Book notes: White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo book summary review and key ideas.

White Fragiliy: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo

Synopsis:

The New York Times best-selling book exploring the counterproductive reactions white people have when their assumptions about race are challenged and how these reactions maintain racial inequality.

In this “vital, necessary, and beautiful book” (Michael Eric Dyson), antiracist educator Robin DiAngelo deftly illuminates the phenomenon of white fragility and “allows us to understand racism as a practice not restricted to ‘bad people'” (Claudia Rankine). Referring to the defensive moves that white people make when challenged racially, white fragility is characterized by emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and by behaviors including argumentation and silence. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium and prevent any meaningful cross-racial dialogue. 

In this in-depth exploration, DiAngelo examines how white fragility develops, how it protects racial inequality, and what we can do to engage more constructively.” -Audible


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Opening thoughts:

I saw this book in a recommended reading list about understanding racism, black culture, and making sense of the civil unrest in the world. I read Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi last month, which was such an enlightening read. I figured this would be a good follow-up read for this month to continue deepening my understand of the context of racial tensions in this country.


Key notes:

  • One metaphor for race and racism won’t do because they are complicated forces
    • We need many metaphors working in concert
  • Race and racism has always been a black person burden, or colored person
    • Whiteness is the unchanging variable
  • Whiteness is a fictional social construct, an agreed-on myth that has empirical grip because of its effect, not its essence
    • It is a category of identity that is most useful when its very existence is denied
  • In a similar metaphor, whiteness is like the devil’s greatest trick of making people believe he doesn’t exist
  • The author as a white woman using this medium to speak to a collective audience of white people
    • She is using her insider status to challenge racism
    • To not use her position this way is to uphold racism and that is unacceptable
  • Race is very complex and nuanced, demonstrated by the challenges multiracial people face
    • The dominant society will assign them the racial identity they most physically resemble, but their own internal racial identity may not align with the assigned identity
  • While some people can pass for white and therefore be awarded its privileges in society, there’s no corresponding term for someone to pass as a person of color
    • This highlights the fact that in society that desired direction is always towards whiteness
  • White people become highly fragile in conversations about race because they are insulated from racial stress at the same time they come to feel entitled to and deserving of their advantage
    • Also given how rarely they feel racial discomfort in a society they dominate, they haven’t had to build their racial stamina
    • Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that they are either unaware of or can never admit to themselves
    • They consider a challenge to the racial world views as a challenge to their very identities as good, moral people
  • Though white fragility is triggered by discomfort and anxiety, it is born of superiority and entitlement
    • It is not weakness per se, but a powerful means of white racial control and protection of white advantage

Chapter 1: the challenges of talking to white people about racism

  • Being seen racially is a common trigger of white fragility because they have never been socialized to do so
  • White people tend to have strong opinions about racism even though race relations are profoundly complex
    • We must consider that unless we have devoted intentional and ongoing to study, our opinions are necessarily uninformed and even ignorant
  • Individualism dismisses that our group memberships such as race, class, or gender are relevant to our opportunities
    • It claims there are no intrinsic barriers to success, and that failure is not a consequence of social structures but comes from individual character
  • Dimensions of our culture shape our group identities
    • Our understanding of ourselves is necessarily based in our comparisons with others
  • White people are taught that to have a racial viewpoint is to be biased
    • Unfortunately, this belief protects our biases because denying that we have them ensures that we won’t examine or change them
  • It is important for white people to have racial humility and not exempt themselves from the unavoidable dynamic of racism
  • We cannot understand modern forms of racism if we cannot or will not explore patterns of group behavior and their effects on individuals

Chapter 2: racism and white supremacy

  • Race is socially constructed
    • The physical differences we see with our eyes, such as hair texture and eye-color, are superficial and emerged as adaptations to geography
    • Under the skin, there is no true biological race
    • The external characteristics that we use to define race are unreliable indicators of genetic variation between two people
Social Construction of Race in the United States
  • Freedom and equality regardless of religion or class status were radical new ideas when the United States was formed
    • At the same time, the US economy was based on the abduction and enslavement of African people, the displacement and genocide of indigenous people, and the annexation of Mexican lands
    • Further, the colonizers that came were not free of their cultural conditioning
      • They brought with them deeply internalized patterns of domination and submission 
  • In order to reconcile these contradictory beliefs, the founders turned to science to describe the differences between races, and therefore justify their oppressive practices
    • There were, of course, enormous economic interests in justifying enslavement and colonization
  • Race science was driven by these social and economic interests, which came to establish cultural norms and legal rulings that legitimized racism and the privileged status of those defined as white
  • Race is the child of racism, not the father
    • First we exploited the people for their resources, not according to how they looked
    • Exploitation came first and then the ideology of races to justify this exploitation

Reader’s note: this reminds me of the concept in stem from the beginning book about how racial oppression and capitalism grew separately but supported one another

  • If we truly believe that all humans are equal, then disparity in condition can only be the results of systematic discrimination
  • Prejudice is pre-judgments about another person based on the social groups to which that person belongs
    • It consists of thoughts and feelings including stereotypes, attitudes, and generalizations that are based on little or no experience, and that are projected onto everyone from that group
  • Discrimination is action based on prejudice
    • These action include ignoring, exclusion, threats, ridicule, slander, and violence
  • When a racial group’s collective prejudice is backed up by the power of legal authority and institutional control, it is transformed into racism, a far reaching system that functions independently from the intentions or self-images of individual actors
    • Racism is a system
  • Ideologies are the frameworks through which we are taught to represent, interpret, understand, and make sense of social existence
    • Because these ideas are constantly reinforced, they are very hard to avoid believing and internalizing
  • People of color may also hold prejudices and discriminate against white people, but they lack the social and institutional power that transforms it into racism
    • The impact of their prejudice on whites is temporary and contextual
  • The birdcage metaphor illustrates how racism can be hard to see and recognize based on our limited view and position in relation to the bird and birdcage
    • We rely on single situations, exceptions, and anecdotal evidence for our understanding rather than on broader, interlocking patterns 
  • Individual whites may be against racism but they still benefit from a system that privileged whites as a group
    • Racism is a system of advantages based on race
      • These advantages are referred to as white privilege – a sociological concept referring to advantages taken for granted by whites and that cannot be similarly enjoyed by people of color
  • Two points about white fragility:
    1. White supremacy is never acknowledged
    2. We cannot study any socio-political system without addressing how that system is mediated by race

Chapter 3: racism after the civil rights movement 

  • New racism is a term to capture the ways in which racism has adapted overtime so that modern norms, policies and practices result in similar racial outcomes as those in the past while not appearing to be explicitly racist 
  • Colorblind racism is the ideology that if we pretend to not notice race, then there can be no racism
    • Denying that race exists it’s not helpful because it denies other peoples reality, the struggles they face because of race, and keeps their own reality insular and unchallenged
    • It projects your reality on to someone else
    • You cannot change what you refuse to see
  • There is a false but widespread belief that racial discrimination can only be intentional
    • Our lack of understanding of implicit bias leads to adversive racism

Chapter 4: how does race shape the lives of white people? 

  • Virtually any representation of human is based on white peoples norms and images 
  • White solidarity is the unspoken agreement among whites to protect white advantage and not cause another white person to feel racial discomfort by confronting them when they say or do something racially problematic
    • Because whites are not raised to see themselves in racial terms or to see white space as racialized space, they position themselves as innocent of race
  • For most whites, the percentage of young men of color in a neighborhood is directly correlated with perceptions of the neighborhood crime level, even if empirical evidence shows this correlation isn’t true
  • Without white peoples interest or effort invested in changing a system that serves them at the expense of others, advantage is passed down from generation to generation
    • Rather than change these conditions so that public education is equal for all, we allow other peoples children to endure conditions that would be unacceptable for our own 

Chapter 5: the good/bad binary 

  • The good/bad frame is a false dichotomy
    • The simplistic idea that racism is limited to individual, intentional acts committed by unkind people is at the root of virtually all white defensiveness on this topic
    • White people can place themselves on the good/not racist side of a binary and then believe that there’s no further work that needs to be done
  • How does this claim function in the conversation?
    • These “colorblind” or “color-cebrate” claims ultimately function in the same way: they all exempt the person from taking responsibility for or participation in the problem
    • Similar to the experience of having the opposite gender spouse, just because you interact with and have fond regard for someone of another race doesn’t mean you don’t participate in racist behavior.
  • It’s important to ask people their definition of racism
    • Many times they incorrectly think it’s simply intolerance 
  • It is important to distinguish prejudice and discrimination against whites versus racism against blacks and people of color
    • This distinction isn’t meant to minimize the white persons experience, but aims to clarify and prevent rendering the terms interchangeable and thus meaningless 
  • A racism-free upbringing is not possible because racism is a social system embedded in the culture and its institutions
    • We are born into this system and have no say in whether we will be affected by it
  • The idea that “talking about racism is racist” is very odd
    • It is rooted in the idea that talking about it gives it weight
    • However, because things don’t matter, they make it easy to talk about
      • Thinking this way denies race its inherent importance 

Chapter 6: anti-blackness

  • Anti-blackness is foundational to the very identities of white people
    • Whiteness has always been predicated on blackness
    • Before, there was no concept of race or white race before the need to justify enslavement of Africans
      • Creating a separate and inferior black race simultaneously created the superior white race
      • One concept could not exist without the other
  • Whites split off from themselves and project onto black people the aspects that they don’t want to own on the selves
    • For example, slaveowners depicted blacks as lazy and childlike even though slaves partook in hard labor from sun up to sundown
    • Whites have also portrayed blacks is dangerous, a portrayal that perverts the true direction of violence between whites and blacks since the founding of this country 
  • Anti-blackness is rooted in a lack of historical knowledge and an inability or unwillingness to trace the effects of history into the present
    • It also fundamentally comes from deep guilt of what white peoples have done and continue to do
  • Whites have a false identity
    • They can only be white if somebody else is not white
      • It is an identity of false superiority
  • The trigger for white rage is inevitably black advancement
    • It is not the mere presence of black people, but rather blackness with ambition, drive, purpose, aspirations, and demands for full and equal citizenship
    • It is blackness that refuses to accept subjugation or give up
  • The movie Blindside reinforces anti-blackness and white socialization of blacks
    • It also reinforces a binary of racist and a moral against non-racist and moral

Chapter 7: Racial triggers for white people

  • Within their insulated environment of racial privilege, white people will expect racial comfort and become less tolerant of racial stress
    • When ideologies such as color blindness, individualism, and meritocracy are challenged, intense emotional reactions are common
  • Habitus includes a person’s internalized awareness of his or her status (class, race, gender, etc) as well as responses to the status of others.
    • In every field, people are unconsciously vying for power, and each field will have rules of the game
    • Habitus maintains our social comfort and helps us regain it when those around us do not act in familiar and acceptable ways
      • We don’t respond consciously to disequilibrium in the habitus 

Chapter 8: the result-white fragility

  • White peoples moral objection to racism increases their resistance to acknowledging their complicity with it
    • In a white supremacist context, white identity largely rests on a foundation of superficial racial tolerance and acceptance
  • White fragility distorts reality by employing terms that connotes physical abuse (like “trauma” and being attacked) whites tap into the classic story that people of color, particularly African-Americans, are dangerous and violent
    • In so doing, they distort the real direction of danger between whites and others
  • Social power is not fixed. It is constantly challenged and needs to be maintained
    • The triggers to white fragility can be thought of as challenges to white power and control
    • White fragility is the means to end the challenge and maintain that power and control

Chapter 9: white fragility in action

  • The prevailing white racial assumptions and the behaviors they engender protect racism

Chapter 10: white fragility and the rules of engagement

  • Emphasizing intent over impact upholds white racial innocence while minimizing the impact of racism on people of color
  • No matter what your context or social upbringing and environment, the ubiquitous socializing power of white supremacy cannot be avoided
  • Stopping our racist patterns must be more important than working to convince others that we don’t have them
    • We do have them and people of color already know we have them. Our efforts to prove otherwise are not convincing

chapter 11: white womens tears

  • Emotions are the results of the frameworks we are used to making sense of social relations
    • Of course, social relations are political
    • Our emotions are political because they are often externalized
      • They drive behaviors that impact other people
  • White women’s tears are problematic for several reasons
    • For example, there is a long historical backdrop of black men being tortured and murdered because of a white woman’s distress
      • Their tears trigger the terrorism of this history, particularly for African Americans
      • Example: the lunching of Emmett Till and how the white woman lied about it
    • When a white woman cries, a black man gets hurt
      • Not knowing or being insensitive to this history is another example of white centrality, individualism, and lack of racial humility
  • A similar metaphor is when paramedics come to the comfort the driver who hit a pedestrian instead of the pedestrian
    • In a common yet subversive move, racism becomes about white distress, white suffering, and white victimization
    • White distress manifests in men more through dominance and intimidation
  • Guilt functions as an excuse for inaction
    • Further, because white people seldom have authentic and sustained cross-racial relationships, their tears don’t feel like solidarity to people of color they have not previously supported
    • Their tears function as impotent reflexes that don’t lead to constructive action
  • White women tears also have a very specific effect on men, particularly white men who occupied the highest position in the race and gender hierarchy
    • Thus they have the power to define their own reality and that of others
    • This reality includes not only whose experiences are valid, but who is fundamentally valid 
  • Contrary to popular white mythology, white women, not people of color, have been the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action

Chapter 12: where do we go from here? 

  • Racism hurts even kills people of color 24/7
    • Interrupting it is more important than one’s own feelings, ego, or self-image 
  • Strategies for working with others on their white fragility:
    • First, affirm the person’s perspective before you share yours
    • When you do, point the finger inward, not outward
    • Your actions should be guided by a need for integrity, not a need to correct or change someone else

Main ideas / Themes:

  • Whiteness is a fictional social construct, an agreed-on myth that has empirical grip because of its effect, not its essence
  • White people become highly fragile in conversations about race because they are insulated from racial stress at the same time they come to feel entitled to and deserving of their advantage
  • Individualism dismisses that our group memberships such as race, class, or gender are relevant to our opportunities
  • Race is socially constructed
  • Race science was driven by social and economic interests, which came to establish cultural norms and legal rulings that legitimized racism and the privileged status of those defined as white
  • Race is the child of racism, not the father
  • Prejudice is pre-judgments about another person based on the social groups to which that person belongs
  • Discrimination is action based on prejudice
  • Racism is a system of advantages based on race
  • Colorblind racism is the ideology that if we pretend to not notice race, then there can be no racism. You cannot change what you refuse to see
  • White solidarity is the unspoken agreement among whites to protect white advantage and not cause another white person to feel racial discomfort by confronting them when they say or do something racially problematic
  • The simplistic idea that racism is limited to individual, intentional acts committed by unkind people is at the root of virtually all white defensiveness on this topic
  • A racism-free upbringing is not possible because racism is a social system embedded in the culture and its institutions
  • Anti-blackness is foundational to the very identities of white people. Anti-blackness is rooted in a lack of historical knowledge and an inability or unwillingness to trace the effects of history into the present
  • White fragility is the means to end the challenge and maintain that power and control
  • White women’s tears are problematic because they trigger the history of terrorism against blacks, and has the power to determine the reality of others
  • Guilt functions as an excuse for inaction
  • Contrary to popular white mythology, white women, not people of color, have been the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action
  • Racism hurts even kills people of color 24/7

Closing thoughts:

This was such an eye-opening read. Even though it was written by a white woman towards a white audience so that they can understand their own reactions to race, it is a very insightful perspective for everyone to understand.

She gives great points for approaching white people on white fragility and their defensive reactions that uphold the existing racism systems in place.

Another thing I enjoyed is how she conceptualized many of these ideas onto words that make the complex field a bit easier to understand. For example, understanding how colorblind racism, individualism, and meritocracy play a part in white defensiveness. Moreover, the concepts of anti-blackness, whiteness, and white solidarity are other important factors. Even white women’s tears was something I never considered to be a powerful force in racism.

Overall, I highly recommend this book, especially for everyone who wants more understanding of the racial tensions happening in this country today. More importantly, this is an absolute must-read for white people, especially those who claim to be allies. It challenges the notion for many white allies that just because you think you’re a good person, doesn’t mean you aren’t upholding racism around you.


One Takeaway / Putting into practice:

My biggest takeaway from this book would have to be a combination of several points I’ve learned in this book:

  • We need to challenge our own idiologies of individualism, meritocracy, and colorblind racism, and understand that there are forces that shape the experience of many others that we cannot see

For me, this is a reminder that we need to constantly interrupt racist patterns in ourselves and those around us. This is the only way to make progress in abolishing the system of racism in our country.


Nutshell:

A comprehensive breakdown of white fragility and white defensiveness when it comes to race and how to address it.


Similar books:


Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

4.5/5


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