FEATURE

What’s My Complicity? Talking White Fragility With Robin DiAngelo

For well-intentioned white people doing anti-racist and social justice work, the first meaningful step is to recognize their fragility around racial issues—and build their emotional stamina. 'White Fragility' author Robin DiAngelo breaks it down.

When it comes to her well-established career as an anti-racist educator, Robin DiAngelo says, “I kind of fell into it.” Years of deep learning, research and mentorship from colleagues of color led her not only to understand that her whiteness has meaning—but also to become really good at explaining this to other white people. 

The New York Times bestselling author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism sat down with Teaching Tolerance to discuss why working against one’s own fragility is a necessary part of white anti-racist work—and why good intentions don’t matter.

 

In a nutshell, what is white fragility?

Well, when I coined that term, the fragility part was meant to capture how little it takes to upset white people racially. For a lot of white people, the mere suggestion that being white has meaning will cause great umbrage. Certainly generalizing about white people will. Right now, me saying “white people,” as if our race had meaning, and as if I could know anything about somebody just because they’re white, will cause a lot of white people to erupt in defensiveness. And I think of it as a kind of weaponized defensiveness. Weaponized tears. Weaponized hurt feelings. And in that way, I think white fragility actually functions as a kind of white racial bullying.  

We white people make it so difficult for people of color to talk to us about our inevitable—but often unaware—racist patterns and assumptions that, most of the time, they don’t. People of color working and living in primarily white environments take home way more daily indignities and slights and microaggressions than they bother talking to us about because their experience consistently is that it’s not going to go well. In fact, they’re going to risk more punishment, not less. They’re going to now have to take care of the white person’s upset feelings. They’re going to be seen as a troublemaker. The white person is going to withdraw, defend, explain, insist it had to have been a misunderstanding.  

 

And who is the primary audience for this book?

My audience is the average, well-intended white person who sees themselves as open-minded, and yet cannot answer the question: “What does it mean to be white?” 

I think white progressives can be the most challenging because we tend to be so certain that it isn’t us. And that certitude is problematic. It doesn’t allow for humility, and, to be direct, it’s quite arrogant. So we don’t tend to be receptive at all. … I think the worst fear of a well-intended white person is that we would accidentally say something racist. But then how do we respond when someone lets us know, “Hey, you just accidentally said something racist”? We respond with, “How dare you. No, I didn’t!” 

So, to the degree that our identities are very attached to this idea of being free of racism, we’re actually going to resist any of the critical examination that we need to be engaged in for our entire lives. Because every moment that I push against the socialization that I’ve received into a white supremacist culture, that culture is pushing right back at me. And that pressure is seductive. It’s comfortable. There are social rewards for not challenging racism. [White] people perceive you as easier to get along with when you maintain white solidarity.

 

In the book, you talk about the danger of assuming good intentions. Can you say a little bit about why assuming good intentions can actually be dangerous or harmful?

I think intentions are irrelevant. It’s nice to know you had good intentions, but the impact of what you did was harmful. And we need to let go of our intentions and attend to the impact, to focus on that. 

A lot of groups that come together to have these discussions generate a list of guidelines or ground rules. And if we really looked critically at those, I think we would see that mostly they’re about maintaining white comfort. They presume a lack of differential power in the space. But power relations are always at play, and people are in different power positions in that room. So the very things that might make a white person feel comfortable may be exactly what says to a person of color, “Do not be authentic; do not be yourself. Do not show your emotions. Do not get upset. Do not be angry.” ... 

There’s a question that’s never failed me in this work to uncover how racism keeps reproducing itself despite all of the evidence we like to give for why it couldn’t be us. And that question isn’t, “Is this true or is this false: Was the person’s intention good or not?” We’re never going to be able to come to an agreement on intentions. You cannot prove somebody’s intentions. They might not even know their intentions. And if they weren’t good, they’re probably not going to admit that. The question I ask is, “How does this function?” The impact of the action is what is relevant. 

Change how you understand what it means to be racist, and then act on that understanding. Because if you change your understanding, but you don’t do anything different, then you’re colluding.

What are some ways that white people can begin to build their emotional stamina?

Foundationally [we] have to change our idea of what it means to be racist. As long as you define a racist as an individual who intentionally is mean, based on race, you’re going to feel defensive. When I say you’ve been shaped by a racist system—that it is inevitable that you have racist biases and patterns and investments—you’re going to feel offended by that. You will hear it as a comment on your moral character.  You’re going to feel offended by that if you don’t change how you’re interpreting what I just said. And I would actually agree with anyone who felt offended when I say, “It is inevitable that you are racist,” if their definition of a racist is someone who means harm.

When we understand racism as a system that we have been raised in and that its impact is inevitable, it’s really not a question of good or bad. It’s just, “I have it. I have been socialized into it.” And so, “What am I going to do about it?” is really the question. And that’s where, I think, maybe some guilt could come in, when you know that and you’re still not going to do anything about it. I don’t struggle with guilt because, to the best of my ability, I am trying to challenge my socialization. So, let me be really clear: As a result of being raised as a white person in this society, I have a racist worldview. I have racist biases. I have developed racist patterns as a result, and I have investments in the system of racism. It’s incredibly comfortable. It’s certainly helped me with the barriers that I do face. And I also have investments in not seeing anything I just said—because of what it would suggest to me about my identity as a good person, if I’m coming from the dominant definition, and what it would actually require of me in action. I don’t feel guilty about that, but I do feel responsible for what I do with that socialization.

Change how you understand what it means to be racist, and then act on that understanding. Because if you change your understanding, but you don’t do anything different, then you’re colluding.

 

Have you done work with teachers? How does your work specifically apply to K–12 teachers? 

Absolutely. I am a former professor of education. I’ve worked many years in large, teacher-training programs. 

I think teachers are critical, and I think, regardless of intentions, when you have an overwhelmingly white teaching force—we have a very racially homogenous teaching force—you inevitably have the reproduction and the dissemination of racism and white supremacy, just by virtue of the homogeneity. … We’ve grown up in segregation, we’ve never been taught or shown that to understand, much less have relationships across race, is something valuable. In fact, white people measure the value of our schools and neighborhoods by the absence of people of color. 

I know exactly what a “good” school is, and I know what we’re talking about. We all know what we’re talking about when we say “good school” versus “bad school.” We use race to measure those things. And now, you take the product of that conditioning, that segregation, that narrow story, and you put that teacher in a position to socialize everyone’s children—and that is a critical piece of [the] school-to-prison pipeline.  

 

What message should the Teaching Tolerance community hear about white fragility and some of the next steps they can take as educators who have a profound responsibility to educate all children, including those who do not share their racial identity? 

One, I want to say thank you. … I do want to acknowledge that commitment and how essential it is. 

The message would be: Don’t ever be complacent in the face of it—don’t assume that “it isn’t you.” Just go ahead and assume that it is you [who] contributes to a painful environment for the people of color working with you, and then keep asking yourself how it might be you. … Are you open to feedback? If indeed your impact was more problematic than you think it is, could somebody talk to you about that? …

I don’t call myself a white ally. I’m involved in anti-racist work, but I don’t call myself an anti-racist white. And that’s because that is for people of color to decide, whether in any given moment I’m behaving in anti-racist ways. And notice that that keeps me accountable. It’s for them to determine if in any given moment—it’s not a fixed location—I haven’t made it or arrived. …

There’s a history of harm between the institution of schooling and families of color: Our schools have not done right by children of color. And parents of color are delivering their precious, precious children into an institution where there’s a deep history of harm. So, their suspicion, their fear and worry are rational. It’s rational that they don’t automatically trust the teacher.  

Rather than get your back up because a parent has come to you and feels that you’re treating their child differently based on race, respect that. Earn their trust. Respond from a framework of, one, there’s a very good reason why they don’t trust you, and two, the nature of implicit bias is that it’s not conscious, so be open to those conversations. … I need to see you and what you need. And I must never forget that your race and my race and the interaction is shaping how I see you as an individual.  

van der Valk is a former Teaching Tolerance staff member and currently serves as the communications director for the Center for Genetics and Society. TT Editorial Assistant Anya Malley edited this interview.