White Fragility, or “Why White People (and Orientalists) Freak Out When They’re Called Out About Race”

30 03 2015

There’s a piece on Alternet by Sam Adler-Bell, “Why White People Freak Out When They’re Called Out About Race,” that seems appropo to some of the responses posted to this blog recently. Have you heard of the term “white fragility“? In a 2011 journal article, Robin DiAngelo, professor of multicutural education at Westfield State University and author of What Does it Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy, came up with the term “white fragility”:

a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include outward display of emotions such as anger, fear and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence and leaving the stress-inducing situation.

Sam Adler-Bell interviews DiAngelo about her work on “white fragility.”  DiAngelo:

I do atypical work for a white person, which is that I lead primarily white audiences in discussions on race every day, in workshops all over the country. That has allowed me to observe very predictable patterns. And one of those patterns is this inability to tolerate any kind of challenge to our racial reality. We shut down or lash out or in whatever way possible block any reflection from taking place. Of course, it functions as means of resistance, but I think it’s also useful to think about it as fragility, as inability to handle the stress of conversations about race and racism. Sometimes it’s strategic, a very intentional push back and rebuttal. But a lot of the time, the person simply cannot function. They regress into an emotional state that prevents anybody from moving forward.

Sound familiar? We see an obvious parallel between “white fragility” and the hostility of U.S.-based area studies (and its graduate students lol) to any methodology (e.g. cultural studies) that would make explicit its colonial epistemological structure towards Asia and Asians.  DiAngelo’s last words in the interview sum it up:

The arrogance of white people faced with questions of race is unbelievable.

Read the full interview here, or download a pdf of her journal article, “White Fragility.” Extended audio interviews with DiAngelo are linked here, “Why all white people are racist, but can’t handle being called racist: the theory of white fragility.”




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30 03 2015

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