Posted on July 16, 2020

‘White Fragility’ Is Everywhere. But Does Antiracism Training Work?

Daniel Bergner, New York Times, July 15, 2020

In early June, Robin DiAngelo addressed 184 Democratic members of Congress who had gathered, by conference call, for what the party leadership had named a “Democratic Caucus family discussion on race.” It was 10 days after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, gave introductory remarks, and soon DiAngelo began. “For all the white people listening right now, thinking I am not talking to you,” she had a message: “I am looking directly in your eyes and saying, ‘It is you.’” She cautioned the white officeholders not to think that because they marched in the 1960s, or served a diverse district, or had a Black roommate in college, they were exempt from self-examination. Until they reckoned with the question of “what does it mean to be white,” they would “continue to enact policies and practices — intentionally or not — that hurt and limit” Black lives.

The invitation to speak to the caucus was just one in a deluge for DiAngelo. Before Floyd’s killing, she was a leading figure in the field of antiracism training or, as she sometimes describes it, antiracism consciousness raising. It’s a field shared by nonwhite and white trainers, and DiAngelo, who is 63 and white, with graying corkscrew curls framing delicate features, had won the admiration of Black activist intellectuals like Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to Be an Antiracist,” who praises the “unapologetic critique” of her presentations, her apparent indifference to “the feelings of the white people in the room.” In 2018, when she published her manifesto, “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” Michael Eric Dyson provided the foreword. She is “wise and withering,” he wrote, “in her relentless assault on what Langston Hughes termed ‘the ways of white folks.’” “White Fragility” leapt onto the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list, and next came a stream of bookings for public lectures and, mostly, private workshops and speeches given to school faculties and government agencies and university administrations and companies like Microsoft and Google and W.L. Gore & Associates, the maker of Gore-Tex.

But as prominent as DiAngelo was then, she has become, since Floyd’s death, a phenomenon. As outraged protesters rose up across the country, “White Fragility” became Amazon’s No. 1 selling book, beating out even the bankable escapism of the latest “Hunger Games” installment. The book’s small publisher, Beacon Press, had trouble printing fast enough to meet demand; 1.6 million copies, in one form or other, have been sold. And as countless companies and institutions put out statements denouncing racism and expressing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and committing themselves to inclusivity, DiAngelo’s inbox was flooded with urgent emails: requests to deliver (virtually because of the pandemic) workshops and keynotes at Amazon, Nike, Under Armour, Goldman Sachs. The entreaties went on: Facebook, CVS, American Express, Netflix.

Corporate desperation was matched by unrestrained media enthusiasm. Jimmy Fallon had DiAngelo as a guest on “The Tonight Show” in mid-June and commented, “Wow … wow,” as she spoke, and CNN chose to intersperse a repeated close-up of DiAngelo’s white face — and her instructions to white people on how to begin to battle their racism — with a montage from the protests. Instagram bore tens of thousands of posts about “White Fragility,” a great many of them pictures taken by white readers, with the book as part of a tableau, lying just so on an impeccably ironed bedspread or on a burnished wooden tray between a votive candle and a cup of tea, as if to advertise serenity along with righteousness. Some posts, though, took a different tone: “To be unpicking my privilege, my supremacy, my colonized mind. That’s tough enough. But to be faced with blank looks from fellow whites. That’s the real rusty razor to the carotid artery.”

The surge of attention, DiAngelo told me, made her at once leery and hopeful. She worried that the posts were “performative,” the book “just a badge.” Yet, she said, “there’s a sense of scales falling from people’s eyes,” mostly because of the killings of Floyd and, before that, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, but also, she believed, because of the work she and her antiracism colleagues have been doing. She felt a similar mix about the ASAP emails from corporations. “The very urgency itself says you don’t have a very deep understanding of how hard this work is, and how long it takes and how ongoing it needs to be,” she said. “Racism is not going to go away by August, so how about we do it in August?”

I’d been talking with DiAngelo for a year when Floyd was killed, and with other antiracism teachers for almost as long. Demand has recently spiked throughout the field, though the clamor had already been building, particularly since the election of Donald Trump. Glenn E. Singleton, a Black trainer whose firm, Courageous Conversation, has been giving workshops for over two decades, saw a 105 percent rise in business between November 2016 and February 2020. Bookings plummeted because of Covid-19, and then, with the Floyd protests, he said, he experienced “extraordinary” demand. Darnisa Amante-Jackson, another important Black voice in the sector, started the Disruptive Equity Education Project four years ago and was hired by school districts and charter-school networks in 15 states. She is now receiving a new level of interest, especially from corporations “eager,” she said in June, “to be authentic to the B.L.M. messaging they’re putting out.” As their teaching becomes more and more widespread, antiracism educators are shaping the language that gets spoken — and the lessons being learned — about race in America.

Last July, in San Francisco, I attended three of DiAngelo’s sessions. “I wasn’t raised to see my race as saying anything relevant about me,” she declared to a largely white crowd in the Mission district’s 360-seat Brava Theater. Her audience had paid between $65 and $160 per ticket to hear her speak for three and a half hours. The place was sold out. “I will not coddle your comfort,” she went on. She gestured crisply with her hands. “I’m going to name and admit to things white people rarely name and admit.” Scattered Black listeners called out encouragement. Then she specified the predominant demographic in the packed house: white progressives. “I know you. Oh, white progressives are my specialty. Because I am a white progressive.” She paced tightly on the stage. “And I have a racist worldview.”

Soon she projected facts and photographs onto the screen behind her. No lone image offered anything surprising, yet the series caused a cumulative jolt: the percentage of state governors who are white, of the 10 richest people in the country who are white, of the “people who directed the 100 top-grossing films of all time, worldwide” — all the percentages over 90 — and so on. The onslaught of statistics was followed by a seemingly innocent picture of an all-white wedding celebration (about which DiAngelo asked her white listeners whether their own weddings were or would be just as pale), a photo of an all-white funeral (“from cradle to grave,” she said, white people, no matter how liberal, tend to exist in overwhelmingly white spaces “without anyone conveying that we’ve lost anything — with a deeply internalized absence of any sense of loss”), a screenshot of a Jeopardy board — during the semifinals of the 2014 collegiate championship — where the only category left entirely unselected by the contestants was African-American history (“we don’t know our history,” we “separate it out and see it as their history”), all of this culminating in a photograph showing a female silhouette standing without an umbrella in a torrential downpour. Messages of pre-eminent white value and Black insignificance, DiAngelo pronounced, “are raining down on us 24/7, and there are no umbrellas.” She declaimed: “My psychosocial development was inculcated in this water,” and “internalized white superiority is seeping out of my pores.” And: “White supremacy — yes, it includes extremists or neo-Nazis, but it is also a highly descriptive sociological term for the society we live in, a society in which white people are elevated as the ideal for humanity, and everyone else is a deficient version.” And Black people, she said, are cast as the most deficient. “There is something profoundly anti-Black in this culture.”

Periodically, as DiAngelo made the concept of systemic racism palpable, she asked everyone to team up with seatmates to answer a question. I had found a spot toward the back, between Brendon Woods, the head of the public defender’s office for Oakland and its surrounding county, and Vanessa Rush Southern, senior minister at San Francisco’s First Unitarian Universalist Society. Woods, who is Black, had booked DiAngelo to lecture to his staff two months earlier, as a way to make the office feel safer for Black staff members and better able to wage its legal battles. The points she made in the theater, he’d heard before. He didn’t mind at all. “The first time I was kind of in awe,” he told me later; “the second time I was taking notes.” He felt she was exposing the fathomless depth of what he was working against, of what was embodied in the Alameda County jail, where, though Black people make up 11 percent of the county’s population, about half of the 1,800 inmates are Black. Her portrait of whiteness, he said, drove him all the harder to “really, really promote diversity in my office, and, externally, to get people of color into law school, into power.” He recalled a prosecutor saying to him, about a client, “Go tell your boy to take this deal.” DiAngelo was illuminating all that lay beneath such casual bigotry and bias. “If she was going to be here next week, I would go again.”

Partway through her presentation, DiAngelo asked us, “What are some of the ways your race has shaped your life?” She told us to give our answers to each other and added that if we were white and happened to be sitting beside someone of color, we were forbidden to ask the person of color to speak first. It might be good policy, mostly, for white people to do more listening than talking, but, she said with knowing humor, it could also be a subtle way to avoid blunders, maintain a mask of sensitivity and stay comfortable. She wanted the white audience members to feel as uncomfortable as possible.

In our group of three, Southern, who is white, went first. Like Woods, she was already steeped in DiAngelo’s ideas; Southern had led two church book groups in discussing “White Fragility.” She was fully persuaded that, as she said to me afterward, “we’re all racist in that we’re swimming in a culture that is racist,” and that “we don’t think, as white people, of white as a race that comes with all kinds of conditioning.” Yet, in the moment, in response to DiAngelo’s question, she struggled. She couldn’t articulate much of anything about how she’d been shaped by being white.

I went next. I, too, was ready for everything I heard from DiAngelo. In fact, I knew this very question was coming. Just the day before, I’d been to a session she ran for a fractious city department that agreed to let me watch as long as I didn’t describe the event; the department’s equity team had brought her in to spur white self-awareness. But I had failed to speak about my whiteness as formative. That is, I noted that my color gave me infinite advantages, but the words, while sincere, were passionless. I emphasized instead that three of my five nonfiction books were about race, that I thought about race constantly, that back in junior high my best friend was one of the few Black students in my school, part of an experimental busing program in the early ’70s, and that the way our friendship ended still haunted me, that I’d betrayed him badly.

At some point after our answers, DiAngelo poked fun at the myriad ways that white people “credential” themselves as not-racist. I winced. I hadn’t meant to imply that I was anywhere close to free of racism, yet was I “credentialing”? And today, after a quick disclaimer acknowledging the problem with what I was about to do, I heard myself offering up, again, these same nonracist bona fides and neglecting to speak about the effects of having been soaked, all my life, by racist rain. I was, DiAngelo would have said, slipping into the pattern she first termed “white fragility” in an academic article in 2011: the propensity of white people to fend off suggestions of racism, whether by absurd denials (“I don’t see color”) or by overly emotional displays of defensiveness or solidarity (DiAngelo’s book has a chapter titled “White Women’s Tears” and subtitled “But you are my sister, and I share your pain!”) or by varieties of the personal history I’d provided.

White fragility, in DiAngelo’s formulation, is far from weakness. It is “weaponized.” Its evasions are actually a liberal white arsenal, a means of protecting a frail moral ego, defending a righteous self-image and, ultimately, perpetuating racial hierarchies, because what goes unexamined will never be upended. White fragility is a way for well-meaning white people to guard what race has granted them, all they haven’t earned.

But was I being fragile? Was I being defensive or just trying to share something more personal, intimate and complex than DiAngelo’s all-encompassing sociological perspective? She taught, throughout the afternoon, that the impulse to individualize is in itself a white trait, a way to play down the societal racism all white people have thoroughly absorbed.

Southern and I turned to Woods, wanting to hear him on DiAngelo’s question, but DiAngelo likes to keep these bits of conversation brief, so that no white listener can escape her arguments. She cut everyone off just as Woods was about to speak. As soon as our focus returned to the stage, she returned to white supremacy and how she had been imbued with it since birth. “When my mother was pregnant with me, who delivered me in the hospital — who owned the hospital? And who came in that night and mopped the floor?” She paused so we could picture the complexions of those people. Systemic racism, she announced, is “embedded in our cultural definitions of what is normal, what is correct, what is professionalism, what is intelligence, what is beautiful, what is valuable.”


One critique leveled at antiracism training is that it just may not work. Frank Dobbin, a Harvard sociology professor, has published research on attempts, over three decades, to combat bias in over 800 U.S. companies, including a 2016 study with Alexandra Kalev in The Harvard Business Review. (As far back as the early ’60s, he recounts in his book “Inventing Equal Opportunity,” Western Electric, responding to a Kennedy-administration initiative to enhance equity, presented lectures by Kenneth Clark and James Baldwin to company managers.) Dobbin’s research shows that the numbers of women or people of color in management do not increase with most anti-bias education. “There just isn’t much evidence that you can do anything to change either explicit or implicit bias in a half-day session,” Dobbin warns. “Stereotypes are too ingrained.”

When we first talked, and I described DiAngelo’s approach, he said, “I certainly agree with what she’s saying” about our white-supremacist society. But he noted that new research that he’s revising for publication suggests that anti-bias training can backfire, with adverse effects especially on Black people, perhaps, he speculated, because training, whether consciously or subconsciously, “activates stereotypes.” When we spoke again in June, he emphasized an additional finding from his data: the likelihood of backlash “if people feel that they’re being forced to go to diversity training to conform with social norms or laws.”

Donald Green, a professor of political science at Columbia, and Betsy Levy Paluck, a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton, have analyzed almost 1,000 studies of programs to lessen prejudice, from racism to homophobia, in situations from workplaces to laboratory settings. “We currently do not know whether a wide range of programs and policies tend to work on average,” they concluded in a 2009 paper published in The Annual Review of Psychology, which incorporated measures of attitudes and behaviors. They’ve just refined their analysis, with the help of two Princeton researchers, Chelsey Clark and Roni Porat. “As the study quality goes up,” Paluck told me, “the effect size dwindles.”

Still, none of the research, with its dim evaluation of efficacy, has yet focused on the particular bold, antisupremacist consciousness raising that has taken hold over the past few years — and that may well become even more bold now. {snip}


DiAngelo gave a presentation, last July, at Levi Strauss & Co.’s corporate headquarters. Here was a chance to glean a hint of whether her consciousness raising might have a meaningful effect within the world as we know it. The event was held in a gleaming space, with a bleached wood floor and brightly painted exposed pipes, a coffee cart and billboards featuring models of various races sporting the company’s denim.

The turnout of around 45 employees — almost all of them white — felt sparse in the expansive room. Before DiAngelo got started, the director of Levi’s diversity team at the time told me that the company’s leadership probably wouldn’t be in the audience. On another floor, the corporation was holding its first shareholders meeting since going public four months earlier. Levi’s has a history of taking socially responsible stances; its motto is “profit through principles.” But this morning, with the shareholders elsewhere, the leadership wouldn’t be listening to DiAngelo.

She showed her facts and photographs and lectured on the supremacist worldview that, inevitably, saturates white people and seeps from our pores, and again, though this was my third DiAngelo session in as many days, I was moved. So was a high-level manager sitting near me; it turned out that there were, in the room, a handful of people in influential roles. “I walked out with a heightened awareness of my white privilege,” the manager said afterward, “but I don’t know what Levi’s was trying to accomplish — this was a miss for me.” He had wide experience in the corporate world, and he commented, “Like at most companies, we’re lighter and lighter and lighter the higher you go.” He didn’t imagine this changing anytime soon, and when I called the diversity director to ask what Levi’s hoped to gain from DiAngelo’s workshop and how it would judge its progress on racial issues, I was told that the goal was “to get conversations started” but that to his knowledge the company kept no data reflecting diversity in senior positions or promotion rates by race. This was not unlike what I heard from Gore, whose spokeswoman praised DiAngelo’s workshops there over the last few years but who insisted, as recently as this June, that Gore is “not traditionally hierarchical” and so has no numbers on racial diversity in positions of control.

In the aftermath of Floyd’s killing, Levi’s, along with so many other institutions, put out a statement about the “brutal truth” of both American racism and inequality inside its own “house.” The company has booked another two sessions with DiAngelo. Perhaps more encouraging, it has pledged to be transparent about the racial makeup of the company’s leadership. It just posted the data on its website. But less encouraging — despite a diversity program that was started three years ago — are the numbers themselves. Only 2 percent of the company’s top 250 or so positions are filled by Black people, and the executive team and corporate board have no Black people at all, though the company has announced that it will fill its next opening on the board with a Black person. When I checked in with the high-level manager, he described the chief executive as caring earnestly about racial issues but also noted that this spring, during the pandemic, the company furloughed thousands of its low-level — and most diverse — workers, while the company chose to pay out dividends to shareholders, including to the chief executive, a reward of hundreds of thousands of dollars that he chose not to forgo.


DiAngelo hopes that her consciousness raising is at least having a ripple effect, contributing to a societal shift in norms. “You’re watching network TV, and they’re saying ‘systemic racism’ — that it’s in the lexicon is kind of incredible,” she said. So was the fact that “young people understand and use language like ‘white supremacy.’” She listed more evidence for optimism: “It’s in the extent of the protests. It’s in banning the confederate flag at NASCAR races. The renaming of military bases. Walmart agreeing to stop locking the ethnic hair-care products. We need a culture where a person who resists speaking up against racism is uncomfortable, and right this moment it looks like we’re in that culture.”

Yet she described a warning from her daily life in Seattle. “I was in the supermarket the other day, and over the cheese section was a small sign saying, ‘Black Lives Matter.’” Its lettering was childlike, in a cheery array of pink, green and blue, and it was plainly mass-produced. “It was like a Hallmark card,” she said. The phrase floated above the meticulous display of provolone, fontina and Emmentaler, stripped of all power, a message of fleeting intent.