What Is White Fragility, and Why Is It Dangerous?
This message is specifically for all white people who feel uncomfortable when discussing racial inequality. You can disregard the way I directly address the (white) reader if this does not concern you. In this article, I will discuss the dangers of white fragility and how you should detach yourself from it.
White fragility was coined by Robin DiAngelo, who in her book White Fragility defines it as the “discomfort and defensiveness on the part of a white person when confronted by information about racial inequality and injustice.” Although this book received a lot of criticism, and is somewhat controversial, this term is still relevant to discuss.
What is white fragility?
White fragility is something that white people experience when confronted by information on racism that counters their previous understanding of the topic. This leads to intolerable ‘racial stress’, which triggers defensive moves on part of the white person. Such moves are for example debating racism as if there are two sides, or exiting the conversation completely.
Other ways in which white fragility is visible is through language. A common anti-debate technique used in this context is ‘whataboutism’. This communication technique “attempts to discredit an opponent’s position by charging them with hypocrisy without directly refuting or disproving their argument” (Oxford Living Dictionary). In other words, these are arguments such as “but what about cops killing white people” or “but what about black people discriminating white people”.
Then there are also the people who comment on someone’s tone instead of the actual arguments. This is ‘tone policing’, which is also a form of white fragility. Similar to whataboutism, this is an anti-debate tactic in which a person aims to destabilize a fruitful discussion. This itself is racist, although many do not realize that. Historically, black people have always been called ‘loud, ‘animal-like’, ‘rude’ or ‘ghetto’. Such stereotypical connotations about the tone and expression of black people stem directly from colonialism. Today, these connotations lay the foundation for tone policing in race debates.Embed from Getty Images
Why is white fragility harmful?
Something being fragile means it is easily broken or damaged. In this day and age, whiteness, as it was invented a few hundred years ago, is also at a breaking point. Those profiting from that system of color-based oppression and exclusion try to prevent it from ‘breaking’.
This defensiveness leads to dangerous situations as we see on the news. White people calling the cops on black people because they feel ‘threatened’. White people shooting black people to ‘protect’ their white families and neighborhoods. Your white fragility causes you to act out of unnecessary defensiveness.
White fragility prevents successful dialogue between opposites and fuels racially motivated violence. It maintains systemic racism, and it stands in the way of equality for all people.
Nobody who charges you with their whole body tensed up and barking at you with “I FEEL THREATENED” is actually threatened.— BrooklynDad_Defiant! (@mmpadellan) July 7, 2020
This asshole MUST be a cop. Those are the last words many unarmed Black people hear before being murdered by police. pic.twitter.com/aqAee1Ic2I
But why is this racist?
You initially might think that saying things such as “nowadays you can’t say anything anymore”, “I’m not racist but…”, or “all lives matter” are not expressions of racism. However, they most definitely are. White fragility contributes to the systemic oppression of people of color. It protects your fragile whiteness at the expense of people of color.
In fact, it is also something dangerous. Sometimes white fragility leads to black people getting killed. For example, by calling the cops on black people you indirectly put their lives at risk. Calling 911 because you feel ‘threatened’ by the color of someone’s skin is literally putting them in a situation of possible police violence.
I still don’t understand…
Think about it this way: imagine every year your car is set on fire. This has been happening ever since you bought it. Each time you get a new car, it is set on fire again. You notice that this does not just happen to your car alone, but in fact happens to all red cars in the neighborhood. The other colored cars seem to be just fine. You try to express your concerns with the people in your street. However, time after time they do not listen and tell you to stop complaining so much.
Finally, after all these years of build-up frustration, anger, and sadness, you reach your breaking point. You get so angry that your car has been set on fire again, that you scream at the top of your lungs. You expect people to finally listen, but instead, they tell you that you are being loud and violent. They tell you that the neighborhood cares about all cars, not just red ones. They tell you that some grey cars also got a few scratches on the doors, and therefore need to be paid attention to as well.
In reality, what is happening to the red cars in this analogy is happening to people of color every day. Not just for the last weeks or months that you see it on social media and TV, but it has been happening for the past few hundred years.Embed from Getty Images
How do I ‘get rid’ of my white fragility?
Start by acknowledging your own white fragility. Then you must realize that in race conversations you are not blamed for your skin color, rather you are asked to be critical about the privileges and attributes that come with your whiteness. To white people, this naturally feels like an attack, which leads them to be defensive. But, here is where you need to take a step back and first listen to what the other person has to say. Do not go into defense mode, do not use anti-debate techniques, and do not exit conversation because you feel uncomfortable.
Hold onto those uncomfortable conversations, and have them with your white friends and family. To genuinely understand the experiences of people of color, you need to embrace the discomfort you will experience because of it. Do not hide behind your privilege of avoiding these confrontations in order to feel safe and comfortable.
And lastly, recognize that racism is not simply a matter of good or bad individuals. Racism goes beyond that. It is not just about a white person hating a black person, or a white cop shooting a black person. Racism is also about the small, often subconscious, investments you have in your whiteness. Detach yourself from these racial biases and prejudices, clear your vocabulary from racially insensitive words, and actively fight racial injustice in your own environment.
Suggested read: The System Is Not Broken, It Was Made to Function Like This