In 2020, I’m attempting to read at least one book each month specifically to help me on my antiracist journey. I’m not an expert, and I’m not a professional. You’re welcome to read and learn along with me, if you’d like.
January: Waking Up White, by Debby Irving
My February antiracist read was White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo.
Here is some information about the book, from Robin DiAngelo’s website:
“White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress. Although white racial insulation is somewhat mediated by social class (with poor and working class urban whites being generally less racially insulated than suburban or rural whites), the larger social environment insulates and protects whites as a group through institutions, cultural representations, media, school textbooks, movies, advertising, and dominant discourses. Racial stress results from an interruption to what is racially familiar.
In turn, whites are often at a loss for how to respond in constructive ways., as we have not had to build the cognitive or affective skills or develop the stamina that that would allow for constructive engagement across racial divides, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium. This book explicates the dynamics of White Fragility and how we might build our capacity in the on-going work towards racial justice.” (Source)
I’ll get right to it: White Fragility was much more difficult than my January read, Waking Up White. I think that there’s two reasons for that. First, DiAngelo’s writing style is very academic. As you can imagine, as an expert in childrens’ and young adult fiction, academic writing is out of my comfort zone. I find it difficult to read, and very difficult to stay focused on – without a narrative to pull me through, I end up reading the same paragraphs over and over again. Using close annotation and working slowly through one chapter at a time (with lots of breaks!), I managed to get through the whole book, but it took me a full four weeks.
But White Fragility was tough for bigger reasons than the writing style. The content is intense, and it’s not sugarcoated. Where Debby Irving’s book was a gentle tap on the shoulder, Robin DiAngelo’s writing is more like a slap across the face. And she does it well! This book is meant to wake readers up, break them down, and push them to make a change. If you’re still feeling discomfort even discussing race, wondering if racism really exists, or having conversations like “I can’t be racist because my family is Italian” or “I understand racism because I’m Jewish“, then this book probably isn’t for you yet. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. Jumping in too fast is more likely to cause exhaustion, defensiveness, and to trigger that white fragility – so if any of this is making you queasy, head back to the start and dip your toe in with Waking Up White.
With that being said, so much of White Fragility has stayed with me in the weeks since I finished reading. Especially powerful for me were the new definitions of words and phrases that I thought I already understood. I’ve heard the terms racist and white supremacist all my life, for example, and hadn’t really considered that my definition of them might be incorrect or incomplete. But Robin DiAngelo is an expert, and she knows that the majority of us have been taught incorrectly; it’s the whole reason she wrote this book. She’s here to teach the real definitions of the words and phrases we need in order to do our antiracist work, if we’re ready to learn. The warm-and-fuzzy factor is definitely low, and her in-depth explanations and academic outlook are spot-on, so get ready to cringe as you go.
Anyway, onto those definitions. Here are a few that I found particularly helpful:
“Prejudice is pre-judgement about another person based on the social groups to which that person belongs. Prejudice consists of thoughts and feelings, including stereotypes, attitudes, and generalizations that are based on little or no experience and then are projected onto everyone from that group. […] Discrimination is action based on prejudice. These actions include ignoring, exclusion, threats, ridicule, slander, and violence. These forms of discrimination are generally clear and recognizable. But if what we feel is more subtle, such as mild discomfort, the discrimination is likely to also be subtle, even hard to detect. […] When a racial group’s collective prejudice is backed by the power of legal authority and institutional control, it is transformed into racism, a far-reaching system that functions independently from the intentions or self-images of individual actors.” (Chapter 2, pages 19-20)
That last sentence was particularly meaningful for me: “a far-reaching system that functions independently from the intentions or self-images of individual actors.” In this idea, DiAngelo takes the foundation that I had learned in Waking Up White – the idea that racism is the system in which I live and participate, not my own individual acts, but that I do personally play a role in it whether I mean to or not – and builds on it. These definitions prepared me for chapter 5, The Good Bad Binary, another paradigm-shifting moment. Here’s a snippet:
“Prior to the civil rights movement, to be a good, moral person and to be complicit with racism because mutually exclusive. You could not be a good person and participate in racism; only bad people were racist. To accomplish this adaptation, racism first needed to be reduced to simple, isolated, and extreme acts of prejudice. These acts must be intentional, malicious, and based on conscious dislike of someone because of race. […] Although individual racist acts do occur, these acts are part of a larger system of interlocking dynamics. The focus on individual incidences masks the personal, interpersonal, cultural, historical, and structural analysis that is necessary to challenge this larger system. The simplistic idea that racism is limited to individiuaul intentional acts committed by unkind people is at the root of virtually all white defensiveness on this topic. To move beyond defensiveness, we have to let go of this common belief. […] If, as a white person, I conceptualize racism as a binary and I place myself on the ‘not racist’ side, what further action is required of me? No action is required, because I am not a racist. Therefore, racism is not my problem; it doesn’t concern me and there is nothing further I need to do.” (Chapter 5, pages 71-73)
See what I mean about the lack of warm and fuzzy? I’m so glad this wasn’t my first read, because I know that my sensitive self wouldn’t have been ready for it. Even with my preparation, it was a struggle. Chapter seven, aptly titled Racial Triggers for White People, felt a little bit like pressing on a bruise. I knew it was going to hurt, I expected it to hurt, but when I pressed on it, I was still surprised by the pain. But each chapter is necessary scaffolding for the next – without Racial Triggers for White People, I wouldn’t understand The Result: White Fragility (chapter 8), which was necessary for White Fragility in Action (chapter 9) and White Fragility and the Rules of Engagement (chapter 10). And chapter 11, White Women’s Tears? It was incredibly eye-opening. I have friends who skipped that chapter because the title made them uncomfortable. Don’t do that. DiAngelo wraps it all up beautifully in the final chapter, Where Do We Go From Here?, which in my personal copy is just one 15-page stream of consistent highlighting, underlining, and dog-earing.
The best part of reading White Fragility, for me, was the faculty and staff book club that my school’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion team sponsored for us to meet and discuss the book. Reading on my own is powerful, and I learn from every text that I work my way through. But for my learning style, hearing others reflect and considering the text through the questions and conversation-starters of experts is absolutely invaluable. I was amazed to hear my coworkers say things like, “I’ve taught this short story for years and was immediately defensive when I got feedback that it is sending the wrong message to my students. But then I realized that it might be my white fragility talking…” I shared my mistakes too, and even published a couple on the internet. Sharing our white fragility started to feel less scary, and spaces like faculty meetings and adult cafeteria tables became spaces for workshopping mistakes and providing feedback. Reading the book didn’t magically fix anything. But it gave us common language, broke down a few barriers, and provided us with actionable goals, which allowed us to step forward.
If you’re considering reading White Fragility or a book like it but are feeling nervous, I highly suggest reading with a friend or a group. Learning alone can be powerful, but learning together can really bring it to another level.
In closing, Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility was tough, but worth it. I feel like the book moved me forward on my journey and my experience in sharing it with my coworkers was especially helpful. Since I’ve finished, I’ve found myself looking at things differently, and feeling slightly more prepared for conversations and readings about race. Learning about white fragility has helped me to recognize and understand my own, which is slowly but surely helping me to keep it in check and work through it.
What did you think of White Fragility? Would you share a book like this with your coworkers? What stuck with you after you finished reading? What’s getting in your way of moving forward with your antiracist work?
The antiracist read I’m attempting for March is Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, a brand new release by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. If you’re interested in reading this book too, I’d love to connect and discuss with you.
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