Book Review: White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

The Atlantic
“Despite the sincere intentions of its author, the book diminishes Black people in the name of dignifying us. This is unintentional, of course, like the racism DiAngelo sees in all whites.”

NPR Books
“Groundbreaking book exploring the counterproductive reactions white people have when discussing racism that serve to protect their positions and maintain racial inequality.”

Christianity Today
“In short, White Fragility, struggles to reckon with racism, or even “white fragility,” because DiAngelo has a deficient doctrine of sin and an incomplete doctrine of redemption.”

15 Min Read

The Rundown

Few are the books that have transformed the way society looks at itself because so few have actually been accurate with their content. George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm were critical demonstrations of how dangerous totalitarian governments can be when given absolute power to keep its citizens under surveillance. These comical novels explain the impact propaganda has over a fearful or uneducated populous. His approach, though humorous, was accurate.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 demand the reader grapple with plausible dystopian worlds where human beings are conditioned by the government to think a certain way or where certain books are burned because they are intellectually fine-tuned to challenge authoritarian rulership. These novels were made available to remind us that artists do a better job of painting reality than reality itself.

White Fragility is not one of these revolutionary novels.

The simplistic idea that racism is limited to individual intentional acts committed by unkind people is at the root of virtually all white defensiveness on this topic. To move beyond defensiveness, we have to let go of this common belief.

Robin diangelo

Redefining Racism

I believe Robin DiAngelo wants to revamp the way our world in the west defines racism. She refutes the definition of racism as an individual, isolated discriminatory act or an isolated violent assault toward a person of color. Robin quotes scholar and filmmaker, Omowale Akintude who defines racism this way:

 “Racism is a systemic, societal, institutional, omnipresent, and epistemologically embedded phenomenon that pervades every vestige of our reality. For most whites, however, racism is like murder: the concept exists, but someone has to commit it in order for it to happen. This limited view of such a multilayered syndrome cultivates the sinister nature of racism and, in fact, perpetuates racist phenomena rather than eradicates them.”

She adds to what Omowale said with this: “The simplistic idea that racism is limited to individual intentional acts committed by unkind people is at the root of virtually all-white defensiveness on this topic. To move beyond defensiveness, we have to let go of this common belief.”

To an extent, I do agree with Robin when she makes the claim that racism is more than a secret sentiment, one where one individual from a well to do family is radicalized to behave in a way that society calls “ugly” racism.

She calls the readers’ attention to the reality of a nation and culture saturated by a whiteness standard that promotes racial inequality and disparages people who dare confront this bizarre system of prejudice and discrimination based on race.

Historically speaking, America has been imperialized, colonialized, revolutionized, and made a democratic republic where freedom of thought and expression, freedom of religion, and the freedom to own weapons are as essential to the American as water is for fish. But this reality was only attainable; legally, socially, and culturally, for white Americans. 

African slaves or African American slaves, native Americans, Chinese immigrants, Mexican nationals, and more were never given the same status of power and equity as that of the domineering race of the land, white Europeans and their white descendants. 

What Robin DiAngelo wants to prove is that we have come a long way from slavery, displacement, and colonialism, but the shadows of that age and the genetic makeup of that former society still looms over our culture to this very day.

She wants us to understand that racism is not simply an individual act but more so a conditioned culture on which one race thrives on the backs of another, whilst ignoring the reality of its advantages and the privilege of blindness to their own entitlements within the previous and current societal structures.

I personally believe this redifining of racism, systemic corruption, systematic oppression, and white supremacy within the United States is appropriate and factual.

No Hope For White People, Just Gnosticism

We must remember that this book is an informational guide for white people, written by a white educator about white behaviors and mannerisms in society as a whole. Black people and people of color either take a backseat as they read, occasionally cheering Robin on when she references black and colored history in America under systemic and systematic oppression or they’re shaking their heads in the way Robin misrepresents white people as a whole. The generalizations are abundant in this book.

Robin is a genius in accumulating historical facts about white American’s and their discriminatory patterns toward people of color but I believe she misses the opportunity to render any sense of hope of a brighter future where reconciliation is possible for her white audience and minority communities. 

A white person, according to Robin, is inherently racist, has no hope to overcome that racism other than seeking out knowledge and continued learning, and will never break this curse of racial divide and superiority. 

This is an encumbrance for the white reader and the person of color who had hopes of finding a solution for the racial divide in modern-day America.  

There is no all-encompassing turn of life, a transformation of conduct, a redemptive plan where the individual is removed from a precarious state and transferred onto sturdy ground for racial balance. 

Nope. None of that. 

The only form of, say, appeasing one’s conscience about their inescapable, perpetual, and nearly eternal state of racism is by learning. The more one learns about racial dynamics the more one appeases their own conscience about their fragmented state of existence. 

It’s about knowledge, not reconciliation and transformation. 

Robin informs her white audience about their hopeless state, this way:

  1. “As I have tried to show throughout this book, white people raised in Western society are conditioned into a white supremacist worldview because it is the bedrock of our society and its institutions.”
  2. “Because I will never be completely free of racism or finish with my learning, what are some things I can do or remember when my white fragility surfaces?” 
  3. “There are several constructive responses we can have in the moment: 
    1. Breathe.
    2. Listen.
    3. Reflect.
    4. Return to the list of underlying assumptions in this chapter.
    5. Seek out someone with a stronger analysis if you feel confused.
    6. Take the time you need to process your feelings, but do not return to the situation and the persons involved.”

Robin explains to her white readers that no matter how egregious their inherent racism may be or how much effort they put into bettering racial relations in their communities, homes, and workspaces, the work and effort is fundamentally pointless because the racism within will never truly go away.

Read this book, follow these steps to calm down, attend this conference, or participate in these lectures and webinars so you’re more aware of your racist complicity but know that no matter what you do you will always be a racist. 

This line of thinking is dismissive of corrective therapy. In fact, it is untrue, unfair, and unrealistic. 

In White Fragility, Robin behaves like a sadistic physician when a patient is brought into his practice, is given a diagnosis for his disease but no prescriptive way of bettering or fixing his problem. The physician takes pride in his knowledge of the pathology of the disease, when it was first discovered, by whom, how it got its name, but increases no comfort to his patient because this doctor is not interested in easing his patients illness. His only desire is to increase the patient’s awareness of it.  

This is your problem. Read about it. Place this salve on top of it every now and then when it flares up, but know, and never let yourself forget, this disease is not only incurable but I will never make an effort, whatsoever, to find a cure for your malady. You will die with this disease. Says the evil physician.

In short, if you’re white, you’re screwed by and with racism for the rest of your life.

This could not be further from the truth.

Racism: A Seedless Fruit?

Robin DiAngelo does a phenomenal job explaining how white privilege benefits white Americans, she goes into detail about discussions she has had with white and black students and workers about race; some productive and others destructive. She is an expert in pinpointing when, historically speaking, white supremacist systems of power evolved to survive and adapt so as to maintain its whip and crack over people of color. She easily explains what happened to people of color once they were emancipated by one system but enslaved by another. 

I believe this is what many humanist sociologists fail to understand when they engage human depravity when they evade and avoid theology as a science. 

We see the effects of racism in society, we see the perpetrators of racist violence, the benefactors of white supremacy, the rulership of whites over blacks in history, and the segregation that spawned more lynch mobs than we have been able to keep record of in books. We see the symptoms of a racist society but we fail to diagnose the disease that causes them.

Sociologists like Robin avoid determining the root cause of racism, of rape, of violence, of theft, lynching, slavery, beatings, murder, and evil because these causes are too convulated to discuss in a NYT bestseller like this one.

Robin does not give us the root cause of racism, and I believe that was not her intent in this novel. She wanted to showcase how her conversations have gone when discussing race with white people and their defensiveness over the topic. 

But she foregoes, perhaps, intentionally so, I’m not sure, the reason why people treat their counterparts as inferior. 

The desire to feel superior is rooted in pride. The threat to that superiority is thus a threat to one’s pride. A person who is consumed by pride, without restriction and one supported by a system that serves him over those he deems inferior to him, is capable of committing violent acts in the name of preservation and survival.

But above racial superiority, racial violence, supremacy, and pride exists the root cause of all evil.

Sin.

Robin isn’t a theologian and for that, God bless her heart and her intellect, I understand. Just a side note, neither am I.

But one thing is certain, without defining the root cause of the maladies that cripple and consume the human heart we miss the opportunity to fix or destroy the disease that festers in it.

That is why, I believe, this book does well when it portrays historical events, much-needed cross-racial conversations, better definitions of structural, systemic and systematic racism, defensiveness in people who are accused of being racist but it fails, dramatically so, in giving us the root cause of why racism exists in the human heart in the first place. 

This failure is demonstrated in the conclusion of the book, how Robin reminds her white readers that no matter how much they do, how often they do it, or how much love they put into their efforts to reconcile one race with another, racism will still exist in their heart, or as a Robin said it, you “will never be completely free of racism.” 

Without defining and confronting the root cause of racism, which is sin, we will forever, truly, be subject to it. Slaves to a system, to an emotion, to prejudice, to discriminatory laws, policies, policing, politics, and more. 

If the reader will allow, I would like to suggest more wholesome books that have done a better job of not only starting a discussion about race but books that confront racism, the effects of racism in the heart, in institutions, in churches, in communities, on websites, and more. 

And they also confront the reality of the root cause of racism and all evil, sin. 

The difference is they offer the hope of redemption, renewal, reconciliation, and the eradication of racism from the human heart. 

That’s the kind of hope I like to hear. A black man speaking here.

Quotable Moments

“We cannot understand modern forms of racism if we cannot or will not explore patterns of group behavior and their effects on individuals.” p. 12 Kindle Edition

“Freedom and equality—regardless of religion or class status—were radical new ideas when the United States was formed. At the same time, the US economy was based on the abduction and enslavement of African people, the displacement and genocide of Indigenous people, and the annexation of Mexican lands.” p. 15-16 K.E.

“The idea of racial inferiority was created to justify unequal treatment; belief in racial inferiority is not what triggered unequal treatment. Nor was fear of difference. As Ta-Nehisi Coates states, “But race is the child of racism, not the father.” He means that first we exploited people for their resources, not according to how they looked. Exploitation came first, and then the ideology of unequal races to justify this exploitation followed.” p. 16 K.E.

“The metaphor of the United States as the great melting pot, in which immigrants from around the world come together and melt into one unified society through the process of assimilation, is a cherished idea. Once new immigrants learn English and adapt to American culture and customs, they become Americans. In reality, only European immigrants were allowed to melt, or assimilate, into dominant culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, because, regardless of their ethnic identities, these immigrants were perceived to be white and thus could belong.” p. 18 K.E.

“Still, although working-class whites experience classism, they aren’t also experiencing racism. I grew up in poverty and felt a deep sense of shame about being poor. But I also always knew that I was white, and that it was better to be white.” p. 19 K.E.

“Discrimination is action based on prejudice. These actions include ignoring, exclusion, threats, ridicule, slander, and violence.” p. 20 K.E.

“Derek Black, godson of David Duke and former key youth leader in the white nationalist movement, explains: “My whole talk was the fact that you could run as Republicans, and say things like we need to shut down immigration, we need to fight affirmative action, we need to end globalism, and you could win these positions, maybe as long as you didn’t get outed as a white nationalist and get all the controversy that comes along with it.” p. 32 K.E.

“The call to Make America Great Again worked powerfully in service of the racial manipulation of white people, diverting blame away from the white elite and toward various peoples of color—for example, undocumented workers, immigrants, and the Chinese—for the current conditions of the white working class.” p. 61 K.E.

“Prior to the civil rights movement, it was socially acceptable for white people to openly proclaim their belief in their racial superiority. But when white Northerners saw the violence black people—including women and children—endured during the civil rights protests, they were appalled. These images became the archetypes of racists. After the civil rights movement, to be a good, moral person and to be complicit with racism became mutually exclusive. You could not be a good person and participate in racism; only bad people were racist. (These images of black persecution in the South during the civil rights movement of the 1960s also allowed Northern whites to position racists as always Southern.)” p. 71 K.E.

“To accomplish this adaptation, racism first needed to be reduced to simple, isolated, and extreme acts of prejudice. These acts must be intentional, malicious, and based on conscious dislike of someone because of race. Racists were those white people in the South, smiling and picnicking at the base of lynching trees; store owners posting Whites Only signs over drinking fountains; and good ol’ boys beating innocent children such as Emmett Till to death. In other words, racists were mean, ignorant, old, uneducated, Southern whites. Nice people, well-intended people, open-minded middle-class people, people raised in the “enlightened North,” could not be racist.” p. 72 K.E.

“Most white people have limited information about what racism is and how it works. For many white people, an isolated course taken in college or required “cultural competency training” in their workplace is the only time they may encounter a direct and sustained challenge to their racial reality.” p. 100 K.E.

““Interrupting racism takes courage and intentionality; the interruption is by definition not passive or complacent.” p. 153 K.E.

Contents

  1. The Challenges of Talking To White People About Racism
  2. Racism and White Supremacy
  3. Racism After the Civil Rights Movement
  4. How Does Race Shape the Lives of White People?
  5. The Good/Bad Binary
  6. Anti-Blackness
  7. Racial Triggers for White People
  8. The Result: White Fragility
  9. White Fragility in Action
  10. White Fragility and the Rules of Engagement
  11. White Women’s Tears
  12. Where Do We Go from Here?

RSDB (Read, Share, Dismiss, or Burn) Verdict:

So, at first, I would have suggested you read Robin DiAngelo’s book but after a second reading I found no hope at the end of the tunnel for my white and black friends in it. None. 

As I’ve prescribed above, there are other books that better describe the struggle for racial equity, the triumph of faith in light of racial injustice, history, and more. 

Read those. 

And if an eerie desire to burn this book suddenly creeps in your heart, hey, go for it. It’s your money you’re wasting anyway, not mine. 

So, if you ask me, Mr. Theory, should I read, dismiss, share, or burn Robin DiAngelo’s New York Times Bestseller, White Fragility? I will say:

Dismiss. Dismiss. Dismiss it. You have better things to read. Go read them. Go love your neighbor. Listen to them. Help them.

Robin DiAngelo, PhD, is a New York Times Bestselling author who amassed a following after the release of her book: White Fragility. She is consultant by trade who focuses on informing the public and private sectors about racial blind spots, white privilege, and redefining racism as a communal expression of superiority, not only as isolated hate crimes committed by individuals. She’s a fire starter.


“Eros will have naked bodies; Friendship naked personalities.”

C.S. Lewis

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