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  • Writer's pictureTracie Guy-Decker

White Fragility

Recognizing that you are behaving according to a documented pattern can be exciting. I recently hired an executive coach to support me in my day job. She had me take some assessments when we first got started. When, in our first call together, she started telling me about what the assessments said, she was reading through a number of the findings, and then she said, “according to this, you’re the kind of person who might be found at a protest.” I laughed out loud. No really, I LOLed. And then I wanted to know what else the assessment had to say about me. What other behaviors of mine could it predict?

Recognizing patterns in other’s behavior can also be instructive. For most of my life, a family member (by marriage) emotionally abused me. She would do this thing where, when confronted about her bad behavior she would first deny wrongdoing, then attack me for being rude or ungrateful or otherwise a terrible human being, and finally say that I was the one who was hurtful to her. As a kid, it was disorienting. I would always try to defend myself, to set the record straight with the other grown ups. As an adult, as I started to really realize I’d been emotionally abused, I came upon a description of the behavior of abusers known by the acronym, DARVO: Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Oppressor. A light bulb went off over my head: it wasn’t in my head. She really had abused me, and her actions followed a known tactic of abusers.

Sometimes recognizing patterns of one’s own or other’s behavior can be unsettling. Especially in American culture where we are taught to value individualism above all else, it can be downright infuriating to be told you are reacting according to a script you didn’t know you had. That feeling of anger, of "how dare you suggest I am not a rugged individual, wholly unique in how I think and feel?" is what many critics of Robin DiAngelo seem to be laboring under.

Even though I have written about Robin DiAngelo’s work before, and even heard her speak at American University's Antiracism Book Festival in 2019, I had not read her signature, book-length work, White Fragility until now. “White fragility,” a phrase coined by DiAngelo, describes the predictable set of behaviors white people exhibit when confronted with their own role in systems of racial oppression.

(White) American society has defined racism as the intentional discriminatory or even violent actions of bad people. It has created a good/bad binary vis a vis racism (i.e. bad people are racist, good people are not racist), even though racism, is, in fact, a systemic oppression, which can be perpetuated by and benefit white people who have no ill intentions toward people of color. When white folks are confronted with the idea of the systemic oppression, they revert to the good/bad binary, and get offended: how dare you suggest I am a bad person? I’ve written about the dangers of this binary before, here and here.

DiAngelo works to unpack how we got to this place of having large numbers of folks with white skin misunderstanding both the fact that racism is systemic, and that impact is not the same as (and certainly not less important than) intention, and on top of those misunderstandings, having a fundamental discomfort with even thinking about themselves as having a race. That’s not what makes her analysis unique, however. (There are other, clear assessments of white supremacy culture.)

DiAngelo's contribution is her unpacking of what often happens next, white fragility.

White fragility, DiAngelo points out, does not have fragile effects. In fact, as I read her analysis, I wrote "DARVO" in the margins of my copy. I was reminded of the behavior of my emotional abuser who had the role of trusted adult when I was a child and adolescent: “one way that whites protect their positions when challenged on race is to invoke the discourse of self-defense. Through this discourse, whites characterize themselves as victimized, slammed, blamed, and attacked…. These self-defense claims work on multiple levels. They identify the speakers as morally superior while obscuring the true power of their social positions. The claims blame others with less social power for their discomfort and falsely describe that discomfort as dangerous.” (109) Let me state it explicitly: white fragility employs the same defense strategy as abusers do. Now that's a light bulb.

White Fragility is considerably thinner than I expected. DiAngelo’s analysis is solid, but I find her suggestions (or the lack thereof) for antidotes disappointing. I do not believe that her intention nor the outcome of the book is to say “there’s nothing you can do, don’t even bother trying,” and at the same time, I wish there were more examples of how to work through white fragility and get to a resilience on the other side. From experience I know what it takes--as with all resiliency, it comes from practice--from doing the uncomfortable thing over and over again even though it’s uncomfortable. DiAngelo’s final chapter, “Where do we go from here,” says as much, and does, in fact, give the reader some advice about how to work to replace the paradigm of white fragility. I wish she gave more of it and more often. I wish each chapter provided antidotes and steps to take. I’ve just read about Me and White Supremacy. I’m wondering now if I’m wishing DiAngelo had done a bit more of that (don't worry, I'm adding it to the TBR shelf ASAP).

In the end, I am glad I read the book, but I’m not sure it is the required reading I expected it to be. If you haven't read it yet, I might suggest you read an article from DiAngelo instead and hold fast to this advice: stay humble and keep going.

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