On The Fragility of White Folks

So what does this Robin DiAngelo get off with this title? How can a whole race of people who have collectively conquered, dominated, enslaved, incarcerated, and subjugated every other race (except maybe the mainland Chinese) on the planet for centuries–how can a race like that be called “Fragile”? So, at first the title didn’t make much sense, but a group I’m in wanted to read it, so I dived in.

DiAngelo is a veteran of racial awareness workshops both inside and outside academia. She makes a persuasive case (with the exception of some rather clumsy writing, but I’ve come to expect that of educational and sociological prose so I got past it fairly easily.) that despite all our years of sensitivity training and near-universal attitude changes which make overt racial prejudice as unwelcome as COVID in an ICU ward, racism and white supremacist sentiments and actions are alive and thriving across the land.

That’s not news, of course, given the horrid events of the day. What may be newsworthy, though, is the source and manner of the racism among those of us who consider ourselves among the uninfected. I’ll turn to one example Diangelo quotes from one of her groups. During a discussion, a black man referred to himself as “stupid.” A black female colleague assured him that wasn’t the case but that the dominant culture wanted him to believe it. A white woman intervened by saying, “what he was trying to say was. . .” She was, of course, trying to be helpful, but she was also, of course, perpetuating a racist pattern of assuming that she knew better than the man himself what he was trying to say. The guy was caught in between. It’s the kind of thing black folk encounter multiple times a day. And, in the larger context, the kind of thing that perpetuates de facto white supremacy about which black people can do little except navigate. But can to little to change.

The fragility part comes in when the author called the woman on her assumption. Immediate defensiveness and anger, followed by tears and a refusal to discuss the matter further. Her tears and retreat bought her sympathy from others in the group. The whole racial point and the man’s contribution were lost.

Another dynamic DiAngelo points to in similar situations ends with the black man trying to explain himself, thus perpetuating the notion that black people owe us an explanation some amelioration for our own tender and offended feelings.

Anecdotes like this abound, and it makes one despair of changing things. What’s most important is, though, that it is up to us white folks to cure ourselves. It’s both simple and complicated. I think we would start with one of DiAngelo’s sentences and perhaps stand a chance of getting somewhere.

Stopping our racist patterns must be more important than convincing others we don’t have them. 

Without that, we continue with destruction and misunderstanding. With that, we might have a chance.