White defensiveness

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White defensiveness is a term to describe defensive responses by white people to discussions of societal discrimination, structural racism, and white privilege. The term has been applied to characterize the responses of white people to portrayals of the Atlantic slave trade and European colonization, or scholarship on the legacy of those systems in modern society. Academics and historians have identified multiple forms of white defensiveness, including white denial, white diversion, and white fragility, the last of which was popularized by scholar Robin DiAngelo.[1]

White people are described within the theory as displaying substantially uneasy responses when questioned about racial dynamics (i.e. instances of possible racism)—said to be as a self-protective strategy to conceal grief, trauma, and intergenerational trauma. [2]


White defensiveness describes some of the perceived responses when white people are confronted with issues involving race and racism. Academics have proposed subtypes of white defensiveness, such as white denial, white diversion, and white fragility.[3][4] There are also varied contexts and descriptions of what can cause the expression of this theorized defensiveness. For example, political scientists Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields have proposed that the examination of white privilege "triggers white defensiveness".[5]

Academics, such as Robin DiAngelo, Julia Chinyere Oparah, George Yancy and Leah Gaskin Fitchue, have detailed ranges of what they define as white defensive responses in their works.[6][7][8]


White denial[edit]

White denial has been identified as a defensive response by white people, in which realities of inequality are denied or downplayed.[6][9] One example is the claim that racism simply does not exist.[10] Historically, it has also taken more extreme forms such as the suggestion that slavery in the United States was a benign system or even had a civilizing effect on African Americans.[11] Regarding white denial, the theologian Leah Gaskin Fitchue wrote in 2015:[7]

By its very nature, denial is a defense mechanism, a distortion of reality, a delusional projection to reshape reality in a way one desires to see it. James Perkinson's study, White Theology, counters white denial in calling for a "white theology of responsibility (agreeing with Cone) that a serious engagement with history and culture must be at the heart of any American projection of integrity"...

While denial links to implicit and unconscious bias. White denial may also be driven by white guilt which suggests that acknowledgement of the existence of discrimination or racism against another group may be identity threatening for members of dominant and majority groups. [12][13]

The philosopher George Yancy has spoken of his experiences of white denial in academia and within responses to his works, such as his 2015 article Dear White America.[14] From her 1998 research, professor Julia Chinyere Oparah proposed that when "white feminists cease to respond to challenges from black women with counter-attack and defensiveness" that anti-racism efforts can progress "beyond white denial" by "acknowledging that white feminists, as individuals, often silence, ignore or otherwise oppress black women."[8]

Robin DiAngelo has argued that social pressure on people of color to "collude with white fragility" accommodates other forms of white defensiveness, in particular "white denial".[9]

White diversion[edit]

White diversion is a term coined by the academic Max Harris to denote a phenomenon in which white people may obstruct dialogue or acknowledgement of race-based discrimination by redirecting or comparing the subject to other social issues. That proposed form of white defensiveness can seek to reorient blame towards people of color and indigenous peoples, rather than address the role of white people.[10] Harris, a University of Oxford Fellow, suggests that when "racism or colonisation are raised, the conversation is derailed."[15]

Max Harris is the author of the book titled “The New Zealand Project”. He is based in New Zealand, but his background is from the United Kingdom. He believes that to name whiteness is to name dominance as it’s often connected to backgrounds. He believes there are four types of white defensiveness and that includes denial, diversion, detriment-centring, and the demand to move on. These terms were created due to Max witnessing the Māori people of New Zealand experiencing hostility towards them in as early as the 1990’s. The term is similar to the concept of “reverse racism” as the Māori people become often portrayed negatively when any aspect of racism is raised. [16]

White fragility[edit]

Robin DiAngelo has theorized that as the mainstream perception of racism implies a conscious "meanness", racism's definition is the cause of practically all white defensiveness.[17][18] DiAngelo, who coined the term "white fragility" in the early 2010s and later released her 2018 book White Fragility, describes "white fragility" as a range of defensive responses by white people.[19] According to Robin DiAngelo, white people react to "racial stress" with an "outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation". DiAngelo theorized that this reaction served to "reinstate white racial equilibrium".[20]

The term has since been analyzed in academia and described in media as a distinct range of expressions by many white people in a number of historical settings up to modern times.[21] The term is often tied to the idea of structural racism.[22][23] The Washington Post critic Carlos Lozada endorsed the concept but found DiAngelo's book flawed.[24] The book was criticized by the American linguist John McWhorter, who argued that it "openly infantilized Black people".[25]

The journalist Peter Baker argues that "white fragility" can be expressed by silence or shutting down; denial; accusations of reverse racism; or upset, anger, or rage at an interpersonal level.[1][6] The latter individualistic form of response is not, however, to be confused with the terms "white backlash" or "white rage", which refer to exclusionary or violent group reactions by some whites to the societal progression of people of color.[26][27]


European colonialism and slavery[edit]

Max Harris has observed the phenomenon in the politics of New Zealand. Referring to this form of white defensiveness as "Diversion", some white New Zealanders deflect attention onto the pre-Pākehā settlers era before colonization by ascribing an unrelated guilt or culpability to Māori people.[15][non-primary source needed]

In 1800, a failed rebellion planned by the slave Gabriel Prosser caused both a drop in support for anti-slavery societies, which had been petitioning against structural racism, and an increase in white defensiveness in the Upper South.[28] In the post-slavery United States, there has historically been frustration from African American communities at white defensiveness and its consequences causing a lack of accountability.[29]

Study of phenomenon[edit]

Multiple studies have explored how white defensiveness, intersecting with whiteness, operates in areas of society, such as education.[30] Cynthia Levine-Rasky's 2011 research showed how an unconscious white defensiveness is often present in traditionally-minded teaching candidates in a Canadian university.[31]

Types of expression[edit]

Reverse racism[edit]

Cameron McCarthy argues that a form of defensiveness can be an insistence on a relativistic view of history in which white people are also the victims of historical oppression and racism.[32] In the late 1990s, Professor Paul Orlowski observed the emergence of white defensiveness in working-class communities of British Columbia, Canada, where investigating structural racism in the province led to accusations of being "anti-white".[33]

Terminologist barriers[edit]

Some assert that the use of technical terms from critical theory (such as "white privilege" and "white fragility") may prevent proper engagement with the social phenomena involved with structural racism. In 2019, as reported by Professor Lauren Michele Jackson, the writer Claudia Rankine abandoned attempts to document conversations with white men,[34] due to her perception that the use of accurate terminology was actually providing somewhat of a barrier to progress and further enabling white defensiveness.[35]

Explicit, or conscious bias[edit]

In explicit bias, the person is fully aware and understands the ramifications of their actions and intentions. These actions might look different, like deliberate acts of exclusion, verbal or physical harassment, or derogatory or exclusive language, but all are processed consciously by the acting subject. [36]

Implicit, or unconscious bias[edit]

Implicit bias comes from outside the person’s conscious understanding of themselves and the world, and can be in direct conflict with their expressed opinions and beliefs. Even though it may not be fully understood by the acting subject, this bias influences how people process decisions and make judgements, especially in cases where the acting subject is making a quick decision or is under duress.  [37]

White Diversion can be an example of both conscious and unconscious bias, depending on the type and the situation. For instance, a knee jerk response may come from a place of unconscious bias, however denial and diversion are often more rooted in conscious bias. The underlying distinction comes from the acting subject’s intentions.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Peter C. Baker (June 19, 2018). "A Cure for White Fragility". Pacific Standard. Most Americans will find DiAngelo's catalog of these evasive moves familiar; wearingly so for people of color, embarrassingly so for whites. Even for readers relatively wise to the ways of white defensiveness, it is usefully bracing to see so many maneuvers standing in a line-up together.
  2. ^ Samson, Derynne. "The Intersection of Antiracism and Grief: Moving Race-Related Conversations Forward". Pacifica Graduate Institute ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
  3. ^ Matias, Cheryl E.; DiAngelo, Robin (2013). "Beyond the Face of Race: Emo-Cognitive Explorations of White Neurosis and Racial Cray-Cray". Educational Foundations. 27: 3–20. ISSN 1047-8248.
  4. ^ Durán, Robert J.; Posadas, Carlos E. (1 January 2013). "Disproportionate Minority Contact in the Land of Enchantment: Juvenile Justice Disparities as a Reflection of White-Over-Color Ascendancy". Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice. 11 (1–2): 93–111. doi:10.1080/15377938.2013.739430. ISSN 1537-7938. S2CID 144008401.
  5. ^ Angie Maxwell; Todd Shields (2019). "Southern White Privilege". The Long Southern Strategy: How Chasing White Voters in the South Changed American Politics. Oxford University Press. p. 75. ISBN 978-0190265960. In other words, the rhetoric of disparity can mask white privilege, thereby perpetuating the denial of it, or it can implicate whites as "beneficiaries of the inequitable distribution of social resources," which triggers white defensiveness.
  6. ^ a b c George Yancy (2014). "Teaching White Settler Subjects Antiracist Feminisms". Exploring Race in Predominantly White Classrooms. Routledge. p. 67. ISBN 978-0415836692. Ringrose suggests that one of the main challenges of critical antiracist pedagogy comes from White defensiveness in feminist antiracist spaces and classrooms. But, in this instance, the usual White defensiveness — including shutting down, silence, anger, tears, denial, disavowal - was momentarily suspended.
  7. ^ a b Leah Gaskin Fitchue (2015). R. Drew Smith; William Ackah; Anthony G. Reddie (eds.). Contesting Post-Racialism: Conflicted Churches in the United States and South Africa. University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 978-1628462005.
  8. ^ a b Julia Sudbury (1998). "Sisters and brothers in struggle?". Other Kinds of Dreams: Black Women's Organisations and the Politics of Transformation. Routledge. p. 214. ISBN 978-0415167314.
  9. ^ a b Robin DiAngelo (2018). White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Beacon Press. p. 159. ISBN 978-0822325154. Perhaps the most pernicious form of pressure on people of color: the pressure to collude with white fragility by minimizing their racial experiences to accommodate white denial and defensiveness. In other words, they don't share their pain with us because we can't handle it.
  10. ^ a b Rebecca Kiddle; Bianca Elkington; Moana Jackson; Ocean Ripeka Mercier; Mike Ross; Jennie Smeaton; Amanda Thomas (2020). "Pākehā and doing the work of decolonisation". Imagining Decolonisation. Bridget Williams Books. p. 44. ISBN 978-0822325154. Max Harris warns against letting this discomfort drive us into white defensiveness. He writes about four types of defensiveness - denial that racism exists; diversion, where attention is deflected from racism to a perceived flaw in Māori society; detriment centering, where we focus only on detriments in Māori communities and ignore the hard work of the Māori (for instance in securing land rights, or normalising Māori-centric health models); and lastly the demand to move on, that Māori should 'get over it'.
  11. ^ David H. Ikard; Martell Lee Teasley (2012). "Introduction". Slaves to Racism: An Unbroken Chain from America to Liberia. Indiana University Press. p. 10. ISBN 978-0253006288. White denial of black suffering is not a new phenomenon. For instance, the dominant white mindset during the antebellum era - which is still widely held by many today - was the slavery was a benign and civilizing apparatus for enslaved Africans.... This pattern of white denial will most likely persist whether or not African Americans are open about their problems or a black man resides in the White House.
  12. ^ "Understanding the Origins of White Denial". INSEAD Knowledge. 2020-09-24. Retrieved 2022-08-13.
  13. ^ Kinias, Zoe (2016). "Bolstering White American's Ethnic Identity Resiliency: Self-Affirmation, Authentic Best-Self Reflection, and Mindfulness Meditation". INSEAD Working Paper.
  14. ^ George Yancy (2020). "Discussing the Backlash to "Dear White America"". Across Black Spaces: Essays and Interviews from an American Philosopher. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p. 21. ISBN 978-1538131626. I was the target of my colleague's white authoritarian denial of my epistemic integrity. This phenomenon is not uncommon. White people presume to know Black people better than Black people know themselves.
  15. ^ a b Max Harris (June 10, 2018). "Racism and White Defensiveness in Aotearoa: A Pākehā Perspective". e-tangata.co.nz. The second type of white defensiveness is Diversion. This is where, in instances in which facts about racism or colonisation are raised, the conversation is derailed through a claim that Māori themselves are guilty of some other wrong.
  16. ^ Jun 10, Max Harris |; Read, 2018 | 94 | 10 Min (2018-06-09). "Racism and White Defensiveness in Aotearoa: A Pākehā Perspective". E-Tangata. Retrieved 2022-08-13.
  17. ^ Anna Kelsey-Sugg; Sasha Fegan (August 21, 2018). "Robin DiAngelo on why it's so hard for white people to talk about racism". ABC Online.
  18. ^ Nadira Hira (August 22, 2019). "Why the Fight Against Racism has to Start With Owning It". Newsweek. The mainstream definition of 'racism' is when an individual consciously doesn't like people based on race and is intentionally mean to them," said academic, longtime diversity trainer and author of White Fragility Robin DiAngelo. "Who is going to own intentional meanness? That definition is the root of virtually all white defensiveness.
  19. ^ Robin DiAngelo (April 10, 2015). "White America's racial illiteracy: Why our national conversation is poisoned from the start". Salon. Not often encountering these challenges, we withdraw, defend, cry, argue, minimize, ignore, and in other ways push back to regain our racial position and equilibrium. I term that push back white fragility.
  20. ^ DiAngelo, Robin (2011). "White Fragility". International Journal of Critical Pedagogy. 3 (3): 54–70. Retrieved 14 June 2020.
  21. ^ Emily Nussbaum (October 28, 2011). "The Rebirth of the Feminist Manifesto". New York. The sickening shot goes viral, inspiring a webwide debate that is classical in its dimensions, with echoes of schisms that go back to the days of the suffragettes: black revulsion, white defensiveness, and a spiraling conversation about institutional privilege.
  22. ^ Zach Powers (February 10, 2016). "South Sound higher education leaders shake up what's comfortable to examine diversity, racism and privilege". Pacific Lutheran University. The afternoon centered on exploring the roots of white defensiveness and microaggressions, as well as ways to challenge racism in individual relationships, classrooms and institutions at large.
  23. ^ Kim A. Case (2012). "Social Support, Privacy, and Isolation". Discovering the Privilege of Whiteness: White Women's Reflections on Anti-racist Identity and Ally Behavior (Volume 68 ed.). Journal of Social Issues. p. 92. The sensitivity and defensiveness of Whites that often occurs when race enters the conversation (Fine, 1997; Jackson, 1999) may leave White anti-racists to privately cope with an issue that is overwhelming for any one individual. However, one characteristic essential to making a reading or discussion group successful is participants' willingness to learn about race and racism as members of the dominant racial group.
  24. ^ Lozada, Carlos (June 18, 2020). "White fragility is real. But 'White Fragility' is flawed". Washington Post. Retrieved March 18, 2021.
  25. ^ McWhorter, John (July 15, 2020). "The Dehumanizing Condescension of 'White Fragility'". The Atlantic. Retrieved July 18, 2020.
  26. ^ Durham, Martin (13 November 2007). White Rage: The Extreme Right and American Politics. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-134-23181-2 – via Google Books.
  27. ^ Hauge, Daniel J. (2 September 2017). "White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide". Journal of Pastoral Theology. 27 (3): 195–198. doi:10.1080/10649867.2017.1402555. ISSN 1064-9867. S2CID 186899985.
  28. ^ Michael Kazin; Rebecca Edwards; Adam Rothman, eds. (2011). The Concise Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History. Princeton University Press. p. 1. ISBN 978-0691152073. As a direct result of increased white defensiveness, antislavery societies in the Upper South disbanded or declined. Meanwhile, in the North, a new scientific racism encouraged white residents to interpret social status in racial terms
  29. ^ Brian Murphy (2018). "Project Say Something's Whose Monument Project". In David B. Allison (ed.). Controversial Monuments and Memorials: A Guide for Community Leaders. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p. 255. ISBN 978-1538113738. Nothing is more important than listening during these public conversations. I heard the defensiveness of white people who did not want to be told that their ancestors may have been racist; I heard African Americans frustrated with the lack of historical accountability.
  30. ^ Cynthia Ninivaggi (2008), Whites Teaching Whites About Race: Racial Identity Theory and White Defensiveness in the Classroom, Teaching Anthropology Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges Notes
  31. ^ Cynthia Levine-Rasky (2011), The practice of whiteness among teacher candidates, International Studies in Sociology of Education, Traditional teacher candidates deny or dismiss any relationship between racism and social institutions like the school, they support assimilation for marginalized groups, and they construct fundamental differences between themselves and members of such groups (p. 262); White defensiveness is common among teacher candidates (McIntyre, 1997a; Sleeter 1995a, 1995b; O'Donnell, 1998; Smith, 1998; Clooney & Akintunde, 1999). Emerging from a political agenda in which the language of marginalization is appropriated by socially dominant groups (Roman, 1993), this response is most evident among the traditional teacher candidates in this study (p. 270).
  32. ^ Cameron McCarthy (2005). Race, Identity, and Representation in Education. Routledge. p. 71. ISBN 978-0415949934. The current celebration of ubiquitous or essential "racial differences" (permitted by the discourse of multiculturalism) is itself already in danger of becoming an expression of rearticulated white defensiveness. By white defensiveness, I mean the relativistic assertion that white, like "people of color", are history's oppressed subjects of racism.
  33. ^ Paul Orlowski (2001). Carl E. James; Adrienne Shadd (eds.). Talking about Identity: Encounters in Race, Ethnicity, and Language. Between the Lines Books. p. 263. ISBN 978-1896357362. The findings from my research, corroborated by my subsequent classroom experiences, go far to explain the recent rise of "white defensiveness" within British Columbia's working class. That attitude can easily result in ugly behaviour... a few days after a Vancouver daily printed a one-page article on the finds of my thesis, a student informed me that both he and his mother "were outraged" by my anti-white ideas.
  34. ^ Lauren Michele Jackson (September 4, 2019). "I Wanted to Know What White Men Thought About Their Privilege. So I Asked". Slate. In a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine, Claudia Rankine cataloged her own aborted attempts to talk to white men about white male privilege.
  35. ^ Claudia Rankine (July 17, 2019). "I Wanted to Know What White Men Thought About Their Privilege. So I Asked". The New York Times. "They're just defensive," he said. "White fragility," he added, with a laugh. This white man who has spent the past 25 years in the world alongside me believes he understands and recognizes his own privilege. Certainly he knows the right terminology to use, even when these agreed-upon terms prevent us from stumbling into moments of real recognition. These phrases — white fragility, white defensiveness, white appropriation — have a habit of standing in for the complicated mess of a true conversation.
  36. ^ "NCCC :: 1". nccc.georgetown.edu. Retrieved 2022-08-13.
  37. ^ "What is Unconscious Bias? (Infographic)". Catalyst. Retrieved 2022-08-13.