The book is based on the author's experience as a professional diversity consultant conducting workshops for businesses and other organizations, where she had observed that white people often respond defensively when told that they benefit from racism or that they behave in a racially problematic way. The author dubs this perceived response as "white fragility", and argues that the only way to address racism is to proactively challenge white people, especially those allegedly exhibiting these responses. DiAngelo depicts race relations in the US as between largely powerless people of color on one side and white people on the other side, who she characterizes as having been socialized to "fundamentally hate blackness." She addresses the book to a white audience and does not exempt those that already view themselves as conscientious of racial justice issue, arguing that "white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color."
White Fragility became a New York Times bestseller for more than a year. In September 2019, Slate noted that "White Fragility has yet to leave the New York Times bestseller list since its debut in June 2018, making it the fastest-selling book in the history of Beacon Press." In June 2020, during the George Floyd protests, it reached no.1 of the New York Times list.
The Los Angeles Review of Books review by David Roediger said "White Fragility fascinatingly reads as one-part jeremiad and one-part handbook. It is by turns mordant and then inspirational, an argument that powerful forces and tragic histories stack the deck fully against racial justice alongside one that we need only to be clearer, try harder, and do better." The reviewer also praised DiAngelo's "keen perception, long experience, and deep commitment" and said the book is "uncommonly honest about the duration and extent of entrenched injustice and provocative on the especially destructive role of progressive whites at critical junctures." Ultimately, the book "reads better as evidence of where we are mired than as a how-to guide on where we are on the cusp of going."
The Publishers Weekly review called it "a thoughtful, instructive, and comprehensive book on challenging racism" and "impressive in its scope and complexity". The New Statesman review described it as "a clear-sighted, methodical guide seeking to help readers 'navigate the roiling racial waters of daily life', though stops short of prescribing any concrete solutions." It asserted that DiAngelo's "overarching aim is not for her readers to feel guilty about their white identity. Rather it is to encourage them to understand that there will be no change if they are just 'really nice… smile at people of colour… go to lunch together on occasion'."
For The New Yorker in 2018, staff writer Katy Waldman wrote about White Fragility that "[t]he book is more diagnostic than solutions-oriented, and the guidelines it offers toward the end—listen, don't center yourself, get educated, think about your responses and what role they play—won't shock any nervous systems. The value in White Fragility lies in its methodical, irrefutable exposure of racism in thought and action, and its call for humility and vigilance." Nosheen Iqbal, an editor for The Guardian, wrote that "DiAngelo's book is a radical statement at a time when the debate is so polarised."
In a 2019 article for The New Yorker, the columnist Kelefa Sanneh characterized DiAngelo as "perhaps the country's most visible expert in anti-bias training, a practice that is also an industry, and from all appearances a prospering one". He suggested that in using the concept of "people of color", DiAngelo "reduces all of humanity to two categories: white and other" and that she presents people of color as "sages, speaking truths that white people must cherish, and not challenge." Sanneh was also critical of what he saw as DiAngelo's tendency to be "endlessly deferential—for her, racism is basically whatever any person of color thinks it is".
Reviewing Sanneh's comments, professor Lauren Michele Jackson "consider[s] DiAngelo's inclusion of seemingly incongruous grievances a strength. Etiquette is never beside the point. As DiAngelo has said, neither White Fragility nor her workshops intend to convert the gleefully racist; she speaks to the well-intended whose banal blusters make racial stress routine." However, Jackson found the lack of cited scholars troubling: "I couldn't help but notice the relative dearth of contemporary black studies scholarship cited in White Fragility."
Writing in New Discourses, Helen Pluckrose and Jonathan Church opined that the notion of implicit bias underlying white fragility theory is "pseudoscience" and the theory itself fails due to the reification and ambiguity fallacies. Describing the theory as a Kafka trap, they observe that "[a]ny response to being told by DiAngelo that one is complicit in racism, apart from agreeing with her, is evidence of white fragility." The same point about the book's "circular logic" was raised by Carlos Lozada, the Washington Post's nonfiction book critic: "any alternative perspective or counterargument is defeated by the concept itself. Either white people admit their inherent and unending racism and vow to work on their white fragility, in which case DiAngelo was correct in her assessment, or they resist such categorizations or question the interpretation of a particular incident, in which case they are only proving her point."
In a January 2020 article for The New Republic, J.C. Pan situates DiAngelo's work among "other white anti-racist educators" such as Tim Wise and Peggy McIntosh who provide "therapeutic rather than policy-based" approaches. Pan writes that "the major shortcoming of White Fragility is that it offers almost nothing in the way of concrete political action."
Jesse Lile, an educator and relationship therapist, has argued that the DiAngelo's concept of white fragility places white people in a double bind, first enjoining them to engage in a conversation on racism, then treating any active engagement on their part as an exercise of white privilege, and finally labelling them as fragile when they object to their ideas being dismissed on the basis of their skin color.
Psychologist Valerie Tarico has argued that the concept of white fragility is so broadly and loosely applied that it is hard to evaluate as a scientific concept and likely does social damage.
Journalists Katie Herzog and Jesse Singal argued that the book is full of unfalsifiable hypotheses and is akin to a religion in its reasoning. They point out that many quoted facts in the book are incorrect and argue that the book is more likely to exacerbate inter-racial relations than help and overly focuses on individuals rather than structural issues.
- Waldman, Katy (July 23, 2018). "A Sociologist Examines the "White Fragility" That Prevents White Americans from Confronting Racism". The New Yorker.
- Chotiner, Isaac (August 2, 2018). "Why White Liberals Are So Unwilling to Recognize Their Own Racism". Slate.
- Lozada, Carlos (2020-06-18). "Review | White fragility is real. But 'White Fragility' is flawed". Washington Post. Retrieved 2020-07-02.
- Jackson, Lauren Michele (2019-09-05). "What's Missing From "White Fragility"". Slate Magazine. Retrieved 2020-01-20.
- Roediger, David. "On the Defensive: Navigating White Advantage and White Fragility". Los Angeles Review of Books. Retrieved 2020-01-20.
- "Nonfiction book review: White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism". www.publishersweekly.com. Retrieved 2020-01-20.
- "How not to be a racist". www.newstatesman.com. Retrieved 2020-01-20.
- Iqbal, Nosheen (2019-02-16). "Academic Robin DiAngelo: 'We have to stop thinking about racism as someone who says the N-word'". The Observer. ISSN 0029-7712. Retrieved 2020-01-20.
- Sanneh, Kelefa (August 12, 2019). "The Fight to Redefine Racism". The New Yorker. Retrieved August 14, 2019.
- Church, Jonathan; Pluckrose, Helen (2020-06-08). "The Flaws in White Fragility Theory: A Primer". New Discourses. Retrieved 2020-06-13.
- Pan, J.C. (7 January 2020). "Why Diversity Training Isn't Enough". The New Republic. Retrieved 16 June 2020.
- Jesse Lile (2019-06-18). "'White Fragility' Is A Racist Idea That Should Be Retired Immediately". The Federalist. Retrieved 2019-07-09..
- "A Closer Look at 'White Fragility' Theory". Quillette. 2020-03-05. Retrieved 2020-06-28.
- Singal, Katie Herzog and Jesse. ""White Fragility" Is A Completely Bizarre And Pernicious Book And It's A Terrible Sign That So Many Americans Love It". Blocked and Reported. Retrieved 2020-06-30.
- Taibbi, Matt. "On "White Fragility"". taibbi.substack.com. Retrieved 2020-06-28.
- "Twitter". mobile.twitter.com. Retrieved 2020-06-29.
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