The Red Herring of White Fragility: A Conversation About a Book About Racism

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

By Robin DiAngelo

Penguin Random House/2018

With the heightened interest in books and reading fuelled by the pandemic lockdown of 2020, and with a quarantined holiday season upon us, we invited some of our regular contributors to provide book reviews of any works — old, new, fiction, nonfiction — that they’d like to share with readers. Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard suggested the controversial book White Fragility, and proposed a conversation about the book with her white research assistant, Anne-Marie Hay, rather than a review. Policy magazine is happy to provide the platform for that conversation. 

December 22, 2020.

Wanda Thomas Bernard: Anne-Marie, first of all I want to thank you for agreeing to engage in this public conversation about the book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.

Anne-Marie Hay: My pleasure, I’m interested to hear your thoughts on the book.

WTB: Let’s start with some first impressions of the book.

AMH: This book covers some very valuable concepts. I think it’s important for white people doing anti-racism work to walk the balance of sometimes yielding the floor, and other times sharing the load of education.

WTB: Yes, I agree and I think that is a delicate balance to achieve, especially in a book like this one. I began with unpacking just how problematic it was for me to read it. I will start by problematizing the term “white fragility”. As I was reading the book, I was thinking “White fragility, what does it really mean?” I kept coming back to two things: this being a coverup for white privilege and white supremacy, and this notion of white fragility is a way of making it more digestible. Making the conversations easier for white people to engage in conversations about racism. I am particularly interested in anti-Black racism. Over the years, raising awareness about anti-racism and anti-Black racism, there have always been forces that take you away from that theme. There was a push towards anti-oppression and a push towards diversity. Issues of race and racism kept getting pushed aside as an afterthought. It makes it very difficult to engage in conversations about that. Part of the work about ABR in particular is about dealing with white privilege, and white supremacy. Unpacking what those mean. It is about looking at how racism negatively impact persons who are racialized, and privileges white people. I have a problem with the idea and the term white fragility.

AMH: So, you’re saying that using the phrase white fragility takes away from the core issue here: white supremacy. DiAngelo does talk about white supremacy, but the bottom line is that white fragility is just a thin veil for white supremacy. This book seems to be coveted by white people as the answer to anti-Black racism. This book has pulled itself to the best seller list on the anti-racism bookshelf. White people are collectively prioritizing this book. When I see it on the shelf next to other books about anti-Black racism, I wonder if it is so popular because its seen as an “accessible” read. As opposed to picking up a book with white supremacy in the title. We don’t like seeing ourselves within white supremacy. We prefer to see ourselves as the victim. It’s a soft approach and that is why this book is being held up on a pedestal.

WTB: Absolutely. The approach is gentle on white people. To draw white people in. To draw white people in as victims of racism. It takes away the responsibility to own the root causes. When we look at the root causes, we see how they have been integrated into our institutions. It’s safer for white people to read a book called white fragility than white supremacy.

AMH: She does acknowledge how white people see themselves as victims of anti-racism work as a way to push back on that accountability. Yes, she draws people in with a soft approach and more people are exposed to this information, but I can see what you’re saying, the information is padded with a victimhood mentality — not as an oppressor or aggressor.

WTB: I have an issue with the concept in general, how it contributes to the pull towards victimhood, especially when the tears are at play. I find it truly troublesome that so many white people gravitated towards this book following the murder of George Floyd. Many workplaces have assigned it as required reading for their leadership teams, hoping it will help them address ABR. There’s this expectation that this is the roadmap to help you become anti-racist. Reading this book was traumatizing for me as I re-lived the experiences I have had doing similar work that she describes facilitating anti-racism workshops. I recall that at one point I decided I could no longer do this work in a way that doesn’t cause me harm. The racism I experience in this work, as a racialized woman, she describes as white fragility — I would not name it white fragility — it was racial violence.

AMH: You couldn’t continue, because it was so harmful to you, but you have come back to it since. What allowed you to continue doing anti-racism work?

WTB: I took breaks and then came back to it. I shifted my focus to spending energy on Black empowerment and healing in Black communities. That has given me a new sense of energy and it still does. A critical point was in the Racism, Violence and Health study, which lead to the Race and Well-being book. We held annual community forums in three cities and small talking circles in each of them. We were interviewing people about whether or not they had experienced racism, and if so, how did it impact them. After his interview, one African Nova Scotian man contacted me to thank me for creating a space to talk about anti-Black racism. We heard that over and over. It was a research project but it facilitated healing and empowerment. People found their voices and were able to talk about their experiences in safer Black-only spaces. They felt safe to engage in the work. The learning from that work 10 years ago still sustains me. What I find sustaining is the focusing on the impact of racism and recognizing racism as violence. The notion of white fragility distracts us from that reality. It takes away from it. It doesn’t honour the trauma of racism. We are talking about multi-generational harm and trauma. One of the worries I have regarding people reading this book is focusing so much on the pain and trauma of white fragility that the pain and trauma of racism is lost.

AMH: The positive byproduct of that project was just as important as the research itself — solidarity, healing and in some cases help putting words to their experiences in an environment that allows for those conversations. This book takes the emphasis off the impact of racism. She centres the white experience, which in essence is taking away from the trauma of anti-Black racism, and focuses on the white discomfort of being told that we need to do better.

WTB:  I appreciated that this book is for white folks. At least I think it is. My worry is that it sends the message of white pain and white trauma without the context of the multigenerational harms of racism. This book is being used in workplaces to create a more informed culture. It’s missing the mark by not showing the voices of survivors of racism. If this is the only resource you’re using, you’re missing some critical information.

AMH: I totally agree with that. I did benefit from reading some of the concepts when I first read it in 2018, but it was not my first exposure, or my last exposure to anti-racism work. It was one of many books I read to inform myself, among books written by Black and Indigenous people. She identifies people who are at risk to excuse themselves from this work — that it clearly says you, a white, queer woman, you need to do this. That impacted me. Fast forward to June 2020, watching everyone scramble to buy this book on Amazon as it was creeping up the best seller list, I was able to step back and see myself as part of the collective. The real issue for me is the collective reliance on this book by a white author to inform us about anti-Black racism, a topic Black authors have been writing about for much longer, but wrapping it up as white fragility. I worry about how it’s being used collectively.

WTB:  I like your point Anne-Marie. It’s how the book is being used that is the critical issue for me. We see white people scrambling to see what they can do, and the gravitation towards this book feels so safe.

AMH: If we have learned anything in 2020, it should be that it’s not us – white people – that need protecting. When I see people trying to figure out how to be an anti-racist person, or be an ally, there are two main ideas I keep coming back to. Firstly, it is an ongoing process of learning and unlearning, which is why talking about authentic allyship is about the “doing” not “being” an ally. And secondly, that we, white people, are not the experts. I question whether people come away from this book with those lessons learned.

WTB: Let’s also talk about the term People of Colour. She uses that throughout the book. I don’t like the phrase People of Colour, or the acronym BIPOC for Black, Indigenous, People of Colour. We lose our identity. It doesn’t put the emphasis on the oppression that happens to you. The oppression of white supremacy. Not every racialized group has the same experience. I had a hard time finishing this book. The reason why I wanted to do it in the first place was because it has been so widely recommended following the murder of George Floyd, this is being presented as one of the solutions. I want people to think more critically about why that feels so safe for white people. What would we recommend instead?

AMH: I see two groupings of books I would recommend at this time. The first prompting introspection. If you are reading this book and are being moved by your own reflections, I suggest you read Layla Saad’s book Me and White Supremacy. White Fragility is very passive, and we should not be doing this work passively. Layla Saad’s book pushes you to actively engage with the content through her journaling prompts. She encourages you to engage with other people around, and to analyze your own position in white supremacy in a way that is not quite possible with just reading.

WTB: And how you benefit from it.

AMH: Yes, most importantly, how I benefit from it. And then on the other side of the coin, I suggest books that inform on the experiences of Black people — as you were saying what this book is lacking. Robyn Maynard and Desmond Cole are a great place to start for a Canadian context. I also gained a lot of insight from reading Audre Lorde, bell hooks and Angela Davis. When I read perspectives different from my own, I’m more likely to bristle, so I like finding perspectives that make me bristle initially but then I can stop and say ‘ok why does that make me uncomfortable’. I didn’t bristle in white fragility. I wasn’t defensive when I read it.

WTB: That is so interesting. You didn’t find yourself being defensive as you read it, and yet I was so defensive I could barely read it. That speaks volumes. As an African Canadian woman, I was traumatized reading it.

AMH: That is so eye opening. If I only read the words of white people that I agree with that make me feel comfortable, of course that will be what I pour into my work. As a white person working in policy, I make myself aware of whose voices and perspectives I’m hearing from and whose I dismiss. In this case, we hear her perspective and experience of the groups she facilitated, but we haven’t heard the experiences of her racialized colleagues and many of us don’t even realize we’re only hearing one side. That is how systemic racism works.

WTB:  That is how the system perpetuates itself, and the work we all must take on.

AMH: Seeing how this book is being read, it does make me wonder what is the place for white people in anti-racism work?

WTB: White people do need to do their work. It needs to be done at the intersection of their privilege. Unpacking white privilege and unpacking how you benefit from the very systems that are causing harm to others. Also, bring that work to collective spaces. Bring the lens to your workplace. Whether it’s working on policy issues, policy analysis, policy development. It’s individual and collective responsibility to fully understand white supremacy and white privilege and the role they have in keeping racism in place. And the role white people have in dismantling that. At the individual, institutional level and systemic level.

AMH: Ultimately, taking that individual introspective work, sharing with the people around you, and including the change into your work consistently, especially for people working in policy.

WTB: Yes, I think it needs to start with individual analysis of where you are and what your place is in white supremacy. It’s also recognizing the power you have to effect change, but if you get stuck in this place of white fragility — “oh poor me” —  you’re not going to use your power and run the risk of abusing it.

AMH: Getting stuck on white fragility is allowing yourself to freeze at that place of acknowledging there is an issue but not actively working to dismantle racism. The other day I was baking bread and I was thinking about where we get stuck in this process of unlearning, learning and action in anti-racism work. It’s like announcing that you’re going to master baking bread, so you go out and buy a bag of flour. You bring it home and taste the raw flour. You sprinkle a little flour on your apron and take a selfie to post on Instagram with the caption: “Learned how to bake bread this weekend! That was hard work!”. People like your post and they now think of you as a baker. Down the line someone asks you if they could teach you how to bake bagels, you respond “Nope! I learned how to bake bread already!” It was important to buy the flour to start, you needed to start somewhere. But then what was the next step? After you read the book, did you follow through and make changes? Did you bring your learning your workplace? Did you share information with those around you? Did you challenge yourself beyond the first step of looking within? What was the next action?

WTB: I like the idea of how introspection must lead to other actions. The action can start with having difficult conversations. If you really want to get to systemic change, those challenging conversations lead to collective change.

AMH: I agree. I can see how this book may fill the first checkbox for people who want to see change, but we need to move beyond ourselves for the institutional and systemic pieces. Thank you for this conversation Senator Bernard, I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on the book.

WTB: I’ve enjoyed the conversation, and I hope it sparks other conversations with readers and inspires people to push themselves to take the next step.

Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard is an Independent Senator from East Preston, Nova Scotia. Senator Bernard advocates for reparations for the historic and continued anti-Black racism impacting the lives of African Canadians. You can follow Senator Bernard on Twitter @SenatorWanda.

Anne-Marie Hay has been working as her Parliamentary Research Assistant since 2017. She and Senator Bernard share passion in exploring concepts of allyship, and bringing intersectionality and Social Work to the Senate.