REVIEW: White Fragility by Robin Diangelo

Hello 2021! Nice to see you after what felt like a century in 2020.

Welcome back to all the readers as well, whether you are back for the books or the emotional rollercoaster that was my life last year.

In my Top Ten Books I’m Going to Read Once My Degree is Complete, I listed the books that I would be starting with now that I have some free time. Despite saying they are in no particular order, I did start with the book at the top of the list.

It was extremely important to me to start my 2021 by focusing on works that discussed racism in its overt and subtle tones. So, we begin with White Fragility by Robin Diangelo.

I want to start this review by acknowledging my own white privilege that allows me to exist in this society without having to consider if the colour of my skin has impacted my life. I will follow that up by recognizing that I am far from perfect. I have allowed racist jokes to pass without a protest because I was too scared to speak up. I have claimed colour-blindness because I thought that elevated me beyond racism. I have used words that are racially coded rather than acknowledging my own prejudice. I exist within a racist society that I benefit from. However, I will continue to educate myself and aim towards interrupting and disrupting the racial inequality I see, but do not personally experience.

This is one of the most powerful works on racism I have read.

Mind you, I am early in my journey. I have a whole host of other books to read, including works by people of colour, which brings me to an important note. This book is written by a white woman. She claims she is writing it for other white people. In her introduction, Robin writes:

This book is unapologetically rooted in identity politics. I am white and am addressing a common white dynamic. I am mainly writing to a white audience; when I use the terms us and we, I am referring to the white collective. This usage may be jarring to white readers because we are so rarely asked to think about ourselves or fellow whites in racial terms.

DiAngelo, xiv

She recognizes that she is providing a focuses around white people, rather than people of colour. She also acknowledges that it is sometimes harder for white people to deny the words of other white people, that she is using her status as an insider of the white collective to challenge the racism that we perpetuate daily. She is examining why white people have trouble discussing the very real problem of racism and she tackles it efficiently.

The main issue with this book is not in the writing or anything of the like, but rather that it will likely be lost on those who need it the most.

And I am not talking about stereotypical racists from television shows that scream the N word or launch an unprovoked attack on a person of colour. I am talking about people who swear up and down that they are not racist, that they can’t be, because they “have black friends” or they “don’t see race.” People who are unwilling to open up to the reality that those behaviours only serve to further racial inequality and systematic racism.

Like I said above, I am not perfect. I opened this book thinking that I was not racist.

When I was younger, I attended a multicultural training program and during a particular activity, I proudly claimed to simply be human, rather than identifying with a race. I thought that I was being progressive, above those who were focusing on race. I did not realize how damaging that belief is, that it allows racism to continue since we aren’t noticing the way that it affects people of colour if we refuse to see colour. I was called out in that moment and it was explained to me, and the rest of the group, why it was problematic.

In the moment, all I felt was embarrassed. However, once that initial feeling died down, I took stock of myself. I compared that with the information that I was provided about ‘colour-blindness’ and was able to recognize the truth: that it does not serve anyone, except white people. Now, you may be thinking, ‘if no one saw race, then people can’t be treated differently for it.’ Your surface reading of that situation is correct. What it fails to account for is the fact that we don’t live in a utopia. We live in a racist society, a society that is essentially white supremist, since the systemic power rests with white folks.

It was with that situation in my mind that I started to read White Fragility.

I wanted to know what I could do better. I wanted to know how I could have difficult conversations. I wanted to know how I was inadvertently causing more problems, or at least ignoring those already in existence. So I decided to keep an open mind, to take in the possible criticism that I would find and fix the issues.

Despite that, I still opened it with the thought that I wasn’t racist.

The reality, which this book points out incredibly well, is that we have managed to create an idea that the only people who are racist are the stereotype. We think of people in white hoods, ‘Whites Only’ signs in store windows, young men carrying tiki torches, mobs lynching black people or committing hate crimes. We make the assumption that we if are not participating in that behaviour, then we are anti-racist; that only bad people can be racist.

DiAngelo quotes an African American scholar and filmmaker on the reality of racism. Omowale Akintunde said that racism is “a systemic, societal, institutional, omnipresent, and epistemologically embedded phenomenon that pervades every vestige of our reality. For most whites, however, racism is like murder: the concept exists, but someone has to commit it in order for it to happen. This limited view of such a multilayered syndrome cultivates the sinister nature of racism and, in fact, perpetuates racist phenomena rather than eradicates them” (72).

I know it is a lot to take in, that you might already be feeling defensive that I have assumed in some way that you are racist when I do not even know you. Maybe you want to know why I think you are a bad person.

And that is the point.

When you cannot acknowledge that good people can, and often do, continue to perpetuate racist ideals and behaviours, you allow the systems to remain in place. You place yourself in the “good person” category, claim that you are not racist. However, by doing that, you stop yourself from learning, from interrupting racism. You aren’t racist, so racism isn’t your problem. You don’t have to deal with it.

But racism is your problem. If you are white, you have developed your entire perspective from that of being white. You are shaped by the colour of your skin, simply because you do not have to consider whether or not it will get you hinder your life in some way. Interrupting racism, either in ourselves or in others, takes work. That is why it is important to acknowledge the benefits you gain from it and the ways you allow it to continue, whether intentionally or not.

So consider racism a matter of life or death (as it is for people of color), and do your homework.

DiAngelo, 145

The truth is that this post cannot educate you in the same way the book can. I wish I could put all of the things I learned about myself in this post, but it would involve essentially recreating the work here.

I am glad that I started with this book though, even though I was initially concerned about starting with something written by a white woman, rather than a person of colour. It allowed me to understand my own belief system and worldview better. It allowed me to recognize the ways that I continue to perpetuate racism without even realizing it. It gave me a chance to acknowledge defensive feelings that result from this idea of racism I held. I am able to acknowledge that I play a part in a racist system and cannot be free of that until the system has been destroyed and rebuilt with something better.

That, in the meantime, I need to continue to educate myself, work on myself, and interrupt racism in all of the forms that it appears. That I cannot stand with white solidarity since it only benefits white people. That I have to confront my own feelings of white fragility in order to affect change in the world around me. That I can do better if I put in the effort.


I was originally going to end my post with the following:

So for all of those reasons, I think this book should be required reading for white people. That you should come to this book prepared to realize that you play a part in a system that allows racism to reign freely. It will not be an easy read and, if you think it is, you are not doing the work.

Me

However, then I went to pull up links for my usual “You can buy the book here” spiel and I found this article by John McWhorter. It is called “The Dehumanizing Condescension of White Fragility.” When I saw the link, I immediately thought, “Uh oh. Did I fuck up?”

Rather than letting that sit without consideration, I opened the article. It is written by a black man, so I knew it would be important to read his perspective. Even if simply because it will offer a perspective from a person who actually experiences the racism discussed in this book.

McWhorter offers up some compelling critiques of this book. At one point, he writes that based on DiAngelo’s text that “if you are white, make no mistake: You will never succeed in the “work” she demands of you. It is lifelong, and you will die a racist just as you will die a sinner.” In the paragraph above this, he also mentions all the issues with some of claims that DiAngelo makes regarding the way we should talk about some neighbours or who we should speak to about questions we have.

There were some premises that McWhorter brought up that I did not agree with. For example, in his final paragraph, he writes

White Fragility is, in the end, a book about how to make certain educated white readers feel better about themselves.”

McWhorter

I understand where he seems to be coming from with this. However, I also did not come to that conclusion myself. My own interpretation of the book was that I should continue to educate myself and to be aware of where some of my choices come from. I will also specify that I always knew that this book was a jumping off point for me. I never intended to take the word of this one author (DiAngelo) and say “good enough.” Maybe that impacted my own reading of the text, along with my awareness that people of colour should be included in that process, so this book could not be my end goal.

With that in mind, I began to look to see if I could find other readers of colour that saw the book negatively. I felt it was important to see if this was one man’s opinion or a widely acknowledged problem for people of colour. This was not easy though. While McWhorter acknowledges his race in the article and has a photo alongside his name, not all articles have the same. However, I was able to locate a few more articles that discuss the flaws of this book. They are listed below as I believe they offer further insight on concerns regarding this book.

Raluca Bejan wrote an article about the book’s failure to recognize the differences within whiteness, as well as the USA centric look at racism.

Carlos Lozada wrote an article that is aptly called “White Fragility is Real, But White Fragility is Flawed.” It offers an opinion of the book that reminded me of McWhorter’s article: “People of color are always vulnerable and always wise, even if never entirely real.” He also writes about Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist” in comparison to DiAngelo’s text and that it provides some contrasting views. While I am currently reading a fiction book for my next review, I will be moving to that one next.

Daniel Bergner wrote an article that is about more than just DiAngelo’s book. He writes of antiracism training and if it actually doing what they hope. It is a compelling piece that offers this piece that I feel is probably most concerning:

This isn’t Singleton’s concern. He thinks back to a long line of Black writers on race, and what he sees in the DiAngelo phenomenon is that “it takes a white person to say these things for white people to listen. In some ways, that is the very indication of the problem in this country.”

Bergner

I chose not to edit my post beyond pointing out the original ending and removing the words “This Should be Required Reading” from the title. The rest of the post is an accurate representation of my feelings after reading the work before realizing the issues that others have pointed out.

I still believe that there is good information in this book. However, it should not be the only text you read. It should be a starting place or a mid-point. The books on racism that you read should mostly come from those who actually experience it. It can be a stepping stone, but it should not be a bridge across the conversations you are afraid to have.

The fact that her book became a #1 bestseller in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, rather than a book written by a person of colour, actually grants a great deal of insight. It speaks to the fact that we, as white people, are more likely to listen to a white person. That we may have been looking for someone to tell us that we were doing a good job. That be said, I will be carefully considering this going forward as I pick books that I will use to continue this conversation and further my knowledge.

I hope that you will join me on this journey.


If, after reading this, you would still like to read the book, I urge you to purchase it from a book store owned by a person of colour. Here is a list of stores in Canada and the United States that are owned by Black or Indigenous people.

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