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“White Fragility: Why is it difficult to speak about Racism?”

Denise Young, WIL National Diversity and Inclusion Advisor and CEO and Consultant of Tiger’s Eye Advisory Group, a people-focused business solutions company that values collaboration and empowerment.

Denise believes in empowering people to be their best and is a strong advocate for Diversity and Inclusion. She creates collaborative work spaces where “everyone is at the table”. She has a Bachelor of Management and a Masters of Arts in Communication and Technology from University of Alberta.

She started the Women in Leadership (WIL) Chapter in Kelowna, BC in 2017 and is the Chapter Chair. She currently is supporting WIL National in the development of WIL Diversity and Inclusion Program.

August 5, 2021: Over the past weeks there have been a couple comments from different people that took me by surprise which made me want to be curious and further explore.

A white/cacasian female asked me “How do you feel about women taking over the world”. She felt that it was still a woman's role to be at home taking care of her husband. Another white/cacasian male asked “we as the white people now are the ones that are being discriminated against and the minorities are taking over the world”. I have heard various comments in similar forms as these questions. I was upset at first, but realized that I needed to get curious and figure out where this anger and lack of understanding is coming from.

Last week I was having a deep conversation with my Aunt and cousin in the USA regarding racism as they wanted to understand what the indigenous people are going through in Canada. During the discussion, my cousin used the term “white fragility” which I have not heard of. She recommended the book White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. White fragility is a term that the author, Dr. Robin DiAngelo, invented to describe how white people react to issues of racism which include “feelings of discomfort a white person experiences when they witness discussions around racial inequality and injustice”. Robin DiAngelo is an antiracist educator and her main thesis is that by breaking down the boundaries that prevent us from communicating cross-racially and developing a better understanding of racism are meaningful changes that can help, over time, to dismantle racist systems. This book is based on examples in the USA as it relates to People of Color but it can be also used in the context of other marginalized groups in Canada.

White fragility may present itself through defensive actions or feelings of discomfort. For example, marginalized groups may find it difficult to speak to white people about white privilege and superiority. The white person may become defensive, and the person of color may feel obligated to comfort the white person because we live in a white-dominated environment.

Referring to the defensive moves that white people make when challenged racially, white fragility is characterized by emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and by behaviors including argumentation and silence. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium and prevent any meaningful cross-racial dialogue. In DiAngelo research groups several common responses came up such as:

"I have a Black friend/ family member, so I'm not racist."

"Racism ended with slavery."

"I am colorblind, so I'm not racist."

The other phrases I currently hear in Canada are “Why can’t they get over it”, “Was it really that bad”, “Well, I am from… and you should see what they did to my people”.

Why is it problematic?

People experiencing white fragility may not be racist, but their actions, behaviors, and feelings may promote racism. Avoiding the topic of race contributes to racism. By disregarding the notions of white superiority and white privilege, racism will continue to hold its place in society.

Being in a white-dominant culture is comfortable for a white person. White people may not feel the need to challenge their perspectives about race. By remaining in this comfortable environment, white people try to avoid the topic of racism.

Since white people rarely experience racism, they often cannot see, feel, or understand it. Many people of color describe having been prepared to live as a minority in a racist society by their parents.

Fragility impedes strength. White fragility blocks a white person from accessing the effects racist society has had on their thoughts, behaviors, and beliefs. How are we able to unlearn dangerous racist stereotypes if we can't even admit to having them?

To not actively seek to interrupt racism is to internalize and accept it." Without being able to accept the impact of racism and the pervasiveness of it, we're not able to have constructive conversations on how to dismantle it. A huge roadblock to the understanding of racism which is "individual understanding." The mindset is one that believes "only some people are racist and those people are bad."

“When you understand racism as a system of structured relations into which we are all socialized, you understand that intentions are irrelevant. And when you understand how socialization works, you understand that much of racial bias is unconscious.The societal default is white superiority and we are fed a steady diet of it 24/7” (Robin Diangelo). .

Why white people may not see racism as an issue:

As mentioned earlier, we need to start where people are and come from a place of curiosity, not judgement. Why can’t some see “race” or have limited understanding?

Most white people live in segregated areas. In these segregated lives, white people receive little information and education about racism. This means that they may be unable to think about racism critically. This can lead to an inability to consider the perspectives of people of color.

Although white people may be against racism, they may deny that white privilege exists. By objecting to white privilege, white people contradict their objection to racism.

White people may not understand the social burden of race because they understand that race resides in people of color. Since white people may not consider themselves part of a race, they are free from carrying the burden of race.

We have all unconsciously absorbed racist stereotypes over the course of our lifetimes through movies, TV, celebrities, politicians, everyday encounters, and more. Constant messages in history, media, and advertising — and from our role models, teachers, and everyday conversations about good neighborhoods and schools — reinforce white fragility. These notions promote the idea that white people are better and more important than people of color.

Some feel a bit generalized by the term white fragility, DiAngelo states “for now, try to let go of your individual narrative, and grapple with the collective messages we all receive as members of a larger shared culture... rather than use some aspect of your story to excuse yourself from their impact”. DiAngelo makes the point that white fragility is not a "natural" phenomenon. We are all socialized to absorb white supremacist values, to accept white as the default; we are parts of the whole of society and therefore, cannot address racism without taking a critical look at our environment, and even on our own thoughts and beliefs that are influenced by that environment.

How can we support BIPOC friends, family and colleagues:

Importance of listening instead of assuming you know the answers. This may help you better support your BIPOC friends and family, helping them to feel heard instead of feeling denied.

Develop racial stamina (ability to understand and experience what marginalized groups are feeling) by having direct experiences with people of color and engaging in sometimes difficult conversations with them.

By building racial stamina, white people may be able to manage racial stressors rather than ignoring or silencing them.

Conscious and explicit engagement with people of different races can help break the pattern of fragile behaviors and actions related to race.

Validate Experiences: learn to listen to, validate experiences of, and support marginalized friends and family when they speak of their experiences with racism.

Oftentimes, responses that fall under white fragility serve to gaslight Black people and people of color. When you deny someone's experiences, you are telling them their reality doesn't exist and that what they perceive as "racism" is something else. Of course, it may be difficult for someone to recognize when they are denying someone's reality—they do it without realizing in that moment.

Acknowledge lack of understanding and seek to be curious

Be Open to Growth: DiAngelo notes, "good intentions" aren't enough. Becoming an ally to the Black community means knowing there is a racist experience in America that you, as a white person, do not experience.

Be open to feedback. Try to graciously accept feedback, and remember, it's part of learning.

It's important that we work through the discomfort we might experience, be open to apologizing when we've made a mistake, and continue to learn.

Be an ally through listening and learning will inform anti-racist action

“White people may be against the definition of racism, but experiencing white fragility can contribute to racism. A white person defending themselves or arguing against white superiority prevents conscious discussions with people of color about race and racism”.

“I didn't choose this socialization, and it could not be avoided. But I am responsible for my role in it."— ROBIN DIANGELO

Article Resources

Connect with Denise:

LinkedIN: Denise Young

Facebook; Tigers Eye Advisory Group


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