I’ve seen the book “White Fragility” recommended and at the top of so many people’s justice-related reading lists. I’ve already recommended it to one person when our attempts to talk through the general concept of white people being fragile broke down.
But! I haven’t read it. And I’ve started to see bubblings of criticism arise around it. So, yesterday I finally decided to look at what people are saying, understand the general criticism, and decide how I want to respond.
Here are the resources that came up for me in my Twitter feeds:
- Slate: What’s Missing From “White Fragility”
- Periscope: Kim Crayton: Stop Recommending #WhiteFragility As A #Antiracist Resource
- The Bellows: I’m Black and Afraid of ‘White Fragility’
Here’s Kim’s basic criticism:
[White fragility] is not an antiracist resource. [It] is a book that sits firmly in White Studies. This is not the time to have White Studies. It centers whiteness, and it does not talk about the harm–everything has a cause and effect, because we’re a system. “White Fragility” does not fundamentally address the issues of, when White people feel something, the impact and the harm their feelings and their actions based on those feelings cause to the most vulnerable.Kim Crayton, Stop Recommending #WhiteFragility
I believe her. A friend and I just talked recently about how a lot of educational material targeting white people written in the 90’s or 2000’s have, in his words, an aspect of white identity formation that may have worked then but is tone deaf now.
So, this could be the same issue: focusing primarily on white people understanding ourselves means we miss the opportunity for white people to understand the broken systems we live in and enable.
Diangelo herself calls her book “a kind of mainstream-accessible whiteness studies.”
What I don’t know, and can’t until I read it, is whether this book is doing this, or whether it’s attempting to do both but not doing so at a level that satisfies its critics.
That’s not to say that I don’t trust Kim; she’s highly respected and I’m sure it’s for good reason. Rather, I’ve realized that much of the deconstruction I’ve had to do over the last ten years came from trusting someone else’s take on a particular thought or piece of literature instead of encountering it myself and then forming my own opinions. So, I’m trying to develop a practice of both honoring and respecting my teachers and mentors, and also holding their opinions at a bit of a distance instead of internalizing them.
As a side note, this extremely-long-but-wonderful Slate article I linked above (https://slate.com/human-interest/2019/09/white-fragility-robin-diangelo-workshop.html) covers some really interesting ideas I’ve been feeling but not able to put into words: the dynamics of the white progressive crowd that love this book so much.
I’ve been invited to join many Facebook groups of primarily-white-progressive-women talking about race. I’ve previewed a few, joined and left a few others, and never felt right about the nature and content of them.
The Slate article pointed out why: it’s so focused on me and my response. Even the statements that purport to be focused on others are still a me-ified version of it, focusing on how I respond to others and how I used to poorly respond to others. It doesn’t feel good or productive to me.
One of the biggest criticisms I’ve received and accepted over the years of trying to learn about race is that I, and most of my fellow white people, respond to racial issues with thought and words but not action. Maybe that’s just the simplest form of it. The same issues the MLK criticized white progressives for still haunts white progressives today.
At the end of the Slate article, she describes the concern that having the right things to say makes white people proud and happy and in equilibrium with our lives, but produces no positive impact on the world. “Saying ‘I have privilege’ does not do anything besides make the speaker feel good, and feeling good is anathema to social change,” writes the author.
That’s why I hope that I’m not just reading and learning, but that I and we can figure out: what does action look like? That’s one of the reasons this blog is anonymous for now: the more I wrote and the more I was celebrated for my writing int he past, the more I felt myself moving away from the discomfort of not being seen as anti-racist. The more I was lauded, the more equilibrium I felt. I didn’t have words for it then, but I do now, and I need to carefully control what I do so I can avoid being place on my own pedestal or that of others, because at that point I will have been inoculated to the pressure to actually impact change.