Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

Every white American should—but won’t—read Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.

DiAngelo runs workshops on race and racism in American society. The book is a product of her experiences in talking with white people about racism.

Race is a social construct that has been and remains overwhelmingly important in shaping American (and more generally, European) society, culture and consciousness. People of any race may be prejudiced toward people of other races and may discriminate against them. But in the context of European colonial conquest of the rest of the world, a context of which we Americans are part, only whites can be racists. Racism is an elaborate, complex social and cultural system within which all of us whites grow up and live our lives. Thus DiAngelo’s basic premise is that all of us, all whites, are inevitably racist.

White fragility comes into play when people who don’t think they are racists are challenged on that. Much of the book details reactions ranging from denial and indignation to tears and withdrawal. We don’t (aside from a tiny minority of vocal white supremacists) want to see ourselves as racist.

DiAngelo actually argues that it is pernicious to differentiate ourselves from these vocal white supremacists, because we can then see ourselves as blameless, as not racist like those bad people. And when people who think they are innocent of racism are challenged, that’s when white fragility comes into play and effectively blocks us from confronting our own racism and dealing with how to transcend it.

So she makes the point that, far from being different from those evil white supremacists, we all participate in what is effectively a white supremacist culture and society. Accepting that is where we can start to change.

This pretty much fits with the perspective I’ve arrived at as a recovering Southerner over many years of reflection. Our country was founded by whites who implicitly assumed that they were superior to and had the right to conquer, dispossess and annihilate the Native Americans, that they were superior to and had the right to seize, transport and enslave Africans. Racism was fundamental not only to antebellum southern society, but to all parts of our society throughout its history. Racism is in our cultural DNA. It will always be with us. We can—and must—struggle against it, but we will never be rid of it.

But I differ with DiAngelo on how to confront racism. She thinks the key is to accept that all of us are white supremacists. But it is just that rhetorical move that actually sets off the white fragility that blocks people from dealing effectively with their own racism. There are many examples in the book of people who are so offended that they just go away mad. This is not productive.

Rather than assuming that people who dissociate themselves from white supremacists consider themselves innocent of racism, I suggest it is more reasonable to assume that people who sign up for her workshops may be open to admitting that they have work to do. But they don’t want to be told that they’re really no different from those knuckle-dragging racist bastards.

And there really is a difference. Today’s white nationalism (even entrenched in the White House), like the Jim Crow white supremacy of olden days, unapologetically glorify the white race and its domination over everyone else. White supremacy profoundly challenges and subverts a humane society. Decent people rightly condemn it and combat it. It is to those decent people that DiAngelo speaks. Many of them will be open to her message of combatting our own racism, but if she starts by telling them they’re no different from, no better than the white supremacists, they’ll be deep into white fragility, and they won’t hear her.

John Peeler is the former chairman (now retired) of the Political Science department at Bucknell University.


John Peeler is the former chairman (now retired) of the Political Science department at Bucknell University.