As someone who researches and presents to school leaders and teachers across the country about how racism functions in schools, I have been asked the same question repeatedly in recent weeks: “What is your opinion on ‘white fragility’?” Ten times out of 10, a Black educator is asking me this question. My response is always noncontroversial because I respect the work of Robin DiAngelo, whose 2018 book White Fragility has caught fire with white people seeking to better comprehend the concept of racism. But I do raise the point that her work is only a starting point for understanding anti-racism.
After reflecting on this question from Black educators, I worried whether my response has been critical enough of white fragility—the idea that when white people are confronted with even minimal amounts of racial stress, for example, a conversation about race and racism in America, their initial reactions are to become angry, fearful, guilty, or tearful.
So, I called my mentor, Cynthia Dillard, a professor of teacher education and a colleague at the University of Georgia, to discuss her perspective on the idea of white fragility. She pointedly asked me: “Tina, what’s fragile about racism?” She was right. I have never known racism to be fragile.
Anti-racism often looks like school districts managing inequality and racism instead of eliminating them."
Racism is violent. It systemically kills, destroys, and diminishes the dreams and real lives of Black, brown, and Indigenous people every day in the United States and has for centuries. Racism killed Breonna Taylor, racism killed George Floyd, and racism is a major factor in determining who will live and die from COVID-19. The idea that whiteness is fragile or weak does not reflect the racial terror people of color have experienced in this country.
By design, racism is powerful and sustained by anti-Blackness, violence, and capitalism. Even DiAngelo herself, a white woman, classifies white fragility as a form of bullying. She writes: “Let me be clear: while the capacity for white people to sustain challenges to our racial positions is limited—and, in this way, fragile—the effects of our responses are not fragile at all; they are quite powerful because they take advantage of historical and institutional power and control.”
It is by design that white people do not have the language to address or understand how racism and white privilege work in their own lives. For example, our current education system does not provide white students with anti-racist curriculum, language to call out racism, or teachers of color to learn from. After 13 years of schooling, many white students end their K-12 experience without ever having a teacher of color or being challenged to disrupt their learned racism.
If we are going to begin the hard, anti-racist work of systemically eradicating racism from institutions and the everyday practices of white people, then we need white people to know just how powerful they are, how destructive racism is, and how managing inequality is not racial progress. White fragility legitimizes white people’s belief that they are powerless as they continue to benefit from and consume unearned privileges, positions, and power. This belief is not paving a path to anti-racism. Although I support DiAngelo’s work as a starting place for white folx seeking understanding of racism, the idea of white fragility without further context is harmful to the work of anti-racism.
In the field of education, anti-racism often looks like school districts managing inequality and racism instead of eliminating them. School districts all over the country have Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion departments, where they hire BIPOC—Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color—to manage and measure oppression. There is still little to no talk of removing institutional barriers. Instead, the focus continues to be on tracking how students of color perform against the barriers of racism, poverty, and language.
In the state of Georgia, the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement presents an actual award to schools called “Beating the Odds.” The award is calculated by “variables that are outside of a school’s control” such as school size and students’ race, ethnicity, disabilities, English fluency, transience, and economic insecurity. The state acknowledges that these are barriers to student achievement. But instead of eliminating English-only testing or funding education fully, it bestows a hollow honor on schools for managing inequities and racism “the best.”
Effectively, school districts declare that there are barriers that hinder students’ educational growth and then seem to be fine managing those inequalities with awards, reports, committees, and task forces. I would be remiss if I did not pause here to say that race is not a barrier—racism is the barrier. These types of awards and measures perpetuate grit models of academic achievement where students of color are asked to persevere through injustices and jump over institutional barriers, while schools measure their “success.”
As we work to make this country anti-racist, this goal is only achievable if white people acknowledge their power and cede it for the humanity and rights of everyone, including themselves, by methodically tearing down racist policies and replacing those policies with ones that value the lives of BIPOC. Thus, the work of anti-racism is anything but fragile. DiAngelo’s White Fragility represents the training wheels of anti-racism work, but if white people expect to accomplish real social change, they need to acknowledge their strength.
If they are strong enough to oppress people of color for over 400 years and create a country that can systemically kill Black people in broad daylight with impunity, they are strong enough to destroy the system that they built. They are strong enough to walk in the footsteps of co-conspirators such as Jane Elliott (the international lecturer on racism and creator of the “Blue Eyes & Brown Eyes Exercise”), Mandy Manning (the 2018 National Teacher of the Year who handed President Donald Trump letters from refugee students at her award ceremony), James Tyson (who assisted Bree Newsome in taking down the confederate flag in South Carolina and put his hand on the flagpole so the cops would not tase the pole and kill Newsome), Heather Heyer (the civil rights activist who was killed in 2017 at a protest in Charlottesville, Va.), and Brandelyn Tosolt (the anti- racist educator and co-founder of the Abolitionist Teaching Network). These white folx saw themselves as anything but fragile. They saw the need to attack the system of racism from all angles.
If anti-racism is going to be more than a slogan, then white people must follow the lead of these activists and educators and stop believing they are too fragile to work toward ending racism.
In 2016, Bettina L. Love, the author of this essay, spoke to Education Week about African-American girls and discipline. Here’s what she had to say:
A version of this article appeared in the August 26, 2020 edition of Education Week as There Is Nothing Fragile About Racism