White Denial: You Have to Acknowledge The Problem

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "White Fragility" by Robin J. DiAngelo. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What is white denial? How does white denial keep people from confronting the real issues?

White denial is a term that refers to the way in which white people do not confront their own racial attitudes. The denial also often extends to a refusal to acknowledge the real-life consequences of structural racism for black people.

Read more about the issue of white denial.

White Denial

Now that we’ve explored the roots of white supremacy and the ways in which white supremacist power structures profoundly shape how white people collectively view their position in society, we need to see how this plays out in the real world. Specifically, we need to understand the ways in which the powerful social conditioning we outlined in the last chapter feeds misconceptions about what racism actually is. 

This is important, because these misconceptions inform how white people view people of color (specifically African-Americans) and how they are able to deny their own culpability in reinforcing racial inequity—a culpability that is rarely questioned because of instinctive white fragility. We also need to examine how these racial attitudes (and the white denial that accompanies them) have very real and painful consequences for black people.

Individual vs. Structural Racism

As we’ve seen, overt expressions of racial hostility on the part of white people have become taboo since the civil rights era. Whereas whites of previous generations would openly and proudly proclaim their belief in the justness of white supremacy, few would do so now. Most white people today openly profess to believe that racism (however they define it) is immoral, but white denial keeps them from seeing the whole picture.

But this shift in what white people are willing to publicly express has done nothing to dismantle the very real power of white supremacy in American life. In many ways, in fact, it’s reinforced racism by making it less visible for white people and giving them plausible deniability for their responsibility in upholding it. 

Of course, we know from the previous chapter that white people receive messages about white superiority as soon as they enter the world—from media misrepresentation of minorities, the segregated spaces most white people inhabit, and the absence of minorities from positions of power in key American institutions.

Racism is not defined by specific behaviors committed by cruel and depraved individuals. It is a structural phenomenon, a framework that defines how we define our place (and that of others) in society.

The Source of White Denial

White people are able to deny the presence of racism precisely because they treat it as specific behaviors committed by specific people, rather than the structural phenomenon that it actually is. In this wrong conception of racism, racism functions like an act of criminality. The possibility of it always exists, but it has to be consciously and knowingly “committed” by someone.

Thus, if one refrains from certain actions (like the use of certain racial slurs) one cannot be racist. Racism thus gets watered down to something that only “bad” people do. This is at the root of white fragility—white people will furiously deny their racially problematic behaviors and patterns of thought because they view any discussion of them as an assault on their character.

This is fundamentally not how racism works. Racism is a force woven deeply and permanently into every institution of American life. The intentions or moral positions of individual white people are irrelevant here. Racism is a system that we all participate in, that we cannot escape from, and that imposes real costs on people of color (and real benefits for white people). 

It is seen in:

  • The poverty rates for people of color (there is a large and persistent wealth and income gap between white and black Americans);
  • The quality of the education they receive (majority-black schools receive fewer funding resources and African-Americans are less likely to receive a higher education degree);
  • Health outcomes (African-Americans have shorter life expectancies than whites); and
  • The alarming frequency with which black people are harassed, incarcerated, and even killed by the criminal justice system (African-Americans are incarcerated at five times the rate of whites).
White Denial: You Have to Acknowledge The Problem

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Here's what you'll find in our full White Fragility summary :

  • 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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