Sales Tax Institute Book Club: White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

The Sales Tax Institute book club continued into the month of August to maintain our company-wide conversation about race in the United States. 

Our book of choice, Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, uncovers different forms of racism in the United States. The book examines a theory of white Americans’ sensitivity to (1) acknowledging racism, and (2) understanding their potential part in it. DiAngelo’s theories are followed by action items for white Americans to better understand their role in perpetuating racism. 


Before we get into it, let’s clear some things up. 

DiAngelo clarifies the nuanced meanings behind the following words: prejudice, discrimination, racism, and white fragility. 

  1. Prejudice: Pre-judgement about another person based on the social groups to which that person belongs to. It consists of thoughts and feelings, including stereotypes, attitudes, and generalizations that are based on little or no experience with people in a group and then are projected onto everyone in that group. All humans have prejudice.
  2. Discrimination: Action based on prejudice. These actions include ignoring, exclusion, threats, ridicule, slander, and violence towards a group of people.
  3. Racism: When a racial group’s collective prejudice is backed by the power of legal authority and institutional control. It is a far reaching system that can function in institutions independently from the intentions or self images of individual actors.
  4. White fragility: A state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable [for white people], 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. This defensiveness serves to maintain both comfort and position in a racially inequitable society from which white people benefit. 

Disclaimer: Good people can unknowingly hold up systems that uphold racism. Anti-blackness is rooted in misinformation, fables, stereotypes, projections, and lies that have been ingrained in white American lives since birth. 

White Americans all benefit from the privilege of their skin color, no matter their political affiliation, class, or background. Historically, we’ve equated being racist as being morally bad. But it’s not that simple. Racism should be seen more like a spectrum than a binary where good people = not racist, bad people = racist. White Americans can speak or act offensively without having bad intentions. Racism often manifests itself as “aversive racism” which occurs when “well-intentioned people who see themselves as educated and progressive exhibit [racism],”. Aversive racism may sound like “I have a black friend, so I’m not racist” or “I judge people for their character, not skin color.” This implicit racism comes from avoidance of taking the time to truly understand the plight and struggle of other racial groups while maintaining unconscious, prejudiced views. 


White Fragility’s Function: Obscure Racism & Uphold Current Power Structures

Let’s take a look at some of the forms of white fragility that white people may use without realizing it.

One form of white fragility is what Toni Morrison calls “race talk”. Race talk takes the shape of racially coded language used in everyday life that reinforces the positioning of Black Americans at the lowest level of the racial hierarchy. “Race talk always implies a racial ‘us’ and ‘them’”. For example, white people may use coded language to describe predominantly Black neighborhoods as “dangerous” while framing white spaces as sheltered or innocent. Race talk fuels the implicit bias of race as a signal of danger and enforces racial hierarchy. 

Another shape that white fragility takes is the discourse of self-defense during discussions of race. For example, if a white person is called out for a racially insensitive or offensive statement, they may go into defense mode to protect their moral character. This becomes problematic because instead of taking constructive feedback about how their words came across and caused damage, the person may position themselves as the victim. They might defend themselves as being misunderstood and state that they are now being attacked or treated unfairly. These types of defensive reactions derail antiracist efforts that challenge us to understand the power of our words and actions and take ownership.

Often, white Americans think they have to commit overt racism like hate speech in order to be racist. White defensiveness is rooted in the false belief that racism can only be intentional. White Americans not only defend themselves, but one another. “White solidarity” refers to white people letting the racially offensive actions or statements of other white people slide because the individual “had good intentions,” or because they don’t want to rock the boat, seem too politically correct, or jeopardize their place in a group. 

Finally, white people often think of themselves as exempt from race, that being white is the default race, therefore “raceless.” “They, not we, have race,” which leads some white people to believe “they” must deal with being black and “we” remain unchanged by race. Because of the notion that black people “have race,” they are given the burden of dealing with or teaching people about race. The common tendency for white people to expect black people to explain racism to them is an outcome of white ignorance. To be less racially ignorant, white people must be open to, interested in, and compassionate about the racial realities of people of color.


Here are the Sales Tax Institute’s Key Takeaways: 

What white Americans should ask themselves…

  1. How have I received messages that white people are superior? From the media, school, family, leaders? 
  2. Why am I so uncomfortable talking about race? How can I learn about the history and reality of racism in the United States so I can more easily discuss race?
  3. Can we trust our perceptions when it comes to race and crime? 
  4. We are part of systems that perpetuate racism and we get to take advantage of them. How can we fight this? How can we work to recognize and put an end to even subtle racism in our workplaces, institutions, and communities?

How white Americans can respond to discussions of race in a more productive way…

  1. Don’t get defensive or make excuses if someone confronts you. Focus on the message, not the messenger. 
  2. Build your capacity to endure discomfort and bear witness to the pain of racism. 
  3. Express gratitude and humility if you are given feedback on racist patterns that you may be unaware of, as well as a willingness to change. 
  4. Don’t center the discussion on your emotions and reactions because this diverts attention to you instead of the issue at hand. It’s okay to be sad about racism, but don’t take attention from the cause by being overly emotional.

As a predominately white organization, reading White Fragility allowed us to understand the ways in which we may unintentionally take part in the long history of racism in the United States. Taking what we’ve learned from White Fragility, we return to our day to day lives with the awareness and knowledge to (1) acknowledge racism in ourselves and in our institutions and (2) try to make amends for our potential part in it. The insight we gained in discussing specific actions we now recognize as racism allows us to grow and continue our learning. Change starts now and starts with each of us.

If you’ve read White Fragility and have other thoughts or insights, we’d love to hear them. Email us here.

What’s next? Our commitment to educate ourselves as a company will focus on our interactions as a team. Our next book on the list is The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. Join us as we delve into a discussion about how to build and maintain a cohesive and effective team. Look for our insights next month and join the discussion. 

We encourage you to support your independent local bookstores.  Our neighborhood bookstore is Sandmeyer’s Bookstore in historic Printer’s Row Chicago. Join us and support your own favorite local store!

Posted on October 12, 2020