Before and after reading White Fragility, I read many reviews that either showered it with the highest praises or ripped it to shreds. While some of the negative reviews ended up just being lengthy rants that divulged greatly from the topic of race to yell about how this generation has never faced hardships and how we need another Depression in this country, others made some valid points.
This book is not perfect and you may not agree with every idea or every approach – however, I do still think there are at least a few good things that every person can learn from this book. Those things may differ slightly from person to person, depending on your own knowledge or experiences, but I do think there is something there for everyone to get them started thinking about how race intersects with our daily lives. It’s also important to consider that this book was intentionally written for a white audience and by a white person.
In this review, I’ll go over some of the most important takeaways from the book but also discuss some of the common criticisms and shortcomings discussed in the many reviews I read.
The White Perspective
For me, this was one of the more eye-opening concepts in the book. When you are white, it is truly very easy to overlook how white everything is in society. Granted, not every white person has the same experience because we all live in vastly different places within the United States. However, even someone who may have attended a school with a lot more Black teachers than I did growing up, it is likely that they still read predominantly, if not all, white literature.
Yes, we did discuss Black authors in my literature classes when we went over certain periods in history. However, I can only remember reading one actual assigned book by a Black author. At the time, I never once thought about this.
Some might say that there is a lot more classic literature out there written by white people. This is true. However, there are still many books out there written by Black authors, or authors of other non-white races, that I would argue are a much better addition to our curriculum than The Scarlett Letter or Wuthering Heights.
For a good part of my life, I have not thought twice when watching a movie with an all-white cast, scrolling through Instagram posts from mainly white people, or considered how I was being taught history. While reading White Fragility is not making me notice this for the very first time, it is helping me to take better notice and think more about how I can be purposeful in diversifying my life.
Prejudice is inevitable
I feel like this is kind of a duh moment – but maybe it isn’t? This point is better paired with the points below for a full understanding of why it’s an important part of the book. For now, I will simply say that being non-racist or anti-racist does not mean that you will never stereotype another person in your life or will magically forget all of the prejudices you grew up with. Prejudices are normal and inevitable (against people from all walks of life, not just on a racial level). What you do with those prejudices is where choice comes in. This doesn’t mean that having prejudices is good, only that it is impossible to get rid of all of your prejudices.
How can I be prejudiced without being racist?
DiAngelo’s definition of racism has been disputed by some, but for the most part, I generally agree with it. She says that racism is only racism when it has institutional power behind it. This definition is used to explain why Black people can’t be racist against white people. They can be prejudiced against white people but no matter how much a Black person is prejudiced against a white person, they are not racist towards them because they do not have the power to oppress them, according to DiAngelo.
Some people argue that this erases the damage and hurt that may have been done by a Black person’s prejudice against a white person, for example. I think where DiAngelo’s definition gets a little confusing is when you consider discrimination. Discrimination, when someone acts on their prejudice, can happen between any two people that hold prejudices. According to DiAngelo, racism can only be perpetrated by the race in power. Racism is discrimination, just on a larger scale. Do you see where this gets a little hairy?
I don’t think this makes DiAngelo’s idea entirely wrong. Systemic racism is a problem and is probably the most damaging form of racism. BIPOC cannot create laws that disproportionately affect white communities (in a negative way), the way white people have for BIPOC communities throughout history, because the majority of politicians that write legislature are white – in this way, DiAngelo’s definition rings true. This definition does make it seem as if racism is not necessarily something that occurs on a personal level.
Perhaps the best way to look at this definition is to not see racism and discrimination as mutually exclusive as her definition may appear to imply. Discrimination between any two identity groups is not un-important but while personally hurtful, it does not always have the power that systemic racism can.
The good/bad binary
If I did something racist, does that make me a bad person? Not necessarily.
DiAngelo argues that white people are so defensive (read: white fragility in action) about criticism of racist actions because of the good/bad binary. Good equals non-racist and bad equals racist. Basically, the idea we have in our heads of a racist is not ourselves. Racists are bad, horrible people who hate people of color and treat them terribly. Racists are the KKK and people who had picnics under lynchings.
I could never be that!
Her argument is that you can do something racist without fitting this stereotype of a racist. When telling a white person that what they just said or did is racist, it often seems as if you are equating them with this stereotype. Instead of focusing on the hurt our comment or action caused, we are now focused on the way we think we are being accused and vilified. This is white fragility in action.
Now for some criticisms:
One of the many complaints I saw had to do with generalizations. Many people felt that while some of the ideas may be valid, DiAngelo did a lot of generalizing. I don’t necessarily disagree, but I do think it’s hard to write this kind of book without generalizing. Acknowledge that every generalization may not apply to you, but also be honest with yourself in comparing your own actions to her generalizations.
So, white people aren’t allowed to have emotions?
This was a common criticism I saw in the 1 and 2-star ratings of White Fragility. The answer to this is, of course, they are. DiAngelo does not state in her book that a white person should never feel angry, uncomfortable, upset, or any other emotion. You are allowed to respond emotionally to the actions or words of another person. Regardless of their race, gender, or any other criteria. Her argument mainly serves to get white people to 1) examine why they are feeling this emotion and 2) react differently. I think that some of the lessons that she applies to white people’s reactions to racial criticisms can be applied to many other areas of our lives as well, with positive results. Defensiveness and anger are rarely a good response in any situation.
So what do I do with the emotions that I do feel?
DiAngelo says in the book that it can often be helpful to reflect and bounce your thoughts off of a trusted friend. She recommends another white person. It is important to pick someone who will be able to think critically about what you’re saying and engage in a meaningful conversation with you to help you dissect what happened, why you’re feeling the way you do, and what you can/should do about it – not just someone who will validate your feelings of being wronged. This is yet another lesson that can be applied to other aspects of your life – not just times when you encounter racism. We all need someone to be our “sounding board” for times when we may not be seeing clearly or may have something to learn.
You will never get it right.
From the reviews I read, and to some extent my own feelings, it seemed that while encouraging critical thinking, DiAngelo’s book didn’t seem to offer a lot of tangible solutions. This was frustrating for a lot of readers.
DiAngelo has not marketed her book as a step-by-step guide to avoid being racist. It doesn’t need to be that. However, some of her arguments appear to contradict themselves at times. They leave the reader both wanting to be aware of this issue and improve upon it, but unsure of how to proceed. She even flat out states that you will never get it right. While it may come off this way to some, I don’t think this is meant to be a discouraging comment. I think it’s meant to encourage consistent learning, reflecting and improving.
In this way, her assertion that intentions never matter, falls a bit flat. Intentions do not cancel out the harm done. An explanation of a good intention does not mean that your actions must be forgiven. However, without considering intentions, some of her assertions could also easily be misunderstood. Intentions may not be the most important factor, but I would argue that they cannot fully be ignored either.
So what should you take from this book? DiAngelo’s book will not offer one solution and will likely leave you feeling stumped at times. I suggest focusing on the main point and looking for tangible examples in your life to help you understand. Picking apart her arguments will likely leave you a little confused and frustrated. Take what you can from it and use it to guide your future learning and reflecting.
So, is it worth reading?
Overall, I think White Fragility is an excellent way to start thinking more critically about your behavior but it does not offer tangible solutions and can be a bit fallacious/circular in its logic at times. It is a great starting point, especially since it is a fairly light read (192 pages). However, this should not be where your self-education about race in American society ends.
This book definitely got me thinking more critically about my behavior – past and present. It’s not a book that felt like a waste of time. In general, it is something I would recommend to other white people who are attempting to expand their way of thinking.
My word of advice with reading this book is to keep an open mind and take everything with a grain of salt. No book gets everything right and no generalization can fit every single reader.
Do you have thoughts on White Fragility? Suggestions for other good books to learn about race in America? Drop them in the comments of this post on Instagram. I’d love to hear what you have to say!