White Fragility, Anti-Racist Pedagogy, and the Weight of History

by Justin Gomer and Christopher Petrella
Protest against white supremacy, February 2017. Photo: Flickr/cool revolution.
Protest against white supremacy, February 2017. Photo: Flickr/cool revolution.

On July 3, The Boston Globe published a controversial, if predictable, op-ed entitled “In Defense of White Males.” The piece, written by novelist Roland Merullo, is rife with the sort of bromides we white folk commonly use to defend ourselves against structural critiques of white supremacy. Merullo informs readers that not all whites are racist; that whites do plenty of altruistic things; that there are plenty of “bad” people of color throughout history; that white Republicans are the real problem; and that there’s only one race—the human race—amid other examples of the colorblind claptrap that saturates public racial discourse today. Merullo concludes his essay with the hope that “one fine day we’ll learn to eschew labels, or at least see beyond them, and focus on the humanity we share.”

While Merullo’s efforts to privilege the slighted feelings of whites in discussions of racial injustice are unsurprising, this tendency is sadly not quarantined to op-ed pages and non-scholarly public debates. Efforts to center white hurt are also deeply embroiled, though more insidiously, in many of the fashionable theoretical and pedagogical approaches to the academic study of race in the United States. These efforts are illustrated by the idea of “white fragility.”

Robin DiAngelo, an education scholar and architect of the term “white fragility,” defines it as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable [for whites], triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.”

As two white men who hold PhDs in African Diaspora Studies and who think, write, and teach about race in US history, society, and culture, we are troubled by the popularity of the white fragility framework.

While we acknowledge the potential utility of the coinage as a possible assessment of white emotional coping strategies, we ultimately argue that any pedagogical intervention derived from an investment in the concept of white fragility is problematic precisely because it reproduces many of the unstated dynamics Merullo invokes in his Boston Globe essay. DiAngelo’s assessment of white supremacy (a term she generally avoids) is sound. However, in seeking out anti-racist pedagogical strategies, she looks to psychopathology rather than to history, which therefore re-centers whiteness.

Protest in Washington DC, Upper Senate Park, September 2015. Photo: Flickr/Stephen Melkisethian.
Protest in Washington DC, Upper Senate Park, September 2015. Photo: Flickr/Stephen Melkisethian.

For DiAngelo, white fragility requires an anti-racist pedagogy that prioritizes personal introspection over historical analysis. She writes, “While anti-racist efforts ultimately seek to transform institutionalized racism, anti-racist education may be most effective by starting at the micro level… Starting with the individual and moving outward to the ultimate framework for racism—Whiteness—allows for the pacing that is necessary for many white people for approaching the challenging study of race.”

To accept white fragility as a diagnostic tool capable of producing a deep anti-racist pedagogy, one would also have to believe that “racism is little more than a behavior-based psychopathology that discloses itself in discrete manifestations of bigotry, prejudice, and misunderstanding.” This rendering of white supremacy is harmful. Anti-racist pedagogies ought to be grounded in the intellectual history of race, not psychopathology.

In fact, privileging an analysis of one’s feelings about race at the expense of historical inquiry belies the very constitution of race and its relationship to racism. As historian Barbara Fields explains, “race is not genetically programmed, racial prejudice cannot be genetically programmed either but, like race itself, must arise historically… [Race] came into existence at a discernible historical moment for rationally understandable historical reasons [our emphasis added].”

Whiteness (and race, more broadly) is the product of history, and racism is not the perversion of race. Instead, as Fields and sociologist Karen Fields explain, “Race is the principal unit and core concept of racism… Racism always takes for granted the objective reality of race. The shorthand transforms racism, something an aggressor does, into race, something the target is, in a sleight of hand that is easy to miss.” The process of cleaving race from racism is what the Fields refer to as “racecraft,” a form of magical (a)historical thinking.

One cannot begin to comprehend the relationship between race and racism without historical investigation. A historically-grounded anti-racist pedagogy, rather than a psychologically-oriented one, allows us to see US society “in the act of inventing race.” The white fragility paradigm forces teachers to accept a pedagogical intervention that, in DiAngelo’s words, “starts at the micro-level,” and compels students to imagine racism as disembodied and ahistorical, as radically out of place and time.

We should instead look to Black Studies—and Ethnic Studies more broadly—for pedagogical guidance. Ethnic Studies is the only field that has, since its inception, paired the historical scrutiny of white supremacy with the interrogation of the role of the academy in producing the “knowledge” of white supremacy. As a recent report from the California State University Task Force for the Advancement of Ethnic Studies explains, Ethnic Studies grew out of anti-racist struggles during the tumultuous 1960s and linked college campuses and communities of color. Ethnic Studies “defined the university as a microcosm of the race, class and power relations in society and thus, it was seen as unresponsive to the needs and aspirations of Native Americans, African Americans, Asians Americans, and Latinas/os.”

In other words, as Robin Kelley asserts, “Black studies was conceived not just outside the university but in opposition to a Eurocentric university culture.” This tension—of being outsiders on the inside, of being both on campuses but never fully part of universities—remains a central topic of research and theorizing for Ethnic Studies scholars.

Rally to call for prosecution of police in the death of Terrance Franklin, Minneapolis, August 2013. Photo: Flickr/Fibonacci Blue.
Rally to call for prosecution of police in the death of Terrance Franklin, Minneapolis, August 2013. Photo: Flickr/Fibonacci Blue.

So how do we apply this anti-racist pedagogy? On the one hand, this entails placing the historical inquiry of white supremacy at the center of our teaching and research, but it also means taking seriously notions of interdisciplinarity. The history of Ethnic Studies teaches us that traditional disciplinary boundaries and methodologies produced much of the knowledge that has reinforced and perpetuated white supremacy and other forms of oppression. It was philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, after all, who offhandedly quipped that “Africa has no history and did not contribute anything that mankind enjoyed.” Eugenics once occupied esteemed space as “science” within the academy. Let’s also not forget that The Moynihan Report was authored by a sociologist, and The Bell Curve by a political scientist. And earlier this year the highly regarded American Historical Review, the official publication of the American Historical Association, published a book review authored by a known white-supremacist who believes in the pseudoscience known as “sociobiology.”

This is not to say that fields like Philosophy, History, and Sociology have not also made essential contributions to our understandings of systems of oppression, particularly along racial lines, but these anecdotes should serve as a reminder that one of the essential contributions of Ethnic Studies is its critical engagement with and constant awareness of the academy’s role in (re)producing and legitimizing white supremacy.

Merullo’s hope that “one fine day we’ll learn to eschew labels” is instructive. Race, in our view, is less a label than a process that structures the creation, retrieval, and reception of history itself. White fragility, as a behavioralist discourse, misses this fundamental insight. As James Baldwin famously wrote, whites “are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.” History, according to Baldwin, “is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.”

Ultimately, the pedagogical tools offered by those who subscribe to the power of white fragility as both a theoretical and pedagogical intervention require that we, as educators, care more about the feelings of white folk than the lives of Black people. This reinforces the root of Merullo’s objection in The Boston Globe and the endurance of the most basic vectors of white supremacy. Under no circumstances should this objection be read as a lack of empathy, but rather as a radical refusal to center whiteness irrespective of the social cost. The Boston Globe article last week reveals how white fragility has become an ascendant framework that infects not only popular discourse but academic inquiry, as well.

In Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot suggests that “history is the fruit of power, but power itself is never so transparent that its analysis becomes superfluous. The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots.” Both the exposition and extirpation of white supremacy require deep historical engagement. Lamentably, the white fragility paradigm excuses white folk from doing the hard work, in Baldwin’s words, of understanding the history in which we’re trapped. Unless we, as educators and scholars, are willing to prioritize inquiry into the historically embedded nature of white supremacy in our research and teaching, then subtle retrenchment, rather than disruption, is all we can accomplish.

Justin Gomer is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at California State University, Long Beach. He holds a Ph.D. in African Diaspora Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently writing a book entitled, Colorblindness, A Life: The Political and Cultural Biography of an Ideology,” which offers an interdisciplinary biography of the racial ideology of colorblindness. Follow him on Twitter @ProfessorGomer.

Christopher F. Petrella is a Lecturer in American Cultural Studies at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. He also serves as Associate Director of Programs for the College’s Office of Equity and Diversity. Christopher is completing his first book on the history of white supremacy in 20th century New England. Follow him on Twitter @CFPetrella.

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Comments on “White Fragility, Anti-Racist Pedagogy, and the Weight of History

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    I have found, in my work, that the white fragility paradigm does not excuse from, but rather leads to tools and skill building, enabling white folk to do the hard work and learn history. Specifically, in understanding the barriers, I’ve been able to more effectively work with white folks to overcome barriers needed to learn history and confront legacies of oppression they might otherwise avoid or defend against. Do you believe these pedagogies are mutually exclusive and cannot support each other?

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      Excellent point!

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    I agree with Alisheva’s comment. DiAngelo is a scholar of whiteness and racism in education and writes extensively on patterns of response among her white students. This seems to be an intentional centering of whiteness in the process of disorienting & disrupting it. She writes that the ultimate goal is to “transform institutionalized racism.” Can a micro-level analysis of whiteness (as produced in real time in the classroom) exist with a larger historical analysis in a way that doesn’t suggest less caring for Black people?

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