She posits that the mere suggestion that being white has any sort of meaning triggers a range of responses that "work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy". These responses include anger, fear, guilt, argumentation, silence and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation.
Such behaviours are immediately on display when I mention the concept to a friend.
"If you call someone racist, of course they'll get defensive!" he argues. "And it's not like we have a monopoly on racism, is it?"
I, in turn, exhibit my own form of white fragility by stepping back from this awkward conversation and not challenging his views any further, preferring to avoid confrontation and not upset what DiAngelo calls our "white solidarity" – "the unspoken agreement among white people that we'll keep each other comfortable around our racism".
Thus, the two of us neatly conform to the thesis of white fragility in our behaviours and actions. Or is it that my friend simply disagrees on an intellectual level with DiAngelo, and I'm just not in the mood for an argument?
Certainly, white fragility has its fair share of critics, who label it anti-intellectual, hypocritical, unscientific and racist in itself. In many ways, the concept is yet another flashpoint in a wider cultural war of left versus right, progressive versus conservative. There can be no middle ground – or can there?
White fragility is a corollary of white privilege, defined by US scholar Peggy McIntosh in 1988 as an unearned advantage in which white people in Western societies are born with "an invisible weightless knapsack" of "special provisions, tools, maps, codebooks and blank cheques" they aren't even aware of, which they can call on to navigate the woods of daily life.
But is racism solely a "white" problem? Other cultures have a status quo that could be considered racist – Japan against Koreans and Chinese for instance, or China against Africans. So why white fragility and not racial fragility?
Professor Eddy Ng also gave a talk at Sydney University in December about racial stress and white fragility in the workplace. "We call it white fragility because in this case whites as an ethnic racial group exhibit it, based on the long-standing privileges that they have had," he says.
But Ng, who is the F.C. Manning Chair in Economics and Business at Canada's Dalhousie University, has a broader approach to the concept than DiAngelo. "White fragility is not just a white phenomenon," he says. "This notion of being denied a privilege exists in other societies as well. And you can generalise it to other groups that have privilege that has been denied to them.
"Anybody who's in a high status group, they tend to have a certain expectation," says Ng. "'I went to Harvard' or 'I'm a doctor' or 'I'm good looking' – you become accustomed to certain privileges."
Or as the T-shirt slogan puts it: When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.
Politics of language
"Language is always political," says DiAngelo, "and that's why it's always a site of struggle."
However, DiAngelo's use of language – specifically, how her definitions of "racism" and "white supremacy" differ markedly to those of broader society – makes her own struggle to get her message across all the more difficult.
The Australian Oxford Dictionary defines racism as: "A belief in the superiority of a particular race; prejudice based on this; antagonism towards other races, esp. as a result of this."
But DiAngelo potentially makes a rod for her own back by coining her own definition of racism. "When you back a group's collective bias with legal authority and institutional control it is transformed into a far-reaching system," she says. "I reserve the term 'racism' to acknowledge that."
British journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge (author of 2017's Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People about Race) has a similar take as DiAngelo on the systemic nature of racism, but is clearer in her message by calling it what it is: structural racism. "'Structural' is often the only way to describe what goes unnoticed," writes Eddo-Lodge. "It is not just about personal prejudice, but the collective effects of bias."
Similarly, Wikipedia defines white supremacy as: "The racist belief that white people are superior to people of other races and therefore should be dominant over them." DiAngelo, meanwhile, uses the term white supremacy to describe the "overarching political, economic and social system of domination".
So why muddy the semantic waters and alienate your already fragile target audience of white people, who associate "racism" and "white supremacy" with the extremist views of the Ku Klux Klan or neo-Nazis? It could be that by provoking an instinctive, emotional response in white people, the heat of DiAngelo's language will act as a sort of "flamethrower" from the ideological edges that moves people to the middle. They might not agree with everything she has to say, but at least she has them grappling with the idea that they might be helping to perpetuate a historic, inherited system of racism.
"The mainstream understanding of individual conscious intent exempts basically everybody," says DiAngelo. "As long as that is our understanding of what racism is, our outcomes aren't getting any better."
DiAngelo argues that the roots of modern racism are grounded in the need to morally justify slavery and colonialism, with leaders such as US founding father (and slave owner) Thomas Jefferson turning to science to reconcile the gaping chasm between the self-evident truth that "all men are created equal" and the grim realities of slavery and colonisation.
DiAngelo's take on race relations comes from a uniquely American perspective, with all the history (slavery, segregation, lynchings) that entails, as well as the current reality that race in the US is still seen by many as a matter of life and death: #BlackLivesMatter.
But while Australia prides itself on its multiculturalism, we also have our own racial baggage to inspect, beyond the treatment of our Indigenous population (first included in the census in 1967) and the White Australia policy (officially put to rest in 1973).
A report released by the Australian Human Rights Commission in April 2018 found that despite 24 per cent of the Australian population having Indigenous or non-European backgrounds, white people of Anglo-Celtic or European background make up 97 per cent of chief executives, 95 per cent of senior leaders across business government and academia, 94 per cent of Parliament and 99 per cent of state and federal government department heads.
And it's not just political, academic and economic power where the white paradigm is all powerful – DiAngelo argues that racism is literally everywhere in any society with a "settler colonial context".
"It is not a fluke that our environments are white; it's the result of decades of policies and practices," she writes. "Every moment I spend in all-white space I am being reinforced in a white worldview."
Be they political, economic or cultural, "These messages are raining down on every one of us 24/7," says DiAngelo, "and there are no umbrellas."
DiAngelo writes that her theory is unapologetically rooted in identity politics – "the focus on the barriers specific groups face in their struggle for equality" – and based on the theory of intersectionality: "A recognition that my other social identities – class, gender, ability – inform how I was socialised into the racial system."
Perhaps this is where the nub of the arguments for and against white fragility lies. Whether you buy into it or not depends in a large part on your worldview, and DiAngelo's strongest critics take issue with her intersectional/identity politics approach.
Paul Maxwell, an American evangelical Christian blogger with a PhD in theology, equates white fragility to Mein Kampf: "Identity politics got us the Holocaust [and indulges] in an ethical position which encourages the corporate culpability of a single ethnicity for the ills of another," he writes.
Maxwell's argument, however, misses DiAngelo's point that racism is about systematic power. The Nazis, of course, had massive institutional power. Black people in the USA? Not so much. This is also why DiAngelo states that "reverse racism" against whites in western societies is impossible. They might experience prejudice and discrimination, but not racism, because white people still hold power in our society.
Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University's Stern School of Business, takes issue with the theory of intersectionality in a City Journal essay.
"It's not just white privilege causing black oppression, and male privilege causing female oppression," writes Haidt. "Anything that a group has that is good or valued is seen as a kind of privilege, which causes a kind of oppression in those who don't have it.
"This is a paranoid worldview that separates people from each other and sends them down the road to alienation, anxiety, and intellectual impotence."
This leads to perhaps the most robust criticism of the theory of white fragility: that by its very nature – its reductive "if you say you don't suffer from it, it proves you actually do" argument – it is anti-intellectual and anti-free speech, replacing dialectics with ideology.
Just as there's no defence against being called "defensive", DiAngelo's critics say that from her viewpoint, there can be no valid case made against her argument without the prosecutor either being a (dictionary definition) racist or suffering from white fragility themselves.
Jonathan Church sums up these concerns in an article on the Quilette website. "'White fragility' becomes an Orwellian device to dismiss objections from white people … an accusation sufficient to invalidate any heterodox opinion at a stroke."
I finally get an opportunity to ask DiAngelo about her reluctance to engage in robust debate with her opponents when I buttonhole her at a small group workshop in Sydney's inner west, after she had declined prior requests for an interview or to answer my questions by email.
"I think most people would agree that there is racial inequality," says DiAngelo, who in person is warm yet wary (not surprising, given the venom of critics such as the far-right Breitbart News), her slight frame topped by a mop of curly hair.
"An individualist-libertarian viewpoint would say 'Each individual is responsible for their condition.' But I'm coming from a framework that says society is structured in ways that some groups have more opportunities than others.
"This is where it gets hard, because they don't start with the premise that their positions as white men have anything to do with it," she says. "I'm just asking people to grapple with a different paradigm, try it on, and take it or leave it, really."
And what happens if they do grapple, and still disagree?
DiAngelo compares it to the futility of arguing over religion. "It's less relevant to me whether we agree or disagree. And I don't really need everyone to agree with me. [Malcolm Gladwell's] tipping point theory says you just need 30 per cent to change culture.
"But I can't help but notice that my strongest critics are, overall, the people who benefit the most from the status quo."
DiAngelo says that white people recognising their own role in maintaining the racial status quo is just the first step in a long, painful and uncomfortable journey in overcoming racism, similar to that faced by the suffragettes of the early 20th century.
"Men as a group could and did deny women their civil rights," she writes. "The only way women could gain suffrage was for men to grant it to them; women could not grant suffrage to themselves."
And just as the suffragettes needed male allies to grant them the right to vote, DiAngelo argues it's up to white people to question and help dismantle the racist system that has served them so well.
"Get to work trying to figure out what racism looks like in your life, rather than defending, deflecting and denying," she says. "It's actually liberating."
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