I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism
Rebecca C. Hong is Senior Director of Educational Effectiveness and Assessment at Loyola Marymount University.
On September 6, 2018, Amber Guyger, a white female off-duty Dallas police officer entered the home of Botham Jean, an unarmed 26-year-old black neighbor, and fatally shot him to death. Guyger testified that when she entered the home of Jean, she was “scared to death” and shot him with the intention to kill, believing he was a threat and an intruder in her home. Jean was sitting in his apartment, on his couch, eating a bowl of ice cream when Guyger entered and fired two shots that fatally killed him. In recounting the night of the murder during the trial, Guyger became emotional and broke down in tears several times, expressing how she hates herself, hates having to live with this every day of her life, and asks God for forgiveness.
In White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Robin DiAngelo provides the historical backdrop of black men being tortured due to claims of white women. In the recent murder of Botham Jean, the fear of an unarmed black man in his own home led a white woman to take his life. As an antiracist scholar, trainer, and writer, DiAngelo challenges white people on their discomfort and fragility in relation to confrontations or discussions around racism. She writes,
Whether intended or not, when a white woman cries over some aspect of racism, all the attention immediately goes to her, demanding time, energy, and attention from everyone in the room when they should be focused on ameliorating racism. While she is given attention, the people of color are yet again abandoned and/or blamed. (134)
While Guyger did not explicitly mention in her tearful testimony that her fear of Jean was due to the fact that he was a black man, black communities and people of color have witnessed the repeated killings of unarmed black people at the hands of white police officers. This same script reinscribes the discomfort of white people and white systems around discussions of race. DiAngelo unapologetically calls out white tears used to halt progress on combating racism, tears that re-center whiteness, white guilt, white victimization, and white distress as forms of power and control of the situation. This discomfort is precisely what DiAngelo challenges her readers to confront in her book.
It is no wonder that Austin Channing Brown states in her book I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness that white people can be exhausting. Channing Brown weaves her own personal story with the sober reality of the challenges of being black in America when racism and white supremacy continue to undergird systems and institutions. While Channing Brown is clear that she is not condemning white people, she also clearly states that churches, schools, and institutions continue to operate under the assumption that white is not only right, but supreme, better, holy, and even closer to God. She is vulnerable and raw in her writing, toggling between hope and reality, all the while desperately fighting against bitterness and cynicism that anything will change in or outside the walls of the church, especially when Jesus is cool with racial diversity, but America is not. As long as white supremacy undergirds the Church, the Church continues to be the oppressor and complicit in perpetuating otherness and racism and in denigrating blackness and the personhood of people of color.
While Brown offers readers a glimpse into her lived reality, her disappointment with the Church, her exhausting encounters with whiteness, and survival tactics for those navigating similar realities, white readers who are hoping for a how-to guide to be anti-racist or address racism in and outside the Church will be disappointed. It is refreshing that this book is not a step-by-step guide for whites and/or anti-racists. It is all too common for anti-racist white people to expect people of color to educate them. DiAngelo acknowledges the apathy of white people to do the hard work of understanding the history of racism and racial inequalities and provides a seminal reading for white people to take the initiative to do the work themselves. DiAngelo’s White Fragility segues nicely to educate and offer practical solutions for white people. She writes things that people of color have been saying, have grown tired of saying, or have been silenced for saying about racism because it has resulted in defensiveness, disengagement, disbelief, and divisiveness from white people. People of color are tired, and it is not their job to educate white people. This is precisely why DiAngelo’s book is a critical read for people desiring to disrupt racism by first doing the hard internal work of addressing white fragility.
As a white scholar and practitioner in antiracism, DiAngelo primarily writes to a white audience by intentionally using collective terms such as “we” and “us” to center the common white dynamic. She begins her book by defining white fragility as a process response that works to reinstate equilibrium to racial comfort and maintain dominance within the racial hierarchy. She asserts that white people have been socialized to believe that they are inherently good, moral people and that any attempt to challenge that internalized belief of superiority and entitlement triggers “discomfort and anxiety” (2). Throughout the book, DiAngelo draws from her own experiences as a diversity trainer, encountering the anger and defensiveness of white people, including her own confrontations of being complicit in racism. The careful deconstruction of how white people have been socialized to believe that they are inherently good and non-racist is grounded in understanding the white experience or white frame of reference.
DiAngelo does not mince her words and leaves no room for nuances. She confronts white people on their unchecked presuppositions about individualism and meritocracy that have led to a common script, a lens through which whites have come to understand and interpret the world. This script has produced a white racial frame composed of unique individuals that is perpetuated by western society’s emphasis on individuality. Further, this white frame has made it challenging for white people to see their collective identity with shared experiences, benefits, and privileges.
DiAngelo unpacks the social construction of race in the United States beginning with the historical and violent acts of colonization, slavery, internment, and systemic discrimination that non-white people have endured. These acts, stemming from racial prejudice and a belief in whites as superior, have been supported and perpetuated by institutions and ideologies that have benefitted themselves while controlling and oppressing others. She asserts that “racism is deeply embedded in the fabric of our society” and has allowed whites to have “collective social and institutional power and privilege over people of color” (22). Naming and recognizing this power and privilege that whites hold in the United States is to acknowledge that whiteness is a position and a status that has upheld white supremacy. This helps to advance racial conversations beyond individual complicitness to an “overarching political, economic, and social system of domination” that exists as a structure and not as incidences or events (28). These political, economic, and social systems dominated by white people are illustrated through representation in governmental positions, as decision-makers of the U.S. entertainment industry, as educators, and as owners of professional sports teams. Systems and structures dominated by whites have historically centered whiteness as normative, even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In the second third of the book, DiAngelo explores how the socialization of whiteness results in patterns of behavior displayed when whites are confronted with issues of race. This socialization has benefitted whites and prevented them from breaking away from white solidarity that affords unspoken and unchecked advantages in forms of psychological and material returns (54). DiAngelo acknowledges that breaking away from white solidarity is to “break rank” and, therefore, expose white privileged positions, advantages, and capital used to keep whites in superior states (58). When talking to white people about race, DiAngelo exposes common “color-blind” statements, such as “I was taught to treat everyone the same” and “So-and-so just happens to be black, but that has nothing to do with what I’m about to tell you,” or “color-celebrate” claims that show they are free of racism, such as “I have people of color in my family” and “I was on a mission in Africa” (77-78). These types of statements are fixed upon the notion that the white person cannot be racist if they see themselves in a good/bad binary. Further, these statements demonstrate a lack of understanding of how deeply socialized whiteness is and the deep-seated racism that exists in society. DiAngelo views this good/bad binary as a false dichotomy that makes it impossible to talk to white people about race and prevents critical conversations about personal, interpersonal, cultural, historical, and structural analysis needed to challenge the larger system.
DiAngelo exposes racial triggers that cause whites to respond defensively when discussions about race illuminate the benefits that they reap in a racist system. From delusions that whites are objective individuals, fear and resentment against people of color (particularly when people of color are advancing in society), internalized superiority, or a level of investment in a system that benefits them but is interpreted by whites as “fair,” any challenge to these delusions causes racial stress and disequilibrium for white people. The effort and strategy to regain equilibrium is what DiAngelo calls white fragility, which is often unconscious, but never benign.
The last third of her book focuses on defining, describing, and illustrating white fragility in action. White fragility, as the response of white people when confronted with race and racism is the tool used to maintain white superiority, control, and advantage, contributes to the stagnation of systemic racial transformation. It takes a self-protective and defensive stance that blames the victim of racism for their discomfort. The author provides examples of white fragility in action and outlines feelings, behaviors, and claims white people make when their racism is showing. Drawing from her experience as a diversity facilitator and consultant, DiAngelo has witnessed feelings such as anger, guilt, silence, and shame transpire into behaviors such as crying, physical and emotional withdrawal, denial, arguing, focusing on intentions, avoiding, or seeking absolution when white people are confronted with their racist behavior. The justification for these feelings and behaviors comes from underlying claims such as knowing people of color, feeling misunderstood, focusing on their intention versus the impact of their words or actions, or being the victim of someone playing the race card. More deeply embedded in these assumptions are the implications that good people can’t be racist or that having friends of color means you can’t be racist. These tactics, in addition to flipping the script and pointing out the other person as the wrong-doer, are tactics white people use to absolve themselves of being racist.
The interplay among feelings, behaviors, claims, and assumptions that DiAngelo asserts operates to prevent racial progress from occurring, protecting racism and racial control. She states that the only chance of offering feedback to white people on racism without triggering white fragility is “not to give it at all” (123). DiAngelo acknowledges that offering feedback to white people to combat racism surfaces their white fragility and punishes “the person giving feedback and presses them back into silence” (125). For people of color, offering this feedback has harsher consequences for playing the “race card” and may result in white tears, a common manifestation of white fragility, especially in women.
DiAngelo begins her book by unpacking what whiteness is and providing an account of how whiteness has been institutionalized throughout history and used as a form of supremacy. Throughout the chapters, she lays a foundation for how whiteness has been socialized into the American psyche as the norm. Challenging the norm is to be throwing off the social equilibrium of white supremacy. When whiteness is challenged, white fragility will emerge as a form of maintaining social dominance, power, and the struggle toward racial consciousness. Progress will be interrupted and shutdown.
DiAngelo concludes White Fragility by offering a way to disrupt the current racial paradigm. This transformed paradigm begins with how racism manifests, not if racism manifests (138). She challenges white people to respond to feedback on their unaware racist behaviors with humility, interest, gratitude, and a posture to listen, reflect, apologize, believe, process, and seek more understanding. This paradigm is centered on openness and humility and holds the ability to transform individuals and systems that have benefitted from systemic racism. It places the onus on white people to educate themselves, be uncomfortable, discuss their own internalized racial superiority, and invest effort in interrupting their own white fragility. DiAngelo recognizes that in order to break from perpetuating racial inequality, white people need to have courage to break from white solidarity, a system that has afforded them unearned privileges, and be accountable for their own racial growth. This is not the responsibility or burden of people of color.
On October 1, 2019, Amber Guyger was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison. While prosecutors thought Guyger deserved 28 years in prison, corresponding to the age Botham Jean would have been when Guyger was convicted, it took the jury two hours of deliberation to land on 10 years with eligibility for parole under Texas law after serving five years. The sentencing resulted in outrage and cries of injustice outside the courtroom, but what transpired inside the courtroom is what caught everyone’s attention.
In his victim-statement, Brandt Jean, Botham Jean’s brother, extended forgiveness to Guyger, citing his Christian faith. Facing Guyger, Brandt Jean told her, “I love you as a person, and I don’t wish anything bad on you.” He then turned to the judge and asked if it would be okay to hug Guyger, which Tammy Kemp, the black female judge, allowed. Guyger rushed toward Brandt Jean as he stepped off the stand, and the two hugged in a dramatic moment. Cries were audible in the courtroom. Judge Kemp also then proceeded to hug Guyger and offer her a Bible.
What the public witnessed between Brandt Jean and Amber Guyger has been referred to as an act of reconciliation. However, this is where Austin Channing Brown’s argument that racial reconciliation alone is insufficient rings loudly. Racial reconciliation in the church, as well as in Christian higher education institutions, often appears in the form of tone-policed cross-racial dialogues. These forms of racial reconciliation come at the expense of people of color teaching white people about racism and supplant any true structural or systemic change. Channing Brown asserts that when Christians talk about love in relation to discussions around race, love is translated by whiteness as the expectation for people of color to extend grace, patience, and niceness. But when do anger, transformation, and justice have a role in the conversation? Is it no wonder that people of color are exhausted?
Endless viral comments surrounding Brandt Jean’s courageous act of love, forgiveness, and grace toward the person who murdered his brother quickly elicited a mix of praise, anger, and criticism from the public. Christians and non-Christians alike praised Brandt for extending an olive branch and demonstrating an extraordinary example of love and forgiveness. Christians and non-Christians alike remained outraged that another black life was violently taken at the hands of someone who chose not to dignify his humanity. It is moments like these that point to the need for Brown’s powerful memoir as a reminder to the world that the imago Dei, the image of God, is reflected in black bodies. It is also in these glaring moments of unearned love and forgiveness that DiAngelo’s charge to white people to break from the apathy of whiteness and put in the work to demonstrate that you care about the dignity of others is timely. DiAngelo reminds her readers that breaking away from white solidarity and interrupting racism comes at a cost to white people. However, the choice of white people to remain apathetic to racism and complicit in perpetuating systemic inequality has always resulted in a high cost to people of color, sometimes their lives.
The murder of Botham Jean is a reminder that racial progress still falls in the hoped-for and not-yet category, referred to by Channing Brown as a shadow of hope. Channing Brown reinforces this liminal reality in her letter to her unborn son enclosed in her book. While her letter is filled with hope and excitement, these words will ring true until a transformational racial paradigm is a reality and until all humanity is valued equally: “We would rather wonder about your humanity than ruminate on the ways the world will try to take that away from you” (163). Brown’s memoir closes with an elusive and prophetic hope for the world and for Christian institutions that claim to be anti-racist. She challenges us to stand on the side of justice and reconciliation, that is, the side of the Gospel.