Review of White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
In the United States,
citizens of all races are permitted to vote, public places
are no longer legally segregated by race, and anti-miscegenation
laws were ruled unconstitutional in 1967.
In principle, all jobs, even the presidency of the United States,
are open to any qualified candidate regardless of race.
Superficially, most if not all legal and institutional barriers
to racial equality seem to have been removed.
So why does racial inequality persist in America?
In her 2018 book White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo, who
identifies herself as a white, cisgender, able-bodied,
middle-aged woman, focuses on one part of the answer.
Racial inequality persists, says DiAngelo, because racism
persists, and racism persists because whites have a vested interest
in protecting white privilege. And one way they protect that
privilege is to fight back aggressively at the slightest suggestion
that they are acting in racially problematic ways.
This hair-trigger aggression, and denial that there is a problem,
is what DiAngelo calles white fragility.
One of the most blatant examples of denialism cited in the book
is an incident that made headlines a few years ago, after
Donald Trump was elected President.
Readers may recall a West Virginia county employee—Pamela
Ramsey Taylor—who held a high-level position as director
of county development and was suspended after posting racist
remarks about First Lady Michelle Obama on Facebook
(“It will be so refreshing to have a classy, beautiful,
dignified First Lady back in the White House. I’m tired
of seeing a [sic] Ape in heels”). The mayor of
the city responded, “Just made my day Pam.”
Taylor’s response to the ensuing uproar was, “My
comment was not intended to be racist at all. I was referring
to my day being made for change in the White House! I am truly
sorry for any hard feeling this may have caused! Those who
know me know that I’m not in any way racist!”
Although Taylor was suspended (but eventually got her job
back), I am left wondering what actually qualifies as racism
in the white mind.
I am with DiAngelo here.
Setting aside Taylor’s disingenuous astonishment
that an obviously insulting remark (whether racist or not)
would cause “hard feelings,”
I find it almost impossible to believe that
Taylor would have referred to, say, Hillary Clinton as an
“ape in heels” even if Taylor had been as tired
of Clinton as of Obama, because Clinton is white and not black.
If this is true, then how can “ape in heels” not
be a racist epithet?
Now, I can believe that Taylor did not consciously set herself
the task of ensuring that her insult was racially tinged,
and that the racial bias in her insult just “slipped out”
But that does not mean that Taylor is not in any way racist,
unless one adopts an extremely narrow definition of racism.
DiAngelo works as a professional diversity trainer, and so can cite
many anecdotes from her personal experience. Here is one
For example, I was working with a group of educators who had been
meeting regularly for at least eight sessions. The group was composed
of the equity teams for a public school system, self-selected by
people who wanted to support equity efforts in their schools.
I had just finished an hour-long presentation titled, “Seeing
the Water: Whiteness in Daily Life.” This presentation is
designed to make visible the relentless messages of white superiority
and the resulting and inevitable internalization of these messages
for white people. The room appeared to be with me—open and
receptive, with many nodding along in agreement. Then a white
teacher raised her hand and told a story about an interaction she
had as she drove alongside a group of parents protesting the
achievement gap in her school. She then proceeded to imitate one
mother in particular who offended her. “You don’t
understand our children!” this mother had called out to her
as she drove by. By the stereotypical way that the white teacher
imitated the mother, we all knew that the mother was black. The
room seemed to collectively hold its breath at her imitation, which
was bordering on racial mockery. While the teacher’s concluding
point was that, on reflection, she came to realize that the mother
was right and that she really didn’t understand children of
color, the emotional thrust of the story was her umbrage at the
mother for making this assumption. For the room, the emotional
impact was on her stereotypical imitation of an angry black woman.
Here is another incident in which DiAngelo frankly admits one of
her own mistakes and how she dealt with it.
As the story came to a close, I had a decision to make. Should I
act with integrity and point out what was racially problematic
about the story? After all, making racism visible was literally
what I had been hired to do. Further, several African American
teachers in the room had certainly noticed the reinforcement of
a racist stereotype. To not intervene would be, yet again, another
white person choosing to protect white feelings rather than interrupt
racism—a white person who billed herself as a racial justice
consultant, no less! Yet I would be taking the risk of losing the
group, given the likelihood that the woman would become defensive
and shut down and the room would split into those who thought I had
mistreated her and those who didn’t. I decided to do what
would retain my moral and professional integrity and serve as a
model for other white people.
As diplomatically as possible, I said, “I understand that
you gained valuable insight from that interaction and I thank you
for sharing that insight with us. And I am going to ask you to
consider not telling that story in that way again.”
When she immediately began to protest, I interrupted her to
continue. “I am offering you a teachable moment,”
I said, “and I am only asking that you try to listen
with openness.” I then laid out what was racially
problematic about how she told the story and offered her a
way to share her learning without reinforcing racist stereotypes,
for the same story could easily be told and the same conclusions
drawn without the racially charged imitation of the mother.
She defensively interrupted me several times but eventually
appeared to be listening. Shortly after this intervention,
we took a break. Several African American teachers came up to
thank me, as did one white teacher who found my intervention
a refreshing and much-needed example of how to break with white
solidarity. Several white people also approached me to let me
know how upset the teacher was and that she was quitting the group.
The equity team has been invited to a meeting with the company’s
new web developer. The team consists of two women, both of whom are
black, and me. The new web developer, who is also black, wants to
interview us so that she can build our page. She starts the meeting
by giving us a survey to fill out. Many questions on the survey
inquire about our intended audience, methods, goals, and objectives.
I find the questions tedious and feel irritated by them. Pushing
the survey aside, I try to explain verbally. I tell the web
developer that we go out into the satellite offices to facilitate
antiracism training. I add that the training is not always well
received; in fact, one member of our team was told not to come back.
I make a joke: “The white people were scared by Deborah’s
hair” (Deborah is black and has long locked braids). The
meeting ends and we move on.
I have quoted these anecdotes at length because, for me, they
are the best parts of the book.
Among other things, they illustrate how we can have racial biases
that we are unaware of, and how these biases can manifest themselves
in ways that cause significant emotional pain,
even if we are well-intentioned.
They also illustrate how easy it is to become defensive.
Of course, defensiveness often makes things worse,
but the good news is that if we are willing to make an effort,
then we can do things to reduce our racial bias
and become less defensive.
A few days later, one of my team members lets me know that the web
developer—who I will call Angela—was offended by my
hair comment. While I wasn’t paying attention at the time,
once I am informed, I quickly realize why that comment was off.
I seek out a friend who is white and has a solid understanding of
cross-racial dynamics. We discuss my feelings (embarrassment,
shame, guilt) and then she helps me identify the various ways my
racism was revealed in that interaction. After this processing,
I feel ready to repair the relationship. I ask Angela to meet
with me, and she accepts.
I open by asking Angela, “Would you be willing to grant me
to opportunity to repair the racism I perpetrated toward you in
that meeting?” When she agrees, I continue. “I realize
that my comment about Deborah’s hair was inappropriate.”
Angela nods and explains that she did not know me and did not want
to be joking about black women’s hair (a sensitive issue for
many black women) with a white woman whom she did not have a trusting
relationship with, much less in a professional work meeting.
I apologize and ask her if I have missed anything else problematic
in the meeting.
“Yes,” she replies. “That survey? I wrote that
survey. And I have spent my life justifying my intelligence to
My chest constricts as I immediately realize the impact of my glib
dismissal of the survey. I acknowledge the impact and apologize.
She accepts my apology. I ask Angela if there is anything else
that needs to be said or heard so that we may move forward.
She replies that yes, there is. “The next time you do
something like this, would you like feedback publicly or
privately?“ she asks.
I answer that given my role as an educator, I would appreciate
receiving the feedback publicly as it is important for white
people to see that I am also engaged in a lifelong process of
learning and growth. And I could model for other white people
how to receive feedback openly and without defensiveness.
She tells me that although these dynamics occur daily between
white people and people of color, my willingness to repair
doesn’t, and that she appreciates this. We move on.
DiAngelo gives no indication in the book of having been influenced
by any kind of religious thought,
but I see an analogy between
the way she talks about white fragility
and the way Christians talk about sin.
DiAngelo is white, and does not consider herself to be exempt from
white fragility; she promotes the concept because it is a useful tool
for her to recognize her own racist attitudes—especially those that
she might otherwise ignore or downplay—and work to eliminate them.
Similarly, sin is a crucial concept in Christian theology because
it helps us recognize our own sinfulness and need for repentance
In our culture today, humility, admission of sin, and repentance
are in short supply, and I find it refreshing when someone such
as DiAngelo tries to promote these ideas and lead by example.
I have a lot of respect, and give her high marks, for her
authenticity and vulnerability.
Furthermore, I also have no major objection to one of her more
controversial claims, that individuals who harbor no personal racial
prejudice can still be complicit in perpetuating racial inequality
just by passively allowing the status quo to remain.
This is a contentious topic and while I do not agree with
everything DiAngelo says, I think she makes some important
and valid points.
Having said that, I should say that the parts of the book that I like
mostly appear in the latter, more practical, half,
and that I am much less happy with the earlier, more theoretical
sections. As I will try to explain, I find the theoretical
framework that DiAngelo presents to be bristling with serious
logical problems and disingenuous debating tactics.
DiAngelo herself is not solely to blame for these faults,
because they pervade the literature
(which DiAngelo cites several times), as well as much popular
discourse about race today. But their popularity does not
make them any less objectionable.
One repeated tactic that I detected throughout the book was the use
of what I call semantic bait-and-switch games.
The method proceeds as follows. First, define some crucial, emotionally
charged term in an unusual fashion. Next, draw some conclusion that
looks surprising but arguably follows from the definition. Finally,
switch the definition back to the one that your audience is more
accustomed to, thereby tricking them into agreeing with something
Take the word racism. Page 1 of the book begins
with this anecdote (slightly edited for brevity):
I have just presented a definition of racism that includes the
acknowledgment that whites hold social and institutional power
over people of color. A white man is pounding his fist on the
table. As he pounds, he yells, “A white person can’t
get a job anymore!” … Why is this white man so
angry? … Why are all the other white people either
sitting in silent agreement with him or tuning out? I have,
after all, only articulated a definition of racism.
When I first read the book, this anecdote left me waiting with bated
breath for DiAngelo to present her definition of racism, so that
I could try to understand why it created such a sensation.
Fortunately, I did not literally bate my breath, or I would have
passed out from lack of oxygen: DiAngelo does not define
racism until page 83. Racism is a system of
racial inequality that benefits whites at the expense of
people of color. Note carefully that the definition does
not say that racism is a system that benefits one race
at the expense of another race. By definition, racism
benefits whites at the expense of people of color.
If you think that I am quibbling or that DiAngelo does not
literally mean what she says, think again. Throughout the book,
she makes it clear that this asymmetry in her definition is
intentional. For example,
on page 22 (which, remember, is sixty pages
before she articulates her definition of racism), she writes:
People of color may also hold prejudices and discriminate against
white people, but they lack the social and institutional power
that transforms their prejudice and discrimination into racism;
the impact of their prejudice on whites is temporary and contextual.
Whites hold the social and institutional positions in society to
infuse their racial prejudice into the laws, policies, practices,
and norms of society in a way that people of color do not. …
Suppose, for the sake of argument, we grant DiAngelo that the
above societal analysis is theoretically correct.
I am a mathematician by training and so I am accustomed to holding
definitions firmly in my mind even if they seem counterintuitive,
but any normal person is going to see the claim that
only whites can be racist and interpret the word racist
in a commonsensical manner. And DiAngelo professes to be startled
that people react negatively to such a claim? I have, after all,
only articulated a definition of racism. Such an attitude reveals
either extreme disingenuousness or extreme lack of sensitivity to the
nuances of human communication.
People of color may also hold prejudices and discriminate against
their own and other groups of color, but this bias ultimately
holds them down and, and in this way, reinforces the system of
racism that still benefits whites. Racism is a society-wide
dynamic that occurs at the group level. When I say that
only whites can be racist, I mean that in the United States,
only whites have the collective social and institutional power
and privilege over people of color. People of color do not
have this power and privilege over white people.
Similarly, on page 20, she gives a definition of
discrimination—which I will not bother to reproduce here—and
then concludes, “Everyone has prejudice, and everyone discriminates.
Given this reality, inserting the qualifier
‘reverse’ is nonsensical.” Again, for the sake of
argument, let us grant that if everyone discriminates, then we have
no basis for saying that one type of discrimination is discrimination
simpliciter, and some other type of discrimination is
reverse discrimination. Any normal person is not going to
hold this delicate logical argument firmly in mind when told that
the term reverse discrimination is nonsensical,
especially when simultaneously told that
only whites can be racist.
The book has so many other examples of semantic sleight of hand
that it would be tedious to analyze them all.
She defends her own generalizations by saying that she is a
sociologist who knows that “social life is patterned
and predictable in measurable ways,” but dismisses
other people’s generalizations by calling them
stereotypes and prejudices.
certain definitions of white supremacy and
individualism and meritocracy so that she can
call us all white supremacists, and attack individualism
and meritocracy. What possible purpose can there be to
craft a way to call your audience white supremacists
other than to provoke and infuriate them?
Christians are often criticized for using the concept of sin as a
weapon, beating other people over the head with it, and
self-righteously telling them that they are going to hell.
As I explained above, this is
not the proper use of the concept of sin. Similarly, I do not
approve of goading people into an angry
reaction, and then triumphantly pointing out their “white
fragility.” Let us revisit the aforementioned
incident of the woman who imitated a black parent in a
stereotypical manner. I applaud DiAngelo for her courage in
speaking up, when it would have been easy and comfortable to let
the incident slide without comment. That was the right thing to do.
Nevertheless, I am somewhat uneasy with the manner in which she
chose to express herself. By her own account, she immediately
issued a command, “I am going to ask you to consider not
telling that story in that way again.” Moreover, when the
woman reacted, DiAngelo interrupted her in order to continue
lecturing her. Was this really the best way to proceed? Could DiAngelo
not have tried some other approach, such as saying, “I thank
you for sharing that story with us, but I confess that there was
one part of your story that made me uncomfortable. I know you did
not intend to mock that mother when you imitated her, but it felt
like mocking to me. Did anyone else feel uncomfortable?”
This might have given the woman a chance to discover her own
unwitting biases, instead of being publicly lectured about them.
At the very least, was it really necessary for DiAngelo to interrupt the
woman instead of letting her finish what she had to say?
I am not claiming that my suggested approach would necessarily have
worked better. That participant might have gotten angry and quit
the training regardless; alternatively, by being too gentle,
my approach might not have sufficiently challenged her.
Nor do I claim that I would have had the
presence of mind to behave in an ideal manner in real time; it is
easy to criticize from the comfort of my chair, and quite another
thing to be able to practice what I preach when I have only a split
second to react and think of what to say. What bothers me is that
DiAngelo’s post mortem analysis gives no indication that she
mourns the loss of that participant; indeed, she almost seems to
congratulate herself on a “successful”
outcome—i.e., validation by the other participants whose validation
she values. Nor does DiAngelo seem to introspect and consider
that her own style of communication
might have been partially to blame for the angry reaction.
So far my criticisms have been about debating tactics and
communication style. I should also say that I have some more
fundamental concerns about DiAngelo’s theoretical framework.
The biggest one concerns the question, what exactly is bad about racism?
It might seem that racism is so obviously bad that there is no
need to argue that it is bad, or articulate what exactly it is about
racism that is bad. But recall that DiAngelo’s definitions do
not always line up with commonsense intuition. She makes a big deal
out of the distinction between (on the one hand) racism as she defines
it, and (on the other hand) individual hatred of people because of
Here is what she says on page 13.
If your definition of a racist is someone who holds conscious dislike
of people because of race, then I agree that it is offensive for me
to suggest that you are racist when I don’t know you. I also
agree that if this is your definition of racism, and you are against
racism, then you are not racist. Now breathe. I am not using this
definition of racism, and I am not saying that you are immoral.
Given that she has a non-obvious definition of racism, it is not
so obvious what is bad about racism. Indeed, she devotes an entire
chapter to what she calls the good/bad binary. This is a dichotomy
that she calls a false dichotomy; it limits racism to ignorant,
bigoted, prejudiced, mean-spirited, old, Southern people (bad),
and contrasts them with progressive educated, open-minded,
well-intentioned, young, Northern people (good). By drawing this
distinction and putting ourselves in the latter class, we exonerate
ourselves from racism. But DiAngelo rejects this analysis.
She argues that everyone holds prejudices, so we cannot claim to be
in the category of people who do not have prejudice.
Furthermore, since racism is a system that operates throughout
society in a way that none of us can escape, we cannot claim to
be free of racism.
In this way, DiAngelo aims to force us to acknowledge our own racism.
What she does not seem to recognize is that her tactic is a double-edged
sword. By defining racism in a way that is inescapable, she also
renders it unclear why racism is bad.
Let me put the point starkly.
DiAngelo wants to avoid saying that
anyone who perpetuates racism is a bad person,
but is it true or false that
anything that perpetuates racism is bad
(using her definition of racism)?
The way DiAngelo talks throughout the book—in particular,
calling herself an antiracist—I
am led to assume that she would answer true.
But let us consider the logical consequences.
I would argue that if anything that perpetuates racism is bad,
then it is bad for white people to love their children.
The reason is this: the race of the child of a white person
is white, or at least strongly biased toward being white.
By loving their own children, white people are putting a lot
more effort into improving the lives of white people than
into improving the lives of black people.
Now recall that the definition of racism is
a system of racial inequality that benefits whites
at the expense of people of color.
Parental love, however well-intentioned, is part of a system
that benefits whites at the expense of people of color.
So if anything that perpetuates racism is bad,
then parental love is bad.
Now, maybe you find that this argument smacks of sophistry,
or sets up a straw man. After all, surely nobody argues that
just by loving their children, parents are being racist?
I admit that I have not encountered anyone who argues this
way explicitly, but I certainly have encountered people who
want to put legal limits on how much wealth parents are allowed
to will to their children, on the grounds that the absence of
such limits perpetuates economic inequality and is therefore bad.
If that is the case, then I see no reason why to stop at
probate law. Why not limit the amount of material benefit
(from school tuition to bedtime reading to breast milk) that a
parent is allowed to provide a child while the parent is still
alive? The lack of such a limit also perpetuates economic
inequality and racial inequality.
If one is going to define racism as DiAngelo defines it,
and one does not want to declare that loving one’s children
(or more precisely, that it is bad for whites to love
their children—people of color are off the hook according
to DiAngelo’s definition),
then one must assert that racism is not always bad.
I honestly do not see any way around this logical conclusion.
But I have never seen anyone who promotes
“critical race theory” take pains to argue that
racism is not always bad. To me, this is a red flag that the
theory is on logically shaky ground and is being used as a tool
to promote a certain agenda, rather than as an honest attempt
to formulate a coherent theory.
While I think the above theoretical flaw is the most serious one
in DiAngelo’s book, there are others. I have already hinted
at one above, namely the simplistic analysis of racism as being
unidirectional. DiAngelo gives lip service to the complexity of
racism, but is happy to grossly oversimplify the analysis of the
power dynamics, by asserting that only whites have the collective
social and institutional power and privilege over people of color.
Even if we restrict our attention to laws and institutions
(and I would argue that this restriction already ignores many ways
in which power manifests itself in society),
it does not take a sociological genius to observe that people of
color have a certain amount of power to change laws and institutions
in the United States, and that this power can sometimes be used to
benefit people of color at the expense of whites. Let us take a
look at what DiAngelo says about affirmative action on pages 91–92.
There is a great amount of misinformation about affirmative action,
as evidenced in the idea of special rights. For example, people
commonly believe that if a person of color applies for a position,
he or she must be hired over a white person; that black people
are given preferential treatment in hiring; and that a specific
number of people of color must be hired to fill a quota.
DiAngelo makes many misleading statements here,
such as focusing exclusively on government hiring and ignoring
(say) college admissions, but let me set those objections aside,
because I have a bigger bone to pick.
It seems to me that implicitly, DiAngelo is trying to argue that
affirmative action is not a system that does, or could,
benefit people of color at the expense of whites.
But would she agree that a company with a goal or target
(not necessarily a mandated quota) of increasing the proportion of
black employees would, when given the choice between
a black candidate and a white candidate who are equally qualified,
consistently choose the black candidate?
I would think that she would agree.
What would the point of affirmative action be otherwise?
But in that case, how is this not a system that
benefits people of color at the expense of whites?
Note that I am not asserting that it is necessarily a bad thing
to benefit people of color at the expense of whites
(proponents of affirmative action can, and sometimes do,
argue that benefiting people of color at the expense of whites
is necessary to correct the effects of centuries of injustice
in the opposite direction),
just that it is an intended characteristic of affirmative action.
And if, in our society, there exist some systems that
benefit people of color at the expense of whites,
then why does DiAngelo refuse to call such a system racism?
It looks to me like another disingenuous debating tactic.
All these beliefs are patently untrue. Affirmative action is a tool
to ensure that qualified minority applicants are given the
same employment opportunities as white people. It is a flexible
program—there are no quotas or requirements as commonly
understood. Moreover, white women have been the greatest
beneficiaries of affirmative action, although the program did not
initially include them. Corporations are more likely to favor white
women and immigrants of color of elite backgrounds from outside
the United States when choosing their executives. No employer is
required to hire an unqualified person of color, but companies
are required to be able to articulate why they didn’t hire
a qualified person of color (and this requirement is rarely
enforced). Additionally, affirmative action never applied to private
companies—only to state and governmental agencies.
Again, I do not think that DiAngelo is alone in making these kinds
of unsound arguments.
As it happens, I have recently become aware of the controversy
surrounding the ninth
resolution that was passed at the 2019 meeting of the Southern
on critical race theory and
This review is not the place to get into a deep discussion
of these topics. Suffice it to say that I am becoming persuaded
that the church does need to engage with these types of questions
at a theoretical level, and not only at a cultural or political level.
For me, White Fragility is a prime example of how some valid
points about social justice can, in today’s world, easily
be intermixed with dubious theoretical claims.
It is incumbent on Christians to distinguish carefully between
ideas that are consistent with the gospel message and those
that are not.
Posted December 2019