses.
Why might a social psychological concept gain broad traction despite being nebulous and weakly researched? Perhaps because it is true. Sometimes in social science a new term captures a widespread phenomenon that was simply waiting for a label, and future research shows this to be the case.
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 come from the way the concept is defined and used.
- Belittling means self-fulfilling. The fact that white fragility operates as a subtle or not so subtle insult means that it elicits the very feelings it is said to reveal. People react to slurs by feeling threatened and acting defensive—the same feelings and behaviors that are said to define white fragility. In this sense, telling someone they are showing white fragility can be akin to telling a woman that women are hypersensitive, then watching her get upset and saying, “See?”
- Nebulosity as a feature. When a concept is defined broadly and loosely, it is easier to find examples that seem like a fit. This is called the Barnum effect, and it is a known psychological phenomenon that is exploited by mediums, horoscope writers, prophets and evangelists, all of whom can make a vague description seem supernaturally accurate. The Barnum effect relies on the human pattern of confirmatory thinking: our brains identify the parts that match and ignore the rest.
- Lack of research as a feature. Some gender justice and racial justice advocates are working to change modern theories of knowledge—to elevate lived experience, anecdote, intuition, narrative and traditional wisdom on par with or even above 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 people who have limited access to education and other forms of power. 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 some people who find the construct 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—think Chinese fragility, female fragility, French fragility, Christian fragility—the term fragility might be seen as an unacceptable slur. But attached to White, fragility functions as a form of punching up, an equalizer. For people who are weary of racism and inequity, punching up can feel pretty darn satisfying.
The idea of white fragility may also resonate because of how it fits 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, and all tribe members 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 ignoring individuality can create disconnects, as those who don’t fit the group mean balk at narratives that don’t fit their lived 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.” Not surprisingly, this confrontational approach elicits more vulnerability and defensiveness from those being asked to relinquish power than does anti-racism work centered in 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, being born white in the former case or being born human in the latter. The only right response is to accept one’s guilt, repent, and then seek converts. The catch is that other responses, like disagreeing, critiquing or rejecting culpability, also are taken as proof of guilt. Thinking you don’t need Jesus as your savior is proof that you do. Regardless of setting, double binds of this sort often elicit confessional tears or defense and withdrawal rather than deep listening and self-reflection.
- Downplaying 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 lets people off the hook. 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 hope to advance racial equity. They want white people to listen to others whose experiences may be very different from their own. They want more recognition of the racist residual in social structures, laws and institutions, and more recognition of how related harms cascade across generations. They want to create a bigger team 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. Confronting ugly parts of ourselves—like bigotry or ignorance or ways that we have hurt others—can be difficult and painful; and one might presume that, at least among growth-seeking activists, the desire to avoid fragility has resulted in more listening and engagement.
But there is at least some evidence that high pressure, judgment-laced DEI trainings can backlash, creating more racial animus. What pulls some people into greater cross-racial solidarity 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 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, 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 the distinction falls away: 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,” and even people who loathe racism and related othering have a hard time getting away from humanity’s tribal instincts.
The idea of white fragility simultaneously eschews racial essentialism and embraces it. Perhaps, all things considered, 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—I think—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 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 sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.