Robin DiAngelo coined the term “white fragility” to describe the state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable for white people, triggering a range of defensive moves.
White fragility manifests itself through:
outward display of emotions such as anger, fear and guilt
behaviours such as argumentation, silence and leaving the stress-inducing situation.
DiAngelo explains that in Western countries, white people are almost always racially comfortable – they rarely feel isolated because of their skin colour – and thus white people tend to develop unchallenged expectations to remain comfortable. Because they have not had the chance to build tolerance for racial discomfort – the way people of colour have to from a very young age – white people typically respond as if something is “wrong,” and blame the person or event that triggered the discomfort (usually a person of colour).
The behaviours associated to white fragility tend to make it difficult for people of colour to honestly express their lived experiences of racism. A common example of white fragility would be exclamations along the lines of "how dare you call me racist!" which can lead to fractured relationships and the isolation of the person of colour who "dared" to raise concerns. Consequently, while white fragility may be unintentional, it functions to silence people of colour, reinstate white privilege and perpetuate the myth of a post-racial society (where racism is no longer a problem).
White fragility operates a lot like other forms of fragility – when one group of people is in a structurally dominant position and they are not used to acknowledging their privilege. For example, male fragility is a common occurrence that can be described as the discomfort men feel when they are forced to consider sexism and their role in patriarchy.
DiAngelo, R. (2011). “White Fragility,” International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, vol 3(3): 54-70
Useful videos by DiAngelo: