Let me start by saying there is a reason why this title is on often near the top of many lists for anyone but especially white people who want to educate themselves on racism and racial inequality especially in the US. The author is up front about her being white herself, in fact she repeats that every so often throughout the book, often in order to point out that a lot of the things she has to say sound a little better to most other white people coming from her, but even then the message doesn’t always get through.
White Fragility is actually a slimmer book than I would have guessed, and it covers a lot. The concept of white fragility is obviously there, as is the idea that racism is a systemic and cultural problem, not as much a problem of an individual. The other major idea is that of “color blindness” and how that is actually more of a harmful concept and practice than not. Most of the book takes an idea, shows examples of it, and then goes into an analysis of how a white person might take the situation and why that perception is actually helping perpetuate white supremacy, a term used in a broader and according to the author more accurate sense than it is usually taken. There is also advice on a more constructive, informed, and helpful way for a white person who wants to be an ally to their black or colored friends, neighbors, colleagues, etc.
I should be clear: this book is a very good starting point for someone who is trying to get educated but who is also actively ready to engage in some pretty deep and potentially uncomfortable and/or painful self-reflection or examination. Someone who is not ready or willing to go there will likely walk away from the book either offended by it as many of the white people in the author’s examples do when presented with the kinds of ideas the reader is meant to look for in themselves, or just pass everything off as “I’m already fine; I don’t need this” which would just make the author’s point again for her.
There are two areas that I wish the book had paid more attention. There are a lot of examples of situations in which the white people react in the wrong ways, which is the norm is reality, but only one where the white person catches their mistake and moves to correct it, and that example is the author herself. A few more actual positive examples would be useful to show how the process should work, not just list and describe the steps, and honestly, making the author herself as the only positive example came off a little condescending, like she’s the only one who has ever managed to successfully correct herself properly. She is an expert in her fields, but are there really no other examples in her years of work with the sociology of race besides that? I wish there had been an example from someone who started off not knowing better, and learning; it just would have been more useful to demonstrate a way that the author’s processes and recommendations might function.
The other area that I wish there had been more attention to was the finer points of distinction between race and culture, since I’ve seen arguments elsewhere that “white” is neither a technically accurate racial designation nor a cultural definition. The author seems to use the terms generally interchangeably and apply them equally to “white” and “black”. Maybe it’s just too complex to address in the context of the book, but given how those terms sometimes get used to contradict the racism experienced by people of color, I wish it had at least been mentioned.
If you’re white, this book is a good place to start; if you’re a POC, this book might be useful to you as well, just for different reasons. This book doesn’t fully address everything you need to understand about race to be a good ally and anti-racist, but it’s a good starting point.