What is ‘white fragility’?
2017, perhaps more than any other year in recent history, has seen an uptick of accusations of oversensitivity from across the political spectrum. Famous men accused (and sometimes convicted) of sexual harassment complain that women are being ‘too sensitive’. Conservative activists accuse college students of being ‘special snowflakes’ who can’t tolerate opposing views. On the left, anti-racist activists accuse white folks of wallowing in ‘white fragility’. But is calling someone out on white fragility from the left the same as calling them a snowflake from the right?
In this blog post, I argue that the term speaks to much more than arguments about appropriate levels of cultural sensitivity, especially in this current socio-political moment. Indeed, the concept of white fragility is useful for understanding the enduring legacy of racism and how it still affects our everyday lives.
Defining ‘white fragility’
Oxford Dictionaries’ recently added entry for white fragility, defines it this way:
For her part, in the article in which she coined the term, the (white) professor Robin DiAngelo discusses the phenomenon like this:
White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.
An illustrative example of ‘white fragility’
Last week presented us with an illustrative example of white fragility, and its consequences in practice. Plainfield, Indiana police Captain Carri Weber was briefly suspended (though later reinstated), when another officer, Captain Scott Arndt, claimed that she ‘racistly and sexistly slurred’ him. The offense? Weber, who is a white, female officer was conducting a diversity training, and Arndt, a white, male officer disagreed with statistics about the likelihood of transgender people (of color) experiencing police violence. Weber responded ‘cause [of] your white, male privilege, you wouldn’t know’. Arndt later filed a complaint with the department against Weber, claiming that he was the victim of racism and sexism.
Returning to DiAngelo’s discussion of white fragility, Arndt’s behavior in this case is a fairly textbook example of actions taken by folks who are experiencing white fragility. Let’s examine the incident one step at a time.
According to the scholarly data that Weber used in her presentation, transgender people of color are 2.46 times more likely to experience police violence than their white non-transgender counterparts. Arndt’s incredulity about this data in a diversity training setting shows his discomfort with being told about the structural advantages that both men and white folks are more likely to have. After Weber points this out to him, Arndt chooses to leave the stress-inducing situation. After the training, Ardnt proceeds to file a complaint about how he is a victim of discrimination, because Weber pointed out that his experience was likely different than the folks in the data set because of his race and gender.
Approximately 77% of police officers in the US are white, and 88% are male, according to 2015 statistics from the Bureau of Justice. Honestly, it’s pretty bold to claim that you’re the victim of discrimination when over three-quarters of the people who hold your job look like you. Despite being firmly in the demographic majority of police officers with respect to both his race and gender, Ardnt’s actions showed that he was completely unwilling to consider his positionality with respect to the information being presented to him. The diversity training and Weber’s candid response to Arndt’s incredulity about the data were simply too stress-inducing for him to cope with as a white man.
Arndt’s framing of the incident, in which he is the victim, is an example par excellence of white fragility. Instead of meaningfully engaging with the issues around gender and racial differences in citizens’ experiences with law enforcement, Arndt created a dynamic in which he – and indeed white males in general – are the ‘real victims’. And Ardnt’s case is not unique.
White fragility is what allows white Americans, for example, who represent 76% of the country’s millionaires, 84% of its professors, and 96% of Fortune 500 CEOs, to react defensively whenever they are presented with this information, and so to believe that they are systematically victimized because of their racial identity. White fragility is dangerous precisely because it allows individuals with more power to reframe discussions about justice in a way that will only reinforce the power that they already have.
The Plainfield police department is now known across the country for a situation in which one white, male officer felt victimized, instead of for their work trying to address structural inequalities in policing. And that’s what white fragility does: it takes the story away from the victims of discrimination and gives it back to the perpetrators, who then use it as a weapon to defend the unjust status quo.
Find out more about our Word of the Year 2017 campaign.