Book Review of White Fragility by David Haymes
I just finished White Fragility by Robyn DiAngelo. It is a sobering and paralyzing read.
Two comments from friends recurred in my thoughts as I read the book. Before the pandemic, we went to the Civil Rights Museums in Montgomery, Alabama. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice pays homage to the 4,400+ black people lynched in America from 1877 to 1950. The Legacy Museum chronicles the black American experience from “enslavement to mass incarceration.” After viewing the lynching, brutality, and injustice in the Legacy Museum, I was shaken to my core and despairingly said, “I don't know how we ever make this right.” My friend nodded, “I know, but we’ve got to try.”
White Fragility is DiAngelo’s “try.” She convincingly indicts white people for their privilege and unawareness of that privilege. She tears down rationalization of the status quo: “I’m not a racist. I have black friends.” “I didn’t have anything to do with slavery.” “Why are they so angry?” “No one helped me.” She accepts her racism by saying that is the way all white people were brought up in our world. We all have it!
In her role as an anti-racism consultant, DiAngelo describes our white fragility when our racism is pointed out. We react with anger, disbelief, guilt, fear, arguing, silence, and/or withdrawal.* How dare her! But this is what whites must get past. Guilt is not the goal. Learning, listening, and understanding is the goal.
Many of us have very little social interaction with people who are black. We form most of our opinions by what we read or see on television.
DiAngelo says that as long as she is speaking in the abstract, her audiences are with her, but when she points out a not always obvious racist comment that someone in the audience may have made, reactions are swift - see above.*
Examples of our obliviousness are noted throughout the book:
“The majority of white people live in racial isolation from people of color… White people are deeply influenced by the racial messages in films.”
“That whites are disproportionately enriched and privileged via these institutions (education, medicine, law, government, finance, and the military) is also taken for granted; we are entitled to more privileges and resources because we are ‘better’ people.”
“(W)hite people’s moral objection to racism increases their resistance to acknowledging their complicity with it.”
“(P)ointing out white advantage will often trigger patterns of confusion, defensiveness, and righteous indignation.”
The second comment rolling around my brain as I read White Fragility was from a friend: “We all know that racism exists, but I thought all decent people had rejected it by now. I still believe that.”
As I read White Fragility, I begin to see that my friend’s definition of racism had to be different than DiAngelo's. He means overt racism - using the n-word, white supremacist behavior, overt prejudice, etc. DiAngelo means more subtle attitudes and acts most whites are not even aware of. How can you be a racist if you have little or no contact with blacks? Answer: By taking your white privilege in education, housing, wealth accumulation, and healthcare for granted. The underlying subliminal message is “We deserve it. We are better than they are.” Or as my friend is fond of saying “they don't take personal responsibility.”
Where to begin? The first and most difficult step is to recognize racism and white privilege and defensiveness when it is challenged.
D'Angelo says if you are not uncomfortable dealing with racism and white fragility, you’re not dealing with it. So getting comfortable with discomfort is essential.
When people ask her “What to do about racism and white fragility, the first thing (she) ask(s) is, what has enabled you to be a full, educated, professional adult and not know what to do about racism? It is a sincere question. How have we managed not to know, when the information is all around us? When people of color have been telling us for years?”
The second thing to do: Dig deeper into the question and you’ll know. If you were not educated about racism, get educated. If you don't know people of color, build relationships. If there are no people of color in your environment, expand your environment. She concludes “Addressing racism is not without effort.”
If America is to thrive, we must strive. All of us must strive to understand our history. We must especially address our history of continuing injustice to people of color. Until that changes America will be vulnerable from within.