As social unrest spreads throughout America after the death of George Floyd, Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility has recently made its way back on the bestseller lists. What is the theory of white fragility? How does it apparently explain, as its subtitle says, why it is so hard to talk to white people about racism, especially given how so many white progressives have joined nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd, even kneeling in unison in a Houston event, asking for forgiveness?
According to DiAngelo, white people have been raised in a society anchored entirely on the ideologies and discourses of racism and white supremacy. Not the racism of slavery and Jim Crow, or even the so-called “back-stage” racism where white people say bad things about nonwhite people behind their backs. It is a much more insidious and largely invisible thing known simply as “Whiteness.” According to Whiteness scholars like DiAngelo, to be white is to be raised in a culture of Whiteness and thus to be a racist. Especially if you are a white progressive. As DiAngelo says (see at 13:00), white progressives “land the most harshly on people of color day in and day out.”
Because these ideas are so deeply rooted in the theoretical academic literature about racism, it is difficult to understand them without understanding some of their basis. In the case of white fragility, we have to understand “Whiteness” as a person like Robin DiAngelo understands it in particular.
What is Whiteness?
Whiteness is understood to be a central belief system that supports and upholds white supremacy. The dismantling of Whiteness is thus the key objective in the critical evaluation of social norms and institutions. But what is it? Whiteness is vaguely defined as a “constellation of processes and practices” consisting of “basic rights, values, beliefs, perspectives and experiences purported to be commonly shared by all but which are actually only consistently afforded to white people.” These processes and practices are “dynamic, relational, and operating at all times and on myriad levels.” Whiteness is everywhere white people are and in everything they do. White people have been “socialized” into “racialized” roles in which they perpetuate “white” norms of speech, acts, beliefs, and practices which unwittingly but ruthlessly reinstate and reinforce Whiteness.
Despite being so vaguely defined and unmeasurable, Whiteness is treated by the scholars who study it and the activists who demand social change as a real, material thing having real material impact upon the world. How? Through discourse—what we talk about and how we talk about it. For example, as DiAngelo explains in her dissertation (p. 94), if a white person relies on personal experience in inter-racial dialogue, she fails to understand how she remains complicit in the reign of Whiteness, and is also unwittingly working to reinstate and reinforce Whiteness by positioning herself as an individual rather than as a member of the dominant “white” group. White people use this discourse to “protect their positions and preclude attempts to problematize or deconstruct their claims.” They are able to do so because the “discourse of individualism” is a “move” of Whiteness that puts the white person “outside of socialization factors, rather than as the product of multidimensional social interaction.”
The idea is that white people are not merely unaware of how they think and talk about race. They are socially constructed to be unaware by a society which systematically “socializes” white people into a frame of mind in which they see themselves, however unwittingly, as superior. It is inescapable. To be white is to be a racist. That does not mean white people are “bad” people. It means that “being white” effectively reifies Whiteness every time white people participate in society. One way white people do this is by thinking of themselves as individuals rather than as “white” people (i.e. racists).
DiAngelo and Whiteness scholars draw numerous conclusions about racial inequality from the idea that Whiteness is reified in society. Reification, which mistakes an abstract idea, i.e. Whiteness, for a concrete reality, is a fallacy because abstractions are not real things. But the real problem is that the scope of what Whiteness entails has expanded so widely that it has become virtually meaningless. As the labor historian Eric Arsenen writes, “whiteness has become a blank screen onto which those who claim to analyze it can project their own meanings.”
The reification fallacy thus effectively becomes a fallacy of ambiguity, which refers to “[w]hen an unclear phrase with multiple definitions is used within the argument; therefore, does not support the conclusion.” In this case, the unclear phrase is Whiteness. Drawing numerous conclusions about racial inequality from a premise in which the meaning of Whiteness is value is a fallacy of ambiguity.
Implicit Bias: Is there any evidence for ideological Whiteness?
The theory of white fragility relies on the flawed premise of implicit bias, which is now known to be a form of pseudoscience. Implicit bias is supposed to refer to when people have unacknowledged biases which affect their behavior. DiAngelo takes for granted that implicit biases are pervasive, that implicit biases predict behavior, and that most people are unaware that they have implicit biases. Her understanding, however, is based on studies from the first generation of implicit bias research, which arose after publication of a paper describing the “Implicit Association Test.” In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Tom Bartlett writes, “[a]bout 70 percent of people who take the race version of the Implicit Association Test show the same tendency — that is, they prefer faces with typically European-American features over those with African-American features.” It does not take much imagination to see how these apparent findings led to a popular narrative that racism is a system built on implicit bias.
Imagination, however, would be wrong. A second generation of research in the psychology literature has raised serious doubts about implicit bias. It is not clear what exactly implicit bias measures. Implicit bias is not the same thing as unconscious bias. Several studies, including this meta-study, find that implicit bias does not predict how people will act in real life. Finally, the validity of the test is also cast into doubt by a lack of any evidence that results are consistent even for the same person on the same day. In sum, psychologists do not know exactly what implicit bias is or how to define it. Implicit bias is almost certainly not a measure of unconscious prejudice. It does not reliably predict behavior. It does not seem to explain much about racial inequality.
What is White Fragility?
Unsurprisingly, DiAngelo has encountered a lot of resistance in attempting to persuade white people that they are irredeemably racist, and they have been coded since they were born to be so. In her position as a diversity trainer, she writes, “I have observed countless enactments of white fragility.”
Formally, DiAngelo defines “white fragility” as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves,” including the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.”
If you have felt any hint that you disagree with the claims about Whiteness above, you are exhibiting white fragility. Do you doubt that too? More white fragility. Getting frustrated now? More white fragility. Until you see that the system of Whiteness has led to white people being insulated from having to acknowledge their racism, you are exhibiting white fragility (and even then, you might be feeling uncomfortable about it, in which case, more white fragility). Any response to being told by DiAngelo that one is complicit in racism, apart from agreeing with her, is evidence of white fragility. If white fragility sounds like a Kafka trap, congratulations, you are right. It is.
A Kafka trap, named for the story “The Trial” written by Franz Kafka, is when any denial of the truth of an accusation is taken as evidence of guilt.
In the case of white fragility, it looks like this:
“You are white, therefore, you are a racist.”
“No, I’m not.”
“That’s precisely what a fragile white person would say.”
In sum, the theory of white fragility says: any disagreement that you are racist because you are white in a “white” society built on the ideologies and discourses of Whiteness, whether that takes the form of arguing, staying silent, or going away, is evidence of white fragility which, in turn, reinstates white supremacy.
The house of cards tumbles.
To recap, we have no clear definition of Whiteness. Although every speech and act of white people are interpreted as a “moves” of Whiteness, which perpetuates racism because racism is based on Whiteness, the meaning of Whiteness and racism remain ambiguous. Whiteness studies therefore fall prey to the fallacy of ambiguity which refers to “[w]hen an unclear phrase with multiple definitions is used within the argument [and] therefore, does not support the conclusion.”
Despite this ambiguity, Whiteness is nevertheless presented in a reified form as a materially real system in which white people are socialized into ideologies and discourses that begin infecting them with implicit biases from the day they are born. As the literature increasingly makes clear, psychologists are not clear on what, in fact, implicit bias is, or what it measures. If psychologists are not clear on what implicit bias is, then we have reason to doubt whether Whiteness scholars are clear about what Whiteness is. If Whiteness has no convincing claim to validity, then the concept of white fragility as an evasive response to being held complicit in whiteness has none either.
The theory of white fragility purports to offer us a way forward with an explanation of how racism works and why it is so hard to talk to white people about it. This is appealing because we all have an interest in the pursuit of racial justice and the eradication of racism. Unfortunately, the theory of white fragility does not help. It is so riddled with conceptual, empirical, and logical errors that it is useless.