A friend of mine asked me this question the other day, so let’s tackle that shit!
To make sure I’m fully and accurately answering the question, I’ll share some links at the end of this post from people who are more knowledgable and have done more work on this specific topic than I have. In fact, the definition that I identify with most is from one of the articles you’ll find at the end of this post: White fragility is what happens when a white person prioritizes how it feels to be called racist over how a person of color might feel experiencing racism.
Before I share links from actual experts and because this is a blog about my own process of education and evolution, I will share with you my personal understanding of what white fragility means.
First of all, the emotional responses that lead to an expression of white fragility are not specific to white people. Everyone feels defensive and uncomfortable sometimes. White fragility, though, is specific to white people’s responses to conversations about racism. The reason the term is specific to white people is because, like it or not white people, we are the oppressors in our society, and we experience a level of privilege that people who are not white do not experience. (If your first response to that statement is something along the lines of, “Oh bullshit. Why do we have to make everything about race?” then you are exhibiting classic white fragility.) People of color are not the oppressors, so just as there is no “reverse racism,” (no seriously, that’s not how racism works. If you have a question about that, let me know! We’ll talk about it!) there is no “brown fragility.” White people are already centered in most conversations and stories. White people are and have always been presented as the standard of all that is considered normal and good. And most of us white people don’t even realize it. You know why? Because we don’t need to. While people of color are forced to examine race and racial oppression daily, white people are comfortably protected in cocoons of white privilege, afforded us by our system of white supremacy. We are all products of white supremacy, and white supremacy is designed to keep us from examining how we participate in it, benefit from it, and the ways different people are treated within it. White fragility is an extension of white supremacy: It is deeply ingrained in us to avoid the stress of acknowledging racial injustice, or acknowledging race at all. It takes an ongoing, conscious effort to examine these things.
White fragility has to do with the ways we respond when the topic of race comes up. A few examples of fragile white responses: defensiveness, hurt, centering our own experiences and feelings, changing the subject when it gets uncomfortable, shutting down and being unwilling to engage. It may be as blatant as claiming that racism does not exist or that we live in a “post-racial” society, or as subtle as responding to a person of color’s experience by sharing a contradictory story from our own life, thereby delegitimizing someone else’s experience and centering our own whiteness.
What does white fragility look like in an actual conversation? Let’s look at some theoretical examples.
Example: A black woman expresses that she didn’t feel included in the women’s march due to the fact that mainstream (white) feminism tends to center the experiences of white cisgendered women and exclude the experiences of black women, other women of color, trans women, etc.
White fragility response: “We need to be unified right now. Bringing up race just further divides us.”
Why this is an example of white fragility: A black woman has just expressed her feelings and experiences, and a white person was unwilling to even consider her point of view. By shutting down her experiences and claiming “unity,” WE are the ones being divisive. If we truly believe in unity, we need to listen to people who have historically been left out of the conversation and work hard to be inclusive instead of using “unity” to excuse ourselves from responsibility.
Possible alternative response: “I am listening. I hear you. I hadn’t realized it felt that way to you because I am a white woman. Thank you for sharing your perspective. I’ll work to be more inclusive in my feminism.”
Example topic: Black Lives Matter.
White fragility response: “Well I think all lives matter.”
Why this is an example of white fragility: To claim that “all lives matter” completely misses the point of the BLM movement. The WHOLE POINT of Black Lives Matter IS that ALL LIVES SHOULD matter. No one is claiming that black lives should be more important than anyone else’s lives. What they are pointing out is that black lives are not treated with the same care as white lives. What Black Lives Matter shines a light on is the fact that police violence is HUGELY disproportionately directed at black people. It reflects the real fear and anger and sadness that black parents or parents of black children experience every time they send their children out of the house. The fear that they might not come back. The fear that a routine police stop could turn bad. That if they wear the wrong clothes they’ll be labeled “thugs.” That the police will always be found innocent just by claiming that they felt threatened by a black child. These are REAL and valid concerns that REAL people are living with. The truth is that black lives DON’T matter in the same way that white lives matter in this country. It’s an uncomfortable truth to face, but until we face it, we are exhibiting white fragility.
Possible alternative response: All lives will matter when black lives matter. I will stand and fight with you. I will listen to you and teach my children that black lives are important. I will show up at black lives matter events but I will NEVER attempt to take over the event or lead this movement. I stand with you as a white ally and accomplice, which means that my role is to listen and take your lead.
Example topic: A person of color expresses their experiences with micro-aggressions, and they make no secret of the fact that they are angry about it. (If “micro-aggression” is a new word for you, please ask and I’ll try to address it in another post!)
White fragility response 1: “Micro-aggressions aren’t real. People aren’t racist just because they make an innocent mistake. People need to stop taking things so personally and realize most people have good intentions.”
White fragility response 2: “You’re just alienating potential allies when your tone is angry. It hurts my feelings when you talk to me that way, and I refuse to engage with you or hear where you’re coming from when you’re angry because I feel personally attacked.”
Why this is an example of white fragility: 1. Again, saying micro-aggressions aren’t real is just another way of dismissing a person’s experiences because we don’t want to face their truth. And while we may have good intentions, those intentions don’t excuse hurtful behavior. It’s all about how we respond when someone lets us know we’ve been hurtful. Our intentions don’t.fucking.matter unless we can take responsibility for our actions. Only then do our intentions become relevant.
2. People who experience micro (and macro) aggressions on a daily basis are likely angry. Don’t make that about you. You can have hurt feelings, because you are a human and having hurt feelings when someone is angry at us is human. I personally have a very difficult time with people being mad at me. But if someone’s anger scares you away or alienates you from allyship, you were not a true ally to begin with. Don’t express your hurt to the person who calls you out. Let them know you’re listening. I think this is one of the most important parts of being/becoming an anti-racist white person. It’s difficult. Hear the criticism. Absorb it. Be better.
Possible Alternative response: “I am SO sorry I hurt you. Thank you so much for being honest with me about it. I hear you, and I will work to be better.”
There are so many examples, but you get the idea. And I want to be clear about this: We are all human beings. We all have feelings and I truly do believe that initially having a defensive or angry or hurt reaction to something confrontational is human. But we have to recognize that we live in a society that has prioritized white people’s feelings over people experiencing racism. Think about that for a minute. We have to work to change this dynamic, which takes conscious and intentional awareness of how we handle our own emotional responses. We all make mistakes, but let’s ask ourselves: Are we willing to hear perspectives that are difficult to hear? Are we willing to face and reflect on our mistakes? Are we actually willing to sacrifice our own comfort to be better allies and accomplices? Are we willing to examine our own white supremacy? If the answer is yes, we have to stop changing the subject. We have to stop shutting down people’s experiences. We have to stop making other people’s LIVES less important than our precious feelings. What all of this comes down to is that we have to LISTEN. When something is hard to hear, listen. Listen carefully. Listen sincerely. Listen with love and humility. Listen.
Robin DiAngelo has done extensive work on this topic, and she coined the term white fragility. Please read this for a much more articulate and complete explanation:
This is hilarious and wonderful and poignant. Watch and read. And STOP TOUCHING BLACK PEOPLE’S HAIR. YOU DO NOT HAVE THE RIGHT TO DO THAT. It is the definition of a micro-aggression:
Simple. Important. Check yourself:
Thank you so much for reading! I’m always open to your feedback and appreciate your support. So much.