White Fragility — Guilt, Fear and Shame Inducing Generalizations

What is “white” fra­gi­li­ty? — you might won­der. According to my cur­rent under­stan­ding the term has been intro­du­ced by an American scho­l­ar by the name of Robin DiAngelo and pro­bab­ly made more popu­lar to a wider audi­ence through her book “White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white peop­le to talk about racism.”

From my expe­ri­ence the word “racism” is char­ged with a sen­se of moral wrong­ness. I see peop­le using the word often enough and I am con­cer­ned dif­fe­rent peop­le have dif­fe­rent ide­as about what they think of as “racism”. I rare­ly hear peop­le descri­be them­sel­ves as racists. This other per­son is a racist, the­se peop­le are racists — this is a racist sys­tem — even, I con­si­der mys­elf as part of a racist sys­tem, we are all part of such a sys­tem and we need to chan­ge it — now! 

I con­si­der anything char­ged with a sen­se of moral wrong­ness as a tra­gic, even sui­ci­dal expres­si­on of unmet needs. Because such an expres­si­on makes prac­ti­cal­ly cer­tain to pro­du­ce more or less the oppo­si­te of the wis­hed-for result.

I want to show what I mean in a con­cre­te example.

In the below video pre­sen­ta­ti­on of 3.47 minu­tes Robin DiAngelo exp­lains a cou­p­le of her key fin­dings about how white peop­le rela­te to racism.

My gene­ral inter­nal respon­se when I lis­ten to her pre­sen­ta­ti­on is that I am ten­sing up. She seems to judge the situa­ti­on she is describ­ing in despe­ra­te need of chan­ge, as she descri­bes the racist socia­liz­a­ti­on of “white peop­le” in gene­ral. As I expe­ri­ence that urgen­cy in her mes­sa­ge, I do wish for more choice and spa­cious­ness — I wish for a kind of ener­gy, that would invi­te me to a “no”, that would seem open and curious for a dif­fe­rent view. When she gene­ra­li­zes how white peop­le respond to situa­tions, I would like to be asked if what she descri­bes feels true for me too. That kind of asking would meet my need for respect. 

Being white — how is your inter­nal respon­se to viewing this video? Is the­re any sen­se of guilt, shame or fear in you, when you view this video? Do you think you should chan­ge some­thing? Or — alter­na­tively — do you feel an inner sen­se of cla­ri­ty ari­se, a sen­se of wan­ting to con­tritu­be to chan­ge from a place of free­dom and joy?

And being “non-white” — what are your fee­lings, when viewing this video, hea­ring this pre­sen­ta­ti­on? Do you have a sen­se of sup­port, une­a­se, hap­pi­ness …? What comes ali­ve in you?

I would find more hel­pful if she were to use her own examp­le or the examp­le of spe­ci­fic peop­le and then pro­po­se to her audi­ence to check, if they also find such types of reac­ti­vi­ty in them. This might incre­a­se my open­ness to the important issu­es that may be under­ly­ing, my wil­ling­ness to coope­ra­te to more well-being with inner joy.

Also — from the point of view of non­vio­lent com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on — con­nec­tion first. When I hear this aut­hor speak I get a strong impres­si­on that she wants peop­le to chan­ge her atti­tu­des. What I do not get from her pre­sen­ta­ti­on — in terms of hones­ty unders­tood as one’s own per­so­nal obser­va­ti­on, fee­lings, needs and requests to see­ing “white fragility”. 

As a giraf­fe I am curious and I ask: “So, Robin, what do you feel and need, when you take the per­spec­ti­ve that white peop­le find it dif­fi­cult to talk about race? Are you angry?” — Hearing her respon­se, I might be able to con­nect to her as a person.

From NVC point of view her ana­ly­sis, full of gene­ra­liz­a­ti­ons, is a per­so­nal inter­pre­ta­ti­on. It is easy to see that, when dif­fe­rent peop­le eva­lua­te the same facts in a dif­fe­rent way. We view facts in the light of our fee­lings and needs and we con­nect at that level, as human bein­gs. For non­vio­lence it is cru­cial that all par­ties invol­ved in a pro­cess are acting in full auto­no­my and do not act from fear, guilt, shame or obli­ga­ti­on. I do expe­ri­ence any part of the abo­ve pre­sen­ta­ti­on as non­vio­lent. She is just about her request, not even con­cep­tual­ly showing a room for vary­ing theories.


I want to share also how I see her approach dif­fe­rent from the one in har­mo­ny with my under­stan­ding of non­vio­lent com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on for the first examp­le she gives in the abo­ve video, which seems to have par­ti­cu­lar rele­van­ce to her ent­i­re approach.

Taking part in a work­shop on race led by a black trai­ner, Robin DiAngelo descri­bes a white per­son as say­ing:
I don’t see color.

And how the trai­ner replied:
So how are you going to see racism? Because I am black. I do think you know that. And I have a dif­fe­rent expe­ri­ence than you do. And you are not going to be able to under­stand that and you are not going to be able to sup­port the parts of that expe­ri­ence that are real­ly pain­ful and pro­ble­ma­tic, if you refu­se to ack­now­ledge my rea­li­ty.

DiAngelo con­clu­des:
“I don’t see color — means — I refu­se to ack­now­ledge your reality.” 

I hear her making an inter­pre­ta­ti­on of the inner moti­va­ti­on of the white per­son. From a non­vio­lent com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on point of view, I might guess that she be wan­ting to express this:
“What you say is pain­ful to me (fee­ling), becau­se I think you are deny­ing the fee­lings of ano­t­her per­son (thought=observation), when you say that (sti­mu­lus for thought). I need peop­le to respect each other’s expe­ri­ence. (need) Would you plea­se ack­now­ledge that dif­fe­rent peop­le might have very dif­fe­rent expe­ri­en­ces from you? (request)”

From a nor­mal, “vio­lent” lan­guage point of view, DiAngelo is sim­ply making an inter­pre­ta­ti­on what the state­ment of the white per­son means, without estab­li­shing con­nec­tion with the per­son or che­cking with the per­son, if what she is making out of the state­ment coin­ci­des with what is ali­ve in the person.

I do not see her asking what the inner moti­va­ti­on of the white per­son is. Asking would be a prac­ti­ce in har­mo­ny with non­vio­lent com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on, whe­re we want to value indi­vi­du­al dif­fe­ren­ces and whe­re we want to respect the inner life of each person.

Paradoxically the need that might be ali­ve in DiAngelo is what she is not ser­ving by her expres­si­on herself — not making space for dif­fe­ring expe­ri­en­ces in dif­fe­rent peop­le. This is what Marshall Rosenberg refer­red to as “jug­d­ments and eva­lua­tions are tra­gic expres­si­ons of needs.”

I can also see how peop­le who value inclu­si­vi­ty and tole­ran­ce might enjoy this way of approa­ching the sub­ject of race. A new and stron­ger ver­si­on of poli­ti­cal cor­rect­ness for the 21st cen­tu­ry? My hope would be that this tole­ran­ce would extend to peop­le who hold a dif­fe­rent view than this.

I can also see how peop­le who value tra­di­ti­on and safe bor­ders for them­sel­ves and their friends would not enjoy this approach, see­ing her approach as an examp­le of an anar­chism, com­mu­nist or racism. I would hope that they might find an open door for hea­ring some of the needs of the group above.

Making gene­ra­li­zing state­ments about groups of peop­le is not in har­mo­ny with my under­stan­ding of com­pas­sio­na­te com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on and its spi­ri­tu­al basis. The best way of hea­ring this would be to hear requests in it.

That said, per­so­nal expe­ri­en­ces from peop­le of all walks of life on skin color or other discri­mi­na­ting ele­ments of out­ward or inward rea­li­ties can help us to learn about the suf­fe­ring that all peop­le expe­ri­ence on their indi­vi­du­al level, to tru­ly feel con­nec­ted to uni­ver­sal human longings. 

I sug­gest to stay curious about the human being bey­ond the dif­fe­ren­ces and lea­ve gene­ra­liz­a­ti­ons about peop­le to the realm of science. 

I would con­nect empa­thi­cal­ly to the black trai­ner, who sta­tes his fee­lings and needs in terms of what does not work for him in the atti­tu­de or words of the other per­son:
“Do you want to trust that your rea­li­ty is appre­cia­ted and ful­ly understood?”

Connection befo­re correction.

Leave a Reply