An inquiry into the birth and rise of WHITE FRAGILITY along the Academia-to-Mainstream ‘Pipeline’
An in-depth tracing of the origins and rise of the term/idea/slogan “White Fragility” from deep obscurity in fringe-academia (2006/2011) to its steady rise on the left-wing talking circuit (2010s) to its sudden breakthrough into mainstream discourse (June 2020). A study of this process yields insights into the way the academia-to-mainstream “idea pipeline” works. Forward-jumps and upward inflection points for White Fragility are, in almost every case, associated with political violence and peaks of racial-political agitation. The surprisingly tight correlation is suggestive of High-Low Coalition Against the Middle theory of US politics.
By E.H. Hail
(See also companion post at “Who Radicalized Robin DiAngelo?“, a biographical exploration of the coiner of the term White Fragility and a search for her motivations.)
This article is really about the academia-to-mainstream pipeline of ideas and how it works. It is inspired by the sudden cultural phenomenon of “White Fragility,” which I capitalize herein to refer to it as an idea rather than as the thing itself, i.e. when I say “the rise of White Fragility” I mean the rise of the idea/term and not the thing itself, i.e. not an increase in Whites displaying fragility.
The article is organized into sections to tell the story, the biography of an idea.
It opens with background and theory. Next it follows the ascent-arc for White Fragility theory, roughly chronologically and identifies key inflection points when interest shot up and stayed high. This is done using a data-driven approach to trace the course of White Fragility. The goal is to answer the questions of ‘when’ and ‘how’ White Fragility was able to break through, with also one section on ‘where’ and some indication also of ‘who’ played key roles along the way. Case-study examples of uses in the wild during its ascent cycle fill in a human side, supplementing the data-driven narrative, largely from Google Trends. The end of the article consists of remarks on the relevance of the findings for present-day cultural and political analysis.
Each section is internally linked here for easier navigation and reference:
- Introductory: “White Fragility” breaks through; things to note on the phenomenon;
- The Research Question: Where does the term White Fragility come from; how did it succeed?;
- Summary of the findings of the investigation;
- The story begins;
- On the Academia-to-Reality Pipeline, of which White Fragility turns out to be a striking example. Discussion of remarks by John Ellis on the general process; discussion of Christopher Caldwell’s work as applicable here;
- Who is Robin DiAngelo?
- 2006: “White Fragility” is quietly born;
- Early uses of “white fragility” (pre-2011);
- 2011: The beginning of the long ascent arc for White Fragility;
- Important events between 2012 and 2014 in the White Fragility cycle: The Racism Moral-Panics of the Obama era and the Black Lives Matter movement; the first-ever small, non-sustained breakout of the term “white fragility” (Nov. 2014, same week as Ferguson Riots);
- March/April 2015: White Fragility’s first breakout, associated with ongoing disturbances in Ferguson and fresh Black Lives Matter riots in Baltimore;
- White Fragility’s major July 2016 upward inflection point, associated strongly with the peak of Black Lives Matter and with Trump-Hillary race;
- “White Fragility” in the James Damore material leaked from Google’s internal communications and employee message boards from late 2015 to 2017;
- Late 2016 to June 2018: “White Fragility” waits in the wings for its next inflection point in its ascent cycle;
- June 2018: DiAngelo publishes her White Fragility book, which appears on NYT Bestseller List, but the term is still far from mainstream;
- Dating the exact time the White Fragility takeoff begins to May 27, 2020, precisely in line with the George Floyd riots;
- The breakout rise of the term “Systemic Racism” parallels the “White Fragility” arc;
- The geography of the advance of “White Fragility;”
- Conclusions, Lessons, and Further Work.
White Fragility theory bursts forth onto the mainstream scene; things to note on the phenomenon
If you were in the US in June 2020, or observing events in the US, you very likely heard the term “White Fragility.” Seemingly dropped out of nowhere onto the body politic, all of a sudden it was everywhere.
Here is its course from 2011 to June 2020:
The discoverer of this important new doctrine was suddenly famous:
The breakout of the term/idea White Fragility was dramatic enough to be worthy of close study.
Where did it come from?
Things like this in the West today are not immediately imposed by edict by a Mao- or Stalin-like figure shortly after they are coined. What happens is they follow a theoretically traceable course, from birth to growth to breakthrough. A life-cycle.
There are three important things to say about White Fragility before moving on with the main inquiry, the search for the origins and ascent-path for White Fragility:
(1) Introductory point: “White Fragility” was symbolic of the spirit of the moment circa early June 2020.
The initial impression most had of the term White Fragility was probably that it was akin to a schoolyard taunt wrapped up in the clothing of academe giving it a veneer of authority or respectability. It was seen as a crude effort at belittling and delegitimizing white people (more specifically, a certain kind of white people), as white people.
The sudden bursting forth of the White Fragility phrase/meme/theory was therefore an intellectual-rhetorical escalation. The rioting, looting, and vandalism, and later the the Red Guard-like statue-attack squads of anarchists targeting symbols of Classic America, were likewise an escalation, by anyone’s standards; the bursting forth of a theory like White Fragility into mainstream culture was just as much an escalation, on the intellectual front (as most of the rioters were devoid of real ideas).
Journalist Matt Taibbi wrote an exceptional broadside against White Fragility in late June, also identifying its proper place as within what I call here the “Fringe Academia to Mainstream Pipeline.” He says in part:
A core principle of the academic movement that shot through elite schools in America since the early nineties was the view that individual rights, humanism, and the democratic process are all just stalking-horses for white supremacy. The concept, as articulated in books like former corporate consultant Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility (Amazon’s #1 seller!) reduces everything, even the smallest and most innocent human interactions, to racial power contests.
It’s been mind-boggling to watch White Fragility celebrated in recent weeks. When it surged past a Hunger Games book on bestseller lists, USA Today cheered, “American readers are more interested in combatting racism than in literary escapism.” When DiAngelo appeared on The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon gushed, “I know… everyone wants to talk to you right now!” White Fragility has been pitched as an uncontroversial road-map for fighting racism, at a time when after the murder of George Floyd Americans are suddenly (and appropriately) interested in doing just that. Except this isn’t a straightforward book about examining one’s own prejudices. Have the people hyping this impressively crazy book actually read it?
Taibbi’s outrage is understandable and his article against White Fragility Theory is worth reading, but he misses a key point — it is one he is probably aware of but unwilling to make too forcefully or directly, but which I will here:
(2) Introductory point: White Fragility functionally serves as a shibboleth among Whites themselves. One’s reaction to it signals one’s social class, or, better said, one’s reaction to it signals one’s ethnopolitical caste in the system as it now exists.
It works like this: Those who protest the term, or dispute some or all of the ideas implied by it, or have some other negative reaction to it, are understood to indicate thereby that they are of a lower (ethnopolitical) caste within our system, regardless of income, net-worth, education level, accomplishments, or civic standing, all of which are irrelevant to determining ethnopolitical caste, which is driven by a racial-ethnic imperative and tempered by political identity and other ‘minority’ identity (such as sexual minorities other other-gendered individuals, and so on). This is a process that never identifies itself explicitly but which underlies power to a very significant degree.
The general concept here is not necessarily new. It first emerged as a general phenomenon primarily among the b.1940s and b.1950s cohorts in the third quarter of the twentieth century. White Fragility is a particularly striking example of that then-emergent system, institutionalized and radicalized, getting close to being an explicit example of something usually kept implicit for strategic reasons.
(3) Introductory point: The term White Fragility was not in general use at all before June 2020, i.e., it was highly obscure before its sudden breakout.
Let’s put it this way: If, any time before late-May/June 2020, “white fragility” was heard spoken, or seen written, in almost any company, it would have been assumed to have been the speaker’s spontaneous coinage.
If you were particularly in tune with a certain kind of fringe left-wing politics, either pro- or con-, you may have heard the term in the 2010s at some point (you’d be in small company; a few early cases are documented below). Even if you had heard it, you had probably basically forgotten about it by May 2020. It was simply not current in anything like day-to-day use, not in the way its well-worn ancestor phrases/memes were, like Institutional Racism, a mid-1960s coinage.
So that makes three things to keep in mind for a successful investigation into White Fragility: (1) It is a clear rhetorical escalation, (2) it is a handmaiden of the emergent ethnopolitical caste system and serves its interests, and (3) it came as if out of nowhere, suddenly bursting onto the scene.
Indications are it will have staying power, given how much it is now being assigned as required reading by schools and universities, as well as being fodder for the entire Diversity industry. Rarely has a diversity consultant been catapulted to national fame as dramatically as the coiner and promoter of this new theory of Permanent White Racial Guilt.
[The Research Question]
Where does “White Fragility” theory come from and how did it succeed?
Like Matt Taibbi whom I quote in the section directly above (“It’s been mind-boggling to watch White Fragility celebrated in recent weeks“), I took interest in this phenomenon. Intellectually, it was rather remarkable strictly from an idea-transmission perspective.
I looked into the origins of White Fragility Theory at some depth and read its founding documents.
Rather than being some silly buzzword of the moment, as many no doubt believe, I believe the remarkable and sudden success of White Fragility signals something important and profound about US politics. Given that its ascent trajectory is entirely in the data-saturated 2010s, we have the proper investigative tools with which to establish a pretty firm biography of the term itself and also look for possible mechanisms by which it was advanced.
Looking into the origin of the term, one finds corroboration for an intent to morally delegitimizing Mainstream White Americans. For one thing, the coiner and pusher of the idea/phrase/meme, Robin DiAngelo, PhD (on whom, see a separate post), nowhere proposes any corresponding phrases like Black Fragility, Chinese Fragility, etc. It’s only White Fragility. And it’s not even that she doesn’t bother coining other racial equivalents. If you read her writing, it’s that Whites alone are guilty of this new moral crime. All persons who are not White are victims.
Now, it is a relatively easy point to make to say there is a double standard at work here, a point many have made in June and July 2020. Critics have mocked or attacked Robin DiAngelo’s theory/slogan of White Fragility on something like those terms. But this kind of criticism brings us, alas, to a dead-end. The cry of “double-standard!” ends the story. Surely there must be more to the story, something more to learn here?
And so began this investigation, the story of the birth and growth of an idea/phrase/meme.
SUMMARY OF FINDINGS
- We can trace the origin of the White Fragility phrase/idea/meme to the fringes of academia and specifically to a 2011 journal article;
- It traces to a Seattle “diversity trainer” named Robin DiAngelo who developed the idea while observing White reactions to the mandatory diversity training sessions she ran in the 1990s/2000s;
- We can follow White Fragility’s ascent along the academic-left-wing talking circuit, where it became established by the late 2010s, using all kinds of data to which we now have access;
- Each instance of the phrase White Fragility making gains is associated with a period of rioting or other violent, race-related disturbances or peaks of radical political agitation;
- The disturbances associated with upward inflection points in appearances of (interest in) White Fragility correlate tightly with violence:
- Nov. 2014: White Fragility has its first-ever small spike on Google Trends, the same week as Black rioting in Ferguson, Missouri; this brief spike is not sustained and the ascent cycle has not yet begun, but would soon;
- March/April 2015: The in-earnest start of the White Fragility ascent cycle. Associated with more action in Ferguson which the national media kept in the spotlight, and with copycat protests elsewhere, and with the protest/riot cycle related to another “unarmed Black man” case in Baltimore; a March 10, 2015, interview with Robin DiAngelo by Sam Adler-Bell precedes the mid-March bounce;
- July to September 2016: This is the next big forward-jump in White Fragility appearances, and is associated with the peak of Black Lives Matter in the 2010s and large-scale massacres of police officers that month; also near the peak of the Trump-Hillary political cycle;
- June 2018: The publication of DiAngelo’s book titled White Fragility solidifies the phrase and is associated with another upward inflection point in interest, also sustained;
- Late May to early June 2020: The outbreak of a Black- and anarchist-riot cycle, ostensibly over anti-Black racism by White police (following twelve weeks of virus ‘lockdown’ and substantial disruptions to normal life) triggers a major breakthrough by White Fragility, dwarfing all previous spikes;
- There is 100% certainty that the George Floyd riots propelled the still-obscure term White Fragility to national prominence and into the mainstream for the first time; the chronological alignment is perfect, to the day;
- Representative case studies of what kind of people were using the term White Fragility, and in what contexts, early in its ascent cycle pre-2018) are examined. This includes internal communications by Google employees from late 2015 to early 2017 during their campaigns to get conservative white male employees fired, as documented by ex-Google employee James Damore;
- Despite its success moving up along the far-left fringe, White Fragility was still a long way from national consciousness as of the start of the last week of May 2020.
- The late-May and early June riots created a cause d’jour of vaguely-but-fashionably stating opposition to police racism and “white supremacy,” causes seemingly dropped out of nowhere and detached from reality but before which the system appeared to cave in, as did millions of ordinary people. This was a trigger event by which the forces already pushing along White Fragility (as a term/idea) were able to escalate and by which White Fragility entered the next and presumably phase of its ascent — the most dramatic of all;
- A very similar “mid-to-late 2010s slow-ascent, then June 2020 breakout” pattern is seen with the phrase “Systemic Racism,” a chronological parallel each step of the way with the ascent arc for White Fragility;
- Looking at the whole, “White Fragility” can be shown as a great case study for demonstrating why fringe academics’ ideas ‘matter.’ The intellectual ‘pipeline’ through which they travel, from obscurity to the mainstream, is demonstrable here;
- A surprising finding is just how right a relationship White Fragility has had with violence;
- Given the finding of the symbiotic relationship with violence, I would propose White Fragility and its entire ascent cycle, the mechanisms driving its ascent, as a clear-cut example of the “High-Low Coalition against the Middle” in action. The ‘Middle,’ the solid people upon whom society/civilization rests, are to some degree intimidated by violence from below (‘Low’) and concurrently browbeaten and demoralized from above (‘High’).
(Start of the main contents of this article)
WHITE FRAGILITY’s birth in the nether regions of grievance-studies academia
The one-line answer to “where does the term White Fragility come from?” is “a fringe area of US academia.” This revelation may be less than stunning to many.
Its first real appearance is in a 2011 paper by a Whiteness Studies academic and former professional diversity trainer called Robin DiAngelo, whose personal story is of great interest in this general story. More on her shortly, and in a separate biographical investigation into DiAngelo.
The White Fragility concept/phrase/meme/endzone-dance/soft-blood-libel, thus introduced in 2011, had been percolating in professional diversity trainer and professional academic Robin DiAngelo’s mind for up to twenty years before that, and so had a long incubation period within academia.
Before continuing into the main narrative, remarks on the general force at work (The Pipeline) and the role Robin DiAngelo was playing within it.
The ‘Pipeline’: Academia as a source of (radical) ideas that become relevant to social-political currents
“Most of the almost-insane radical Left ideas that are floating to the surface in the wider world, now, come ultimately from the campus.”
These words were spoken by John Ellis (born ca.1938 in the UK) on June 21 on the television show of Mark Levin. Ellis also said:
“The campus is so far Left, and so irrational in its Leftism now, that it is poisoning the culture. One profession after another is being, essentially, corrupted.”
Ellis is identifying The Pipeline. His remarks are relevant to this topic and deserve preservation, transcription, and attention here, in an introductory capacity. The process that will be described and traced in the rest of this article will not make sense without understanding the general process.
A sidebar on Ellis: He earned a PhD at University College London in 1965, and was active as a professor and college administrator in universities in California from 1966, and for many decades thereafter, including for a long period as dean of graduate studies at the University of California Santa Cruz. Since 2014, he has been the Chairman of the California Association of Scholars. He is well familiar with academia, including before and after the big changes of the late 1960s and 1970s, and everything since.
In early 2020, Ellis published a book: The Breakdown of Higher Education: How it Happened, The Damage it Does, and What Can be Done, which got him attention. (See a short review of the book which mentions his seven policy proposals, which, compared to the status-quo, look radical themselves. See also another good review of the Ellis book.)
I imagine some will dismiss Ellis as some old man out of touch or the like, and that those saying so will invariably do so without reading or listening to him. But as one reviewer of his book says, “If there’s anyone who has intimately observed the evolution (read: devolution) of higher education over the last 50+ years, it’s John Ellis.”
Dr. Ellis goes on (speaking June 21):
“Academia is a very fashion-driven place. You can bet that if a new politically correct folly arises on one campus, it’ll spread to the other campuses. They all essentially adopt the same irrationality very quickly.”
This process will be shown to be at work with White Fragility.
“[Academia] is now boot-camp for political radicalism. It is no longer a place that prepares children for the careers that are facing them, for the lives that are facing them, or with the mental equipment to face new challenges, to analyze new situations, to respond to new challenges. That’s not happening.
When a political activist tells you to get in line behind him and join the cause, higher education is stopped dead. There’s no development of mental capacity involved in that. On the contrary, the political radical is telling you to stop thinking. Just do as you’re told.”
“The one-party campus is precisely because the ideas don’t stand up to challenge very well. If the radicals allowed a healthy debate on campus, they’d lose. […] The public has to throw off the spell created by the great names [like] Harvard and Columbia.”
Ellis identifies the outline of a general process at work behind The Pipeline. He also correctly identifies that this process is ongoing in our era, maybe stronger than ever. The Pipeline from extreme-fringe to the very center of discourse, with a lag-time that isn’t very long, is alarming, but because of the nature of the control of discourse, few seem to notice how quickly the goalposts shift. In other words, the extremists and ‘wackos’ of one day are the centrists or near-centrists with legitimate or highly moral views, x years into the future.
Ellis did not speak about White Fragility specifically, but by the time of his interview had several weeks behind it of major success in US general culture.
Born in an obscure corner of academia, forged in group-think and through an Internet-reinforced, activist, left-wing feedback-loop is how Ellis, I am sure, would agree that White Fragility was set up for its sudden takeoff. The handmaidens of White Fragility theory along key parts of its ascent arc were of certain types, with the earliest phases being the academics.
Later waves in the ascent cycle tend to involve the kind of person Christopher Caldwell profiles so well in his late-2016 essay, “Sanctimony Cities,” the definitive analysis essay on the Trump election of 2016. Caldwell develops the point that the big-blue-metro- and academia-oriented people’s hatred of Trump masked, by its ferocity, an unpleasant sanctimoniousness, i.e., they really looked down on the actual core of America and its people their aspirations, interests and even their moral value as people.
Caldwell, while writing “Sanctimony Cities” in late November 2016, and later while writing hit book The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties (pub. Jan. 2020), would not have been surprised if a visitor from the future informed him that a new form of permanent racial guilt for all European-Christians, called White Fragility, had been discovered and that it had entered mainstream discourse by June 2020.
(Caldwell’s thesis in Age of Entitlement, about which he was interviewed in January 2020 by Tucker Carlson, is that the Civil Rights movement created a second defacto US Constitution, parallel to the original of 1789 vintage but superseding it whenever the two came into conflict. This second Constitution has not been recognized for what it was, but can be seen in hindsight by those with the courage to look at it. This “second Constitution” effectively reoriented the purpose of the state and the cultural institutions that support the state and which revolve around the state. Now that all our working-age cohorts have been raised under this new regime, Sanctimony Cities is the result. Robin DiAngelo and her White Fragility theory fit right in.)
While an understanding of this process is common, all too many believe this is all something that happened decades ago and don’t believe that The Pipeline is still at work today. Too few appreciate how much social movements and metapolitics are still being driven by this process. To use the well-worn metaphor: Just as the fish doesn’t realize it’s in a fishbowl, it can be hard to recognize processes that are ongoing around you as they happen. White Fragility is a clear, and provable, example.
While recognizing that extreme rhetoric does exist in academia, the person of the type I mean may still dismiss it all as navel-gazing, ridiculous, unserious and/or unworthy of being taken seriously. These ideas do have consequences, though, as can be demonstrated with White Fragility. When it first appeared in print — in an very obscure, second-rate academic journal, in 2011 — if anyone of the type I mean came across the article, by chance, the most likely reaction would have been laughter, or some other kind of derisive dismissal, scoffing at the idea that a short nine years later White Fragility would be a household term.
And so the general process works. On to the specifics, the ‘how.’ How did White Fragility, specifically, break out of the academic-activist ghetto and push onward towards the mainstream? The first step on the journey to understanding is to meet its coiner, a diversity trainer and former professor named Robin DiAngelo.
Who is Robin DiAngelo?
Robin DiAngelo was a professional diversity trainer who earned a 2004 PhD in Multicultural Studies (which gained steady recognition as an academic field in the 1990s) from the University of Washington in Seattle.
While this investigation is a kind of biography of White Fragility as an idea (or meme), the story inevitably parallels, in key ways, the biography of its coiner and promoter (or, some might prefer, its chief priestess).
It remains impossible, even now after the breakout, to separate White Fragility from the person of Robin DiAngelo. I encourage you to consult “Who Radicalized Robin DiAngelo?”. It explores DiAngelo’s biography, origins, career-arc, personality, identity, psychology, experiences, and motivations, a full biographical investigation into Robin DiAngelo, including information that to my knowledge has not been published anywhere else. It may be thought of also as a prequel to this investigation, in that it it largely focuses on the personal origins of DiAngelo from her 1960s youth to 2011.
DiAngelo was obscure through the 2000s and really through the 2010s, but suddenly a superstar in June 2020 as a chief priestess of Anti-Racism, preaching the newly discovered doctrine of White Fragility.
As long as the system as we understand it lasts, DiAngelo will presumably be revered as a priestess-prophet of Anti-Racism. She is also now on the very lucrative lecture circuit, earning embarrassingly high speaker’s fees.
Here is DiAngelo in July 2018 at a lecture about her then-recently-released book, White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. In this still she apologizes for having to give her lecture on stolen indigenous land:
If you read DiAngelo’s writings, including but not limited to the obscure-journal article in which she introduced White Fragility in 2011, or if you listen to her early-July 2018 talk, you may recognize what she is:
Robin DiAngelo is a cult trainer.
Just one example of many [14:00]:
“If you are white and you have not devoted years of sustained study, struggle, and focus on this topic [racism], your opinions are necessarily very limited.”
This is what she’s doing: “Hey! You! Your views and opinions, the knowledge and experiences you think you have: It’s all invalid. Only we have the right answers. Forget everything you know, and listen.”
Cult trainers talk this way.
Maybe it’s necessary to tack-on a disclaimer here: Cult trainers aren’t bad or evil people, necessarily.
Robin DiAngelo is not necessarily a villain. But she is deep-in with a cult. Like everyone. she approaches things with her own set of presumptions. In fairness (of a sort) to her, the cult she’s in is a civic cult, largely enforced by the power of the state and the dominant cultural apparatus, and really totally dominant within the world she has long inhabited in the university system and in Seattle and elsewhere.
Frankly, I am fascinated by the origin-story of Robin DiAngelo and how she came to be the way she is. As mentioned above, I did significant original research on her background, enough to have written a 5500-word original-research biography on her, which includes information available nowhere else. (I made use of an obscure but lucrative source which I don’t think anyone else has noticed since her sudden rise to fame.)
2006: “White Fragility” is Quietly Born
Robin DiAngelo was running her anti-racism training sessions and all manner of (anti-)Whiteness workshops teaching a few classes in the Seattle area for several years after her PhD in May 2004. It was in this period that we find the first evidence of “white fragility” (still lowercase at this time) in print:
The citation is:
DiAngelo, R. 2006. “‘I’m leaving!’: White fragility in racial dialogue.” In B. McMahon & D. Armstrong (eds.), Inclusion in Urban Educational Environments: Addressing Issues of Diversity, Equity, and Social Justice (pp.213-240). Centre for Leadership and Diversity at the University of Toronto.
This 2006 entry was in a very obscure book (which, tangentially, uses the double-weasel-word phrase “addressing issues of,” a phrase unknown before the 1980s; it seems natural that people in the Diversity Training business would use weasel-wording terms like “Addressing Issues of…”).
The Inclusion in Urban Educational Environments book will have had little immediate impact. But there it is, White Fragility, its earliest known appearance in the relevant sense in print.
A longer-form follow-up and expansion was published in 2011 and from that 2011 paper (see next section), we can trace the ascent course up to its mid-2020 breakthrough. The idea, though, was already definitely formed in DiAngelo’s mind by 2006.
Actually, by DiAngelo’s telling, the idea significantly predates 2006, though when she first coined the term is unclear. From other available information, it appears the idea dates to the 1990s and various negative experiences she had as a diversity trainer. These experiences were layered on top of resentments she held about mainstream US society (for more on this, see “Who Radicalized Robin DiAngelo?“).
Pre-2011 uses of “white fragility”
The term “White Fragility” was independently ‘coined’/used many times, and makes sporadic appearances in the 1990s/2000s in NGram but with all kinds of meanings.
One appearance of “white fragility” in 2004 refers to the 1994 OJ Simpson ex-wife murder. In context it is clear that it is not related to the 2020 meaning:
This pre-DiAngelo use of “white fragility” is typical of the early appearances. It is basically a pro-white term (even if used, there, ironically) rather than being an anti-white term, a bludgeon to attack, disempower and morally delegitimize whites, as in DiAngelo’s White Fragility.
2011: The beginning of the long ascent arc for the term/idea “White Fragility”
Robin DiAngelo taught at Westfield State College in Massachusetts from Fall 2007 to Spring 2014 semesters, teaching multicultural education. It was right in the middle of this period that the most important event in Robin DiAngelo’s professional life happened:
DiAngelo published a short article titled simply “White Fragility” in the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy Vol 3-3 (2011). The term, and DiAngelo’s academic-activist star, would make steady gains, and probably unexpectedly large gains, before the decade was out. In the second half of the 2010s, White Fragility theory had propelled DiAngelo to some degree of national fame on the academic- and hard-left grievance circuit. It all started with the 2011 journal article.
Robin DiAngelo’s writings regularly return to the topic of white people (including, or especially, liberal white people) who resent the anti-racism trainings she made her life’s work. DiAngelo’s resentment-of-the-resentment appears to be the origin of White Fragility theory itself. Anyone resentful of mandatory anti-racism training for Whites, delivered by a priest or priestess of Anti-Racism, is a bad person within Anti-Racism cosmology. A term must be found to label them, even when they show no other signs.
Below is the first page of the 2011 article. Every line gives a taste of the resentment inherent in DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” ideal
It can seem confusing to many, but if read with the understanding that DiAngelo is carrying resentments against an imagined mainstream America from which she felt excluded (see “Who Radicalized Robin DiAngelo?“), using Anti-Racism as a weapon to get back at the (white) world, it makes more sense. Try it:
In the article, DiAngelo says she “explicates the dynamics of White Fragility.” In one sense, the term seems a riff on “White Privilege.” The word ‘privilege’ appears twenty-three times in her article; fragility itself hardly any more, at twenty-eight times.
DiAngelo’s core idea here dates to 2006 in more-or-less full form. The difference is that the rest of society would have laughed at this in 2006, but by the late 2010s the center was wavering; in June 2020, suddenly everything fell apart and people bought into the hate-cult inherent in White Fragility theory.
This International Journal of Critical Pedagogy is, as you may expect, not a very big deal, and was itself in flux at the time of publication. It only managed to publish one issue in 2011, apologizing for the delay in publication in the introduction to this very issue. I have tried to determine what month it was published for purposes of this narrative, to give a firmer start-date to the White Fragility arc, but cannot reliably find this information. The journal did not bother providing a publication date or month.
Given the inevitable delays in publishing anything in a journal, it’s likely that DiAngelo submitted her paper already sometime in 2010, and as we have seen it was in any case a reworking of an idea she had been thinking about and writing about for years. But 2011 is still the start-date for the ascent-cycle.
Having been introduced (as a capitalized, academic-esque term) in 2011, the term White Fragility gets no real traction for several years, (going on Google Trends now) But its day would come.
Important Events in the White Fragility cycle between 2012 and 2014
Racism Moral-Panics of the mid-Obama era (later evolving into Black Lives Matter) and the first-ever (brief, non-sustained) appearance of White Fragility in Google Trends, Nov. 2014
In May 2012, DiAngelo published a book, What Does it Mean to Be White: Developing White Racial Literacy. The book emained obscure, but seems to have contained the term White Fragility again.
Mainly, it’s all-quiet on the White Fragility front in the years 2012 to 2014, with no general awareness of this term anywhere outside DiAngelo’s academic cloister, herself and a handful of colleagues and scattered fellow-travelers. Google Trends shows no sign of any movement.
However, something else important happened at this time, critical to the entire ascent-cycle getting the energy to keep moving: The birth of the racial-political cycle that started with the Trayvon Martin case in spring 2012, which was covered heavily by the media (effectively promoted by an activist media). The media recklessly created something that wasn’t really there, an imaginary plague of White men and police murdering “unarmed Black men” out of race hate, a completely imaginary phenomenon. Why they did this is a question too complicated tangential to answer here.
Many believe that the Obama campaign and its allies in the media deliberately pushed this racial moral panic in 2012 as a way to guarantee a win in the then-upcoming Nov. 2012 presidential election, a theory Steve Sailer has promoted. (If there is truth to this, and it appears there is, can there be any stronger retroactive argument against electing Obama if the purpose was to enter a post-racial politics, as was being pitched in 2008?Racial politics actually got much worse in the Obama era, with a several-years-long cycle dating to 2012.)
Over the next few years, there would be regular cases of these kinds of causes celebres, the media regularly pushing, hard, stories of the latest “unarmed Black male shot by police” somewhere, never giving the full story. These were always highly local stories of ambiguous natures (at best) but drumbeat by the national media, creating artificial national importance. Irresponsible and inflaming tensions, in time this led to cases of localized rioting, looting, arson, and local spikes in crime. Maybe more importantly, it created a toxic racial-political environment.
Those who were paying attention and of age in the mid-2010s will remember the name Ferguson. A seemingly neverending news-cycle around a small, local case in Ferguson, Missouri, between Aug. 2014 and late 2015, driven ever-onward by a national media drumbeat. The small city of Ferguson was used as whipping-boy for this coordinated social movement for more than twelve months. It was one of the biggest domestic quasi-political stories of the immediate pre-Trump era.
In retrospect, “White Fragility” was clearly poised to make gains within such an ongoing race-grievance-politics cycle.
All that having been said, here is the surprising findings from the GoogleTrends data:
The first time White Fragility registers at all in Google Trends, though not in a sustained way, aligns perfectly with the serious rioting in Ferguson in late November 2014. It was a brief spike. Subsequent weeks saw no sustained search interest in White Fragility and its true breakout was yet to come, but this is a remarkable chronological alignment between the first spike in interest in White Fragility and the Ferguson Riots (immortalized by a man at the head of a mob repeatedly shouting “Burn this b**** down!” in front of news cameras under cover of night shortly before the wave of arsons, and attempted-arsons that night, began).
Hail To You had a post about the Ferguson riots at the time: “A Shabby End to a Mega-Project”: USA’s 2014 Race Riots and the B.H. Obama Legacy (Nov. 26, 2014).
Although the destructive Ferguson riots were labelled by one commenter at the time as “the shabby end of a fifty-year mega-project,” little did he know but the very early stages of a new cycle was then just beginning:
Here is the first White Fragility spike in context of the late-November Ferguson rioting (from this graph):
In late 2014, this was still a one-off, something that could be ignored. The few ordinary people who encountered this term back then no doubt assumed it would be ignored and would die a natural death. In only two weeks over the subsequent four months would White Fragility show anything above “0,” too low to register on the scale.
March/April 2015: White Fragility’s first breakout, associated with Ferguson and Baltimore Riots; the role of Sam Adler-Bell as early promoter
The first time White Fragility shows upward movement that becomes sustained is March/April 2015. Spring 2015 is beginning of its five-year ascent cycle.
Here is the long-term Google Trends graph, with March 2015 (highlighted by a blue dot) being the first time significant upward movement is noticeable. The upward movement at this time creates a new baseline for interest in White Fragility that held for a while (about 10 to 15 in this scale):
The spring 2015 rise is chronologically associated with both the Baltimore race riots of that year and the months-long, media-driven cycle of events in Ferguson, Missouri. A protester shot two police during an overnight protest March 11-12 at Ferguson, following the resignation of the white chief of police with full pension, which renewed protests. The national media was playing a key role in driving events, with drumbeat-style coverage from the start and effectively cheering the protesters on, emboldening them.
The to-be-sustained small breakout in interest in White Fragility seen in Google Trends dates specifically to the five-day period March 16-20, 2015, the week following the latest rioting in Ferguson subject to intense media coverage. If we are looking for birthdays of White Fragility ascent-arc, March 16, 2015, might be suitable one. Nothing special necessarily happened on that specific day, but it’s the first day of sustained growth in interest recorded by Google Trends.
An AlterNet interview with Robin DiAngelo in mid-March 2015 as was republished widely in mid-March, including in the Racism Review on March 16, exact alignment with the start of the ascent cycle. The original AlternNet interview was by Sam Adler-Bell, bearing a date of March 10, “Why White People Freak Out When They’re Called Out About Race.” It contains “white fragility” nine times.
Who is Sam Adler-Bell? He is a left-wing journalist out of New York City, possibly born ca.1990. He is one of the very first to give wide publicity to White Fragility, and therefore stands as a key figure in this entire narrative. Adler-Bell’s article immediately precedes the sustained increase in interest in White Fragility theory we observe in the data. He by no means did it single-handedly, but he is one of the very most important, identifiable people in driving the ascent-cycle.
Here is early White Fragility Theory promoter Sam Adler-Bell writing more recently about Ilhan Omar:
Sam Adler-Bell (BA, History, Brown University, 2012; a Policy Associate at the Century Foundation, a left-wing think tank, from 2015) is an active Twitterer with 20,000 followers. His current pinned tweet says:
“For the new issue of @JewishCurrents, I wrote about Adam Neumann, WeWork, kibbutzim, the Israeli tech sector, and ‘humanitarian’ capitalism.”
Several other White Fragility interest-bumps follow in April 2015, this time chronologically associated with the Baltimore protests and rioting over a separate incident there. The protests in Baltimore, too, were effectively cheered on by the media and therefore were being magnified hundreds of times over what they ‘really’ mattered in a way that would have been impossible in a previous era.
This zoom-in on late 2014 into mid-2015 with labels added for clarification puts theBaltimore riots of 2015 in context (refer also to the full graph to see March/April 2015 in full context):
In Baltimore’s case, after the death of a criminal suspect in April and protests that gave way to riots, the mayor famously gave the rioters “space to destroy” (her words), then criticized her own police and threatened to prosecute them for racism. Five police were arrested.
The effect was a demoralized police force and passive policing. With police pulling back lest they be arrested for racism as well, a crime wave hit Baltimore, with hundreds of marginal homicide deaths over the next few years, and similar effects in certain other cities.
(Baltimore 2015 was a small-scale harbinger of the noodle-armed response in city after city during the the late May and June 2020 riots and civil unrest, in which mayors ordered their own police forces to stand down and allowed rioting and looting to occur, and effectively ceded parts of cities to anarchists.)
A real-world example of White Fragility making the rounds at the start of the sustained interest, mid-March 2015, is a blog post appearing on GovLoop, “the premier social network connecting over 300,000 federal, state, and local government innovators.”
I reproduce that blog entry in part because tit is useful for this investigation, a clear case of an early adopter driving interest in the crucial first stages:
The man who posted this was Richard Regan (born ca.1958), a longtime Senior Diversity and Inclusion Consultant at the Internal Revenue Service in Washington, D.C. (Yes, that is a real position; no, I am not making that up; no, this position was not made up by the satiritcal Babylon Bee.) In his LinkedIn biography, Richard Regan identifies as, quote, “an American Indian/Alaska Native.” He uses the slash, just like on government forms. (What’s that about?)
Regan says on his LinkedIn that his “vibrant content and unique delivery style create emotional connections with adult learners that accelerate their development as social architects and change agents for diversity and inclusion.” This is the kind of person pushing White Fragility theory in its earliest phase.
After its spring 2015 upward bump in interest, characterized by people like Richard Regan and Sam Adler-Bell, White Fragility settled into a new steady-state for more than twelve months, holding at that level until summer 2016.
In the meantime, Donald Trump declared his campaign (mid-June 2015) and assembled a coalition of hitherto all-but-unserved voters, propelling his candidacy forward with popular-if-vague policy proposals (which, looking back from 2020, he probably never had the intention of keeping). He was on his way to becoming the most unlikely president in history. At the same time, the Black Lives Matter group was approaching its peak in activity.
White Fragility’s July 2016 upward inflection point, associated with the peak of Black Lives Matter and Trump-Hillary race
Those who remember the wild 2015-16 political season will not soon forget it. Also ongoing at the time was Black Lives Matter movement, which was unpopular and drew substantial opposition.
White Fragility sees a jump in interest in July 2016, which is associated with the 2010s-era-peak of the Black Lives Matter movement and with the massacres of police that month carried out by BLM activists.
White Fragility shot up to a new, brief, height in summer and fall 2016:
The peak period for “White Fragility,” prior to the publication of the book by that name in mid-2018, was August to November 2016, represented by that spike you see there in the middle of the graph above.
This peak period is also associated chronologically with the final-stretch of the heated Trump vs. Hillary presidential race, and also with the entry of the term Alt-Right into mainstream discourse (via a late August 2016 Hillary speech), marking the first time since perhaps the George Wallace campaigns that a semi-mainstream force clearly to the ‘Right’ of the Republican Party (an ethnonationalist Right) was recognized as a major, independent, quasi-institutional political player. (Key figures in the Alt-Right, as understood, were marginalized within a year and became subject to a series of lawfare attacks, malicious prosecutions, and politically motivated prison sentences).
The racial-political cycle of 2012-to-2016, the Obama-era anti-police agitation cycle and offshoots thereof, had given birth to the Black Lives Matter movement. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” begins to register on Google Trends only by Dec. 2014 but only shows its first real growth in Aug. 2015. It was July 2016 that “Black Lives Matter” shows its spike, reaching its highest interest level of the decade by a good margin, and this is exactly the same time we see White Fragility show its upward inflection point:
After its mid-2016 rise, “White Fragility” settles down into a new equilibrium for the next two years, again higher than its previous equilibrium.
Meanwhile, Trump was elected (early Nov. 2016; inaugurated Jan. 20, 2017). A drawn-out moral panic, continuing the series of histrionic reactions to Trump’s demagoguery starting in summer 2015, hardens and radicalizes. This state of affairs largely defines U.S. politics in the late 2010s, fertile ground for White Fragility to continue to advance.
“White Fragility” in the James Damore material leaked from Google’s internal communications and employee message boards, late 2015 to 2017
We know from James Damore’s class-action lawsuit that White Fragility was being used within Google as a term of derision against white-male employees by late 2016. James Damore was the white male purged from Google for his political views who became something of a free-speech martyr in 2017.
Damore and others filed a class-action lawsuit against Google for discrimination against white males and against conservatives in Jan. 2018. The document ran a full 161 pages [see pdf], much of it documenting evidence of bias, harassment, and hostile work environment from Google’s internal message boards and messaging system by staff to other staff, including coordinated campaigns to try to get conservative or white male employees fired or fewer hired.
The Damore material showed how Google employees would gang up on and harass white males who expressed any conservative views, with the Google consensus effectively denouncing these people as an inferior ethnopolitical caste (this state of affairs is familiar to many of us, never more amped-up than in the 2010s), with White Fragility making several appearances in the denouncers’ rhetorical “toolkit” early in the ascent cycle.
Here is a representative case of the tone of the interactions (though also included were campaigns to get employees fired for racism, sexism, etc.):
For the purposes of the White Fragility narrative, we would be interested to see if White Fragility was used in this material, and if so, when and in what context(s).
We do see several cases of the term “white fragility” used in the Damore material. The first is against a white Google employee and appears as early as Oct. 2015 by a Google employee posting under the name Scott Bruceheart (see pdf, Appendix B, Anti-Caucasian Postings 57, p.131).
Another notable cases is Google employee Liz Fong-Jones posted a link to a Huffington Post article “The Sugarcoated Language of White Fragility” apparently in Aug. 2016.
(The screenshot contains only the day and month but from context we can place it in 2016, near the second-upward-shift in interest in White Fragility. See Appendix B, “Anti-Caucasian Postings 59,” p.133 of the complaint; the Damore material leaked from Google internal message boards presumably ends with his termination Aug. 7, 2017; the Liz Fong-Jones mentioned White Fragility on “Aug 14, 9:53 AM” and the the article in question was published July 2016. August 14th of 2016 was a Sunday; if this is the correct day, it came eleven days before Hillary’s landmark “Alt-Right” speech.)
Early-adopted of White Fragility rhetoric Liz Fong-Jones is formerly Liz Fong and is married to the former Elly Jones; see picture of the married pair:
James Damore describes Liz as follows:
Liz Fong-Jones [is] an L5 SRE Manager at Google [who] repeatedly discriminated against Caucasian males at Google. On April 4, 2015, a Caucasian male posted a comment about a “Diversity Town Hall” meeting in which the management stated that affirmative action was impractical from a legal standpoint. Fong-Jones responded that she “could care less about being unfair to white men. You already have all the advantages in the world.”
The third appearance of the term “white fragility” in the Damore material I was able to find (at Appendix B-85, p.159), while also undated in the screenshot, is seemingly dateable, from context, to Jan. 18, 2017. It seems to have been a comment posted to a “Talks at Google” event titled “The Responsibility and Role of White People in Responding to Racism,” featuring the high-profile diversity trainer Tim Wise as well as Atyia Martin, Michael Patrick Macdonald, and Michael Skolnik.
The left-wing and social-justice culture at Google were therefore early adopters here. It should come as no surprise that these types of people are early adopters of ideas (or slogans/ascendant-rhetoric), like White Fragility. We see evidence they were starting to get on board between late 2015 and early 2017, in the early stages of the pre-George Floyd ascent cycle:
The Damore material is useful for this investigation in helping trace the course of the ‘pipeline,’ from the scribblings of a (then-)obscure academic and diversity trainer ca.2010 (published in 2011), to the breakthrough in June 2020.
Late 2016 to June 2018: “White Fragility” Waits in the Wings
The day Trump was inaugurated in January 2017, we might ask: Where was “White Fragility”? At that precise moment, it was certainly not in common use, but it was now firmly established on the racial-activist academic-Left, and one might say the “Tim Wise”-wing of US discourse, but still not really heard beyond the borders thereof. (Note, I wrote this phrase, “The Tim Wise wing of US discourse, before discovering the Damore material in the preceding section, in which literally two days before the inauguration, anti-racism trainer Tim Wise spoke at an event for Google employees in which “white fragility” came up.)
The year 2017 passes along and White Fragility keeps a low profile, with no further breakout events.
The US news-cycle by 2017 continues the trend from the peak of the 2016 election and becomes almost intolerable, stumbling along from one mini-moral-panic to the next.
A relevant incident to the White Fragility story is certainly the Charlottesville, Virginia, rally (Aug. 2017) to show support for keeping the historic Robert E. Lee statue at the center of town. The tally was sabotaged by the local left-wing mayor, a man named Mike Signer, in collusion with the Democratic governor, who together seemed to have conspired to create a riot in which they allowed anarchists attacked lawfully assembled protesters, and during which one woman died of a heart attack in the chaos. This incident was the pretext for a larger-than-usual outbreak of a racial moral panic, led by the media. Two years later, it was still being used as a standard point of reference as negative legitimacy for the Left. Joe Biden used the Charlottesville rally in his campaign videos in 2019.
The term White Fragility plays no role in the Charlottesville drama and throughout the period before and after Charlottesville in 2017, DiAngelo, by this time back in Seattle working part-time in her diversity training and teaching, was working on her book, the latest treatment of the same thing she has been doing and saying for years. This time, she had moved up the ladder enough to get a major publisher; DiAngelo had made into into the academic-grievance-circuit’s mainstream as a kind of rising star despite being age sixty by this time. With her book nearly done, she and her husband headed off for four weeks in Thailand in December 2017 (see “Who Radicalized Robin DiAngelo?“).
June 2018: Book published and appears on NYT Bestseller List, but still far from mainstream
Launch-day for DiAngelo’s book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, was in late June 2018. This was a follow-up to her 2012 whiteness-studies book and covered largely similar territory.
The publication of this book proved the biggest turning point yet.
By June/July 2018, when DiAngelo’s book was launched, the term/concept White Fragility had already made serious gains with the important people. It debuted on the New York Times Bestseller List. (In June 2020, it shattered that brief appearance on the bestseller list and became a runaway #1.)
In June/July 2018, with the publication of the book White Fragility and publicity around it, magnified back by a sympathetic media and talking circuit, the term quickly shoves its way up to a new/highest-yet equilibrium (see graph below).
The new equilibrium in the White Fragility ascent cycle was reached by August 2018, holds until to late May 2020, just before the George Floyd riots (and interest was way down in March and April 2020, with the Corona-Panic dominating attention; the Anti-Racism civic cult, elbowed out for a while, came roaring back.)
About the time of the publication of DiAngelo’s book, the conservative opinion magazine National Review took notice for the first time, and then for a second time in late November 2018, when “white fragility” appeared in an article by Theodore Kupfer (“What’s the Matter with White Liberals?” Nov. 29, 2018). This second mention, months after the book faded from its brief appearance on the NYT Bestseller List, showed that it was not necessarily a quickly passing fad.
The term was well-positioned for takeoff, therefore, by late 2018, having made steady gains over the previous three to four years.
As for that ‘takeoff’: All the graphs presented up to this point (both for White Fragility and for Black Lives Matter) end at April 30, 2020. If including May and June 2020, all previous trends would be dwarfed and not visible, useless for analysis.
If including May and June 2020, we get a graph that looks like this:
This is a month-by-month graph. The June 2020 peak smashes the previous peak, making it invisible. On the June2020=100 scale, the peak reached in 2016 was “2,” and returned to “1” most months after that. The period July 2018 to April 2020 ran between “2” to “4” on the 100-point scale (June2020=100).
It’s important to understand that the earlier upward-movement periods set the stage for the late May and June 2020 breakout, because discourse always begins with small groups before breaking into the mainstream. In other words, if not for the movement between 2015 and 2018, which for mainstream purposes was below the surace,there would be no 2020 breakout.
Dating the exact time the White Fragility takeoff begins: May 27, 2020
The late May and early June 2020 riots riots are chronologically associated with the sudden propulsion of White Fragility, as a term/meme, to unimagined heights.
Zooming in on the Google Trends graph for May to early June 2020 alone, we see that White Fragility starts to break out of obscurity, as far as the mainstream is concerned, on exactly May 27, 2020.
Starting May 27, it rises on Google Trends day after day and hits a peak June 2-3, just after the height of the rioting and looting and after 2.5 months of shutdowns and disruptions to people’s social and economic lives. I have elsewhere argued that the George Floyd Riots were really “anti-Lockdown protests in disguise,” but of course the rhetoric of the rioters and looters, and their cheerleaders and enablers, was all about Robin DiAngelo’s bread-and-butter, White Racism.
There is zero doubt that the sudden mushrooming of “White Fragility” in Google Trends is tied directly to the George Floyd riot cycle, as the protests/riots and the sudden upswing in White Fragility aligns to the very day.
The term “White Fragility” remained high through June and into July. Will it last? Probably, because it entered the academic mainstream and will be assigned to students. The civic cult has a new doctrine.
The breakout rise of the term “Systemic Racism” parallels the “White Fragility” arc
The breakout of the term “systemic racism” is also associated tightly with race riots and racial agitation. In the case of “systemic racism,” the tie-in is with the Ferguson Riots in 2014. It also shows a major takeoff in late May 2020, the radical ideas of the 2010s suddenly burst into the mainstream.
This graphic tells the story:
The big breakout in June 2020 is at risk of overshadowing the first systained rise, which is associated directly with the Ferguson coverage cycle. The New York Times and other major national-level media led a digital pitchfork mob of sorts against Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014-15, over an ambiguous case of a Black male who attacked a police officer and was shot. The shooting was ruled justified, but the media convinced millions that White Racism was a plague across America, and some who attached themselves to this movement began promoting Systemic Racism as a term.
Systemic Racism had an intellectual history that also dates to Robin DiAngelo’s early years in the biz, the 1990s. It would not be able to reach levels qualifying it as a successor to Institutional Racism until the 2010s.
It looks like Systemic Racism (as a term/idea/slogan) was “born” in the 1990s as a rebranding of “Institutional Racism” of 1960s vintage. By the 1990s, the “institutions” were all anti-racist and the original term was no longer really compelling. Systemic Racism was born, and sounded sleeker anyway. The term “Systemic Racism” remains more or less on academic/activist fringe 1990s, but begins to make itself known by about t he mid-2000s (Ngram) at which time its appearances in the Ngram corpus reach 1/4th the level of the old 1960s-era standby, Institutional Racism.
Even as late as fall 2014, Systemic Racism was still a fairly obscure term (going on Google Trends). It shows signs of real upward movement from Nov. 2014, which is when the Ferguson Riots occurred.
This is roughly equivalent to the life-arc for White Fragility, except that White Fragility was even more recently coined/popularized.
Scott Greer wrote, of “systemic racism,” in June 2020:
“Conservatives laughed off ‘systemic racism’ as a funny far-left talking five years ago. Now cable news demands you believe it and you risk losing your job if you doubt it.”
The Geography of the advance of “White Fragility”
While the big “White Fragility” jump is associated with the lockdown-induced riots and the white-racism moral panic, the previous sections show that it didn’t come out of nowhere. It built on steady gains in the 2010s, which set it up for takeoff, and the period of interest being between March 2015 and March 2020.
This is interesting, but by what vector did the term/concept set itself up for takeoff in that five-year window? Tracing it as an epidemiologist would a viral epidemic, where was it most active; where was the idea ‘circulating’ in these years the most?
Google Trends shows us where the biggest gains for this term were before May 2020, as measured by search interest:
Madison, Wisconsin is the top metro area in the USA for interest in “White Fragility” between May 2012 and April 2020, followed closely by Santa Barbara, California, and Burlington [Vermont], and Seattle itself, the longtime home-base of Robin DiAngelo.
Rounding out the top-20 list for relative search interest in White Fragility before its major breakout that starts in the last days of May 2020 and continues into July), we see seemingly exclusively college towns and big-blue-metros (ak.a. Sanctimony Cities):
Conversely, places showing the least interest in “White Fragility,” of the 169 metros measured, are:
- 162 Little Rock, AR
- 163 Charleston, WV
- 164 West Palm Beach, FL
- 165 Augusta, GA
- 166 Huntsville, AL
- 167 Wilkes Barre-Scranton, PA
- 168 San Antonio, TX
- 169 Harlingen-Weslaco-Brownsville-McAllen, TX (lowest relative search interest in White Fragility of 169 metro areas studied).
“White Fragility,” as a term/concept, followed a four-step path:
A very narrow section of fringe-academia (early 2010s) –> College-town and hardcore left-wing activists as in the IRS’ diversity-trainer Richard Regan and some activist Google employees (mid-2010s) –> a section of the political class in ‘Big-Blue’ white-liberal-areas (late 2010s) –> Mainstream (May 27, 2020, to June 2020 and beyond).
This can be thought of as the “pipeline” by which extremist ideas become normalized. We see evidence here, traceable, of the route the pipeline takes.
Circling back to the remarks by Dr. John Ellis that opened this investigation: Fringe-seeming ideas do matter. After a certain lag time or incubation period, some of them do end up gathering strength for a direct assault on the center. Once this process happens, once the ‘pipeline’ process, similar to the one demonstrable for White Fragility and traced here, is activated, it almost always win. At least that is the case in our time, in our civilization (the West). There is no general ‘stop’ mechanism.
The people who were early adopters of White Fragility theory are some of the most highly educated in the USA, as seen, e.g., with the penetration of the term among employees at Google in the material leaked by James Damore, with uses of White Fragility already appearing there quite early in its ascent arc, and also as seen in the geographic distribution of interest in Google trends by metropolitan area, with college towns most highly represented.
But saying “it’s the academics!” or blaming white-liberals in general, is missing critical a key piece of the puzzle. There is another important finding in this investigation.
The process was boosted by energy from “below,” violence amounting almost to disorganized political terrorism at several key junctures. Just about each time we see upward inflection points in White Fragility during its critical first few years of ascent, and during the breakthrough-to-mainstream that began in the last days of May 2020 and peaked in June 2020, is associated with racial violence.
And that is the final finding of this study: We have here the portrait of the “High-Low Coalition” in action: Smug, high-socioeconomic-status whites (see the remarks on Sanctimony Cities) from the academic ivory tower and its wannabes and signal-boosters, one one hand (the ‘High’), and criminal rioters willing to use violence, even if much less politically disciplined or coherent or even not politically motivated as in most looters (these being the ‘Low’). White Fragility would not have broken through without both components.
The implications for US political analysis is clear: The High-Low Coalition demonstrably has cultural and institutional power, and its initiatives end up succeeding, no matter how extremist they would seem to a hypothetical man or woman of the political center at the time of their initial introduction and early in their ascent cycle (with White Fragility, this is any time in the early and mid 2010s).
July 2020 brought even more bizarre, suddenly semi-mainstreamed views attacking America at its very foundations:
Many have vaguely referred to the High-Low Coalition as a key to understanding US politics, but its dynamics are not often quantified. White Fragility offers a great opportunity to do so and this has been one attempt to do so in the form of “the biography of a meme” from its birth to its breakthrough.
It must be said this finding, the tight correlation between advances in White Fragility in the Google Trends data and cases of racialized civil violence by those acting in the name of Black racial solidarity against claimed White- or police-racism, came as a surprise. The High-Low Coalition presented itself without even being sought out as such.
Further work could be on tracing White Fragility’s ascent path by looking at who adopted it and when using timestamped, dateable appearances of the term in the period from its introduction in the early 2010s to the cusp of its major breakout event with the Goegre Floyd riots in late May and early June 2020.
This study touched on only a few, such as the case of Richard Regan, a Diversity Trainer at the IRS, using the term in March 2015, and the early uses among Google staff, and the point by which mainstream conservative hyper-political types began to take early notice (mid and late 2018), in this latter case very likely still writing it off as a passing trend of the moment. A second type of further work could be tracing the reactions of opponents to White Fragility theory, likely showing that any who encountered the term during its ascent cycle tended to be dismissive.
The lesson here is: Don’t be dismissive. Ideas have consequences, and the pipeline from extreme to mainstream exists and is functioning.