The science of white fragility

Girl and her dog

According to Robin DiAngelo, a professor at Westfield State University, 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. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.

David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times, gave a particularly clear example in a column late last week, written as an open letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates in response to his new book:

Your definition of “white” is complicated. But you write “ ‘White America’ is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining).” In what is bound to be the most quoted passage from the book, you write that you watched the smoldering towers of 9/11 with a cold heart. At the time you felt the police and firefighters who died “were menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could — with no justification — shatter my body.”

You obviously do not mean that literally today (sometimes in your phrasing you seem determined to be misunderstood). You are illustrating the perspective born of the rage “that burned in me then, animates me now, and will likely leave me on fire for the rest of my days.”

I read this all like a slap and a revelation. I suppose the first obligation is to sit with it, to make sure the testimony is respected and sinks in. But I have to ask, Am I displaying my privilege if I disagree? Is my job just to respect your experience and accept your conclusions? Does a white person have standing to respond?

The mixture of condescension— “You obviously do not mean that literally today (sometimes in your phrasing you seem determined to be misunderstood)”—and self-pitying—“Is my job just to respect your experience and accept your conclusions? Does a white person have standing to respond?”—is remarkable.

White fragility is expressed in a lot of ways, and I recently stumbled on a new study that captures it in the lab. Tom Jacobs at The Pacific Standard writes:

As a white man, I’m not thrilled to get pulled over by a cop, but I’m not terrified, either. Nor am I nagged by the stress-inducing feeling others see me as a threat or an imposter. I’ve never been denied my choice of neighborhood, and the mostly white network of friends and colleagues that smoothed my career path was a given.

Set out in such stark terms, it’s difficult to deny that white Americans begin their lives with something of a head start. But newly published research finds many respond to reminders of this reality by concocting a counter-narrative centered around the personal hardships they have supposedly suffered.

He goes on:

In the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the researchers describe three experiments that provide evidence backing up this assertion. The first two featured 94 and 91 white Americans, respectively, who were recruited online via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.

“Participants completed two ostensibly unrelated surveys, the first regarding beliefs about inequality in America, and the second about childhood memories,” the researchers write. In the first, they were asked the degree to which they believe white people have “certain advantages minorities do not have in this society.”

Half addressed this touchy question cold, while the others did so after reading a paragraph describing the reality of white privilege in such realms as academics, housing, and health care.

The “personal memory” questionnaire included five items addressing hardships, including the assertion “I have had many difficulties in life that I could not overcome.” Participants expressed their level of agreement with each on a one-to-seven scale.

“In both experiments, we found that whites exposed to evidence of white privilege claimed more hardships than those not exposed to evidence of privilege,” the researchers report. In other words, evidence that their race was an advantage prompted white people to move toward a victimhood mindset.

The final experiment, featuring 234 white Americans from a national online pool, found “people claim more life hardships in response to evidence of in-group privilege because such information is threatening to their sense of self.” What’s more, “these denials of personal privilege were in turn associated with diminished support for affirmative action policies—policies that could help alleviate racial inequity.” 

Emphasis mine. This knee-jerk reaction, the “but I’ve had it hard, too” undergirds many frustrations many disadvantaged groups feel when discussing their troubles (“but what about men?!” and so on). There are a lot of reasons privileged groups might react this way—I suspect it relates to the broad cultural myth of meritocracy, that we have whats ours because we earned it. If our comfortably middle class upbringing isn’t because we or our parents earned it, but instead because government agencies and banks only subsidized housing loans for white families, limiting where black families could live and shunting them into poor neighborhoods. In the mean time, these government-subsidized houses have translated into an average $300,000 – $400,000 in equity, exclusively for white families.

I cannot stress how important it is to read Coates’s Atlantic feature, “The Case for Reparations.”

Such realities make it much hard to take seriously people like David Brooks who downplay “the legacy of lynching” to explain economic problems plaguing black communities, instead focusing on “some guy’s decision to commit a crime.” To puts such a premium on “personal responsibility,” first and foremost, seems, out of necessity, like it must downplay or ignore the ugly racial history in America.

About Vlad Chituc

Vlad Chituc edits NonProphet Status. He's a researcher at the intersection of psychology, philosophy, and sometimes economics at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He likes the South very much and lives with his dog, Toad, who is great. In 2012, he graduated with a B.S. in psychology from Yale University, where he spent a lot of time reading philosophy and learning to write.