ROANOKE, Va. – As the events surrounding race relations have emerged this summer beginning with the death of George Floyd, “White Fragility” shot to the top of the best-seller charts, even though its claims make some people fuming mad.
Robin DiAngelo, the author of “White Fragility,” began addressing audiences as soon as her book was published in 2018.
The book’s controversial leanings made more of a ripple than a splash at first, but then came several high-profile deaths of Black people at the hands of police in 2020.
In the meantime, people had had enough and took to the streets in cities across America chanting, “No justice, no peace.”
The Black Lives Matter movement had been reborn with powerful traction that so far has resulted in the removal of statues and memorials in honor of Confederate heroes and a movement to defund police departments, as well as proposed legislation across the country to try and change policing standards.
Against this backdrop, DiAngelo’s book began to emerge as a sort of explanation for what was happening. She argued that white people are simply racist and cannot help it.
“White fragility is not weakness per se. In fact, it is a powerful means of white racial control and the protection of white advantage,” DiAngelo said in a 2018 talk on the Seattle Channel.
DiAngelo’s concept infuriated many white people, who felt they were not racist and not a part of some conspiracy to keep Blacks people down.
Consider a workplace seminar on racial sensitivity. White people will often say things like, “I’m colorblind. I judge people by their character, not the color of their skin. I don’t care if a person is white, Black, purple, or polka-dotted, My best friend is Black. I marched in the 60s.”
According to DiAngelo none of that matters.
If you are white you are still racist. And, she claims the more you believe you are leaned into the Black cause and the more you think you get it, the worse you are.
“I believe white progressives caused the most daily damage to people of color. I define a white progressive as any white person who thinks he or she is not racist or is less racist or is in the choir or already gets it,” DiAngelo said.
White people she argues, “want to take race off the table.” In order to “be comfortable with our racism” because of the “internalized superiority of whites.”
DiAngelo said it’s a blind spot for white people who consciously choose not to see what’s right in front of them.
“A part of the problem is that we are really taught not to see this. So, if you’re a person of color scratching your head thinking, ‘How can they not see this? Like I just don’t believe they don’t see this.’ We actually really don’t see it. Oh, and hell yes we know. We do see it, but we cannot admit that,” DiAngelo told the audience during her talk.
The book was not without backlash.
“…The book diminishes Black people in the name of dignifying us,” counters John McWhorter a Columbia professor writing in The Atlantic, who is Black and said the book has, “obvious flaws.”
In her writing, DiAngelo criticized white people for avoiding blackness and talking around the issue by using terms such as urban, underprivileged, diverse or bad neighborhood.
McWhorter accuses her of bending the facts to fit her own narrative, leaving white people with no way out.
He pointed out: “Call it a ‘Black neighborhood,’ and you’re a racist by DiAngelo’s logic. You are not to describe such neighborhoods at all, even in your own head.”
The difficulty of defining the right and wrong of white fragility isn’t lost on Malinda Whitlow,a doctor of nursing practice at the University of Virginia, who participated in a university-sponsored White Fragility study group this summer.
“It’s helping to make people see through another lens,” Whitlow said.
But she admitted that even for Black people and people of mixed race, as she is (Asian and African American) answers didn’t come easily.
“She says this is not a continuum but it something that will probably never end as far as racism. And so a lot of us reading the book wanted to know well how do you do that? And we couldn’t find the answers.”
While there are clearly issues that need to be addressed, and racism is not a pleasant topic for most, Whitlow saidthe book helps move the needle, maybe start conversations instead of ending them.
Whitlow said she is more likely today to correct someone who may have said something racist without knowing it. “… in a way that was constructive,” she said.
So while DiAngelo says white people just cannot help but be racist, and the book’s detractors, like McWhorter, said DiAngelo “has white Americans muzzled, straitjacketed, tied down, and chloroformed for good measure…” People like Whitlow just want to find solutions.
“I guess it’s more than, what are you doing not to be a racist? You’re surrounded by diversity, which is great but what are you doing going beyond that to help stop racism on that continuum,” Whitlow said.