Meet the woman who coined the term “white fragility”

(Photo from www.robindiangelo.com)
(Photo courtesy Robin DiAngelo)

“I have an unusual job. For a living, I walk into rooms — mostly white rooms. … I walk into mostly white rooms every day, and I just begin to talk about racism,” says Robin DiAngelo.

She doesn’t play. “I push white people to look at their own inevitable racism.

DiAngelo is the director of equity for Sound Generations (the new name for Senior Services of Seattle/King County) and an instructor at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work.

In recent years, she’s risen to fame for popularizing the term “white fragility,” which she first wrote about it to earn her PhD in 2004 to describe a pattern of white folks’ inability to respond to racism without getting defensive.

In 2014, actor J. Reese cited DiAngelo’s 2011 paper “White Fragility” in an article about the lack of diversity in theater. Then The Stranger followed, citing DiAngelo to explain the defensive response to complaints of yellowface in the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s “The Mikado.”

And DiAngelo has been selling out her white rooms ever since — from three trainings sponsored by the city last spring, to the Oct. 26 event at UW that was sold out more than a month in advance.

DiAngelo starts the conversation with white fragility because she believes a white person can’t even begin talking about racism without realizing first that they are white:

“White people live in a racially insular environment where our racial point of view, our racial patterns, are rarely ever identified or named, right? … And since we’ve never really had that challenged, we’ve built up this expectation of entitlement, of getting to speak for everybody and, you know, not having to take responsibility for our positions and the impact they have on other people.”

“And so when someone does challenge that, we just are so thrown off,” she explains.

White fragility can exacerbate racism in the form of defensive behavior — even bullying, says DiAngelo.

“It’s kind of like ‘How dare you?’ Right? How dare you suggest anything I’ve done could be racial much less racist, right?  … Because I was taught to see racism as conscious, intentional acts of meanness that only bad people ever do.”

DiAngelo grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area with the same type of messages of white supremacy that many Americans may recall from media and racist family members.

“In my particular case, I grew up poor and very, very clearly poor. No question about it: periods of homelessness, a lot of hunger, a lot of shame at a very early age,” she remembers. “And at the same time, I always knew I was white. And that while we were at the bottom, there was somebody below us.

Fast forward into the ’90s. DiAngelo by then was an experienced diversity trainer. But she felt something was missing. Her understanding of her own whiteness “was sort of buried deep within my (childhood) frame of reference.”

That changed after she read activist Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 paper that included the widely-distributed section, “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” a list of 50 daily privileges white folks have over people of color. McIntosh’s work opened a window to a racialized worldview that DiAngelo hadn’t seen previously.

“Until that moment, I didn’t even know I had a racial paradigm. … It just hit me, like ‘Oh my God, I’m white! And it means something, and it shapes every aspect of my life, and it grants me privileges and advantages!'” DiAngelo said.

It was such a revelation to DiAngelo that she earned her PhD in multicultural education at UW in 2004, with a focus on whiteness studies. In 2011, she published “White Fragility,” a paper in an academic journal describing the phenomenon she had witnessed all of these years. And in 2012, she published the book “What Does It Mean to be White? Developing White Racial Literacy” to help white Americans understand racism through understanding white privilege.

As long as white folks think of racism as something that only mean people can do, people won’t respond well and understand the racist impact they have, or that “it is inevitable that I have racist investments, worldview, and patterns and practices,” as DiAngelo puts it.

“I was raised in this society, and I’m white, so it’s inevitable that I have them, and it’s incredibly liberating to start from that place. Because then I welcome seeing them so I can stop them,” she says.

DiAngelo tells me that, before our interview, she had a conversation with a black journalist who had his doubts about whether white people’s consciousness of racial privilege would help him much in a real-world setting.

“… [He] said that white people will come up to him and say, ‘Oh my God, I saw what happened in that meeting. I’m so sorry that that racism happened,’ and it’s like, ‘Well, then, where were you in the meeting?’” she said. “That’s what matters: that you speak up at the time from your position.”

So consciousness of white privilege turning into timely, courageous action counts for a lot more. But doesn’t centering whiteness de-center the experience and expertise of people of color?

This is a personal question for DiAngelo, who says she doesn’t call herself a white ally or anti-racist because “that is for people of color to decide.”

“You know it’s a dilemma because, of course, you are centering it,” she says. “And I don’t know any way out of that dilemma … . Seeing as I am a white person with expertise on whiteness, you know. Yet again, there’s a white person in front of everybody explaining something. And yet, I do know that I can be heard differently, I can be heard differently by white people, and we are the majority in most workplaces. I think whiteness is the problem, and if I can be more heard openly on it, by God, I’m going to use that voice and that position. To not use it, is to really be white.”

“In large part, that’s what whiteness is: to never interrupt a racial injustice.

White people! Catch Robin DiAngelo at her next training, “Seeing the Water: Whiteness in Daily Life” on Saturday, Nov. 5 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at 8 Limbs Yoga. 

Also! I heard standby tickets will be offered at her sold-out, 7:30 p.m. talk this Wednesday, Oct. 26 at UW’s Kane Hall, on a space-available basis. First-come, first serve.

This story has been updated since its original publication to clarify the year Robin DiAngelo published her first academic paper about white fragility, which was in 2011. 

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1 Comment

  1. Let us not make people feel bad, because of color of skin. It is no different than calling black, brown skinned people feel bad for some rotten apples having same color of skin as they have.

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