White Fragility is an international bestseller Picture: Penguin)Robin Diangelo’s new book White Fragility dives into the complexities of race and the reasons why discussing racism is so difficult – particularly for white people.
The American academic was a guest on the Sunday Politics panel during which MP Angela Smith used the highly problematic term, ‘funny tinge’ to describe people of colour – mere hours after the inception of the new Independent Group.
It was Robin’s remarks that actually triggered the politician’s use of the term. She thinks the entire interaction was really valuable in understanding how white people generally interact with the topic of race.
‘I think she [Smith] demonstrated some key dynamics,’ Robin tells Metro.co.uk.
‘Firstly – how inexperienced most white people are when it comes to talking about race. How uncomfortable we can be. I think she exhibited real racial anxiety.
‘Yet while she, like many other white people, would see themselves as free of racism, the impact of her anxiety and lack of experience was racial harm.
‘We have to change what it means to cause racial harm. She didn’t say the “N word”, and I’m sure she never would, and still the impact of her words was racism.
‘It’s important to note that she also demonstrated humility and an attempt to repair the harm. For this reason, I actually would not describe her engagement as white fragility.
‘I think focusing on her is a missed opportunity to see a text-book case of white fragility from the two male panelists.
‘Every hallmark of white fragility – individualism, meritocracy, refusal to listen, certitude that one’s uninformed opinion is equal to someone’s informed opinion, dismissing people of color out of hand – they demonstrated.
‘The topic was white fragility and we certainly got to see it.’
Robin Diangelo (Picture: Gabriel Solis)So what exactly is ‘white fragility’? Robin coined the term and it tends to cause a reaction whenever it is used. But if that term makes you feel uncomfortable, that is precisely the sensation that Robin is encouraging people to confront.
‘White fragility describes a consistent pattern that surfaces when white people are racially challenged. That pattern is defensiveness,’ explains Robin.
‘The term is meant to capture how little it takes to upset white people.
‘For many of us, the mere suggestion that being white has meaning, much less generalising about white people or assuming that we could know anything about anyone just because they are white, will cause great umbrage and defensiveness.
‘But the impact of that defensiveness is not fragile at all. It is actually a highly effective means of everyday white racial control. Because it works to silence the challenge and to hold the current racial hierarchy in place.
‘But if we can’t challenge the racial hierarchy then we can only protect it.
‘By every measure there is racial inequality. And by many measures racial inequality is increasing, not decreasing.
‘A refusal to talk about it – the insistence that it is talking about it that causes it – can only protect it.’
As well as identifying that white fragility exists, Robin’s book also explores why. She asserts that one of the biggest causes of this innate defensiveness about race is that our definition of racism is too narrow, too prescriptive.
According to Robin, because we tend to see racism as singular acts carried out by inherently bad individuals, it blinds us from the wider, structural racial barriers that exist in our society.
‘The mainstream definition of what it means to be racist is an individual who consciously does not like people based on race, and intentionally wants to be mean to them,’ Robin tells us.
‘If that is my definition of a racist, then to suggest that I have absorbed racist biases, and act on them, most often in unaware ways, but ways that have a consequence nonetheless, I’m going to hear you saying that I am an intentionally bad person.
‘And that will cause offense and the need to defend my moral character.
‘I also, as a white person, move through daily life racially comfortable. White people are positioned as the norm for humanity. We are just people and ‘they’ are certain kinds of people.
So Mike Leigh is a filmmaker, but Spike Lee is a black filmmaker.
‘White people are able to enjoy the privilege of being responded to as individuals. So when aspects of our racial experience that we take for granted are interrupted, we melt down.
‘We haven’t developed the stamina to withstand the discomfort of having to grapple with what it means to be a member of a social group by which we can predict whether my mother and I would have survived my birth.
‘Being white has profound meaning.
‘We need to be willing to set aside individualism and be willing to see the collective impact of being white.’
Robin makes it clear that her book does not attempt to provide a solution to racism. What she hopes is that white people and people of colour will gain an insight into why these conversations can be so painfully difficult to have, and strategies to make them easier.
‘If we cannot understand the systemic nature of racism we are not going to counter it,’ says Robin.
‘As long as we see racism as individual acts of intentional meanness, we won’t be able to. Once you change your framework you will change your response to being racially challenged.
‘Some of the ways we might do that is to listen to people of colour. To read their writing and engage with their work. They have been telling us what we need to do to change for a long time.
‘Yet you can get a graduate degree in the UK without ever discussing race. You can be certified as a highly educated person without any ability whatsoever to engage with any nuance in discussions about race, much less any skill navigating race.
‘We need to listen and educate ourselves.
‘We need to build cross-racial relationships. We need to talk honestly about race with other white people.
‘One of the most challenging things a white person can do is break white solidarity with other white people and start talking to one another about what it means to be white. That’s really hard to do.’
Robin’s book White Fragility is now an international bestseller. She wants white people to read this book. Particularly the ‘progressive’ white people who don’t think they have anything to learn when it comes to racism.
She strongly believes that confronting uncomfortable truths and delving into these awkward and often painful discussions is the only way to enact real change.
MORE: The UK must follow New York’s lead in fighting racism by banning hairstyle discrimination
MORE: Meet the group helping black people reconnect with the natural world
MORE: Publisher pledges to print books by 20 black authors in 2020