White people in the United States have protection from racial stress. Engaging in conversations about racism may trigger a range of defensive actions, feelings, and behaviors, such as anger, fear, and silence.
Although white fragility is not racism, it may contribute to racism by dismissing white domination and racial conditioning. By developing racial stamina, white people can better address racism and strive to become anti-racist.
This article defines white fragility and explains why it is a problem.
What is white fragility?
White fragility refers to feelings of discomfort a white person experiences when they witness discussions around racial inequality and injustice.
For example, people of color may find it difficult to speak to white people about white privilege and superiority. The white person may become defensive, and the person of color may feel obligated to comfort the white person because we live in a white-dominated environment.
White fragility differs from both white privilege and white supremacy. White privilege refers to the fact that white people have advantages in society that others do not. White supremacy is the belief that people with white skin are superior.
White fragility triggers
Racial stressors may cause a range of defensive behaviors and emotions. White people may act in certain ways when people of color discuss racism.
Their reactions may include:
- leaving the stress-inducing situation
By behaving in this way, white people may prevent people of color from attempting to talk about racism with them.
Different sources of racial stress that white people can experience may come from:
- a person claiming that a white person’s views are racist
- a person of color talking about their racial experiences and perspectives
- a person of color not protecting a white person’s feelings about racism
- a fellow white person not agreeing with another white person’s perspectives on racism
- a white person receiving feedback that their behavior or actions had a racist impact
- a white person being presented with a person of color in a position of leadership
Other triggers of white fragility may include situations wherein the white race is not central. For example, white fragility may occur when watching a movie where a person of color is driving the story’s action or is in a nonstereotypical role.
White fragility is a term that Dr. Robin DiAngelo invented to describe how white people react to issues of racism.
Dr. DiAngelo has a Ph.D. in multicultural education, and her specialty is whiteness studies and critical discourse analysis.
The term came from a paper Dr. DiAngelo wrote in 2011 on race and social injustice, called “White Fragility.” The term became popular, and Dr. DiAngelo wrote a book on the topic to further explain how white fragility is promoting racism.
How it differs from racism
Some people may define racism as the belief that a particular race is superior to another. However, others may refer to this as racial prejudice.
Sociologists define racism as an unequal distribution of privileges between white people and people of color. Racism occurs when white people benefit from an unequal distribution of privileges and people of color experience deprivation.
For example, one 2019 study examines the various ways in which racism may be impacting healthcare and driving racial inequities in health.
This definition of racism only applies to white people due to white privilege. Historically, white people have not had to experience the same oppression, inequality, and discrimination that people of color have due to white people holding power.
White people may be against the definition of racism, but experiencing white fragility can contribute to racism. A white person defending themselves or arguing against white superiority prevents conscious discussions with people of color about race and racism.
Why is it problematic?
People experiencing white fragility may not be racist, but their actions, behaviors, and feelings may promote racism. Avoiding the topic of race contributes to racism. By disregarding the notions of white superiority and white privilege, racism will continue to hold its place in society.
Since white people rarely experience racism, they often cannot see, feel, or understand it. Many people of color describe having been prepared to live as a minority in a racist society by their parents.
Due to this absence of understanding and experience, white people lack what Dr. DiAngelo calls “racial stamina.” However, white people can develop racial stamina by having direct experiences with people of color and engaging in sometimes difficult conversations with them.
By building racial stamina, white people may be able to manage racial stressors rather than ignoring or silencing them. Conscious and explicit engagement with people of different races can help break the pattern of fragile behaviors and actions related to race.
The sociology and psychology behind it
Dr. DiAngelo’s research suggests that several factors lead to white fragility in the U.S. These include:
- universalism and individualism
- entitlement to racial comfort
- racial arrogance
- racial belonging
- psychic freedom
- white dominance
Most white people live in segregated areas. In these segregated lives, white people receive little information and education about racism. This means that they may be unable to think about racism critically. This can lead to an inability to consider the perspectives of people of color.
Due to segregated living, white people may perceive a good school or a good neighborhood as “white.” Although discussions about what makes a space good are likely to be racially dependent, white people may deny these ideas.
Another factor in white fragility is the idea that white people are just people, whereas people of color belong to a race. To them, white people can represent all of humanity, but people of color may only represent their own races and not humanity in general.
Although white people may be against racism, they may deny that white privilege exists. By objecting to white privilege, white people contradict their objection to racism.
Being in a white-dominant culture is comfortable for a white person. White people may not feel the need to challenge their perspectives about race. By remaining in this comfortable environment, white people try to avoid the topic of racism.
Since white people do not receive teaching to deal with racism in a complex manner, they tend to dismiss more informed perspectives on race rather than acknowledge their lack of understanding.
Although white people may reject racism, they may tend to enjoy a segregated life if people do not label them as racist. In their perspective, if the intention was not to avoid living near people of color but it happened anyway, it is not segregation. White people may feel racial innocence in such cases.
Also, white people may not understand the social burden of race because they understand that race resides in people of color. Since white people may not consider themselves part of a race, they are free from carrying the burden of race.
Constant messages in history, media, and advertising — and from our role models, teachers, and everyday conversations about good neighborhoods and schools — reinforce white fragility. These notions promote the idea that white people are better and more important than people of color.
White fragility refers to feelings and behaviors that occur when white people face racial stressors. They may deny white superiority but live a segregated life without any concerns about the absence of people of color.
Many factors contribute to white fragility, and although it may not be racism, it supports a racist culture. By building racial stamina, however, white people can more openly and critically discuss issues surrounding race.
Last medically reviewed on June 12, 2020
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