Examples of White Fragility: What Does It Look Like?

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What are some examples of white fragility? How do these examples show the extent of the issue of racism?

Examples of white fragility are best understood in the context of where the issue comes from. White people use their own lack of overt racism to excuse their role in systemic racism.

Read on for some examples of white fragility.

Examples of White Fragility

Because white people misunderstand racism and its beneficial impact on their lives, they are unable or unwilling to grapple with their own role in sustaining it when it’s pointed out to them. Thinking about racism as a question of individual morality naturally triggers defensiveness and denial in white people. The logic goes something like, “Racism is something bad done by bad people. I’m not a bad person. Therefore, I can’t be racist.” White fragility is a natural by-product of the universal human desire to think of oneself as good and morally upstanding.

Examples of white fragility also stem from white people’s denial of their own racial identity. Many white people inherently view “race” as a characteristic held solely by non-white people. They are unable to accept the idea that whiteness itself is a powerful form of identity, one that profoundly shapes one’s attitudes, assumptions, and actions. Pointing this out to white people results in denial, because they perceive it as an attack on their objectivity and individuality.

They see their thoughts and behavior as stemming from their “neutral” observations about the world, rather than from biases built into the society in which they were raised. For many white people, therefore, “identity politics” (the label they tend to use to deride and dismiss demands by people of color for racial equity) is something that is by definition practiced solely by non-white people—because, to them, “whiteness” is not an identity at all.

A Mechanism of Control

But we should not make the mistake of characterizing white fragility as merely a defensive mechanism. Rather, examples of white fragility are powerful means of reinforcing white supremacy and shutting down any challenges to it by people of color.

By casting the white person in the discussion as the victim, white fragility enables white people to command social resources of time and attention. For example, a white woman brought to tears after being forced to confront her complicity in systemic racism might compel other people (even people of color) to comfort and reassure her that she isn’t racist. The white woman and her shame and anxieties become the center of attention.

Or, a white man who reacts angrily and defensively in the same situation will similarly refocus the attention on his angry and bombastic reaction. These tactics draw attention away from the discussion of systemic racism, shut down potential challenges to it, and make white concerns and white anxieties the focus.

White Fragility Examples: “Colorblindness”

Colorblindness enabled white Americans to delude themselves into believing that they could avoid problems of race by simply pretending that they didn’t exist. Examples of white fragility in this context can be seen in statements like:

  • “I don’t see race.”
  • “Race doesn’t matter to me, I judge everyone based on their merits as an individual.”
  • “I don’t care if someone’s black, white, green, or orange.”

But this is, of course, false. Race may not have a genuine biological basis, but as we saw in the previous chapter, it is very much a social reality, one that profoundly shapes people’s experiences, views, and expectations. It is simply impossible for a white person raised in a society organized on the basis of institutional racism to not “see” race.

And even if it were possible, colorblindness would not be a desirable goal, because the experiences of people of color are inevitably defined by race. To deny the existence of race or to minimize its importance is to deny the existence of racism itself—and thus give implicit assent to it. By refusing to acknowledge a person of color’s racial identity and claiming that “you don’t see color,” you as a white person are denying the often-painful reality of their lived experiences, absurdly and offensively equating them with your own, and ignoring the existence of racism as a historical and structural phenomenon, as well as a daily one for people of color. 

A person of color, for example, may have been made to feel unwelcome in the workplace or felt uncomfortable walking through a certain part of their city because of their race—for them, race is an inescapable, defining feature of life. Claiming to not see race is contributing to this person’s marginalization, while blinding yourself to your own racist socialization.

This professed belief in colorblindness is also a great trigger of white fragility. A white person who professes to not see race unsurprisingly becomes defensive and agitated when the realities of institutional racism—and their responsibility for it as a beneficiary of it—are explained to them. They may even double down on their commitment to colorblindness, claiming that by bringing the discussion back to race, you are the one engaging in racism.

White Fragility: Saving Face

White people lose face from these challenges, because they believe (incorrectly) that they are being attacked personally. In situations where myths of meritocracy are being challenged (as in a discussion of how white people benefit from racially biased hiring decisions, for example), white people may also feel that their sense of having “earned” their position is being called into question.

Unable to reconcile these challenges with their belief that they are good people, white people retreat into white fragility, which helps them save face. Many even use the language of violence to describe what they’re feeling when confronted with examples of their own racism, claiming that they feel “assaulted” or “traumatized.” One woman DiAngelo encountered even claimed that she might be suffering a heart attack after hearing that an anecdote she relayed was racially problematic. This woman was saying that even the mere discussion of racism could result in her death. This is one of the examples of white fragility.

Some white people even cling to the idea that it is actually white people who face systemic racism rather than people of color (distressingly, a recent social survey found that 55 percent of whites believed this). 

Examples of White Fragility: What Does It Look Like?

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  • Why white people become defensive when confronted with the idea of racism
  • How today's racial hiearchy began in roots centuries ago
  • How we as society can gradually overcome our deep racial divides

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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