How ‘White Fragility’ Theory Turns Classrooms Into Race-Charged Power Struggles

by Jonathan Church and Christopher Paslay

White fragility theory is counterproductive and divisive. White teachers should not be discounted, bullied, or shut down during anti-bias trainings in schools.

(Note: This article was first published in The Federalist on February 28, 2020. It was also discussed on the Dan Proft radio show.)

On Feb. 28, 2020, Dr. Robin DiAngelo delivers the keynote speech at the annual meeting of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education in Atlanta, Georgia. DiAngelo has become “perhaps the country’s most visible expert in anti-bias training.” She is also the author of a best-selling book on “why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism.”

The answer, she says, is “white fragility,” defined as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.” This “racial stress” is the direct result of “implicit bias,” which runs so strong in white people that it is a core reason racism persists in America. This claim is based on a worldview, advanced by an increasingly influential field called Whiteness Studies, that racism is inseparable from the reign of Whiteness.

Whiteness is seen as a central pillar of society. What is Whiteness? It is hard to say, but the basic idea is that all the institutions of society are “white”—made by white people, ruled by white people, and kept in place by white people to make sure that white people continue to benefit from “white privilege.” These institutions are infected by white supremacy, a result of the long arc of racism in American history. Whiteness works through implicit bias, which refers to a whole range of unconscious behaviors, speech, and beliefs that keep white supremacy in place.

It should not be surprising that many white people are not convinced. If so, DiAngelo says, they are experiencing “racial stress,” which gets in the way of dismantling Whiteness. In other words, they are exhibiting white fragility. It turns out, however, that white people have good reason to be skeptical.

What’s ‘Fragile’ Is DiAngelo’s Response to Criticism

One of us, Mr. Church, has written several essays about DiAngelo’s theory over the last year and a half. Among other topics, he has explained how the research on implicit bias does not give us reason to think that implicit bias predicts much of anything about how we think and behave. He has also pointed out many methodological flaws in her work. But his ultimate assessment is simple: “White fragility” is a phrase DiAngelo invented to delegitimize any disagreement with her views on what causes racial inequality.

DiAngelo is attempting to address one of the most important issues of our time. But she does so with an air of piety that presumes she knows all the answers. One of the main challenges in the analysis of Whiteness and white privilege is the deeply ambiguous nature of these terms (see herehere, and here). As historian Eric Arsenen wrote, “whiteness has become a blank screen onto which those who claim to analyze it can project their own meanings.” The inherent ambiguity in a term like Whiteness is likely one of the main reasons DiAngelo has encountered resistance over the years.

In response, she has doubled down, defining “one aspect of Whiteness and its effects, White Fragility,” as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves,” which “include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation,” all of which allegedly “function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.” In other words, disagreement is bad.

In effect, DiAngelo has pulled off a master stroke of rhetorical legerdemain. “White fragility” is a term that rhetorically delegitimizes in one stroke any “defensiveness” when confronted with DiAngelo’s views about racism and Whiteness. Unfortunately, this approach invariably leads to rampant speculation, rather than careful hypotheses, about what Whiteness is and how it causes racial disparities.

The inquisitional nature of this approach is so remarkably transparent that one is at a loss to explain how DiAngelo gets away with asserting incoherently that “[h]uman objectivity is not actually possible” given that such a claim is itself an objective statement that also confuses objectivity with neutrality. Instead, the act of pointing out this incoherence is reflexively treated as an act of heresy which must be “cancelled” or punished for allegedly accommodating white supremacy.

Schools Eat Up Incoherent ‘White Fragility’ Theory

One area in which this theory has become increasingly influential is education. Mr. Paslay has spent two decades in Philadelphia classrooms and teacher training workshops. He has found that white fragility—apart from raising awareness about structural inequality—is having some unintended side-effects on schools in America. Above all, the theory fosters intolerance from facilitators leading anti-bias trainings in educational settings, which can provoke resentment among teachers.

Dr. David W. Johnson, a co-director of the Cooperative Learning Center at the University of Minnesota, studies the benefit of cooperative learning, social interdependence, and constructive conflict. He offers eight guidelines for facilitating classroom discussions with students who are prone to challenge their professors, suggestions many educators leading the professional development workshops Mr. Paslay has attended have ignored.

The first is simply being respectful. Johnson writes of students who are overly critical of their professors, “Do not discount them as people or treat them impolitely (such as cutting them off or not calling on them).”

Yet Mr. Paslay has been cut off in the middle of speaking numerous times in anti-bias teacher trainings. DiAngelo freely admits to limiting the participation of whites in her workshops in favor of people who look different, and even talks of cutting off whites who try to defend themselves. Indeed, in one of her academic papers, she recommends denying “equal time to all narratives in our classrooms.”

Johnson also suggests that teachers should listen to their students carefully, and when disagreeing with them, the focus should be on the issue, not on the person commenting. Again, these are not approaches many facilitators have taken in teacher trainings Mr. Paslay has attended. These trainings are clearly influenced by the theory of white fragility.

In multiple circumstances, the workshop leaders half-listened in a perfunctory manner, knowing that what Mr. Paslay was saying deviated from the tendentious ideological script they had been assigned to deliver. When Mr. Paslay was finished offering his alternative perspective, if he had not been shut down or cut off, the facilitators often took issue with him personally—labeling him “racist” or “biased”— not the issue at hand.

Treating White People How She’d Never Treat Black People

DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” is a focused attack on the behaviors of white people, as opposed to placing the primary focus on particular issues. In an interview with Teaching Tolerance, DiAngelo explained that in her workshops, making generalizations about white people and the fact that they are complicit in systemic racism causes them great umbrage.

DiAngelo stated, “Right now, me saying ‘white people,’ as if our race had meaning, and as if I could know anything about somebody just because they’re white, will cause a lot of white people to erupt in defensiveness. And I think of it as a kind of weaponized defensiveness. Weaponized tears. Weaponized hurt feelings. And in that way, I think white fragility actually functions as a kind of white racial bullying.”

Incredibly, white people taking offense to being called fragile, racist, or reacting with tears or hurt feelings is racial bullying, according to DiAngelo. But all of DiAngelo’s name calling, personal judgements of character, and attacks are not? This amounts to a rhetorical bullying tactic in itself.

It is also a classic example of psychological projection, which is another way scholar-activists like DiAngelo can protect the presumed infallibility of white fragility theory while failing to consider perspectives that run counter to its ideology. Tragically, as research suggests, these workshops are a setback for diversity, and too often leave whites with a feeling of frustration or resentment.

How Anti-Bias Training Breeds Racism

In the world of education, this means white teachers go back to their classrooms feeling guilty, accused, and even more close-minded than before. The recent actions of New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza are a prime example. His use of anti-bias training to dismantle what he called “White Supremacy Culture” in schools sparked a major backlash, prompting administrators, teachers, and parents to call parts of the workshops “ugly and divisive.”

Specifically, teachers were told by diversity consultants to “focus on black children over white ones,” and one Jewish superintendent who described her family’s Holocaust tragedies “was scolded and humiliated.”  To make matters worse, four white New York City school district executives, who were demoted or stripped of duties under Carranza’s administrative reorganization, sued the city, insisting he had created “an environment which is hostile toward whites.”

In essence, white fragility theory boils down to Power vs. Force, a concept made popular by Dr. David R. Hawkins. It analyzes “the hidden determinants of human behavior.” While true power resides from within, force is applied through projection—an outside force trying to impose its will. Force can only work for so long; once it encounters true power, it immediately unravels.

Interestingly, many of the emotions DiAngelo cites as evidence of white fragility—such as anger, shame, guilt, and apathy—are listed by Hawkins as a reaction to force. Nowhere in white fragility theory or whiteness studies can one find positive responses related to true power, such as courage, love, joy, or enlightenment; everything tied to white fragility is zero-sum and is based on dichotomy rather than unity.

White fragility theory is counterproductive and divisive. White teachers should not be discounted, bullied, or shut down when presenting alternative perspectives during anti-bias trainings in schools. A tolerant, holistic approach to social equity in education must be achieved to bring about positive change, and to prevent the unintended perpetuation of racial stereotypes and low student expectations in America’s classrooms.

Jonathan Church is a government economist, CFA charter holder, and writer whose work has appeared in Quillette, Areo, Arc Digital, Merion, Agonist Journal, Good Men Project, and other places. You can follow him on Twitter @jondavidchurch. Christopher Paslay is a Philadelphia public schoolteacher and coach. His articles have appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, American Thinker, and Real Clear Politics, among other publications. You can follow him on Twitter @cspaslay.

5 thoughts on “How ‘White Fragility’ Theory Turns Classrooms Into Race-Charged Power Struggles

  1. I just viewed your lengthy interview with Benjamin Boyce. You claim that you want a dialogue, so here are a few questions:

    1) I’ve noticed that you never mention your support Trump when you critique white fragility and anti-racism. Why?
    2) You claim that social advancement is predicated on personal ambition and responsibility. Do you think that there are any long-standing institutional impediments that preclude equal access to wealth and professional advancement?
    3) Can you identify an instance when a teacher mandated that students argue only one side of a controversial issue, and did not allow for disagreement?
    4) How can you justify that claim that you see “past color,” yet consistently cite African-American celebrities that support Trump?
    5) Do you deny that Trump has a long history of perpetuating white supremacist ideologies, or that he has done such a good job of building on the Obama/Biden economy that we just need to live with Trump’s personal flaws?
    6) Can you explain how being against racism is divisive?

    I look forward to your answers.

    • Great. Let’s have a dialogue. Here are my responses:

      1. What does Trump have to do with Robin DiAngelo’s white fragility theory, or Kendi’s approach to anti-racism?

      2. You misrepresented my claim. Personal ambition and responsibility are one part of a complex puzzle. DiAngelo discounts them, and wants to end meritocracy, which she feels is based on a white supremacy culture. I’m somewhere in the middle; we must incentivize hard work and merit, but not assume this is the only path to achievement. I felt I made this clear in the interview. Yes, there are institutional impediments that preclude equal access to wealth and professional advancement, although we are making great strides as a country. The state of affairs in 2020 America is much improved from 1950, or 1960, or even 1990. I’ve never denied historical challenges, but I do feel America is leading the world in bringing equality and justice. In some cases, the phrase “systemic racism” is misused and overblown (and politicized).

      3. I received my M.Ed. in multicultural education, and in the core courses, my professors did not allow for disagreement. We were measured on “growth”—whether or not we began to espouse the teachings of the course. The question wasn’t “Do you feel you have white privilege?”, but “Explain how you have white privilege.” The District’s implicit bias trainings don’t debate whether implicit bias tests are valid or reliable, they simply train teachers to accept implicit bias concepts. There is no debate on the validity. Robin DiAngelo’s workshops do not allow for disagreement—she’s stated so publicly (and I’ve attended them). Embedded in certain curriculum are political ideas and concepts that don’t build in opposing viewpoints—like global warming, gender identity, systemic racism, white privilege, white supremacy culture, etc. Can a student argue that microaggressions are not really a thing (not scientifically validated)? Or that there are only two biological sexes? No, they cannot.

      4. When I say I see past color, I mean I don’t fixate on color. Obviously I see color, and realize it matters. But my goal is to move past it, and deal with students/people on a more substantial level, which tends to happen naturally anyway. People like DiAngelo and Kendi don’t seem to want to ever move past it—we are continually brought back to race, where we remain indefinitely. The racialization of everything in society is becoming a problem.

      5. To quote the French novelist Anaïs Nin, “We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are.” Reality is like an inkblot to a certain extent. You see the world filled with white supremacy, and systemic racism, and white privilege, and anti-blackness. I just don’t see it like that. The same with Trump: You see hatred, division, white supremacy, etc. I don’t. Trump’s abrasive and egotistical, and he’s his own worst enemy, but he’s decent and fair at heart, and cares for ALL Americans. And his policies, for the most part, work. They are actually more centered and bipartisan then you’d like to admit. What is the alternative? Joe Biden? AOC? Kamala Harris? Defunding police? Getting rid of ICE and borders? Scraping private health insurance? Raising taxes and implementing a crazy marginal tax rate? Scraping fossil fuels and implementing the Green New Deal? Forgiving student loan dept at the expense of tax payers? Racializing everything in America? Revisionist history that frames America as evil? Sorry, not for me.

      6. When did I say being against racism is divisive? Seriously? If you think this, you either missed large parts of the interview, or you have selective hearing. So which one is it: are you just agitating, or did my points go over your head? This is the exact kind of misrepresentation that I’m talking about. You’re a smart guy, and you understand exactly what I’m saying. Why would you ask such a ridiculous question?

  2. On June 15th you posted a “Stand with Tucker” on your Trump FB site. On July 11 CNN published and expose revealing that Carlson’s lead writer has a lengthy history of posting racist, misogynist and homophobic comments in various chatrooms. No one who has seen Tucker’s show is remotely surprised Carlson is nothing more than a ventriloquist dummy for this despicable incel. After all, Carlson, like every other Fox primetime host routinely trafficks in racist dog whistles.

    In the last two months two of my three biracial sons have been called the N-word in public spaces. One at a Wawa in Havertown, and the other in Ocean City, MD. There is no doubt in my mind that the people who felt free to say such things in public spaces were raised in MAGA homes. This is why it is difficult to worry about people who are deeply threatened by implicit bias, white fragility and anti-racism. Those movements may be flawed, but those involved in these projects are sincerely engaged in the work of ending injustice.

    You claim that Trump cares about “all Americans.” That is so interesting. He certainly doesn’t care about you. Trump loathes your profession, despises your union and hates the fact that you have quality tax-payer funded healthcare. Trump wants to send you, your colleagues and students into extremely dangerous school buildings just to save his presidency. On top of this, he wants the CDC to relax the requirements needed to do so.

    The conservative media will ignore the Carlson scandal. I just checked Breitbart. Nothing. This refusal to acknowledge obvious racism is why people at D’Angelo’s white fragility workshops don’t want to respond to your gaslighting. They know that you aren’t there in good faith. Instead, they are there to work with people who genuinely care about overcoming the past three years and making this nation better for those who have never had an equal opportunity to advance. Trump was MAGA’s best shot to restore and maintain the power of white supremacy, but he’s too stupid and incompetent to keep it going.

    • In the summer of 2018, when I first launched my Philly Teachers for Trump Facebook page, you posted an article in the comment section about the vandalization and arson of the Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi. The story stated that a Trump supporter had burned the black church down and then spray painted “Vote Trump” on the side. You wrote under the article “These are your people.”

      But the incident was a hoax, as the fire was set by Andrew McClinton, who was ironically a black man and member of the church. Yet you posted the article in the comment section of my FB page anyway, and blamed hateful Trump supporters. Why? Either you willfully forwarded known propaganda to slander and stereotype people you disagreed with politically, or you didn’t know the arson was a hoax, which would mean you were woefully uninformed by your own sources of “news.”

      You say two of your sons were recently called the N-word, and I’m genuinely sorry to hear this. You also say “there is no doubt in my mind that the people who felt free to say such things in public spaces were raised in MAGA homes.” That’s quite a generalization you’re making here—disparaging nearly 63 million Americans in one statement. It sounds very similar to the pundits at CNN and MSNBC who insisted racist NASCAR fans and Trump supporters celebrated the noose planted in Bubba Wallace’s garage—the noose that turned out to be a garage pull that had been there since October. But despite the fact that Bubba was met with an outpouring of love and support from the league, fellow drivers, and the fans, the media still trashed Trump and NASCAR fans, labeling them hateful racists.

      The truth is, you see what you want to see, as do most people. But as evidenced by the Missionary Baptist Church article you put on my FB page, you also purposely misrepresent information to slander those who disagree with you politically. I’m assuming you’ve been on my Trump FB page plenty of times, so you can see Trump supporters for yourself: are they not kind, caring, and loving people? Is that page not overwhelmingly positive? There are about 3,700 followers, and they love America, God, Trump, and pray for everyone’s well-being. Where is all the hatred and evil?

      I respect your passion for what you view as “justice,” and I’d be willing to say we probably agree on a number of goals, but we clearly believe in different means of achieving them. You seem to believe in the mantra “The ends justify the means,” which is why you are okay with spreading propaganda and misinformation. When someone dares venture outside the herd of progressive group-think, this person is maligned and targeted. Diversity of race, religion, gender and sexuality are celebrated—but not diversity of thought. It’s intolerable to a progressive that someone may see the world differently, or disagree with their perspective or means for solving problems.

      And what happens when someone ventures outside the herd, like Tucker Carlson? They must be silenced. Anarchists bully and threaten his advertisers and try to drive him off the air, harass him at his home in front of his family. Why? Because it’s easier to cancel him than to debate his points and ideas. It’s easier to call him names. Tucker Carlson is a mindless “ventriloquist dummy” whose head writer is “racist” and “homophobic” and “misogynistic,” etc. Trump is “stupid” and “incompetent,” and he’s a “racist white nationalist.” Everything always comes back to calling everyone names based in identity politics. It’s lazy, and it’s a broken record.

      But that’s what the Left does. They are the intolerant fascists, who know only how to agitate with propaganda. You’re smart guy, you know the drill. To quote Trump’s brilliant Mt. Rushmore speech:

      “Against every law of society and nature, our children are taught in school to hate their own country, and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes, but that were villains. The radical view of American history is a web of lies — all perspective is removed, every virtue is obscured, every motive is twisted, every fact is distorted, and every flaw is magnified until the history is purged and the record is disfigured beyond all recognition.”

      Do you think America is illegitimate and founded on slavery? Is society plagued with systemic racism and white supremacy culture? Do you want to abolish ICE and our borders? Do you want to defund and dismantle the police? Get rid of bail? Do you want the PFT to tell Jack Steinburg to drop our private Health and Welfare fund and go on Obama Care? Do you want to abolish fossil fuels? Forgive all student debt on the taxpayers dime? Reinstate Obama’s title IX guidelines and jettison due process for college kids on campus? Raise taxes? Get burned on trade? Appease China?

      Trump doesn’t loath teachers, but believes in choice: the right for parents to choose their schools (the majority of Americans believe in charter schools), and the rights of teachers to pay—or not pay—dues to unions who don’t believe in diversity of thought; I’m still a dues-paying member of the PFT, although they haven’t endorsed a single conservative candidate in all my years teaching. But why would you know anything about Trump, other than the propaganda you forward about him? Admit it: you never gave him, or his supporters, a chance.

      You state, “This refusal to acknowledge obvious racism is why people at D’Angelo’s white fragility workshops don’t want to respond to your gaslighting. They know that you aren’t there in good faith. Instead, they are there to work with people who genuinely care about overcoming the past three years and making this nation better for those who have never had an equal opportunity to advance.”

      So what are you saying about me? I don’t genuinely care about equity, equality, and justice? I haven’t dedicated my life to teaching, coaching, and mentoring kids from all backgrounds all over the city? Teaching them to read, write, and think critically about the world around them? How am I gaslighting? Because I see the world differently? Because I believe the American Dream is possible for all of my students, and that our president cares for all Americans, and loves America and puts her first?

      I acknowledge—and continue to acknowledge—that racism is real, hurtful, and has created social and historical injustices that must be rectified. Yet you continue suggest I refuse to do so. The Left does the same with Trump’s Charlottesville statement—that there were “very fine people” on both sides—which didn’t refer to the Neo-Nazis, but to the peaceful protesters on both sides of the Confederate statue issue. His statement was completely misrepresented, and he and his press secretary clarified it for days, Trump stating directly that “I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists. They should be condemned totally.” Trump condemned the white nationalists multiple times, yet to this day, the Left forwards the notion that Trump believes Nazis are “very fine people,” and that he condones hate groups. This is total propaganda BS, mush of the variety you use to paint Trump as a “white supremacist” who forwards a white nationalist agenda.

      You state I was gaslighting at DiAngelo’s workshop. How do you know a single thing about what took place in that workshop? What did I say to DiAngelo? What were my questions? Who responded? Again, just like with your assumption about the Mississippi church and the background of the people who disrespected your sons, you are assuming and playing a mind-reader. You are projecting your own limited, narrow-minded and biased perspective onto others. What you mean is that I don’t genuinely care about forwarding your brand of hard-Left identity politics, based in race and class warfare. And I don’t.

  3. I appreciate the opportunity to engage in this brief dialogue. I’m sure we can agree that neither of us is going to change our mind. Best of luck with your future projects.

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