Like many white people closely following the current Black Lives Matter movement and thus moved to embark on some long-term inner work, I recently picked up Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility. DiAngelo, a white anti-racist educator, calls white people to recognize the subtle, widespread ways all of us uphold white supremacy.
DiAngelo challenged me in a way I didn’t expect. I don’t have much experience with the specific kind of white fragility she discusses: that is, being confronted or called out for racist comments, assumptions, or behaviors. Most of the examples DiAngelo uses take place within anti-racism workshops, or other race-conscious spaces. I grew up in Boise, Idaho, which is 0.9% Black, and then went to Notre Dame, which is 4% Black. I can probably count on one hand the times I remember talking about non-historical—that is, present and active—racism. And even then, it wasn’t with Black Americans.
Still, I do have experience being called out for saying or doing hurtful things to other people. And as defined by DiAngelo, I respond with swift, powerful, conversation-ending white fragility:
“If we need to cry so that all the resources rush back to us and attention is diverted away from a discussion of our racism, then we will cry (a strategy most commonly employed by white middle-class women). If we need to take umbrage and respond with righteous outrage, then we will take umbrage. If we need to argue, minimize, explain, play devil’s advocate, pout, tune out, or withdraw to stop the challenge, then we will.”
I shamefully recognize myself here—but just as someone who employs these defensive behaviors any time she is challenged. About a year ago, my (white) husband told me that every time he tries to bring up an issue with me, I respond with such overwhelming hurt and fierce crying that the original issue always gets lost. The impetus is then on him to comfort me, when really, I was the one who needed to repair a past hurt in our relationship.
It has been hard to confront this fact about myself. I’m still defensive of my crying response. To me, it feels automatic, like a tripwire. I don’t consciously think to myself, “Okay, I know how I’m going to get out of this”… and then start bawling.
It might be that I have simply not developed the muscle of dealing with regular criticism or negative feedback. Not because I don’t deserve it, but because people reflexively protect my feelings and give me the benefit of the doubt as a young white woman.
This is a key point for DiAngelo—that white people are so not used to dealing with racial discomfort that we respond with white fragility. To understand DiAngelo’s framework, I had to map it onto my mostly white, segregated, and racially unaware life. I have so rarely been held accountable for wrongdoing among white people that when it does happen, I react with shocking immaturity.
Occasionally, receiving a rare piece of negative feedback, I’ve found myself not crying, but full of self-righteous anger. This tends to happen with people I’m less close with—like teachers, coworkers, or other people’s parents. In one instance, when I was a sophomore in high school, I caused a class-wide dress code violation because I challenged the teacher who tried to discipline me individually. Instead of accepting my fate, I responded, “Mrs. G, no one in this entire school wears collared shirts under their sweatshirts. You could check everyone in this room.” She took me up on that, and about 5 minutes later, about 20 pissed-off classmates and I walked down to the principal’s office. I was ashamed to realize that because I had refused to admit I had broken a rule and accept a small, inconsequential punishment, I had become a 16-year-old tattletale.
DiAngelo’s White Fragility couples these two seemingly distinct responses—crying and fighting back—as complementary defense mechanisms. As quoted above, to cry is one option, another is to “argue, minimize, explain, [or] play devil’s advocate.”
DiAngelo writes, “If you believe that you are being told you are a bad person, all your energy is likely to go toward denying this possibility and invalidating the messenger rather than trying to understand why what you’ve said or done is hurtful. You will probably respond with white fragility.”
I realized, reading DiAngelo’s book, that my white fragility is founded upon a false, counterproductive understanding of character. To borrow from Dr. Carol Dweck’s analysis in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, “Believing that your qualities are carved in stone—the fixed mindset—creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over.” In contrast, a growth mindset is a belief that “your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.”
Underlying my white fragility is a fixed mindset. If confronted for doing a bad thing, I am in distress because I fear that beneath it all, I’m a bad person. If I am bad, no one will love me. Like someone put the Harry Potter sorting hat on my head and it said “Slytherin.” It’s not like they’ll let me into Gryffindor tomorrow if I start being a better person; I have to argue that I don’t belong there in the first place.
A key argument in White Fragility is that racism is unavoidable. We are all racist. We have been socialized in a white supremacy. It’s not our fault, so we don’t need to be defensive or feel guilty. But we invited to work against it, and learn as we go.
It makes sense that these patterns of behavior exist prior to being confronted about racism specifically. I can see that my habits with my family and friends, in white spaces, could end up tanking an anti-racism workshop and frustrating people of color. I just have not been in that space yet. And thankfully, people like my husband are helping me recognize these patterns ahead of time.
DiAngelo emphasizes again and again that to receive criticism should be encouraging and humbling, rather than terrifying. It’s is an invitation to become better: stronger, more emotionally mature, less afraid, more generous. Every time I read a headline that includes “White Female Tears” now, I am humbled and reminded that the most profound change I can make begins within.