White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin J. DiAngelo explores what the author calls ‘white fragility’ and its impact on our ability to have productive, authentic conversations about race and discrimination. The book was originally brought to my attention via recommendation on Amazon/Goodreads and I was interested to pick it up. First let me acknowledge this is a difficult topic for many people to discuss for various reasons – it can be emotional, uncomfortable, or painful. It is, however, an important subject which objectively needs much wider understanding on the part of society at large. Part of getting there is making these conversations more commonplace, acknowledging and accepting others’ reality and experiences, and striving to truly hear others with compassion and humility. I approached this book with an open heart and eagerness to understand, and I hope my comments here align with that spirit.
I really liked this book for many reasons. Firstly, it was beautifully written in a voice that came across to me as that of a patient teacher. DiAngelo is well practiced in broaching the topic of race given her many years as both an academic as well as a consultant for racial training. Her experience and deep passion for the topic shine here. The book was also well structured, easy to read from a literary perspective, and contained a wealth of understanding, expertise, and references. I found the couple of studies included in the text fascinating and felt they enhanced each section where they were used.
Diving into the learnings of the book (without giving too much away), DiAngelo explains what she means by the term ‘white fragility,’ why it exists, and how to address it. This fragility is defined as ‘reduced psychosocial stamina for racial discussion’ due to insulation, avoidance, and privilege, manifesting in stress and defensiveness. It preserves white self image, status quo, and enforces the psychology of ‘us versus them’ instead of a shared humanity.
While I understand and appreciate the premise behind the term, I did have some questions that weren’t completely addressed in the book. For instance, in retrospect it’s unclear if this was meant to apply only to situations where the topic is brought up impromptu or more broadly in all interactions. Furthermore is there ever a point where someone could be sufficiently practiced and comfortable with racial discussions to the point that their level of white fragility is negligible or does this phenomenon persist on some level regardless of experience? Perhaps commentary from DiAngelo herself would be helpful here, given her lengthy practice in the area. Finally, it would have been nice to clarify whether the term is previously well-established or if DiAngelo came up with it herself, for the sake of curiosity and understanding. The summation of all these questions of course demonstrate some minute gaps in my understanding from a reader’s perspective, but don’t detract from the main point of the book itself.
White Fragility also discusses the fact that each of our experiences shape our perspectives and opportunities, which in turn impact many facets of our lives such as preferences, biases, interactions, beliefs, and perceptions. Some of these are implicit (attitudes less accessible to our conscious awareness and/or control) and others are explicit (more deliberate and conscious). According to the study of psychology and reinforced in the book, there is realistically no way to avoid some measure of implicit bias inherent to our life experiences. We can, however, strive to recognize it, acknowledge it, and choose how we wish to react. The book also emphasizes that racism isn’t restricted to a good vs bad binary. Everyone has room to improve, and going through the exercise of self-reflection or receiving constructive feedback are part of this growth. I felt this was an encouraging, forward-looking message.
If there was one thing I would suggest to make the book even more impactful, it would be to add more stories and experiences readers can connect to on an emotional level. There were short pieces (mostly from training sessions) on how the lessons were received or how various students felt, but in general book seemed to lean towards an academic voice. I understand there are a number of other books that already share these type of emotional stories, but supplementing White Fragility with a balance of these elements could have helped convey the deeply human story.
I would recommend this book to anyone looking to explore the topic of race from the unique perspective this author brings to the table, but recognize that in order to gain a holistic view one needs to hear a range of voices. This book is an excellent place to start or continue that exploration.
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