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White fragility and its opposite: being fragile

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

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). This can be rather tricky for white people, as I have suggested, because many aspects of ordinary human fragility are experiences from which white people are normally insulated by our cultural dominance and white privilege.

Foremost among these other authors would be the leading American author George Yancy. Yancy is a philosophy professor and Black antiracist theorist, whose many writings are at once a moving personal testimony and a kind of clearing house for some of the most powerful and radical ideas around race.

Although Yancy seems in his own way to be ambivalent about DiAngelo’s concept, he does not address the question of active fragility in quite my sense. Instead, what he provides for us is a matrix of ideas within which we are able to both glimpse a more radical state of human fragility, and to speculate about how the white subject might join the rest of humanity on that more challenging and open-ended plane of reality.

To read Yancy is to be swept into a thematic cut-and-thrust that is at once passionately emotional, densely intellectual and almost painfully embodied. This last aspect is an important one. This is because a key intention of Yancy’s writing is his effort to intellectually and almost physically wrestle the reader (especially the white reader) into our own seat, so that he may then address us calmly and directly with a series of urgent appeals to our empathy and our common humanity.

If I understand him correctly, such an interpersonal and relational address is part of Yancy’s creation of a more “embodied” discourse on race. This deliberate form of the writer-to-reader appeal is demonstrated through many of his recent books, and it is literalised in the title of his famous public letter which appeared in The Stone in 2015, and which was simply entitled “Dear White America”.

The racist abuse and death threats which Yancy received after the publication of ‘Dear White America’ are discussed and responded to in his later book Backlash – a work which remains an important landmark in my own thinking about antiracism. In Backlash, Yancy’s combination of intellectual composure and personal terror speak volumes about what it means to inhabit a Black body, to accept one’s human fragility, and to live in a state of radical exposure to the psychological weaknesses of others around us.

And yet, Yancy’s gift is such that he does not merely insist on holding the white subject in a kind of intimate relational space. And he does not merely ask the white subject for our love (rather than our violence). On top of everything else, Yancy also musters the resources of mind to lavish his reader with innumerable concepts with which to understand what it would mean to be more actively fragile (to use my term).

This was an implicit topic of the 2015 book that he created and edited called White Self-Criticality Beyond Anti-Racism: How Does it Feel to be a White Problem? As is typical for Yancy, his introductory essay ranges across a spectrum from the cerebral and intellectual to the embodied and “enfleshed”; from Charles Mills’s “epistemologies of ignorance” to his own idea that white subjects need to “un-suture” ourselves from such enclosures; from the fall of “single system seeing” to Judith Butler’s radical idea of the “opacity of the self”; from the loss of white “self-mastery” to a place where white people simply “don’t know who [we] are”.

As his reader crashes downward through broken illusions of “self-possession” and “narrative authority”, the destination Yancy offers to the earthbound white subject is that we first “undo” ourselves, and then develop nurturing and encouraging practices around being thus “undone”. Because like everyone else – though in a more unexpected and self-inflicted way, perhaps – the goal for white people is that we learn to live in “the open wound” of a newly un-sutured, disempowered and hopefully decolonised reality on the ground.

From such imagery we see that Yancy’s discourse is “embodied” on various levels

– and not all of them are symbolic. By presenting an uncomfortable discourse about “flesh” and the “open wound”, Yancy insists on holding in front of the white reader what must remain a central theme – i.e. what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls the “visceral experience” of racism, which for people of colour can mean blocked airways and ripped muscle.

For Yancy, however, this deliberate evocation of physical vulnerability is the sharper edge of a broader and much more compassionate discourse around what he calls “risk”. After devoting a whole chapter of Backlash to the question of “Risking the White Self”, Yancy further clarifies his stance by quoting James Baldwin’s memorable words: “One can give nothing whatever without giving oneself – that is to say, risking oneself. If one cannot risk oneself, then one is simply incapable of giving.”

By beautifully elaborating so many themes around vulnerability and “risk”, Yancy shows that he has not only metabolised the unwanted gift of racism (a demonising and inverted projection) but that he has elected to invert that projection once more, and to return that gift to the white reader in the form of an appeal to our “love”. It is hard to overstate what Yancy has achieved by doing this – except to say that I don’t believe there is any white person alive with the “racial stamina” to even concieve such a thing.

Yancy’s ideas cannot exactly be reduced to a “positive” theory of fragility. Yet by engaging in such a sustained discourse of “love”, Yancy calls white readers into a position in which we are able to experience differently our own vulnerability, our fragility, and our relational equality (rather than our domination). While Yancy may wrestle with the white subject more forcefully than DiAngelo, he also vanquishes us more completely by giving us a softer landing – and a partner in the process.

In this way, Yancy’s work can be read as an American echo of the situation in Aotearoa, where the extraordinary wisdom and forbearance of our tangata whenua mentors is often the inspiration and the relational centre of gravity for Pākehā working in the realm of antiracism.

However, Yancy’s introduction to White Self-Criticality is just the beginning. The book is also filled with the contributor essays themselves, penned by white authors who try to answer his question: “how does it feel to be a white problem?”

Posed so carefully by Yancy – and a reversal of the so-called “Black problem” – this question not only shifts the ground of the discussion, but in doing so also exposes these white writers to tricky dilemmas around how they can write authoritatively, and where they can write from when they do, and how to avoid recentering themselves in the process.

To dwell on these difficulties may strain the patience of readers of colour. But for Pākehā who need new places to think from, and more non-violent ways of doing so – which can be lacking in our existing discourses and social forms – the writerly flailings of these expert (yet -ill-adapted) white authors can be oddly helpful as ethical models.

Their dilemma is exemplified by the exquisite awkwardness of one particular contributor, Karen Teel, whose convincing demonstration of active fragility is at once earnest and wryly sardonic: “I am embarrassed to be a problem, yet admitting it feels like boasting (Isn’t it wonderful that I’ve recognized that I am a problem by virtue of being white?).” All the same, the ambivalence of her position leaves her frequently “paralyzed by anonymity, helplessness, and embarrassment” at her own failure to intervene effectively against racism.

Another author, Alison Bailey, offers a discourse on “vulnerability” that resonates very deeply with my own idea. Bailey recommends putting aside the existing “rules” of white behaviour, which rather like Charles Mills she considers to be part of an “ignorance-management” project. Instead we must follow our “feelings”, even if it means going to what Pema Chodron called “those places that scare us”.

What I would call a practice of active fragility is nicely outlined by Bailey, who encourages us to recognise “fear and discomfort as sources of knowledge and connection rather than as sources of closure and flight”.

Perhaps the most well-known contributor is Barbara Applebaum, whose article is likewise a compendium of important names and ideas. In particular, she draws from the remarkable work of philosopher Judith Butler, whose reflections on the ethics of relationship evoke many new and necessary states of fragility. At the heart of these, for Butler, lies that “moment of unknowing-ness” when our “willingness to become undone in relation to others constitutes our chance of becoming human”.

Applebaum’s own struggles are evident too, and this is made clear in a rather interesting side-bar query she posed back to Yancy as editor, and which is recorded by Yancy in a footnote. Here, Applebaum asks about a fascinating contradiction that she had noticed shaping up around the theme – closely related to fragility – of “ignorance”.

As Applebaum notes, what Charles Mills calls “epistemologies of ignorance” is clearly a “problematic” type of white ignorance, one which maintains white racial comfort and which therefore needs to be challenged. On the other hand, Yancy’s proposal of “un-suturing” seems to entail the white subject learning to “sustain another type of white ignorance that is constructive”, so as to remain in a “space of unknowing that allows for vulnerability”.

White ignorance can therefore be a bad thing, or – if done differently – a good thing. Yancy’s answer is yes to both sides of this ambivalence. Just as I have felt the need to query the double possibilities in the word “fragility”, so Yancy gives his consent to Applebaum, as she raises a constructive ambivalence around the idea of ignorance. Indeed, the need for such disambiguation in both these terms is not a merely formal analogy.

This is because all these words – ignorance, vulnerability, opacity and fragility – may simply be different metaphors for the same process of being undone and “becoming “human”, as Butler phrases it.

While none of these white contributors claim to solve the problem of being white, we witness each of them learning in their own way to embody the problem – to make themselves the problem. This process leaves many of them stymied and oddly silenced.

But we also see positive patterns emerge.

Firstly, by adapting to newly disempowered and “decentered” positions as thinking subjects, these authors are also learning to live more actively their own fragility and de facto social dependency.

Secondly, by making themselves the problem, these authors fail to convey any clear point about themselves. But they largely succeed in an opposite and more important, if also modest goal – i.e. the act of not making any point about the Other.

Thirdly, this means that people of colour – at least in this book, and to some extent – are neither the subject of the problem, nor the object of the problem, neither the origin of the problem nor its destination. They may be questioners – as writers like Yancy have long since been – but they are not expected to be involved in the answer, let alone to provide it. The problem of racism is thus restored to a position internal to white culture, and the Other is presumably left where they may prefer to remain: i.e. in some space other than this problem.

Lastly, it would appear this experiment in white self-criticality has not only worked in my terms, by producing a kind of active fragility. It has also gone some way to answering one of the most intractable difficulties of antiracist discourse. This is namely the urgent matter of how we can effectively disable or disrupt that most deep-seated dynamic of racist psychology – i.e. demonisation, the unconscious mechanism by which we project onto the Other the very darkest contents of the self.

By attempting something which is both simple and hard – i.e. to enclose the white subject in the question of our own problem-hood – it would appear that Yancy has also obliged his contributors to recoup (or to re-internalise) some portion of the anguish which their unconscious structural dominance would normally have allowed them to externalise and project.

In other words, by foreclosing the experience of boundlessness from the white self – and instead enforcing some simple human boundaries, and weaknesses – there appears to have been an almost automatic effect of reclamation, of making-whole-again through the reabsorption of unwanted and formerly projected contents of the white self.

The practice of a more active fragility may thus be associated with a kind of rebalancing in the emotional and psychic “economy” of the inter-racial relationship. From this psycho-social point of view, there remains a need for white people to withstand “racial discomfort”, as DiAngelo suggests. But this effort may deliver more than the mere acquisition by white people of yet further strengths, such as racial stamina.

On the contrary, taking the step of actively embracing our vulnerability becomes something of an end in itself. It may solve DiAngelo’s own implicit dilemma in a more immediate way, as it offers a more personal, non-institutional and relatively non-confrontational model with which to disarm the projectile emotions of fragile white people.

By encouraging a more human-scaled white subject – who is also the bearer of more healthy, albeit semi-permeable boundaries – the positive effects of “being fragile” may thus, in some small way, strike at the unconscious root of the racist projection itself.

About the author:

Garrick Rigby

Garrick Rigby is an independent writer residing in Tāmaki Makaurau. His education was in Fine Arts followed by a Master of Arts in film theory, with a focus on racial representation in New Zealand film. Garrick went on to release two short films Someone Else’s Cappuccino (2003) and Horses (2009), the latter of which was made during a second Masters (MLitt) in filmmaking. After starting a family and a brief period studying psychotherapy, Garrick published his first article “Therapist and Coloniser: Pākehā Approaches to Māori historical Trauma” (2017) in the Ata Journal of Psychotherapy Aotearoa New Zealand. He is currently working a day job while spending his spare time reading and writing about antiracism and the psychology of Pākehā settlement.


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