What Is White Fragility? Plus 5 Key Steps for Overcoming It
“White fragility is the defensiveness, denial, and invalidation that characterizes some white people’s responses to racism.”
- A friend says that it sounded like a racist thing.
- Your roommate explains why white people wearing locs counts as cultural appropriation.
- A black woman is sharing the difficulties she faced in finding a teaching position.
“You could feel like you’re being misinterpreted by an accusation of racism. You could express these feelings by:”
- You are not racist, angrily insisted.
- demanding to know why race is important.
- starting an argument or twisting events to make it seem as if the other person is in the wrong
- explaining how guilty, ashamed, or sad you feel
- saying nothing
- Changing the subject or leaving.
These expressions of fragility aren’t racism, exactly, but they’re still harmful. They center your feelings and remove the focus from others’ lived experiences of racism. White fragility gets in the way of productive discussions and prevents real learning and growth. In the end, it can reinforce racism, which causes deep and lasting harm.
It is necessary that conversations about racism are uncomfortable, but they are necessary to become anti-racist. The tips below offer a starting point to navigate that pain.
Professor and diversity consultant Robin DiAngelo brought the concept of white fragility into public awareness in “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.”
She describes it as a way of regaining control in discussions about race, and a symptom of an internal white superiority.
Imagine this scenario.
A Black student in a class points out that the American education system is a racist institution. White students have a jump on success simply by being white, but being black means facing more barriers to learning. We lose points from the beginning.
Schools aren’t racist, you silently disagree. Once school segregation ended, all students received the same educational opportunities, right? If they don’t take those opportunities, well, schools aren’t to blame, are they?
“We will return to this example later but for now, let’s focus on your emotional reaction.”
Your classmate implied that you benefit from an oppressive system because of your whiteness.
Maybe these facts caused some feelings of denial, defensiveness, annoyance, or even guilt. You would need to unpack your privilege and recognize the ways racism benefits you to accept their words.
“You don’t think that skin color matters, so it’s hard to consider the idea that you could be racist or benefit from racism.”
You wait for the topic to change and remain silent.
- Do you want to prioritize your feelings over the experiences of people of color?
- “Do you insist that feedback on something you said doesn’t mean harm?”
- Is there a reason for a few successful people of color to be considered proof of white privilege?
You may be grappling with white fragility if that is the case.
DiAngelo says that white fragility stems from an incomplete understanding of racism.
Plenty of well-meaning people do consider racism bad and wrong — a word to whisper in a hushed tone and avoid implying at all costs. They might define racism as:
- People of color are disliking.
- Wishing them harm.
- Considering them inferior.
Racist thoughts and feelings are not limited to individual thoughts. It also involves.
- The oppression is systemic.
- Denying resources.
- There are not safe spaces.
- There are not equal opportunities at school and work.
If you’re white, you enjoy white privilege
How often do you think about race, your skin color, and how it affects your life?
“You can go through life without thinking about these things, and you won’t have a risk to your health. You may not have learned to think about race in a meaningful way.”
“It is not to say you don’t experience challenges or have it easy. You don’t get oppression because of your skin color.”
Many white people in the U.S. have a limited view of racism. This is understandable, considering how most white students learn about racism.
We learn about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Trail of Tears, and school segregation. We learn about the internment camps for Japanese Americans. We watch and read the same book.
But then we look around the classroom and see classmates with different skin colors. We take this as confirmation of progress and feel reassured that “things are so much better now.” (Of course, the numbers of Black and Indigenous men killed by police make it pretty clear that things aren’t, actually, that much better.)
We grow up. Barack Obama is elected president — twice — which makes some people feel like the U.S. can’t be racist. After all, we had a Black president.
But racism doesn’t just mean ‘hate’
“Racist acts go beyond the pale. It’s in:”
- Redlining and gentrification are practices.
- healthcare bias
- You draw a distinction between good and bad parts of town.
Think about the example scenario where a friend says the education system is racist.
The pervasive inequalities deeply scored into the U.S.’s education system still exist despite the end of segregated schools. Systemic racism continues to shape nearly every aspect of education today, from textbooks to classroom discipline to overall outcomes for Students of Color.
The knots at the center of the tangle are the system-level inequalities. Pick them apart and the yarn will smooth out, allowing you to make something new. The process of removing tangles requires dedicated effort.
“What if removing the knots feels too much work? You leave the yarn alone because you don’t know where to start. Or maybe you pick it up and relax, then put it down when you feel like it’s too hard.”
Yet overcoming white fragility (picking apart those knots, so to speak) benefits everyone: There’s no denying the fact that systemic racism in the U.S. primarily and most heavily affects Black people’s health and well-being. That said, everyone feels the impact, as Heather McGhee explains in “The Sum of Us: What Racisms Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.”
If you have never thought about racism before, it is a difficult topic to tackle. It is a very complex and painful subject.
If you find racism distressing, that speaks to your empathy. Still, becoming anti-racist means talking about racism and exploring your own privilege and unconscious biases — even when this prompts uncomfortable and upsetting emotions.
Try to keep in mind that any discomfort you feel when considering racism is likely no more than a faint shadow of the distress felt by people who experience racism.
It takes a little self-awareness and self-reflection to move past white fragility and have an open conversation.
One helpful step? As soon as you become aware of those feelings, take some time on your own to sit and think about them.
“You don’t have to wait until the situation gets tense to act. It is easier to confront difficult feelings in private when you are calm.”
Doing the work ahead of time, on your own, can help you prepare for difficult conversations before you have them. These steps can help:
- Dive into the feeling. Like ripping off a band-aid or plunging into a cold pool all at once, fully explore your emotions and beliefs without giving yourself time to hesitate and pull away.
- Check your assumptions. What ideas about race have you taken for granted, consciously or unconsciously? How might they invalidate others? Are you willing to explore these beliefs when others point out concerns?
- Consider where these beliefs and emotions come from. Maybe you grew up in a white neighborhood and went to school with mostly white students. Most of your co-workers and friends are white. You truly consider everyone equal and believe success simply requires the right amount of effort. But how does your personal experience provide any insight into what life is like for People of Color?
This exploration can help you discover how white privilege shows up in your day-to-day experiences and interactions, even the basics of life you take for granted.
“You may not know what to say when you talk about racism. You don’t need a perfect script.”
“You don’t need much more than respect, humility, and a willingness to listen and learn. Listening is the best thing you can do in this particular conversation.”
Here’s how to practice active listening.
White people have never experienced The oppression is systemic.due to the color of their skin. So, while you can certainly experience prejudice, you’ll never experience racism. No matter how much you think you know about it, in other words, you’ll never have the complete picture.
It is more important to listen to people of color.
“You might know that you shouldn’t expect people of color to educate you about race, but it’s true that no one owes you an explanation or education. It doesn’t mean you can’t have meaningful discussions with people who are willing to share their experiences”
What if you said, “I never realized that.” Could we talk about that more?
That might have led to a valuable discussion where you and your classmates gained some knowledge.
Other ways to listen.
- People of Color give talks and seminars.
- People of Color write books.
- People of Color make and create movies.
Keep the conversation going
Having conversations with other white people is a necessary part of authentic allyship.
This might involve pointing out racist, privileged, and ignorant remarks. But it also means humbly accepting feedback when others draw attention to your biases.
White fragility is not helpful to everyone.
Linguist, author, and professor John McWhorter writes that DiAngelo’s ideas constitute a new type of racism, “an elaborate and pitilessly dehumanizing condescension toward Black people.”
It may not matter what framework you use to explore racism. What matters is that you explore it.
Your roommate might tell you that her grandmother was forced to attend a residential school.
Crying and apologizing for what white people have done to you is not going to lead to much productive conversation.
A sincere apology can have value.
She will tell you how offensive her costume is.
You might say, “I\’m really sorry.” I would like to learn more about your culture if you would share it.
It is wise to take someones words at face value and apologize if they say that is racist.
Even if you didn’t mean any harm, the impact of your words can easily overrule the intent. Admitting you made a mistake may not feel pleasant, but it can do a lot to promote authentic, open conversations.
Not sure how to apologize the right way? Our guide can help.
“Feelings related to white fragility will likely require some effort. You can’t build strength without practicing.”
It may be hard to discuss racism. It is not an easy topic. Practice can pay off in many ways, including personal growth and finding ways to become an anti-racist ally.
Are you in search of more resources? Get started with these.
- There are anti-racism resources for parents and kids.
- Is your company fighting racism or just talking about it?
- “America’s Racial Contract is showing.”
- White Privilege: Unpacking the Knapsack.
- What does it mean to be anti-racism?
- 10 Documentaries To Watch About Race, Not Asking A Person Of Color To Explain Things
Crystal Raypole is a writer for Healthline. Her interests include Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. She is committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues. She lives in Washington with her son and cat.