All The Books I Can Read

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Thoughts On: White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

on August 29, 2020

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism
Robin DiAngelo
Penguin Books
20189, 168p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

Anger. Fear. Guilt. Denial. Silence. These are the ways in which ordinary white people react when it is pointed out to them that they have done or said something that has – unintentionally – caused racial offence or hurt. After, all, a racist is the worst thing a person can be, right? But these reactions only serve to silence people of colour, who cannot give honest feedback to ‘liberal’ white people lest they provoke a dangerous emotional reaction.

Robin DiAngelo coined the term ‘White Fragility’ in 2011 to describe this process and is here to show us how it serves to uphold the system of white supremacy. Using knowledge and insight gained over decades of running racial awareness workshops and working on this idea as a Professor of Whiteness Studies, she shows us how we can start having more honest conversations, listen to each other better and react to feedback with grace and humility. It is not enough to simply hold abstract progressive views and condemn the obvious racists on social media – change starts with us all at a practical, granular level, and it is time for all white people to take responsibility for relinquishing their own racial supremacy.

This book came up on most lists that were created for people to educate themselves about racism, about the Black Lives Matter movement, how it originated, why it was so important, etc. I purchased about half a dozen books after the death of George Floyd and this was one of them. I didn’t realise until it arrived and I picked it up to read, that Robin DiAngelo is a white woman – all the other books I bought, are by authors of colour. I was in two minds about this – because on one hand, it’s pretty recommended that reading be undertaken from the point of view of those who have experienced it, who are living it. But also, white people have a role to play in calling out racism and changing their own inherent beliefs and prejudices, so I thought it would be interesting to read a text written by a white person from a purely white perspective addressing those things.

This is quite a slim book, footnotes aside, it’s about 154p. It’s broken down into 12 chapters and a lot of it addresses DiAngelo’s work as a sort of racial facilitator, who runs workshops in companies and the like, helping with racial issues and education. She uses examples in the book of what she terms ‘white fragility’ which is a white response to being called out on racism and being offended so that people offer them the comfort, rather than the person who has felt the impact of the racism or prejudice. There are rather a lot of examples in this book but apart from an incident that DiAngelo commits herself, there’s very little in the way of actually working through this white offense, for them to reach an understanding of why their actions/speech/whatever it was, was offensive and how they can recognise that and accept it, and make steps to make amends or move forward from it. To be honest, it seems like DiAngelo isn’t able to reach any of these people in her workshops that do take offense when gently told that what they said or did was problematic and why, which makes me wonder if taking one of her workshops actually has a point.

I think whilst I did find a few things to appreciate in this, especially the talk about racial prejudice and the idea that it’s impossible to be completely free of racism in terms of racial prejudice, there were some issues that I thought cropped up a couple of times. I know that this isn’t a situation where there are easy answers but this book doesn’t really seem to suggest a way forward and doesn’t really promote discourse on the topic in a meaningful way and encourage people to understand their inherent prejudices, especially ones that they may not even be aware that they have. Even DiAngelo’s anecdotes from her own workshops seem to rarely resolve in a way where I would say that there was understanding by the white participants (unless she just doesn’t include those and why wouldn’t she?). Time and time again she talks of how, when called out a white person takes offense/gets upset/cries which leads to people comforting them, instead of the victim and often people come up to her afterwards as well, to tell her just how upset the white person was and how they won’t be coming back or anything. Obviously there are a lot of people who will resent being called out for an action or a comment or a thought but DiAngelo doesn’t give much hope that there are people out there who are willing to listen and address the slights (except herself). So how do you address issues with white people then? It seems like DiAngelo hasn’t really got an answer, despite it being a part of her job. And if there aren’t answers, then why did I read this? I don’t felt like it gave me much insight or understanding into how there might be ways of bridging communication issues or encouraging people to see things from a black perspective.

I did examine some of my own thoughts and probable inherent prejudices whilst reading this and how it might feel to be called out for a thoughtless comment or action or opinion. It would be embarrassing, it would be something that would make me feel perhaps angry or resentful, or like it had been misunderstood because I think it’s a natural human response to reject blame, a lot of the time. But there’s nothing for how to overcome that, to examine yourself deeper and learn to listen and open your mind on these issues.


Book #146 of 2020

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