White Fragility (2018) aims to do exactly what its subtitle says: to explain why white people find it so difficult to talk about racism, particularly within an American context. The answers are surprisingly complicated and illuminating, as they tie together some of the darkest strands of American history with the most fundamental ideologies of American society.
White fragility involves both a misunderstanding and a denial of the true nature of racism in American society. This misunderstanding and denial both reinforce that racism and grow out of it. Thus, to understand white fragility, we must first understand racism, which, in turn, requires us to understand race.
Contrary to popular belief, race isn’t a genetic reality. That may seem counterintuitive because of the physical differences between people of different races, such as their skin colors and eye shapes. But these differences do not reliably correlate with underlying genetic variations between people. They’re superficial differences that simply reflect the geographies to which people’s ancestors adapted.
Rather than a biological truth, race is a social construct – a set of ideas created within a particular culture that guides people’s thoughts and actions. The social construct of race teaches members of society to see and treat certain groups of people in certain ways, which, in turn, serves particular functions within that society. To understand race is therefore to answer the question, “What function does the construct serve?”
In the United States, race has historically served the function of resolving a contradiction at the heart of the country’s foundation. On paper, the creation of the United States was inspired by an ideal of equality between people. In reality, it was built on extreme inequalities – one of which was between slave-owning people of European descent (European Americans) and enslaved people of African descent (African Americans).
To reconcile this contradiction, many eighteenth-century European Americans turned to race science – a form of pseudoscience that claimed African Americans were naturally inferior to certain groups of European Americans, who were naturally superior. From this false premise, they then argued that African Americans deserved fewer rights than European Americans, who, by the same token, deserved certain privileges. Inequality between the two groups was therefore natural and justified, they concluded.
Of course, this was a very self-serving argument. It provided the European American elites with a convenient excuse for their enslavement of African Americans, from which they derived considerable benefits, such as a cheap source of labor and a way of dividing poor people against each other through racial divisions, which prevented them from uniting and rising up against the elites.
It’s within this context that the racial designations of “black” and “white” emerged, which we’ll turn to next.