White fragility and its opposite: being fragile

Updated: Jun 22

By Garrick Rigby

Although I am quite new to the world of antiracism, I was lucky enough to attend the webinar discussions earlier this year. Much of what I encountered was wonderfully new to me. But there was at least one point of familiarity. Among the texts that often popped up in discussion was the 2018 book White Fragility, by the U.S. author Robin DiAngelo.

My own journey in antiracism began by reading White Fragility, during a time – circa 2016 – when political events had led me to research about racism and to discover DiAngelo’s 2014 article of the same name. The book version has since become a bestseller, so it was not surprising to find its reach extending to so many practitioners and activists in Aotearoa.

In a genre that is suddenly thriving, White Fragility remains an important reference point. As many of us already know, DiAngelo’s clear-eyed work is at once a compendium of sociological research, a collection of instructive classroom anecdotes, and an expert handbook on identifying and challenging racism in ourselves and others.

But one of the things that has really hooked me – and that has kept me turning it over in my mind – is an aspect of her idea that is much more easily overlooked by its many fans. Namely, that DiAngelo’s core notion is marvellously open-ended and ambiguous. Or perhaps a better word is “ambivalent”, because the term “fragility” allows us to encounter the same phenomenon in at least two different ways.

I find this double meaning a useful thing on which to reflect. This is not only because the issue touches me personally as a middle class, middle-aged Pākehā male who is nevertheless very fragile in my own special (or not so special) ways. But it also seems to me important in the field of racism – which is subject to unconscious projection, and other forms of thematic complexity – that we take time to disambiguate and revisit our key terms.

I will therefore offer a brief revision of DiAngelo’s well-known formulation, before I go on to outline a more positive interpretation of fragility in white people. DiAngelo is certainly right to critique and challenge what she calls “white fragility” – a reactive white behaviour that is destructive in effect, and passive-aggressive in form. But I will try to complement this idea with what may seem like a curious spin.

In short, I will query whether this passive-aggressive posture might be circumvented equally well by encouraging the white subject to engage, quite simply, in a more active acceptance of our own human frailty and fragility. But since this is generally my own terminology – or my spin on DiAngelo’s terminology – I will ground my reflections in a broader context by drawing on the ideas of one of her leading American colleagues, the philosopher and theorist George Yancy.

Before I do, I would like to recognise that tangata whenua readers, readers of colour and others may be justified in taking issue with my decision to “recenter” such a matter as white fragility. In a country in which colonialism has brought devastation and debilitation to indigenous people, it is impossible to address white people’s fragility without recognising the strictly limited sense in which this topic deserves our attention.

I would also like to acknowledge our Pākehā elders and practitioners in the work of antiracism. I imagine that some decades of this work have required a thick skin, among other things. And so, I wonder how my conceptual queries around fragility might come across to Pākehā readers with much more experience than myself.

To begin, I would like to recap on DiAngelo’s classical definition.

“White fragility” defines a suite of behaviours by which we white people defend ourselves against the recognition of our own racism. These reactive and often emotive patterns of response are all too familiar in many of our everyday settings. Under DiAngelo’s trained sociological gaze, they are revealed as passive-aggressive communication strategies that serve to “recenter” the fragile white subject, and thereby to protect and reinforce a status quo of white racist domination.

DiAngelo’s classroom anecdotes provide a stark window into such behaviours. Her career as a “diversity” trainer meant that she was both a close observer and an empowered (if calmly professional) antagonist to the racism that was alive in her fragile white students. In her own words:

“The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable – the mere suggestion that being white has meaning triggers a range of defensive responses. These include emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviours such as argumentation, silence, and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation. These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return [the white subject’s] racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy. I conceptualise this process as white fragility.”

This passage leaves a lot to unpack, and such interpretation is beautifully conveyed through the rest of DiAngelo’s book. But her central idea here is so compelling, both emotionally and analytically, because it is constructed with quite a profound level of internal complexity. This is because what she here calls “fragility” is at the same time a demonstration of exactly the opposite kind of relational posture – namely that of confrontational aggression, of wilful insistence and of selfish white dominance.

This apparently counter-intuitive idea seems, indeed, to highlight the perversity and self-contradiction of human domination itself. Under the imperious banner of “white fragility”, DiAngelo is therefore able to encompass both assertive behaviours such as “argumentation” or “anger”, as well as more retreating or fragile ones such as “fear”, “guilt”, and “withdrawal” – all of which contribute to the same structural and dominative effect.

In short, white fragility is a behaviour in which structural dominance parades as a personal susceptibility – in which power parades as a weakness. And it is this weakness that fascinates me most. Because what seems to be embedded in DiAngelo’s layers of meaning is the recognition of a radical, if self-contradictory state of affairs:

1) The white subject as such is genuinely weak, even in the midst of our power.

2) This weakness is a consequence of the power itself (they are bound up together).

As I understand it, this interdependence of power and weakness is the consequence of an effect which is rather obvious, but which is not so often observed. This is namely that the systemic reality of white privilege has had the side-effect of fostering in white subjects an equal and opposite form of ill-adaptation – a self-defeating inability to live in the very world we have supposedly “created” for ourselves. As DiAngelo carefully points out, the bulk of white individuals have been socialised into an unquestioned belief in our own dominance. And yet this “strength” has left us all but unable to withstand the racial discomfort that we will inevitably encounter in our contemporary social environment.

But that leaves me asking – where does this strength end, and this weakness begin? And in this interplay of opposites, could there be some silver linings on either side?

DiAngelo does not explore any alternative interpretations of what she calls “fragility”. But she does seem open-minded about the notion’s inherent ambivalence. After all, she herself locates characteristics that we might call weakness or fragility on both the sides of the training relationship. The primary weakness is of course identified with the subject of “white fragility” – i.e. her student, whose racist behaviour is the main issue. But there are also retreating and non-assertive stances that she requires of herself as an antiracist practitioner.

Using herself as a model, DiAngelo stipulates in fact that white people must learn to enact a range of behaviours that could be described as fragile in a positive sense. These include demonstrating “racial humility”, coping with racial “discomfort”, and in particular “showing vulnerability”. (And one would hope that “showing” also involves feeling that vulnerability). All these new skillsets seem to be essential to her curriculum.

Clearer still, however, is that DiAngelo’s rhetorical emphasis remains on the need to be less fragile. The general message of her book is that white people need to get stronger and smarter by, among other things, reading books and attending training sessions to acquire these new skillsets. Her most potent remedies for white fragility are therefore understandably focussed on the taking of positive actions – actions which are acquisitive and self-strengthening in their general logic.

The ideal being expressed therefore seems to be a kind of racial robustness in white people. This meaning is nicely summarised under the metaphor of gaining “racial stamina”. In this way, the inherent ambivalence of fragility as a concept is somewhat displaced, as the word itself comes to serve as the negative term in DiAngelo’s discourse.

Among other authors, however, there is a body of thinking in which a certain kind of fragility in white people is associated with more positive developments.

This positive notion of fragility – which I will choose to call “active fragility”, or simply “being fragile” – speaks to the need for a more honest recognition of our de facto human weakness and dependency (i.e. our reliance on others, both socially and psychologically). Thi