Racism reeducation book #1: Robin Diangelo’s White Fragility


White Fragility is one of eight books I’ll be reading and reviewing as part of my overdue reeducation on racism. I’ve reviewed more than 500 business books for The Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and I’ve work in public relations for 27 years.

You would’ve been less than impressed.

Lucky for me, there’s no video clips or photos from the one and only time I took mandatory diversity and inclusion training at work.

I was not at my best. I sat at the back of the room with arms crossed, back up and mouth shut. I was suffering from an acute and pretty ridiculous case of white fragility.

I thought the training was insulting and a waste of time. I was one of the good guys. I’d always been nice to Black colleagues. I’d never said or done anything racist. I judged people by their character and not the colour of their skin.

But had I dropped the white fragility, I may have started to own up to my complicity and silence.  At university, I never asked why I didn’t have a single Black prof or TA for my entire undergrad degree in political science.

In my 27-year public relations career with five employers, I’ve never asked why just one of my PR colleagues was Black, why I’ve never reported to a Black supervisor or served a Black CEO.

During job interviews where I’ve sat on either side of the table, I’ve never asked why there wasn’t a single Black member on the hiring and selection committees. I’ve never suggested that maybe Black candidates weren’t applying for jobs because of a glaring lack of diversity.

During business and community events, I’ve never asked why there were so few, and sometimes no, Black people in the audience or on stage. And I’ve never once wondered how my schooling and career might’ve played out had I not been gifted with an unlimited lifetime supply of white male privilege.

white fragilityI’ll do better in my next anti-racism workshop having read Robin Diangelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Race. Robin’s had to deal with people like me for more than 20 years as a racial and social justice consultant and trainer.

She’s seen it all and calls it like it is. “White fragility functions as a form of bullying,” says Robin. “I am going to make it so miserable for you to confront me – no matter how diplomatically you try to do so – that you will simply back off, give up and never raise the issue again.”

Instead of having honest conversations about systemic and unintentional racism, workshops become support groups for comforting outraged, aggrieved and deeply hurt white people. There’s crying, denying and the seeking of absolution. People emotionally withdraw, physically leave and argue that they too have suffered from reverse racism.

“The moment I name some racially problematic dynamic or action happening in the room, white fragility erupts. The point of the feedback is now lost, and hours must be spent repairing this perceived breach.”

Robin’s tongue-in-cheek 11 cardinal rules for running anti-racism workshops include:

“Do not give me feedback on my racism under any circumstances.

Proper tone is critical – feedback must be given calmly. If any emotion is displayed, the feedback is invalid and can be dismissed.

You must be as indirect as possible. Directness is insensitive and will invalidate the feedback and require repair.

You must acknowledge my intentions (always good) and agree that my good intentions cancel out the impact of my behavior.

In her workshops, Robin asks people of colour if they give white people feedback on their unaware yet inevitable racism and, if so, how that feedback is received.

“Eye-rolling, head-shaking and outright laughter follow, along with the consensus of rarely, if ever,” says Robin. “I then ask ‘what would it be like if you could simply give us feedback, have us graciously receive it, reflect and work to change the behavior?’ Recently a man of colour sighed and said ‘it would be revolutionary’. I ask my fellow whites to consider the profundity of that response. It would be revolutionary if we could receive, reflect, and work to change the behavior.”

Robin encourages us to go into anti-racism workshops with feelings of gratitude, motivation, excitement, humility, discomfort, compassion, guilt and interest and to spend our time reflecting, grappling, engaging, listening, processing, believing and seeking more understanding.

“To break with the conditioning of whiteness – the conditioning that makes us apathetic about racism and prevents us from developing the skills we need to interrupt it – white people need to find out for themselves what they can do. There is so much excellent advice out there today – written by both people of colour and white people. Search it out. Break with the apathy of whiteness and demonstrate you care enough to put in the effort.”

So before holding your next, or first, diversity workshop, make Robin’s White Fragility required reading.  And have the courage to call out colleagues if they start crying, denying and checking out physically or emotionally.

For a critique of White Fragility, read John McWhorter’s The Dehumanizing Condescension of White Fragilityin The Atlantic.

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Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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