“Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” –Eric Hoffer
In 2018, the “whiteness educator” Robin DiAngelo published a bestselling book called White Fragility. This book is intended to teach white people about their own racism. More than that, White Fragility teaches white people about the ways they resist learning about and challenging their own racism because of something DiAngelo calls their “white fragility.” White fragility is characterized by DiAngelo as a kind of inability to face the “racial stress” of being accused of “racism” and “white supremacy,” leading them to act out emotionally or to refuse to accept the accusation.
White fragility, she says, is inherent to white people and prevents them from “doing the work” to challenge racism. She says that the goal of her project is to make white people, including herself, “less white.” What many people don’t understand is that the concept of white fragility is a scam, both intellectually and in practice.
To be very clear up front about the deceit hidden in this intellectual game, DiAngelo explains very clearly that what she means by “racism” and “white supremacy” are not what people think they are. In fact, she explains very clearly that what she means by these terms has very little to do with real racism or the white supremacy of hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan. They are, instead, vaguely defined “systems” that can have little or nothing to do with individuals and their behaviors at all.
By “white supremacy,” DiAngelo means that white people (and others) “accept” the idea that white people are the dominant group in society, where this acceptance is defined as everything—or, everything short of taking on her full “antiracism” program (which she teaches in expensive seminars). This “antiracism” program is not just about understanding racism better and being against it, though. That is not enough. DiAngelo says you have to be “actively antiracist,” because being non-racist or passively antiracist isn’t possible, making both subtle forms of “racism.” DiAngelo describes “active antiracism” in very religious terms as a “lifelong commitment” to an “ongoing process” of self-reflection, self-criticism, and antiracist social activism (which she will conveniently teach you how to do in those expensive seminars).
By “racism,” she means a situation in which white people occupy a “dominant” social position in society. You can know a system is racist by a very simple test—too simple, in fact. If anything happens differently such that races in dominant social positions have any better outcomes than those in “oppressed” ones—say white children having higher math test scores on average than black ones, even though they are less than those of Asian children—the whole system must be “systemically racist” for that to be possible. This understanding cannot work in reverse, by definition (dominant social positions cannot be oppressed), and it can be the case even if the society in question contains zero genuinely racist people.
All white people are automatically “racists” in such systems because of another bizarre academic idea: “white complicity,” which comes from another “whiteness scholar” named Barbara Applebaum. Their argument is simple, and it is bad: all white people are complicit in “racism” because they automatically benefit from it, whether they want to or not. DiAngelo’s prescription for this is also simple, and bad: all white people need to be “less white.” (DiAngelo devotes an entire section to telling her readers that there is no possibility of constructing a “positive white identity” at all, so becoming a “good white” person is not possible and is, in fact, a kind of “racism.”)
Thus, DiAngelo’s idea of “racism” separates all white people into just two categories: racists who admit it and racists who won’t admit it. “Racists” and “racists.” This second group, she diagnoses, suffers from “white fragility” and is the target of her book.
By the way, this “systemic” idea of racism also extends to all people of other races who support or participate in “white culture,” which even includes science, especially people who are neither white nor black. Black people who participate in “white culture” are accused of “acting white” or being “race traitors.” Other non-white races are accused of being “white adjacent,” which means more white than not. Thus, these people can also be complicit in the “system of racism” called “whiteness” and can exhibit “white fragility” if they refuse to acknowledge it, even though they aren’t white.
This is the theoretical ground upon which White Fragility rests. You’re not wrong for suspecting something might be badly wrong here. It is.
In fact, make no mistake. DiAngelo knows you think “racism” and “white supremacy” mean something different and far worse than this. She knows you think they mean the usual awful stuff and associate those words with those awful ideas that very few people support. And you can know she knows because she devotes most of a chapter to telling her readers so. She explains it all very clearly early in the book, telling her readers to “breathe” as they encounter these ideas. She means something different than most people naturally understand about “racism,” but you’d never know this by the way the ideas are used when put into action or, in fact, how they are used throughout the rest of her book.
Bear in mind that she also presumably knows, being an intelligent woman, that people’s moral reactions precede their intellectual ones. That means she understands that the emotional sting of these accusations will remain in full force for most readers even though she means something different by these words. She must also know that when these ideas are put into practice, her long, somewhat complicated disclaimer will almost never go with it. While she seems to think this explanation portrays her as being honest, then, it also makes the deception hiding in her ideas seem somewhat deliberate.
Worse, the intellectual fraudulence of “white fragility” only begins by using highly charged terms like “racism” and “white supremacy” like a kind of Trojan Horse that sneaks past people’s defenses, letting them manipulate their feelings and actions. The real problem with “white fragility” isn’t the ground it stands on; it’s how the idea works.
Put bluntly, white fragility makes it, by design, impossible to deny any accusations of racism, white supremacy, or even white fragility. In that sense, “white fragility” is a kind of moral and emotional shakedown meant to make white people vulnerable and to turn them into activists for her own program (which, remember, she sells in expensive seminars). To see how this manipulation works, let’s look closer. DiAngelo says that when confronted with accusations of racism, white fragility, or white supremacy, white and white-adjacent people (meaning almost everybody) will act in a few predictable ways. Let’s consider their options.
They could admit to it, though few would (DiAngelo counts herself among that elect few). If they do, then they are admitting that they’re “racist” and complicit in “white supremacy.” Admitting it isn’t so simple, though. It’s only the first step. Then, they have to sign up for DiAngelo’s full “antiracism” program, or else the admission wasn’t authentic. They aren’t really engaging with their “racism.” Instead, they are still resisting, which would be positive proof of their white fragility.
DiAngelo rightly observes that most people deny the accusation. Or they argue. Or they stay silent. Or they just go away. Some, she explains, will become upset or even cry. These are the other options DiAngelo offers besides a full confession and lifetime of service in her program (seminars exceed $10,000 a piece), and every one of them is described as hard evidence of having “white fragility.” Not of caring. Not of thinking you might have hurt someone else’s feelings. Not of knowing it’s a lie or a manipulation. Every other possible reaction or response is, under the guidance of White Fragility, positive proof of that person’s white fragility, which means it is proof that they are “racist.”
Before going on, you should know that DiAngelo devotes an entire chapter to arguing that when white women cry, their tears are political acts and are being used to center attention on themselves and maintain their own “white supremacy.” The accused is only allowed to stay present, remain unemotional, and positively assent to their racism (which means they’re racist). They then must sign on to the lifelong antiracism program DiAngelo is selling to them, or they are privileged racists who are proving it by exhibiting… white fragility. This is genuinely sadistic.
Again, this proves that DiAngelo’s idea of “white fragility” separates all white people, most not-black people of other races, and some black people into just two categories: “racists” who admit it by signing on to her full program, for life, and “racists” who refuse to admit it because their privilege has made them too emotionally and morally weak. (She says white fragility arises from lacking the “racial stamina” and “racial humility” needed to do genuine “antiracism” work.) This is obviously manipulative baloney. It is a racial shakedown that is used to sell expensive seminars in which Robin DiAngelo comes to organizations to tell all the white people there how racist they are. It is not in any way an evidenced, scholarly approach to solving real problems of racism.
For what it’s worth, Robin DiAngelo developed the concept of “white fragility” many years before she wrote White Fragility in 2018. She says it came from her extensive work as a racial workshop coordinator, observing small groups of white people who she accused of being racists. She then observed how they reacted to the resulting “racial stress.” Nothing in White Fragility is the result of careful and rigorous academic study or scientific research into racism. It’s the result of DiAngelo projecting her own feelings about her own complicity in racism onto some case studies in situations she engineered and then interpreted in a particular way. Those feelings do not have to be guessed at because they are clearly expressed in the book in a number of scenes that she uses as self-reflective examples. One stands out especially: it is a scene in which she describes going to a work-related party at the park and seeing two groups there, one of which was all black, and feeling paralyzed with fear that she’d have to enter the all-black group. It is not my place to judge Robin DiAngelo here, and I will leave it for the reader to decide what this implies about what lies at the bottom of her “theory.” If the reader finds this situation strange or telling, however, I would urge them to think twice before applying the idea that came from it to their own lives, where it very likely doesn’t fit.
Read the Spanish translation of this article here.