2020 was the year of the Black Lives Matter movement. But I was inspired to read this book by a personal experience. Some time ago....2018? I had a conversation with a friend about sexism and racism. During this conversation I told him a story about myself, a story about a time when I had acted in a racist way.
He refused to accept that my actions had been racist. "That's not helpful" he finally said the third or fourth time that I challenged his resistance. His refusal puzzled me. When I learnt about the concept of white fragility, I wondered if it could provide some insight.
White Fragility was written by a white American woman who does diversity and anti-bias training. Fundamentally it's about how anti-Black racism manifests even amongst 'liberal' whites in the United States, and how those liberal whites resist awareness of their own racism. But while elements of her discussion are specific to the American context, the basic discussion of white racism and white defensiveness about our behaviour are more broadly applicable.
Here are some quotes, and what they taught me.
"...we have been taught that racists are mean people who intentionally dislike others because of their race; racists are immoral. Therefore, if I am saying that my readers are racist...I am saying something deeply offensive; I am questioning my reader's very moral character."
"The simplistic idea that racism is limited to the individual intentional acts committed by unkind people is at the root of virtually all white defensiveness on this topic. "
Okay, that is a light bulb moment: that's why my friend couldn't accept that I had acted in a racist way. When I said that I had been racist, I was acknowledging that in the situation that I described, my discomfort had led me to take actions that had a negative impact on a group of people of colour. In doing so, I had made a mistake that I was embarrassed about, and that needed to be corrected. My actions had a racist impact. To my friend, me saying that I had acted in a racist way was factually incorrect -- I had not intentionally acted in an unkind way -- and so I was unjustifiably identifying myself as an immoral person.
Which brings us to:
"emphasizing intentions over impact...privileges the intentions of the aggressor over the impact of their behaviour on the target. In doing so, the aggressor's intentions become the most important issue.....minimizing the impact of racism on people of color."
Yes, I had not acted intentionally to disadvantage those students because of their race. Nevertheless, my actions had done so. My actions were racist. I didn't have the words to explain this to my friend, who resisted the idea that the impact of my actions was more relevant than my intentions. He resisted centring the perspective of the students of colour.
"Racial bias is largely unconscious, and herein lies the deepest challenge -- the defensiveness that ensues upon any suggestion of racial bias. This defensiveness is classic white fragility...."
Ah, another light bulb moment. My friend was getting defensive (on my behalf, no less), because he does not recognize that racial bias can be unconscious.
And then one more quote, from Diangelo's sarcastic rules for giving feedback about racism to white people without triggering white fragility:
"1. Do not give me feedback on my racism under any circumstances.
"If you insist on breaking the cardinal rule, then you must follow these other rules:
"2. Proper tone is crucial -- feedback must be given calmly. If any emotion is displayed, the feedback is invalid and can be dismissed."
I feel that second point (of 11 in total). I was having this conversation about sexism and racism in the first place because I had called out this friend's sexism. He asked to meet to discuss my comments. The end result: I left the meeting in tears, feeling at fault, having apologized....because I had gotten angry. The conversation became about my anger, and not about his sexism.
I don't know what it's like to be Black, or Indigenous, or to have any of the multitude of other identities of colour. But I know how that one feels. I understand white male defensiveness, white male fragility.
So, reading White Fragility helped me understand a situation I've mulled over many times since I experienced it several years ago. Maybe this understanding will help me deal better with similar situations in the future, by preparing me for defensiveness and by giving me words to help discuss it.
But reading White Fragility with this incident in mind was also a hindrance. The parts of the book that resonated most with me were the parts that illuminated this experience, an experience where I "come off better" than my friend. Alas, despite my recognizing and addressing my racism in this one specific case, I can't claim to be without racism, and I can't claim to be without defensiveness about it. I would probably have been better served had I paid better attention to other parts of the book.
For example, why am I so uncomfortable talking about myself or my friends as being white? I've actually lowered my voice when saying the word 'white'. Why? Because in white society it is polite to pretend to be colour-blind?
"A white participant said....'I don't see race: I don't see you as Black'. My co-trainer's response: 'Then how will you see racism?'.....If she were ever going to understand or challenge racism, she would need to acknowledge this difference. Pretending that she did not notice he was black was not helpful to him in any way...."
Or is it because as a white person, we believe that we are all individuals, and not members of a class?
"Whiteness rests on a foundational premise: the definition of whites as the norm or standard for human, and people of color as a deviation from that norm......White people find it very difficult to think about whiteness as a specific state of being that could have an impact on one's life and perceptions."
"...a significant aspect of white identity is to see oneself as an individual, outside or innocent of race -- 'just human'. .... To say that whiteness includes a set of cultural practices that are not recognized by white people is to understand racism as a network of norms and actions that consistently create advantage for whites and disadvantage for people of color. These norms and actions include basic rights and benefits of the doubt, purportedly granted to all but which are actually only consistently afforded to white people."
Is White Fragility the definitive book on racism? No, of course not, particularly not for white Canadians. The book is American in important ways. Is it a useful book for white Canadians to read even so? Yes, I think it is. Diangelo speaks directly to white attitudes about racism and to white defensiveness about racism. In doing so, she helps make them more visible, and therefore more addressable.