Racial Fragility

Ajay Parasram

Racial fragility refers to the feelings of defensiveness, frustration, anger, and grief experienced by people when confronted with the fact that they enjoy unfair/unearned privileges for nothing more than the way they were born.

Ajay Parasram is an Associate Professor cross-appointed to the departments of International Development Studies, History, and Political Science at Dalhousie University in Kjipuktuk (Halifax), unceded Mi’kma’ki. His research interests surround the colonial present, or the many ways through which strings of historical colonial entanglements continue to tighten the limit of political action today, and how those strings might be undone.

Racial Fragility: A problem of white supremacy

Scientifically speaking, race isn’t real. Science, for better or for worse, creates a taxonomy of life that sorts our species as such:

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Primates
Family: Hominidae
Genus: Homo
Species: Homo sapiens

All human beings alive today are biologically Homo sapiens, and as we move up the categories, our biological relationship with other life on Earth gets broader and broader. For example, at one level we are related to all primates; at the largest scale, we are related to all other animals. At the end of the day, we’re all stardust anyway. Scientific taxonomy is just one way to understand all living things, but it has been presented over hundreds of years as the only ‘real’ way to understand the world. In this way, it can be more likened to looking at the world through a telescope. Whatever is within the parameters of the scope you can see quite clearly, but everything else is obscured.

Socially, politically, and historically, however, race has a lot of meaning. We know, for example, that people from the European continent engineered a massive industrial-level project to kidnap and enslave African people, forcing them to work on lands stolen from other Indigenous people across the Western Hemisphere between the late 15th and 19th centuries. During the period of formal colonialism, and especially in the late imperial stage from the 18th to 20th centuries, Europeans developed an understanding of a world loosely based on a flawed conception of ‘science’, in order to explain what they believed was a natural hierarchy of races and civilization in the world. For example, British plantation owners in 19th-century Sri Lanka believed their proximity to ‘less-civilized’ races in the tropics would lead to the moral degeneration of their supposedly superior Christian values (Duncan 2007). There was of course nothing at all natural about the application of science to race, but after hundreds of years of colonial violence (and resistance), by the late 19th century, people from Europe had developed economically, militarily, and politically at the expense of colonized people from Africa, South and Southeast Asia, the Pacific Region, and the entire Western Hemisphere (Rodney 1972; Frank 1966; Escobar 1995; Rojas 2016).

Other-than-white people have been explaining that white supremacy was a problem since the beginning of colonialism, but the white domination of society rendered their voices less important (Cugoano 1787; Douglass 1881; Dubois 1903). White political leaders, who claimed to not understand the horrors of white supremacist institutions like Residential ‘schools’ or Apartheid, failed to listen to the multiple generations of racialized people who explained them over and over again. White ignorance of the problems, stemming from white supremacy, emerged because over many generations of unfettered white supremacy, it was considered ‘normal’ by white-dominated society to believe that white and European people and culture were more developed or sophisticated than the rest of the world; the material process of colonial expropriation and under-development was not part of the dominant narrative (Rodney 1972). This takes the form of explicit laws that excluded and punished non-white people while privileging white people (such as immigration law in 20th century settler-colonial societies), but also in more everyday ways such as making statutory holidays that are important to white, European-descended people and organizing the year around them (i.e., Christmas and Easter but not Ramadan, Diwali, or solstices).

By the mid-20th century, the belief amongst white-dominant society was that, since laws were written that proclaimed the ‘equality’ of everyone, the work of achieving racial equality was largely done. In the United States, this took the form of desegregating schools so Black and white children could in principle study together. In Canada, this took the form of ending the practice of Residential ‘schools’ in 1996. In both cases, acting as if racial oppression ends because laws say that it has, utterly failed to create the conditions for equality. For example, in the United States, desegregation led to deepening racial divides, as white people with more resources set up schools (funded by their local areas) that continued to exclude African-Americans, unofficially anyway. In Canada, closing Residential ‘schools’ has done little to address the intergenerational and ongoing trauma of the racial violence. In short, even though legislation in theory presents a platform for equality, it systematically fails to deliver racial justice in practice. This can be seen by the disproportionately Black and Indigenous prison populations in settler-colonial countries like Canada and the United States (Maynard 2017).

While law was unabashedly on the side of structural white supremacy until the mid-20th century, it eventually became unfashionable to practice white supremacy because of the revelation of Nazi Germany’s genocide against Jewish people (Thobani 2007). To be clear, white people committed gross acts of violence and killing of populations throughout the colonial era, but seeing the violence that was previously contained to the colonies happen in Europe itself provided a wake-up call for the still dominantly white-led countries of the 1950s. The solution to this problem was to ignore race—to write laws that said race was no longer an issue, and that everyone was equal. The consequence of shunning discussions of race is that we now have close to three generations of white people with little comfort and familiarity with how to talk about race. Because whiteness is at the top of the racial hierarchy, the privileges of being white reside in never having to think about race. The idea that society operates as a ‘meritocracy’, where everyone is free to compete equally for jobs and position in life (and from an equal starting point) fuels the racial fragility of white people in particular.

White privilege manifests in walking through an airport without being treated like a terrorist, shopping without being treated like a thief, and not being grotesquely over-represented in carceral institutions like foster care and prisons. When most white people who haven’t had a chance to learn about race are confronted with non-white people who have always known themselves in racial terms, conflict is inevitable (Fanon 1986 [1952]). White people tend to get angry and deny that racism continues to be a structural component of life in the 21st century (DiAngelo 2011; 2018). They are racially fragile because, when confronted with the slightest bit of racial stress that challenges their worldview, they feel personally indicted. They make the bad feelings they experience into a problem for other-than-white people to deal with (“How dare you call me racist!”). As they move to present themselves as innocent, they may also shift the conversation away from the race-based violence they are enacting (DiAngelo 2011). Fragility does not need to take the form of lashing out—indeed, in most situations it takes the form of white people shying away from talking about race for fear of ‘saying something wrong’ or of being accused of being a racist. This manifestation of fragility is particularly harmful to building a just society, because it takes practice to develop racial resilience and racial competency (Parasram 2019).

Structural white supremacy takes the form of laws and court systems that believe a concept like ‘property is universally applicable, while failing to understand the premises of laws that exist (and have existed for millenia) in cultures that are not from Western Europe. For example, what European colonizers have understood as “waste land” or “empty nature,” Anishnaabe have known to be deep webs of connection and relations that, as Leanne Simpson (2020) explains, constantly bring into existence an Anishnaabe world. The idea of people relating with and having obligations to land is common across many Indigenous nations in what is called Canada in English, and it is fundamentally different from the idea of land ownership that has its roots in European law (Bernard, 2017; Corntassel 2021; Coulthard 2014; Coulthard & Simpson, 2016; Parasram 2018). Structural white supremacy is also reinforced when we decide that the only way to make political decisions is to elect politicians to a parliament modeled after medieval England. Although the law says that anyone can run for office, reality teaches us that only the most privileged and wealthy—predominantly white lawyers—are the ones who can muster the resources to win a campaign. It is further supported when we talk about “meritocracy,” as if generations of undeserved privilege afforded to white people have somehow had no impact on making boardrooms, universities, and other seats of power overwhelmingly white and male.

It is worth considering that if this isn’t the function of undeserved privilege over generations, then the only logical explanation is that white men are somehow more intellectually gifted than everyone else, which should be easy for everyone (including white men) to see as ridiculous. It also exposes the insular and circular logic of structural white supremacy and racial fragility.


Discussion Questions

  • What is your race, and how did you come to know about it? If you haven’t, why not? If you don’t fit into a category, what does this mean for the concept of race itself?
  • Have you ever witnessed someone acting in a racially fragile way? How about a related form of fragility, like masculine fragility or caste fragility? What effect did it have on those who witnessed it?
  • Thinking about your family and close community, would you describe it as racially diverse? Why or why not? What about your educational institution, or workplace?


Separate your classroom by race. How weird is that? What can you learn and observe about structural forms of privilege as a result of simply organizing yourselves into race?


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