No one wants to be called fragile. And if you’re white, what you feel reading the title of this article may be indicative of the term. “White fragility” refers to white people’s low emotional tolerance for discussing topics of race and racism.
The term was coined by Dr. Robin DiAngelo in a 2011 article discussing her experience with white people in anti-racism trainings. She defines it as “a state when even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.”
What makes race so hard for white people to talk about? For many, topics of race and racism trigger intense emotional reactions for a few reasons:
Society and media have contributed to inlaying some biases you didn’t choose to have. Does having biases make you a bad, immoral person? No. Is it good to acknowledge and work to challenge your own biases? Absolutely. Are you “bad” because you didn’t know that you had unconscious biases until now? Not at all.
In retrospect, you might realize that some of your learned behavior or speech has been pejorative, supporting a system of oppression, or exclusionary, but that’s not a definitive character judgement and recognizing that could be a really valuable moment. We’re building awareness here. Try to let go of the good/bad binary, and open yourself up to discussion and possibility that if you’re American, you almost definitely have racial biases, and if you’re white, add unearned access to privilege to that too. Still with us?
So, while it’s not your fault that you were born white, and benefit from white privilege, it is your obligation and responsibility to develop awareness of the ways in which you benefit. Whites can and should acknowledge the past and present of their own racial group—the people who look like you (whether you share a hereditary bloodline or not)—and acknowledge how racism preserves today without the need to call into question your own morality. Individualism here is not to erase history or to negate the fact that white is still part of a racially socialized group. You as an individual are not outside of socialization or messages from society about race in culture. You are not outsideunequal wealth distribution by race. No one is.
Katherine Kirkinis - Mental health counselor and doctoral fellow at SUNY Albany.
Sarah Birdsong - Mental health counselor and emotional intelligence educator