Book Review: White Fragility

Thankfully I didn’t pay for this book, and you shouldn’t either.

Those of you who know me personally may know that I am a voracious reader, especially when it comes to nonfiction. Usually I’m interested in books about history, political philosophy, military, or international affairs, but when I saw a book called White Fragility trending around the internet, sitting atop the New York Times bestseller list, and receiving mass praise, I felt it was important to read it to see what all the fuss is about. I can report back that this is easily one of the most racist, ahistorical, poorly argued, and absurd books I’ve ever read. I cannot believe that this was written in the 21st century given the paternalistic assumptions it makes about those who the author, Robin DiAngelo, considers ‘non-white’. I’ve delved deeply into the official reports and personal writings of British colonial officials in the 19th century for my academic research and I cannot understand how a modern, popular, purportedly ‘antiracist’ book mirrors and exceeds the frankly racist language of those dispatches. There is an incredible array of issues with the book (I could’ve spent ages reading this and pushing back line-by-line), but I’m going to skim the surface so as to touch on the major problems, factual errors, and faulty assumptions which underlay the author’s theory.

Before we can dive into the mindblowing inanity of this tome’s arguments, we need to properly understand the general premise of the book and its major theory of ‘white fragility’. DiAngelo’s framing here is worth quoting in full:

“[For white people,] the smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable—the mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers a range of defensive responses. These include emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation. These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy. I conceptualize this process as white fragility. Though white fragility is triggered by discomfort and anxiety, it is born of superiority and entitlement. White fragility is not weakness per se. In fact, it is a powerful means of white racial control and the protection of white advantage.”[1]

This passage is characteristic of how DiAngelo writes about white fragility throughout her book and is the definition of an unfalsifiable concept. By this, I mean that there is no way out of white fragility if you do not agree with the assumptions inherent in the concept; if you push back against what DiAngelo is saying you are, in her mind, exemplifying white fragility in action. This Catch-22 is repeated throughout the book. The author gives a multitude of examples of people legitimately disagreeing with her diversity consulting nostrums and categorizes all of them as further evidence to prove her hypothesis. If all evidence – regardless of content or context – fully supports your hypothesis, you either have a grand theory of everything that explains all life as we know it, or you are a total crank. DiAngelo is the latter.

Factual errors also abound in this book; honestly, I am quite unsure as to how this was published by a major imprint without a better fact-checking process. The glaring example of this comes from Chapter 2 of White Fragility, in a section where DiAngelo claims to use statistics to show how white people completely dominate the power structures of the United States. The categories she chooses are left totally undefined, there are few citations of any use to the reader, and many statistics are either useless of obviously cherrypicked to improve her narrative. For instance, the book claims that the US Congress (as the book is not new, this would be the 115th Congress) is 90 percent white, which is not at all true. In fact, DiAngelo understates the non-white membership of Congress by a factor of two; Congress was not 90 percent white, but 78 percent white.[2] This still may be poorly representative of the nation as a whole, but the exaggeration of an easily checked factual claim is par for the course with DiAngelo. Her estimate of gubernatorial whiteness is similarly off-base, and 75 percent of 2016’s non-white governors were of the Republican party.[3] One of the best factoids that the author cites is that the President and Vice President are 100 percent white; if she looked just a few months earlier, that would have been cut in half. Many of the rest of her ‘factual’ data – almost the only time she cites hard figures of any sort in the book – are so ill-defined that they are essentially rubbish. How does DiAngelo come up with the racial makeup of categories as broad as “People who decide which TV shows we see,” “People who decide which books we read,” “People who decide which news is covered,” and “People who decide which music is produced”?[4] There is no backup to any of these figures whatsoever, nor even a helpful guide as to who she is including in these classes. If the book did not so clearly appeal to the confirmation biases of the wealthy white progressives who are currently filling Ms. DiAngelo’s pockets with lucre, I highly doubt something this anti-factual would be published.

White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo.

If you can believe it, these are only the most obvious and inarguable problems with White Fragility. The deeper issues are ones which are far more disturbing to this classical liberal and which make Ms. DiAngelo’s book not just a silly waste of time, but a dangerous manifesto of illiberality crusading against the Anglo-American tradition of liberty. Let’s begin by understanding more about how the author defines herself in the afterword to the book. DiAngelo describes herself as “an academic, educator, and author working in the fields of critical discourse analysis and whiteness studies.”[5] One thing jumps out at me from this sentence: ‘critical discourse analysis’. When an academic like DiAngelo mentions any sort of ‘critical’ analysis, they are referencing Critical Theory, a branch of postmodernism or Marxism (depending on who you ask) that has been thoroughly and completely adopted by much of American academia at large. In DiAngelo’s case, she is a scholar of Critical Race Theory, which can be defined as “a scholarly and political approach to examining race that leads to a consequential analysis and profound understanding of racism. It argues, as a starting point, that the axis of American social life is fundamentally constructed in race. As a result, the economic, political, and historical relationships and arrangements that social actors have to institutions and social processes are all race based.”[6] Suffice it to say, this approach has some serious flaws. It assumes that all racial disparities are the express and direct result of discrimination, often by the government and other institutions, and completely discounts any sort of confounding factors, from personal choices to poverty to culture and environment. It defines ‘racism’ as purely structural in nature and claims that the general definition of ‘racism’ – a belief that one race is by nature superior to others – is bunk. This definitional change coming out of academia is already being embraced by much of the media and elite culture, as well as seeping into the commercial sphere; just this week the social media site Reddit altered its Terms and Conditions to crack down on so-called ‘hate speech’ (I’ve written before on the illiberality of this phrase), but left a gaping exception for “groups of people who are in the majority or who promote such attacks of hate.”[7] This attitude, that anyone who is in the ‘majority’ (read: white people) should be specifically excepted from ‘hate speech’ protections, is fundamentally in tune with DiAngelo’s perspective in White Fragility. Besides the fact that the term ‘majority’ is necessarily context-dependent (Han Chinese are part of a global majority, as are women and Muslims), this discrimination based on race is illiberal and more than a bit institutionally racist. [As an aside, I do not reject the idea of institutional racism outright, as history has clearly shown examples of this ranging from Jim Crow to Apartheid to the Nuremberg Laws. But I do reject the claim that the 21st century United States, or most of the Western world for that matter, is currently replete with institutional racism.]

The patent illiberality of White Fragility and the entire Critical Race Theory movement is fundamentally against the founding ideals of this country and the tradition of liberty in Western Civilization. The small-l liberal idea is one of protecting the smallest and most vulnerable minority in existence – the individual – from the violations of her rights by the power of the state or other citizens. DiAngelo throws out the entire idea of individualism and natural rights as a white supremacist message, instead focusing heavily on collectivism and group responsibility. As I discussed in a 2-part episode of my podcast, The Rationalist, collective responsibility and focus on group identification has historically led to some of the most horrendous atrocities ever visited by man upon his fellow men, from the Holocaust to the European Wars of Religion to the Rwandan genocide to the system of chattel slavery. DiAngelo positively celebrates the idea of collectivism, even among white people – one would think she would understand that the idea of a “collective white consciousness”[8] has led to some negative historical outcomes for non-whites. Collective responsibility and hardcore in-group/outgroup dynamics were the norm for most of human history, a time when lifespans were short, violence was extremely commonplace, persecutions were rife, and oppression was real. Indeed, the focus on individualism over the past 500 years in the West has led to the greatest leaps forward in human rights that have been seen over the entire course of human history. Liberalism meant that the ancient system of slavery was abolished, freedom of conscience was recognized and protected, and individuals were able to freely alienate their labor. The fact that we so take these for granted is authoritative testimony to the historical power of liberalism. A return to collectivism over individualism is a fool’s errand that should be rightly despised by anyone who values her liberty and understands modern history. The advocacy for collectives versus individuals is a hallmark of Marxist ideologies in theory and practice and resulted in millions of deaths in the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, and North Korea over the 20th century alone. Collective responsibility was practiced by fascists as well as communists, with the subjugation and mass murder of European Jews as the most obvious example on the fascist side. It is imperative for those of us who value our ability to think, write, work, worship, gather, and live freely to push back against this rising tide of illiberalism, especially when it is couched in the phraseology of ‘antiracism’.

There are so many other issues with White Fragility that I cannot delve into all of them without writing a book myself, but I will briefly mention a few others. The book is one of the most paternalistic I’ve read when it comes to non-whites. Moral agency is only granted to whites by DiAngelo, and minorities are relegated to dealing with the impacts of white decisions and structures without any ability to shape their own destinies. She often writes of non-whites as though they are pure moral beings who, in the absence of white supremacist society, would live in utopia – all issues that happen to impact non-whites are seen as being caused entirely by purposeful discrimination. This is not only a repudiation of any idea of individuality (and a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature), but it also, ironically, mirrors the ‘noble savage’ myth which was embraced by Western colonialists in the past. DiAngelo sees interpersonal interactions across races as inherently conflict-driven and imbued with the ghost of racism past. Her idea that we all carry our group’s history with us into any interaction is completely insane. She actually claims that white women bring with them into any interaction with black men “a long historical backdrop of black men being tortured and murdered because of a white woman’s distress”[9], exemplified by the lynching of Emmett Till. Not only do I highly doubt that any normal person thinks like this, I am quite skeptical of the idea that the majority of Americans (of any race) know who Emmett Till was given that the majority of Americans can’t name current government figures. That ridiculous assertion comes in a chapter entitled “White Women’s Tears”, which is seriously one of the most blatantly sexist things I’ve ever read – and I’ve read Napoleon’s letters!

Overall, this book was easily one of the most insane things I’ve ever read in my life. It is an illiberal, racist screed masquerading as an antiracist, progressive Bible. It has a religious view of its core conceit in that it relies entirely on faith and not at all on practical evidence – something which can be seen in many of the social justice movements of our age. The fact that this book has been embraced by a powerful media and cultural clique is an indictment of our elite culture and an example of how much some people despise the very foundations of the free societies that allow them to publish and think as they please. I would not recommend this book as anything other than a doorstop, and given that I read it as an e-book, I cannot even faithfully testify to that.


[1] Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility, Introduction.

[2] “115th United States Congress”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/115th_United_States_Congress#Demographics

[3] “List of Minority Governors in the United States”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_minority_governors_and_lieutenant_governors_in_the_United_States#List_of_ethnic-minority_governors

[4] DiAngelo, White Fragility, Chapter 2.

[5] DiAngelo, White Fragility, About the Author.

[6] “Critical Race Theory”, New Discourses, https://newdiscourses.com/tftw-critical-race-theory/

[7] “Promoting Hate Based on Identity or Vulnerability”, Reddit Help, https://www.reddithelp.com/en/categories/rules-reporting/account-and-community-restrictions/promoting-hate-based-identity-or

[8] DiAngelo, White Fragility, Chapter 6.

[9] DiAngelo, White Fragility, Chapter 11.

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