Chapter 3 “White people, we need to stop being so damn fragile!”: White and Male Fragility as Epistemic Arrogance

In: Pacifism, Politics, and Feminism
Megan Mitchell
Search for other papers by Megan Mitchell in
Current site
Google Scholar
Open Access


In popular discourse, ‘white fragility’ is invoked to illuminate everything from the reactions of white liberal feminists on Twitter to police violence against unarmed black Americans and (when paired with its companion concept, ‘male fragility’) the election of Donald Trump. However, the precise nature of fragility remains somewhat unclear—what is it that all of these cases have in common? In this essay, I offer a unifying analysis of fragility, both white and male. I build on Robin DiAngelo’s original articulation of the concept and Whitecomb, et al.’s work on intellectual humility to argue that white and male fragility is a disposition to epistemic arrogance by whites and/or men with respect to the domains of racist and sexist oppression. Those with white and male fragility believe that they occupy a privileged epistemic position in these areas because they are white and/or male. After establishing fragility as an instance of an epistemic vice, I broaden my normative analysis by examining its impact and function. Drawing on Dotson’s work, I show that fragility is a form of epistemic violence that silences those marginalized on the basis of race and/or sex.

In a 2013 Twitter battle, women of color used the term “white fragility” to call out the extreme reactions of white women to intersectional critiques of their feminist practice.1 In the years since, it has been used to help explain police brutality towards unarmed black people, our national anxiety around supposed attacks on free speech, and any number of other cases of whites acting with anger and hostility towards people of color.2 Along with “male fragility,” white fragility may have contributed to the rise of Donald Trump.3 One blogger argued that fragility is itself racial violence.4

Since Robin DiAngelo first identified white fragility in a 2011 essay, its uptake in popular discourse to illuminate this array of phenomena hints at its potentially broad explanatory power.5 Moreover, assuming these are instances of white and male fragility, it is profoundly destructive. But what exactly is “white fragility”? Is it a single thing or does it describe a collection of, perhaps closely related, phenomena? What is its connection to “male fragility”? What makes fragility “white” or “male”—is it simply a matter of the identities of the people who harbor it, or something else? Is fragility itself objectionable or is it a usually benign mechanism that has become, intentionally or unintentionally, a tool of oppression? Is it violence?

In this chapter, I answer these questions by giving a unified analysis of fragility (white and/or male) as a kind of failure of intellectual humility. Drawing on DiAngelo’s initial articulation of white fragility and Whitcomb, et al.’s conception of intellectual humility, I argue that whites in the grip of racist ideology and males in the grip of sexist ideologies may develop a disposition to epistemic arrogance with regards to the domains of racist and sexist oppression, respectively.6 Whites and/or males (hereafter, “whites and males”) with fragility will view their own perspectives as more reliable because they are white and male. Consciously or unconsciously, the fragile agent mistakenly believes that whites and males enjoy an epistemic advantage when discussing or critically analyzing these domains.7 When that status is challenged, or their limitations are exposed, they respond inappropriately. As failures of intellectual humility, white and male fragility are epistemic vices in the individual. As instances of epistemic violence that contribute to physical violence against the oppressed, white and male fragility are also objectionable in their function and impact.

1 Fragility Unpacked

In a central case from her essay, DiAngelo describes a white man in an employer-mandated diversity training session, angry, red-faced and pounding the table, yelling that white people, not people of color, are the primary targets of employment discrimination. In a room in which all of the employees are white, he is infuriated by the trainers’ assertion that racism is a system in which whites hold social and institutional power.8 In another instance, a white woman is unable to return to a training session because of criticism she received from her coworkers of color. Their feedback so upset her that she feels she might literally die.9

Connecting these cases, DiAngelo identifies the underlying problem as a lack of psychological stamina when confronting challenges to white supremacy. She writes, “White fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves,” where racial stress is anything that disrupts the racial status quo.10 These defensive moves include emotional responses of fear, anger, guilt and behaviors like arguing, silence, and leaving the conversation. All of these reactions, intentionally or unintentionally, fulfill a similar function: they end productive conversation and, by doing so, maintain the white racial hierarchy.11

DiAngelo’s initial identification and analysis of fragility is a helpful starting point, but it also contains some ambiguity. To begin, there are a number of ways in which one can lack psychological stamina in situations of racial stress. One could, for example, quickly abandon her core beliefs when confronted with even meagre counter-evidence. Or, one could become easily distracted in situations where it would be greatly in her interest to pay close attention. Neither of these appear to be the sort of failures that mark out white fragility. And, in a different context, some of the same emotions or behaviors, such as anger or silence, could be evidence of extreme psychological stamina. Imagine a black person, in a situation of racial stress, who dares to manifest anger or stoic silence. What makes it the case that in the scenarios DiAngelo presents their behavior is properly read as defensive? The answer cannot merely be that, unlike the anger or silence of a black individual, these defend white supremacy. Other behaviors could do that just as well. Rather, it appears that these acts are defensive relative to the white individual. What is it about her that they protect?

1.1 Racism and Sexism as Ideology

To fully understand what is occurring in cases of white and male fragility, assume racism and sexism consist, at least in part, in ideologies. Articulating one influential account of this sort, Tommie Shelby writes, “Racism is a set of misleading beliefs and implicit attitudes about ‘races’ or race relations whose wide currency serves a hegemonic social function.”12 These widespread beliefs, which structure how we understand and interpret the social world and so maintain unjust social relations, are absorbed through schools, media, etc. Whatever its particular form or origin, ideology is subject to epistemic critique on two fronts: first, the beliefs themselves are false or there are large gaps in the ideologue’s knowledge. Second, the processes of belief formation are defective. They are characterized by what Shelby calls, broadly, cognitive defects. These can include, Shelby writes, “inconsistency, oversimplification, exaggeration, half-truth, equivocation, circularity, neglect of pertinent facts, false dichotomy, obfuscation, misuse of “authoritative” sources, hasty generalization, and so forth.”14

Still, ideologies are difficult to dislodge. For one, they may be self-reinforcing. Unlike an isolated false belief, ideologies tend to have multiple layers of justification, each of which may have to be separated and attacked individually in order to begin to break them down. That these beliefs are widespread may add to their apparent legitimacy and further insulate them from attack.15 Second, they can change and morph in ways that render them resistant to critique. For example, the thoroughly disproven notion of a natural racial hierarchy has evolved over time into a belief that some non-whites, perhaps for reasons that are culturally contingent, tend to be less hardworking or intelligent.16 Finally, they may be largely unconscious or implicit, based on or consisting of common assumptions that justify patterns of behavior or practices without critical reflection.17

These features are compounded by the fact that those in the grip of an ideology are likely to hold these beliefs in an irrational way. For some theorists, this feature of racist or sexist ideology is central—it marks the difference between an individual who is racially ignorant and one who is genuinely racist.18 Paradigmatically, this irrationality is a false consciousness, in that individuals are blind to the real, self-interested motives or affective attitudes that push them towards endorsing ideology.19 Regardless of whether false consciousness is necessary for racist or sexist ideologies, it is helpful in making sense of their persistence. Humans not only often adopt beliefs for reasons that have little to do with their truth or principles of rationality, but also they are loath to abandon beliefs in which they have a non-cognitive investment.

Beyond issues with the structure and content of ideologies and how they are formed and held, it seems ideology can also give rise to epistemic vices or create conditions in which it is difficult to cultivate epistemic virtues. These deficiencies in our epistemic character are perhaps responsible for the development of ideology in the first place, but they may also be maintained by ideology. For example, Miranda Fricker argues that we ought to cultivate a virtue of testimonial justice, to rectify a pervasive disposition to downgrade credibility on the basis of identity prejudice, an apparent epistemic vice born of ideologies.20

Perhaps, as I suggest is the case with white and male fragility, ideology can also interfere with our ability to cultivate or practice more familiar epistemic virtues. Consider two possible interactions in which a white person, in the grip of racist ideology, believes that Muslims are more violent than Christians. In both cases, the white person’s beliefs are based on a small selection of news reports, misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the Koran, and a failure to attribute instances of Christian extremism to religious belief. But, after a similar initial pronouncement, the conversations diverge sharply. In the first scenario, when someone calls her belief “racist,” she engages. When challenged, she admits to gaps in her knowledge, and brings additional evidence to bear. She is interested in issues of interpretation, and is inclined to defer to experts. She worries about inconsistency, and works to specify her claims to avoid it. In the second, she is offended by the accusation that her claim is racist. She initially refuses to admit that her knowledge may be incomplete, and when confronted with evidence to that effect, she withdraws. She blames her recalcitrant attitude on her interlocutor’s tone and refuses to engage further.

What marks the difference between these two cases? For one, the first probably seems unbelievable. It is what we might hope for, but rarely find, when confronting someone about their racist or sexist beliefs. We might think we prefer it because she is less racist than the second interlocutor. But, at the end of this conversation, she may be no closer than the second to abandoning her racist belief. As noted above, racist beliefs are difficult to dislodge for a number of reasons. The mere fact that she is willing to entertain challenges or critiques and admit to gaps in her knowledge does not necessarily indicate that she will give up her racist beliefs or that they are less deep or deeply ingrained. She may have many layers of racist justification to overcome. On the basis of this conversation, her belief might even transform into an iteration that is more difficult to counter. She might now assert a mere tendency on the part of practicing Muslims to violence, which admits of many exceptions. Meanwhile, our second interlocutor may have far fewer racist beliefs or assumptions underlying her views about Muslims and if she can be engaged, her perspective is more easily changed. It is an aberration in her fairly egalitarian outlook.

If our preference for the first interlocutor over the second is not that she is less racist, we might have high hopes she can become so. This is because she, unlike the second interlocutor, practices epistemic humility. If she appears to be an unbelievable hypothetical it is because, I argue in the next section, racist and sexist ideology tends to cultivate a disposition towards intellectual arrogance on the part of whites and males in the domains of race and sex oppression, respectively. Thus, we would not typically expect to find someone with racist and sexist ideological commitments who lacks that arrogance. It is this disposition that is the essence of white and male fragility.

1.2 Intellectual Humility and White/Male Fragility

In this section, I briefly contrast the vice of intellectual arrogance with the virtue of intellectual humility. Doing so should give the reader a sense of what it is that I claim those with white and male fragility characteristically lack.21 Next, drawing on DiAngelo, I suggest some reasons for thinking that those in the grip of a racist or sexist ideology will be especially likely to manifest intellectual arrogance. Finally, I return to some cases from DiAngelo’s work and those with which I began this chapter to show how the account helps to make sense of them as instances of fragility.

Following Whitcomb, et al., I propose that we think of intellectual humility, generally, as “having the right stance towards one’s intellectual limitations,” where “the right stance is to be appropriately attentive to them and to own them.”22 Manifesting appropriate attentiveness is “a disposition to be aware (even just implicitly) of one’s limitations, for them to come to mind when the occasion calls for it.”23 Owning one’s limitations is a more complex set of dispositions that “includes cognitive, behavioral, motivational and affective responses to an awareness of one’s limitations.”24 The appropriateness of any particular response (whether it qualifies as an instance of limitations-owning) will depend on the context, but the authors provide a set of characteristic dispositions to guide our understanding. They are: “(1) [to] believe that one has them; and to believe that their negative outcomes are due to them; (2) to admit or acknowledge them; (3) to care about them and take them seriously; and (4) to feel regret or dismay, but not hostility, about them.”25 Both the dispositions of appropriate attentiveness and limitations-owning are necessary (and dually sufficient) for intellectual humility in an individual.

When considering applying concepts of humility and arrogance to the U.S. racial context, we might be tempted to think that as a consequence of growing up in positions of privilege, whites and males tend to lack humility in general, or that they are less likely to have humility than men and women of color or white women. If ideologies can nurture or hinder the development of certain dispositions, then perhaps whites and males will be less likely to be appropriately aware of their limitations, intellectual or otherwise, and less likely to own those limitations. Certain features of DiAngelo’s account of white fragility support this interpretation. She claims that whites possess racial arrogance because of a constant bombardment of positive self-images and negative images of people of color.26 This is reinforced through the centering of the white experience in media, which sends an implicit message that whites are better or more important than people of color.27 And, she argues, whites are taught that their achievements are the result of their own efforts and not unearned privilege.28 Extending this analysis, we see parallels in the centering of male experiences, and the availability of positive self-images that represent males as valuable beyond the limited scope of physical attractiveness or emotional support. Narratives around male success emphasize hard work and intelligence, while powerful female figures are often presented as manipulative and/or parasitic on male achievements.

If intellectual humility is simply a lack of humility with respect to our cognitive abilities and range of knowledge, then an extensive lack of humility could include a disposition in this arena as well. But, I argue that because of their content, racist and sexist ideologies are especially likely to inculcate a lack of intellectual humility for whites and males, whether or not they also give rise to arrogance in other domains. Racist and sexist ideologies include beliefs and assumptions, explicit or implicit, about the relative cognitive abilities of those who occupy different social identities, which are biased towards whites and males. For example, men are precise while women are prone to exaggeration. Whites are smart, while blacks are not. And, in precisely the sort of twist we might expect from racist ideology, even members of non-white racial groups who are stereotyped as smart are not smart in the “right” way—for instance, East Asians and Indians are perhaps calculating and logical, but not creative or novel thinkers.

Furthermore, racist and sexist ideology does not just perpetuate a set of (perhaps implicit or unconscious) beliefs that whites and males suffer from fewer cognitive defects and gaps in knowledge, generally. More central to our purposes, it cultivates the view in whites and males that because they are white and male, they are, in particular, less prone to irrational thinking and ignorance in the domains of race and sex oppression, respectively.29 In other words, whites and males with fragility do not just take themselves to have an equally authoritative perspective, subject to the same sorts of potential limitations as non-whites and non-males, but to enjoy privileged insight into race and sex oppression precisely because they are white and male.

Of course, this is odd in part because whites and males are especially unlikely to have critically explored these phenomena. After all, whites and males are not subject to these respective oppressive circumstances and so their perspectives may be somewhat limited by that lack of experience or personal engagement. However, the crucial point for analyzing and tracking white and male fragility is not that white and male perspectives may be comparatively limited with respect to some oppression and that they fail to grasp this limitation. Rather, racist and sexist ideology teaches them to view their position as white and male not as merely equal to those who are oppressed but as an epistemic benefit in these domains. In contrast to women and men of color and white women, racist and sexist ideology casts whites and males as disinterested or neutral parties, who can occupy a position of objectivity in these respective domains because they are white and male.

That this assumed epistemic benefit is linked to their social identity as white and male makes it distinct from a mere tendency to assume one’s own reasons for belief are pure, while others’ are suspect. Linked to pervasive and persistent ideologies, it is poised to cultivate a disposition of epistemic arrogance in whites and males that leads them to lash out, shut down, or walk away when their authority is challenged. Often, these perceived challenges come in the form of the testimony of women and men of color and white women. Sometimes they are issued by white and male allies espousing views that are usually attributed to, or take seriously the perspectives of, women and men of color and white women on issues of racist and sexist oppression. In either case, those whites and males who are speaking from or to their perspective as whites and males perceive themselves as epistemically advantaged.30

To illustrate this phenomenon, take one causal mechanism from DiAngelo’s work. She argues that segregation gives rise to a limited perspective for whites. In a racially segregated society, DiAngelo writes, “[whites] receive little or no authentic information about racism and are thus unprepared to think about it critically or with complexity.”31 They are rarely exposed to non-white perspectives, which, according to DiAngelo, results in an “[a]n inability to see or consider significance in the perspectives of people of color.”32 These, on their own, are worrisome knowledge gaps and cognitive limitations, the nature of which might begin to cultivate a disposition towards epistemic arrogance. But, the problem is even more acute as, DiAngelo continues, “white people are taught not to feel any loss over the absence of people of color in their lives and, in fact, this absence is what defines their schools and neighborhoods as good.”33 This extends to the epistemic context where, because the absence of non-white perspectives is coded as a positive, whites begin to view their own experiences as indicative of the universal.34 The white experience becomes de-racialized and so neutral and objective, while the perspectives of people of color are always racialized and therefore, viewed as expressing the interests of a particular population. For example, consider how blacks who protest police shootings are thought to be motivated, at least in part, by racial anger. Meanwhile, whites who defend police are rarely portrayed as motivated by a competing racial interest in the current system. White fragility thus helps to preserve the false consciousness of racist ideology. The belief that whiteness grants one an objective perspective in evaluating racist oppression cultivates a disposition that blinds whites to their self-interested motives for believing in a racist ideology, which includes that belief in their own objectivity.

Similarly, men are taught to dismiss women’s beliefs about sex oppression as, at least partially, inappropriately motivated by certain affective attitudes and self-interest, and to see their own perspective as free of such cognitive defects. They are unlikely to attend to the ways in which their own perspective may be limited by their position or interest in maintaining sex oppression. The dynamic of male fragility is highlighted in the exchange featured at the end of an episode of the Netflix series, Master of None. The main male character, Dev, is skeptical of girlfriend Rachel’s assertion that another character’s behavior was sexist. Dev continues to search for other interpretations of the situation even after Rachel’s reading is endorsed by one of Dev’s close female friends. In defending his reaction, Dev attempts to stake out a position of epistemic neutrality. He claims that he prefers not to think of people as being “awful,” and argues that unless he is a “sexist monster” his motivation in defending the third party cannot be ascribed to his being male.35 Though Dev is quick to subject the women’s perspectives to scrutiny on the basis of their identity, he is hurt and angered by the suggestion that his own analysis might be affected by any self-interested motives or inappropriate emotions. Through an ideology which teaches men that, unlike women, they can act as neutral arbiters of sexism, he has developed the disposition to epistemic arrogance.

Let’s return to DiAngelo’s paradigm cases. First, consider the white man who is angry at the diversity trainers. We now have a framework through which we can conceptualize his lack of psychological stamina and his aggressive behavior. Epistemic arrogance in this domain is consistent with lashing out, particularly when his conscious belief that “white men are the primary targets of employment discrimination” is challenged by interlocutors who claim, or appear to him to claim, a position of epistemic authority over him. Second, understanding white fragility in terms of a failure of epistemic humility gives us two ways of interpreting DiAngelo’s anecdote about the woman who left a diversity training because she was unable to handle feedback from her coworkers of color. On one, as with the angry man, she spoke from a disposition of arrogance and she is insulted by her coworkers’ feedback because she judges it to be an illegitimate or inappropriate challenge to her epistemic authority. It is this insult that gives rise to the feeling that she might literally die. On a second interpretation, she has become aware of her limitations thanks to her coworkers’ comments but, because she lacks humility, she is not disposed to respond to those limitations in the right way. She does not own them. Instead, she reacts by both wallowing in them (removing herself from the group) and attributing the negative consequences of the shame or hurt at being corrected to her coworkers’ critiques rather than to her own limitations.

This latter interpretation may also help illustrate the way in which white feminists’ reactions on Twitter to critiques from women of color feminists were an expression of white fragility. Even if white feminists sometimes acknowledged their limitations when responding to these critiques (and so, arguably met one condition of epistemic humility), they reacted by calling their critics “bullies.” They ascribed the hostile tone of the conversation entirely to the women of color’s manner of critique, and not to their own limitations. This is not to say that critics can never be too harsh or that intellectual humility requires that we accept ill-treatment when we display ignorance or are in error. But, given the impact that those limitations had on women of color, both in that instance and historically, owning those limitations (and so, meeting the second condition of epistemic humility) would require that white feminists at least partially (and perhaps fully) attribute negative outcomes to them. Though a failure of this second sort may be a less common disposition in a society marked by the overlapping oppressions of white supremacy and male dominance, it is equally an instance of fragility. Both dispositions are manifestations of an epistemic vice in the individual who harbors them and so, subject to criticism.

2 Why Fragility Is Wrong: from Epistemic Vice to Epistemic Violence

In the preceding section, I argued that white and male fragility commonly manifest as intellectual arrogance. Fragile whites and males do not merely deny that they likely have some deficiencies in understanding racial and sex oppression because of their social position, they take that position to give them special insight into those phenomena. Placing fragility in the context of epistemic virtue and vice provides tools for explaining why fragility is objectionable in the individual. However, a normative analysis that focuses entirely on the psyche of the fragile person risks downplaying the impact of fragility and how it functions to maintain white and male supremacy. In this final section, I briefly explore this additional normative dimension. Specifically, I argue that white and male fragility is epistemic violence that silences the testimony of marginalized people about the nature and existence of their oppressive circumstances.

In examining impact, it is crucial to acknowledge that white and male fragility aids and perpetuates physical violence against the oppressed. For example, when white police officers and their defenders dismiss community outrage because they assume that they, unlike their detractors, can objectively assess whether a decision to shoot, to arrest, to choke, and to beat was justified, their epistemic arrogance threatens the lives of black citizens. Or, when whites and males dismiss a Presidential candidate’s statements as “not really racist” and “not really sexist” over the loud protests of their fellow citizens and vote him into office, marginalized people are put at greater risk. And, when white and male liberals harbor an epistemic disposition that prevents them from acknowledging or taking seriously their complicity in a system of patriarchal white supremacy then that system, with its attendant assaults on the bodies of the oppressed, will continue to thrive.

In each case, these physical impacts of fragility are predicated on its function in a communicative exchange—fragility ensures that, when challenging their oppression, members of marginalized groups will fail to receive uptake by their audience. Drawing on work by Omi and Winant, DiAngelo argues that in the U.S. we live in an unstable racial equilibrium, “which is kept equilibrated by the State, but is still unstable due to continual conflicts of interests and challenges to the racial order.”36 When such conflicts or challenges arise, white fragility is an unconscious disposition that “functions to restore equilibrium…[through] resistance towards the trigger, shutting down and/or tuning out, indulgence in emotional incapacitation such as guilt or hurt feeling, exiting or a combination of these responses.”37

Focusing on the function of fragility not only reveals its connection to physical violence but to epistemic violence as well. In her article, “Tracking Epistemic Violence, Tracking Practices of Silencing,” Kristie Dotson defines epistemic violence as “a refusal, intentional or unintentional, of an audience to communicatively reciprocate a linguistic exchange owed to pernicious ignorance.”38 Pernicious ignorance is “ignorance that is consistent or follows from a predictable epistemic gap in cognitive resources” and harms another individual or group.39 Using the concept of epistemic violence, Dotson isolates two forms of testimonial silencing that affect oppressed groups. The first, which she terms “testimonial quieting,” “occurs when an audience fails to identify a speaker as a knower.”40 Active identity prejudices that the audience holds about the speaker in virtue of her group membership can produce a reliable ignorance on the part of the audience and, depending on the context, may harm the speaker in her intellectual courage or agency or harm a group by suppressing their collective knowledge. Testimonial smothering, meanwhile, includes cases where a speaker refrains from giving testimony either because she judges it too risky in that context, or because the audience exhibits testimonial incompetence.41 In the latter case, Dotson explains, the speaker judges that the audience cannot “clearly comprehend the testimony and, if required, would be [un]able to detect possible inaccuracies in her/his comprehension.”42

As Dotson notes, there is a widespread agreement that, on account of their group membership, oppressed groups can be silenced. Indeed, this notion of silencing as a distinctive wrong—a type of epistemic violence—against members of a group has received some uptake in U.S. popular culture, though with wide disagreement over who precisely are its victims. It is an accusation leveled against those across the political spectrum. For example, some contend that there is a practice of silencing those who hold politically unpopular views on college campuses by left-leaning intellectuals and activists.43 Their opponents argue that marginalized groups are already silenced on those campuses and specious claims that free speech is under attack are a means of further silencing their concerns.44

Whether or not these are, in fact, practices of silencing will depend on their connection to epistemic violence. They must be failures of communicative exchange due to pernicious ignorance of the audience which result in harm to the speaker. Practices of silencing, as opposed to instances of silencing, are reliable—the audience as an epistemic agent “will consistently fail to track certain truths.”45 A controversial speaker may be quieted on college campuses if, owing to social stereotypes about, say, the intellectual capacities of his group, the audience refuses to hear him and in doing so, harms him as an epistemic agent. Such speakers are not silenced if the audience rejects the content of their ideas rather than the speaker as a potential knower. When that rejection issues from considered disagreement rather than pernicious ignorance, the speaker is not a victim of epistemic violence. If, knowing that their largely white audience and peers will misunderstand, students of color remain silent about the many instances of racist aggression they experience on campus, they are smothered. They are not smothered if they choose not to speak to an administration that is prepared to hear their concerns.

Using this framework, it appears that white and male fragility are practices of silencing. Fragile whites and males are not disposed to appropriately attend to their limitations in judgment with respect to race and sex oppression. This reliable ignorance or cognitive gap, instilled through a racist and sexist ideology that conflates whiteness and maleness with objectivity and neutrality, means that whites and males will consistently fail to judge non-whites and non-males as their epistemic equals in these domains. As Dotson notes, the specific harms caused by such practices of quieting are context dependent.46 But, it is fair to say that insofar as fragility is an unjustifiable heightening of the epistemic status of whites and males, and so routinely devalues the testimony of others, it is poised to cause harm to both the individual interlocutor and to suppress the knowledge of the marginalized group.

Through white and male fragility oppressed groups may also be smothered. The disposition not to attend to or own one’s limitations is accompanied by a range of emotional responses and behaviors. Fragile whites and males may become angry, upset or withdrawn. The range of reactions characteristic of those in the grip of this epistemic arrogance can make contradictory testimony on the part of men and women of color and white women risky. Even when not explosive or violent, their reactions make clear that whites and males are unable to acknowledge or own the limits of their perspective. Conversations on such topics may feel like an exercise in futility and so stifle the testimony of oppressed people before they even begin to speak.

This risk may be heightened for those non-whites and non-males who possess expertise in these domains. Non-whites or non-males who claim epistemic privilege directly challenge the belief that only whites and males can be neutral arbiters of race and sex oppression, which underlies the disposition to epistemic arrogance. By assuming the space of objectivity and neutrality for themselves, they remove whites and males from their familiar positions. Consequently, whites and males may feel challenged or triggered before the content of their beliefs is ever discussed. They may employ a number of strategies to regain their privileged epistemic status, including adopting the views of the expert without any real critical engagement. DiAngelo describes white progressives in diversity training sessions who “insulate themselves via claims that they are beyond the need for engaging with the content because they already had a class on this or already know this.”47 Another option is to engage in aggressive strategies of “tone-policing,” where those with expertise are subject to scrutiny of their ability to mimic white and male norms of “neutrality.” Any hint of emotion or deviation from “civil” discourse is taken as evidence that one is not the expert one professes to be. Similarly, a group of non-whites or non-males confirming each other’s experience and lending credibility to one another in a linguistic exchange with a white or male audience can result in whites and males feeling “ganged up on.” This is an implicit accusation that the group has failed to engage with civility and so, is not entitled to the attention of the audience.48 All such strategies serve to discredit the experts, undermining their epistemic agency and potentially smothering future testimony.

In this section, I argued that attention to the individual is not sufficient for a full normative evaluation of white and male fragility. We must attend to its violent impact, both physical and epistemic, on marginalized groups. Mitigating that impact and rectifying fragility is apt to involve leveraging institutional resources. However, on this analysis, individuals also have a role to play. In thinking about and discussing issues of race and sex oppression, those of us who are white and male must be careful to heed DiAngelo’s advice: “Let go of your racial [and sex] certitude and reach for humility.”49



Thanks to Jeanine Weekes Schroer for bringing this case to my attention.


See Monique Judge, “White Fragility Leads to White Violence: Why Conversations About Race with White People Fall Apart,” The Root, January 15, 2017,; Bennett Carpenter, “Free Speech, Black Lives and White Fragility,” The Chronicle, January 19, 2016,; and Jenn M. Jackson, “How White Male Fragility Disrupts Daily Life,” WaterCoolerConvos, January 7, 2016,


See, for example, Christopher Keelty, “Racism Didn’t Elect Donald Trump. White Fragility Did,” Huffington Post, November 13, 2016,; and Charles M. Blow, “Trump Reflects White Male Fragility,” New York Times, August 4, 2016,


Amelia Schroyer, “White Fragility is Racial Violence,” Huffington Post, September 9, 2015,


Robin DiAngelo, “White Fragility,” The International Journal of Critical Pedagogy 3, no. 3 (2011): 54–70.


Dennis Whitcomb, Heather Battaly, Jason Baehr, and Daniel Howard-Snyder, “Intellectual humility: Owning our limitations,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 94, no. 3 (2017): 509–39.


Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for urging me to clarify this point.


DiAngelo, “White Fragility,” 54–5.


Ibid., 65.


Ibid., 57.


Ibid., 65–6.


Tommie Shelby, “Racism, moralism, and social criticism,” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 11, no. 1 (2014): 66. According to Sally Haslanger, Shelby’s view, as I present it here, is an example of a cognitivist account of ideology, consisting of propositional attitudes that are subject to critique on the basis of “whether the propositions believed are justified, and whether the inferences drawn on their basis are sound.” Sally Haslanger, “Racism, Ideology, and Social Movements,” Res Philosophica 94, no. 1 (2017): 3. However, Haslanger argues that ideologies are not only propositional, but also include non-cognitive components, such as those sub-doxastic mechanisms that give rise to beliefs or constitute our tools of reasoning. Our collective cultural and linguistic resources and practices may also be part of a racist or sexist ideology. By relying on a cognitivist ideological account, I am not denying that the ideological picture may be more complex, including cognitive and non-cognitive components. Instead, I intend merely to isolate some troubling cognitive features of ideologies and their relationship to the development of epistemic virtue or vice. I remain open to the possibility that these beliefs and the disposition to epistemic arrogance they invite may be the consequence of sub-doxastic mechanisms also shaped by ideology, and may require a change in culture to overcome.


Tommie Shelby, “Ideology, racism, and critical social theory,” The Philosophical Forum 34, no. 2 (2003): 166.


Shelby, “Racism, moralism, and social criticism,” 67.


Ibid., 66–67.


Shelby, “Ideology, racism, and critical social theory,” 161, and “Racism, moralism, and social criticism,” 67.


See, for example, Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Racisms,” in Anatomy of Racism, ed. David Theo Goldberg (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1990), 3–17.


Shelby, “Ideology, racism, and critical social theory,” 170–172.


Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), chs. 3–5. Fricker does not herself characterize testimonial injustice as a vice, though she suggests that the virtue of testimonial justice is needed to combat this tendency towards credibility deficiency. See Heather Battaly, “Testimonial Injustice, Epistemic Vice, and Virtue Epistemology,” in The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice, ed. Ian James Kidd, José Medina, and Gaile Pohlhaus, Jr. (New York: Routledge, 2017), 223–31, for an argument that testimonial injustice constitutes an epistemic vice.


Though for simplicity’s sake, I contrast intellectual arrogance with humility, I acknowledge that there are probably degrees of intellectual humility and arrogance or that individuals might instead manifest the vice of intellectual servility. I leave servility aside because I argue that the particular way in which whites and males tend to lack intellectual humility is characteristic of arrogance rather than servility—they tend to be unaware, rather than too aware, of their limitations. Nevertheless, whites and males should also take care to avoid falling into that other extreme, and failing to do so might also be indicative of white fragility. It seems some whites and males, upon learning that they suffer from limitations in the domain of race and sex oppression, refuse to engage at all for fear of saying something wrong or making a mistake. If that refusal to engage is born of a genuine awareness of their limitations, rather than (as I assume is usually the case) the worry that they will be “unfairly” critiqued, then it is likely an example of intellectual servility, and also opposed to the virtue of intellectual humility.


Whitcomb, et al., “Intellectual humility,” 8.


Ibid., 8.


Ibid., 10.


Ibid., 11.


DiAngelo, “White Fragility,” 61.


Ibid., 62.


Ibid., 60.


Hereafter, I drop “respectively,” but in each case I mean to indicate that whites with fragility take themselves to have a special epistemic advantage in the domain of racial oppression because they are white and fragile males take themselves to have an epistemic advantage in the domain of sex oppression because they are male.


One of the upshots of this view of white and male fragility is that non-whites and non-males do not experience white and male fragility directly. Since they do not identify as white and male, they will not develop a disposition to epistemic arrogance in the domains of race and sex oppression on that basis. However, they may still be susceptible to it indirectly. Living in a society in which racist and sexist ideology is pervasive, they may adopt, perhaps unconsciously, an assumption that whites and males are less biased on issues of racial and sex oppression. Consequently, some men and women of color and white women may be inclined to defer to whites and males with respect to those domains or feel a greater degree of confidence in their beliefs when they are shared by many whites and males.


DiAngelo, “White Fragility,” 58.


Ibid., 58.


Ibid., 58.


Ibid., 59.


Andy Blitz, (writer), and Lynn Shelton, (director), “Ladies and Gentlemen,” Master of None, November 6, 2015, Netflix.


DiAngelo, “White Fragility,” 58.


Ibid., 57.


Kristie Dotson, “Tracking Epistemic Violence, Tracking Practices of Silencing,” Hypatia 26, no. 2 (2011): 238.


Ibid., 238.


Ibid., 242.


Ibid., 245.


Ibid., 245.


See, for example, Kirsten Powers, The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2015).


See Shaun R. Harper, “No, protestors who point out campus racism aren’t silencing anyone,” Washington Post, March 10, 2016,; Kate Manne and Jason Stanley, “When Free Speech Becomes a Political Weapon,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 13, 2015,; and Jason Stanley, “The Free-Speech Fallacy,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 26, 2016,


Dotson, “Tracking Epistemic Violence,” 241.


Ibid., 243.


DiAngelo, “White Fragility,” 55.


Thanks to the editor for pushing me to expand on this point.


Robin DiAngelo, “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism,” The Good Men Project, April 9, 2015,

  • Collapse
  • Expand