Supplementing “White Fragility”

Ten Perspectives To Make Difficult Racial Conversations Work And Help People Grow

Amiel Handelsman
18 min readOct 7, 2020
Photo by Womanizer WOW Tech on Unsplash

In Part One I described what’s true and useful about Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. It’s now time to identify valuable perspectives DiAngelo omits and then integrate them into a wider vision. Some call this synthesis. I prefer the metaphor of “supplements.” Like Vitamin D for bones or Melatonin for sleep, supplemental perspectives offer valuable benefits.

Here are ten supplements for improving difficult racial conversations, growing people, and reimagining American identity.

1. So-called “white” people are complex and varied.

If you believe DiAngelo, the white/black distinction is the only game in town. If you identify as “white,” everything you think, feel and do is a result of being white. To claim otherwise not only is defensive excuse-making, but it proves you’re privileged and prejudiced and don’t know it. She writes, “My identity, personality, interests, and investments will develop from a white perspective. I will have a white worldview and a white frame of reference.”

This is a textbook example of racial essentialism. In the words of Stanley Crouch, the recently departed cultural critic, “The question of identity…is always fraudulent when the false simplicity of black and white is assumed to say it all.” This narrow understanding of people is a straitjacket, one that squeezes the credibility out of DiAngelo’s argument, especially her useful statement that race is a socially constructed fallacy.

Generalizing about “black” and “white” is understandable if you’ve devoted your career to the topic. However, anyone who’s managed people, coached managers, or lived a while knows that human beings are far more complex and varied than that. Your identity grows from a smorgasbord of influences: your personality type, family of origin, place of origin, sex, sexual orientation, birth order, early teachers and mentors, family structure, cultural influences, and more. As Andrew Sullivan writes, “America is too complex to be fit into these tidy, unifactorial boxes. It has far too many unpredictable individuals, defying odds, redefining identity, combining races and cultures, exercising agency, and complicating every simple narrative you want to impose on it.”

There are many parts to every human being!

Do most people who identify as white have privileges and biases? Of course. In Part One, I gave examples of mine. Do our minds create defenses that keep these patterns under the surface? Without a doubt. Would greater awareness of these dynamics serve the greater good? Absolutely.

But people who show up for difficult conversations about racial identity aren’t solely “white” or “black.” They’re bigger and more nuanced than this. Let’s honor this complexity. That way, people can bring their full selves to the table. The idea isn’t, as DiAngelo suggests, to give them an out but to invite the entirety of who they are in. It’s not to protect people from discomfort but to challenge them, all of the parts within them, to show up and participate.

2. Everyone is an individual

Acknowledging that humans are complex and varied brings to light a related notion: individuality. This is the self-evident idea that each person is unique. There is only one you. There is only one me.

DiAngelo writes that “temporarily suspending individuality to focus on group identity is healthy for white people.” Why? Because it allows you to take full responsibility for your white privilege and bias. Conversely, if you describe a way that you might be different from other white people — in any context or for any reason — you are evading responsibility.

This is either/or thinking. Either you suspend individuality to focus on your whiteness or you’re evading responsibility. To put it differently, you can’t be an individual and take responsibility for the parts of you that are white. Such either/or thinking is surprising to see in someone with DiAngelo’s job description. What are difficult conversations if not the exploration of disparate views and emotions? What is a facilitator’s role if not to make space for these views and emotions, not by treating them as equally valuable, but by seeking mutual understanding and challenging people to step into other’s shoes?

Alas, the suspension of individuality DiAngelo invokes isn’t “temporary.” It would be one thing to generalize for 30 pages about white people, then acknowledge uniqueness. Or focus the first hour of a workshop on such generalizations, then let people speak from their individuality. But “White Fragility” and likely her workshops are individuality-free from start to finish.

Although DiAngelo doesn’t employ both/and thinking, we can. This isn’t easy, but nothing about difficult conversations is easy. They’re difficult!

Here’s what I have in mind. Imagine white participants reflecting on how white privilege has benefitted them and considering how they’ve been influenced by being a woman, gay, from a poor family, wealthy, Jewish, Irish, adopted, raised on military bases, or a child of divorce. Envision them exploring the racial preferences and biases they have been subject to for years and considering how their current worldview transcends these.

This isn’t idealistic. It’s how people actually are. We are individuals and members of groups. Our minds see commonalities and differences. Introducing such both/and thinking into difficult conversations raises the odds of people not only showing up, but feeling fully met.

3. Honor the survival brain, because emotional and psychological pain is real and backed by brain science.

DiAngelo challenges whites to get over their discomfort around racial topics. “No physical violence,” she says, “has ever occurred in any interracial discussion or training that I am aware of.” In other words, unless you’re black, it’s not legitimate to share discomfort.

This view leads her to make choices as a facilitator that many in the field would consider odd if not evidence of malpractice. In most workshops, expressing pain or sadness is honored as courageous vulnerability. In DiAngelo’s world, if you do this and you’re white, you’re engaging in bullying. It’s sending the message to black participants that “I am going to make it so miserable for you to confront me no matter how diplomatically you try to do so that you will simply back off, give up, and never raise the issue again.” If you reply that DiAngelo’s misinterpreted you, she says you’re being fraudulent. If you’re female and you cry, DiAngelo asks you to leave the room, because when a white woman cries, the world stops to take care of her.

DiAngelo isn’t completely wrong about all this, just incomplete. White people in these situations can employ clever ploys to evade difficult topics, but is this always simply bullying? White women’s tears can stop people in their tracks, but does instructing them to leave the room, rather than giving them time or a choice, make things better — for anyone?

Here’s where a little neuroscience goes a long way. The human brain works similarly regardless of the color of skin that covers its skull. In difficult conversations, people often experience threats to their status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness — what consultant David Rock calls the SCARF model of the brain. It’s inevitable. According to brain science, these threats aren’t decoys, distractions, or artificial inventions. They show up in the same sections of the brain as a gun held to the head. And they push the body’s threat response system into overdrive. You may not be at risk of physical harm, but your body thinks it is. As Resmaa Menakem, author of My Grandmother’s Hands, writes, “To the traumatized body, all threats, current or ancient, individual or collective, real or imagined, are exactly the same.”

This throws a wrench in DiAngelo’s view that physical violence is a valid threshold for assessing pain. According to neuroscience, emotional and psychological pain matter, too. Acting upset or confused doesn’t mean you’re trying to get out of a difficult conversation. More often than not, you’re participating in it as best as your brain will allow.

The upshot of this is huge. In difficult conversations, as in any activity aimed at growing minds, challenge can coexist with support. In fact, joining the two together produces better results. When white folks get triggered, they need space to breathe and gentle guidance for observing their physical sensations. This slows down the body’s threat response system. DiAngelo claims that compassion reinforces psychological defenses and thereby perpetuates racist thinking. Brain science says the opposite: slowing down the nervous system gives the thinking brain time to get back on line. This calms the mind’s defenses, thereby allowing people, in Daniel Kahneman’s terms, to “think slowly” and take in new (including anti-racist) perspectives.

The lesson here is to combine what DiAngelo excels at, challenge, with what she considers counterproductive, compassion. Why does this work? Because compassionate attention doesn’t stop humans from growing during difficult conversations. It helps them grow more.

4. Simple victim/perpetrator stories are misleading, because everyone has trauma. Including white people.

DiAngelo’s theory of white fragility rests on a premise common to “progressive” thinking in the United States: white people are the perpetrators of racial harm, and black people are the victims, both today and historically. There is boundless evidence for this assessment. What’s problematic are the assumptions that this is the only way to understand white people and that it explains all of their behaviors. Wouldn’t it make sense to work with the people in front of us rather than the stereotypes of them we hold in our minds? It is here that we benefit from the study of trauma and how to heal it.

If the word “trauma” appears in White Fragility, it is not about the experience of white people. Doing so would contradict the book’s core argument. According to DiAngelo, for generations white people have responded to expressions of black pain by turning the tables. Instead of showing compassion or changing their behaviors, they act fragile — hurt, offended, disrespected, and ignored. This clever tact shifts attention away from the harm they inflict by eliciting empathy for themselves from blacks and fellow whites. The persecutor becomes the victim. This power move, repeated over and over again, allows whites to avoid facing their complicity in racism. They solidify power while preserving their own innocence.

That is how the theory goes. As I’ve said, there are centuries of history behind it, and it continues to happen today. But is this the sole explanation for white behavior in difficult conversations?

Or might something else be going on?

Resmaa Menakem thinks so. Although he admires DiAngelo and the concept of white fragility, his own writing paints a richer picture. As he tells it, the history of white people in the United States involves more than perpetrating harm and benefitting from racist power structures. White folks have been the recipients of body trauma — a lot of it: “Many of the English who colonized America had been brutalized, or had witnessed great brutality first-hand. Others were the children and grandchildren of people who had experienced such savagery in England.” Even after white people started inflicting violence on blacks during slavery — when the victim became the persecutor — their traumatization continued. They experienced “a particularly poisonous form of secondary trauma [that] involves not only witnessing the harming of another human being, but inflicting that harm. Often, the perpetrator tries to avoid this trauma by dissociating…during the event, and then, immediately afterward, overriding any impulse to process the trauma or discharge its energy from his or her body.”

According to Menakem, this trauma, like that experienced by black people, doesn’t just stop with the person who first experienced it. It passes down from generation to generation. So if you’re a white participant in DiAngelo’s workshops today, you likely experience trauma that traces back to your great grandparents and earlier. And it gets stickier. As the trauma passes down to your grandparents, then to your parents, then finally to you, the painful body sensations get stripped of their original context. As you’re sitting there responding to DiAngelo’s questions, your nervous system goes into overdrive, and you don’t know why. This is “intergenerational trauma.”

Embracing this understanding gives us a new way to interpret what happens in difficult racial conversations. A white participant expressing pain is not necessarily employing a power move and definitely not giving irrefutable evidence of their racism. This person has a body. This body likely holds trauma. If you treat a body experiencing trauma as if it were a perpetrator of harm employing a power move, I wonder how likely this strategy will work. Will this support that person in engaging fully in the conversation and expanding their mind? Or might it instead push them out of the conversation and squash the curiosity that is core to learning?

This view of traumatized bodies parallels the lessons of brain science. When people get triggered, it’s important not to shame them, blame them, or force them out of the room. What they need instead is a bit of grace and a lot of space. The opportunity to take deep breaths, observe their body sensations, slow down their nervous systems, and bring their thinking brains back on line. This requires compassionate support commensurate with the challenge and facilitators competent at providing this.

5. People’s capacity for difficult conversations varies widely.

DiAngelo describes how she’s learned about her prejudices and improved her capacity for difficult conversations. Adult development experts would say she has grown into this capacity. Yet she treats everyone as though they should already be able to do what has taken her years to learn. More helpful would be to acknowledge that her workshops place “mental demands” onto participants. According to Harvard educator, Robert Kegan, such challenging situations put people in over their heads by requiring capacities for meaning-making their minds haven’t yet developed. It’s like asking a newborn to crawl or a toddler to speak in complete and perfect sentences.

DiAngelo’s approach creates at least three mental demands. It requires you to embrace others’ perspectives without abandoning your own, realize you generate your own emotions, and grasp that others generate their own emotions. Each is a capacity of what Kegan calls the self-authored mind, which most adults are still growing into.

Understanding that people differ in their capacity for difficult conversations would change how DiAngelo works with people, even if she had no knowledge of brain science or trauma. (Any one of the three will do!) Instead of criticizing people, she would meet them where they are. When someone struggled with her concepts, got triggered, or employed a psychological defense, DiAngelo would notice herself thinking that this person isn’t getting it — and then let the thought go. In its place, she would think Ah, yes, this is right where this person is now. Instead of calling them out for it, she would acknowledge their experience and either move on or give them space to explore it without shame or blame.

Astute readers will note that in suggesting this to DiAngelo, I’m placing a mental demand on DiAngelo. It’s not clear she’s up for it. But many competent facilitators are. If you have this capacity or are consciously building it, things will turn out better for you and the groups you are facilitating.

6. Different strokes for different folks.

Like the prior supplement, this one is about customization, but based on not developmental capacity, but facilitation style. The idea is to match how you speak and listen to what will work for each participant — or at least give it a good college try. On this account, DiAngelo falls short. Indeed, she commits the cardinal sin of personal development (not to mention managing and parenting): offering others the same medicine that works for you.

DiAngelo provides many examples of when blunt truths from others helped her grow. In one instance, after learning her words harmed a colleague, she asks that person to call her out in front of the group so other whites can learn from her example. This approach apparently works for her. So she applies it to her facilitation. In workshops, she’s blunt, direct, and public in her observations — not just with some people, but with everyone. This clearly gives her pride, in no small part because other white facilitators can’t or don’t. If you’ve spent decades witnessing white people avoid racial topics, such bluntness could feel refreshing. It’s hard not to respect her courage and persistence.

But this one-size-fits all approach isn’t useful if your goal is to facilitate difficult conversations and help people grow. Although some people respond well to bluntness, many others prefer a gentler and less direct approach. Nearly everyone prefers to receive challenging feedback in private rather than in front of others.

Different strokes for different folks.

7. People change by adopting new conversation micro habits.

DiAngelo is adept at pointing out people’s unhelpful behaviors. But it’s not enough to end an old habit. As Charles Duhigg shows in The Power of Habit, you need to substitute a new habit in its place.

I’ve seen this many times in coaching leaders. Each engagement begins with a discovery phase. Whereas coaches often look for strengths and weaknesses, I hunt for habits. When meeting with clients, I observe the tiny things they do when they speak and listen. When interviewing their colleagues, I ask for specific examples of their words, tone of voice, body language, and modes of listening. Most revealing is directly observing clients in team meetings and one-on-ones. Altogether these experiences show me people’s default behaviors, what they are habitually and neurologically wired to do. Then, following Duhigg’s advice, I design new ways for them to speak and listen — new “conversation micro habits.” Clients practice them with me, on the job, and in the rest of life. As with all deliberate practice, things go better when people have the intention to improve, do a lot of reps, and get regular feedback. What this helps them do, to borrow a term used in a different context by the late Congressman John Lewis, is to speak and listen as if they were already the person they aspire to be.

Imagine applying this same principle to a difficult racial conversation. What would it be like if each participant entered the conversation with a growth edge — a set of conversation micro habits that reflect their best selves? What if the group as a whole viewed the conversation as an arena to deliberately practice these micro-habits?

Here we dance to a rhythm far beyond shame and blame — indeed, beyond the avoidance of shame and blame. This is about evoking competence, virtue, and strength. These qualities are valuable for difficult racial conversations, to be sure. They also build excellence and resilience in all dimensions of life.

8. Good facilitators get curious about their contribution to group dynamics and self-correct.

It’s a grand irony: DiAngelo’s book is biblical in its commandment to take responsibility for your impact on others. Yet she doesn’t hold herself to this standard when interacting with workshop participants or anyone “white,” at least based on the stories in her book. Anytime someone feels hurt by DiAngelo’s words, she dismisses their emotions as false, disingenuous, and in service of white power structures. Not once does she reflect on her part in the incident and what she might do differently next time.

Here the wisdom of mature facilitators (and coaches, partners, and parents) becomes useful. When you find yourself in a sticky situation with strong emotions and complex interpersonal dynamics, you do two things. First, you check in with your gut, heart and head centers. You notice the sensations, feelings, and thoughts. This helps you form an assessment of the situation: what’s missing, what’s gone awry, and what might be done to make it better.

But that’s not all. You also check it out with others. This is step two, also absent from DiAngelo’s experience as she recounts it. You describe your sensation, feeling or assessment as your side of the story. Then you ask others for their side of the story. How you listen to their response matters. If you’re the type of person who habitually blames yourself when something goes wrong, you listen intently for alternative explanations. On the other hand, if, like DiAngelo, you tend to point your finger at others, you ask yourself different questions: What is my part in this? Could I use different words? Adjust my tone of voice? Shift my posture? Time things differently?

In charged conversations, like those about racial identity, these steps can make a huge difference. They can determine whether a conversation completely breaks down or renews itself; whether participants walk out the door in frustration or stick around and offer their best.

9. Some difficult conversations are better off not having.

DiAngelo may be coming to this conclusion herself. In a recent podcast, she reported seriously considering switching her workshops from mixed groups to all white. She didn’t say why, but it must be frustrating going through the same patterns. And perhaps she’s been paying attention to Resmaa Menakem. “Why,” he writes, “do we want to have a courageous conversation and slam everybody’s body in the same room and talk about these things that have this historic energy. And then you wonder why people stop coming.”

Shifting to all-white conversations doesn’t guarantee they’ll go well. But it could transform interpersonal dynamics that, coupled with DiAngelo’s blindspots, create problematic situations. No reason to send white women out of the room for crying. No need to tell a white guy he’s bullying black participants. The room remains filled with traumatized bodies, but at least there’s less historic energy to exacerbate the tension.

This shift could have an added benefit: allowing the complexity, variety and individuality of white people to rise to the surface. I don’t know if DiAngelo would give herself permission to do this, but the rest of us can. And perhaps it’s easier to honor the survival brains and trauma of white participants when you’re not worried about the impact on black participants. A wider space of compassion can open up.

10. People need positive stories and visions. The story of black Americans is full of them.

This final perspective is as pivotal as it is uncommon.

Uncovering destructive old stories and healing the body are important and necessary, but they only gets you half-way there. It’s one thing to understand where you’ve come from and mend what was torn. It’s another to create positive new stories about the future and who you are becoming. Humans need both. This is especially true when the topic is as charged as racial identity. The deeper the chasm from which we are emerging, the brighter the light we need to inspire us forward.

Even if you accept white fragility at face value, what comes after it? The absence of white fragility? Assume you’ve taken responsibility for your privilege, made bias an object of awareness, and even worked through your trauma. What is possible for you after that — as an individual, citizen, parent, partner, and member of the community?

One of my favorite answers to this question appeared in a book that just celebrated its fiftieth birthday: Albert Murray’s The Omni-Americans. Not all brilliant ideas get the recognition they deserve, much less enter the mainstream. Murray’s notion of the Omni-American is a perfect example. Years ahead of its time, this vision of the country contains prototypes of many of the perspectives we’ve been exploring in a way I find refreshing. Writing at a time when black nationalism was on the rise and social science emphasized black pathology, Murray suggested that the simple categories dominating public conversation captured neither the nation’s complexity nor its mythic past. To quote Henry Louis Gates, “Murray argued that ‘American’ and ‘black American’ culture were mutually constitutive. There was no so-called American culture without the Negro American formal element and content in its marvelous blend, and no black American culture without its white American influences and forms.” Murray’s vision was far too nuanced and elegant to summarize in this space, and so boldly unconventional (or postconventional) that you can’t swallow it in one gulp. It drinks you as much as you drink it. For now, a taste will have to do.

From Murray and his colleague, Ralph Ellison, you learn that “black” dance styles partly evolved from slaves watching dance parties through the windows of plantation houses and then playfully imitating them while adding their own unique interpretations. Slaves created culture by quietly borrowing from slaveholders and making these styles their own. Then slaveholders copied it back. Think about that for a second.

You also learn that without black Americans, there would be no blues and therefore no rock-and-roll. American dress, art, humor, style, dance, and literature — indeed every aspect of our culture — would be hard to imagine.

Murray teaches that the tale of black people in this country is not only one of suffering and exclusion, but also one of heroic resilience through all of that, a hero’s journey beyond compare. He writes, “As for the tactics of the fugitive slaves, the Underground Railroad was not only an innovation, it was also an extension of the American quest for democracy brought to its highest level of epic heroism. Nobody tried to sabotage the Mayflower.”

Nobody tried to sabotage the Mayflower. Who talks like this? Few today, and that’s the point. Harriet Tubman overcame more obstacles than the Pilgrims. Again, pause and take that in.

This offers a powerful lesson for white folks, particularly progressives who want to make things better. When you see black people not as tragic victims of history but as heroic figures in a mythic tale, what now is your identity in relationship to them? Who do you become? In my experience, the first thing that falls away is the urge to rescue. Collaborate, sure. Partner, absolutely. But swoop down from the mountaintop to save the victims of history. That urge dissolves. What then remains?

Nothing stops you from continuing your noble mission, but your role takes a different shape and feel. There’s nobody to rescue. Nobody to save. Nobody whose humanity depends on your intervention. Even the role of “ally” seems poorly suited to this mission. Odysseus had friends and at least one goddess in his corner, but allies? Not exactly. The future we’re describing calls for a very different set of relationships. What if the “mythosphere,” as Murray and my colleague, Greg Thomas, call it, includes you — not as the hero and certainly not as a villain, but as one of several heroes locking arms on a collective journey? This isn’t a world without racism. It might not even be one without race, or at least people’s illusion of its existence. But it’s a place you can roam with all of the virtues, flaws, and motivations that make you the special human being you were born to be.

Get my free e-book, How To Be An Anti-race Antiracist

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Amiel Handelsman

Executive coach, Dad, husband, reimagining American identity, and taking other fiercely nuanced stands on the world's big messes. More at amielhandelsman.com.