White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People To Talk About Racism

White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People To Talk About Racism 1

White Fragility is…now quite well-known in 2023.

I originally read the book in 2019. I drafted a partial review…and then procrastinated..as I did with most all my reviews until now.

My blurb in 2019 said the book “was a deeply thought-provoking read on multiple levels. You can’t learn & listen if you have a defensive and assuming posture.”

At the time, the book was popular in sort of progressive, liberal circles, but remained fairly niche in the broader culture.

And then, everything changed. If you are an American, I don’t have to recount everything that has happened over the last 3 years. But, this book became a not-insignificant part of the mainstream news cycle…and the subsequent backlash..and the backlash to the backlash.

I don’t think I can add a whole lot to all the hundreds of nuanced articles out there, so I’ll just simplify my takeaways to a few bullet points.

What I Liked

  1. I like that this book exists. The book forcefully proposes thought-provoking and interesting questions. Like most of life, I don’t think that racism exists on a yes / no matrix. It exists on a better / worse spectrum. The only way to continue pushing towards better is to talk in good faith in a way that creates action.
  2. I liked the broad point that honest conversations in good faith are difficult to create. Just like in a marriage or friendship, assumptions and defensive postures will stop good, healthy conversations before they even start.
  3. You cannot control the other person in a conversation, but you can control yourself. Active listening is very hard. It’s a skill and a practice that we can all practice. The most demanding practice is when the listening is about a topic that directly affects us. The book is specifically talking about people who benefit from racial policies from years ago, but there’s a broader point to be made. The book actually made me think about marriage / friendship when one person’s random habits unknowingly affect the other person.
  4. Not having honest, good faith conversations lead to inaction which leads to resentment…and worse. It is easy to talk about how good things from the past benefit us, but it is hard to talk about how bad things from the past also benefit us. Just because it’s hard to talk about does not mean it’s not worthwhile.

What I Did Not Like

  1. In the 2nd half of the book, the book seems to argue that racism is a yes/no matrix rather than a better/worse spectrum. I understand the point – that racism will never be gone. But that is the difficulty about a better/worse spectrum…things can always be better. There is no “success” – but a spectrum also means that there can be improvement. Better is literally better. I think the book undermines its push for behavior change by not staying consistent and maintaining a hopeful posture.
  2. The book is narrowly focused on White / Black Americans. On one hand, that is smart. If a book is about “everything” it’s about “nothing”…you have to focus. And the history of racism in America is about the actions of White Americans, so the book is right on to focus on that relationship. However, writing this book in the late 2010s, the author missed an opportunity to make a broader argument about cross-demographic conversations in a increasingly diverse America. There are many people & challenges, who even though they don’t have the same history as White & Black Americans, could absolutely benefit from the same principles of active listening, understanding recent historical wrongs, and looking for blind spots that reduce equal opportunity for all.
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