You know how there’s always that one book that has a cult around it? For example, if someone tries to criticize it, fans will dismiss them as ignorant of the novel’s true message and insist on reading the title in order to understand or in other words, “drink the Kool-Aid.” That’s the vibe that I get when I read White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo and its reviews. What the book is about is all in the title. As Goodreads reviewer Lady H puts it, it’s basically Racism 101 for White Folks (like myself), yet it doesn’t always work.
Like other titles that I’m mixed on, I’ll focus on the positive aspects first and negative ones second. Readers, especially those who want to explore the concept of racism further, will naturally gravitate towards this book. I mean, this title has been on the New York Times Best Sellers Paperback Nonfiction list for 151 weeks as of this week! So, I can’t say that it doesn’t have an audience.
In addition, DiAngelo definitely has good intentions. There are people who will get defensive whenever others discuss racism or racial discrimination, but why? DiAngelo basically describes white fragility as the result of white people being “insulated from racial stress …. [and feeling] entitled to and deserving of [their advantage] since they ‘haven’t had to build [their] racial stamina’” (p. 1-2).
In other words, since society tends to view the white race as neutral, white people never had to see themselves in terms of race, and therefore be biased, as often as other ethnicities.
Moreover, I got two things out of this book. One of those things is the good/bad binary. In Chapter 5, the author claims that this was created after the civil rights movement when people (mainly white Northerners) started labelling racists as “mean, ignorant, old, uneducated, Southern whites” (p. 71). Everything opposite of that meant one was not racist. I absolutely agree that this binary needs to go into the trash. I have an uncle who hated black people for a very long time, but in all my years of knowing him, I never thought that he was a bad person. It also doesn’t help that when Hollywood releases a period piece about race, the racists are usually mean, white people who wear their hatred like a badge. To help dismantle this notion, DiAngelo mentions that she “likes to think of [herself] on a continuum.” Even though she asserts that she will never get herself out of this in her lifetime, she can “continually seek to move further along it” (p. 87). What does she mean by this? Simply put, she means that by placing herself in this continuum, she is judging her actions not on whether or not she is a racist, but on if she is consciously combatting racism in the given context and how. I think that’s some good advice.
The other good thing that I got out of this is my gained confidence in knowing how I may have been insensitive to certain people of color that I knew in the past. In the final chapter, DiAngelo recounts a time, in which she made an inconsiderate remark about her black co-worker’s hair to Angela – a black web developer. Once she was told about how offended the developer was, she took the time to apologize and see how she could do better. Then, she found out she unintentionally offended Angela by pushing a survey that she wrote. Angela said this, “And I have spent my life justifying my intelligence to white people” (p. 139-140).
This helped me to put into perspective of how sometimes people, especially those of color, have to really prove themselves that they are intelligent, so they won’t be seen as stupid. I usually saw people bragging about their intelligence as simply being egotistical, but listening to others reveals more inner motives.
Now let’s move onto the negative aspects. For starters, I wish DiAngelo would have used more concrete examples. She relies on books and articles for mostly historical context as well as personal experiences from her seminars. I think the examples of white fragility could have been stronger if there was more research to support that notion.
I also have an issue with how DiAngelo insists that white people should not rely on people of color for their racial education. She claims that the latter are expected to speak about racial issues because they’re not “racially innocent” and have to do so on white terms (p. 62). Instead, she insists on seeking that information out in books (like this one haha), websites, film, and other available sources (p. 146). In other words, white people must seek materials on racial issues on people of color’s terms. There was something that felt off about that. Luckily, John McWhorter – a contributing writer for The Atlantic and a professor at Columbia University – articulated the problem. In his article critiquing White Fragility, McWhorter claims that if one solely relied on sources about racial issues, one “will be accused of holding actual Black people at a remove, reading the wrong sources, or drawing the wrong lessons from them.” That’s why it’s important to balance out the physical sources with listening to people of color and their experiences with racism.
Another problem is that all of this book can be summarized like this: 1. Don’t be so defensive when race is being discussed, 2. Listen to people of color, and 3. Don’t be an idiot. Normally, I wouldn’t have an issue with repetition, but the fact that these three outcomes are repeated over and over in 155 pages made it kind of irritating.
My biggest criticism of this book is the fact that the author herself is white. Before you call me a racist, let me explain. I understand that DiAngelo is a diversity consultant, but because she’s white, she most likely doesn’t have the personal experiences of being discriminated against. I’m not saying she, as a white person, shouldn’t have written this book. In fact, I’m ok with white people writing books about various topics that are primarily associated with the BIPOC community. For example, Amy Stanley (who’s white) got accolades with her nonfiction title Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World – a book about a Japanese woman living in early nineteenth-century Japan, and I can see why. She has the utmost respect for her subject and location and doesn’t act like she knows everything about it. When I read White Fragility, I got the feeling that DiAngelo thinks she knows everything about racism because she’s a diversity consultant. Again, I have nothing against the book itself. I simply wish that this book was written by someone of color to give it more authenticity and credibility.
Overall, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo is alright. I wish the author was not white, so it could be more authentic, or at least have her get off her high horse every now and then. In fact, her whiteness resulted in many of my issues with the book. Despite those aspects, I still managed to get some things out that will stick with me for a long time. For those who are looking to read this manual as part of their racial education, I will recommend this title only if they supplement it with other books, preferably ones written by people of color like How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and Caste by Isabel Wilkerson. Whatever you do: don’t treat this like it’s the Bible of racial education because it’s simply not.
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