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Investigations involving white fragility

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If you are an investigator like me, you may have noticed the term “white fragility” has emerged in some of your cases, especially when the investigation involves claims of race-based harassment and/or discrimination.  This may be as part of a complainant’s allegation, as in the respondent engaged in “white fragility,” or as part of a respondent’s response, as in “this is not a case of ‘white fragility’.” The concept has sparked much debate, as not everyone agrees with it. However, given how frequently the term now comes up in my work, I’ve reflected on this concept generally, and how it applies to the work that I do. Here are my thoughts:

What is white fragility?

White fragility is a term that came from a paper and book1 written by Dr. Robin DiAngelo in which she describes how white people react to issues of racism. I understand white fragility to be marked by defensive instincts or reactions that a white person may experience when questioned about race or is made to consider their own race.2 This can present as anger, argument, emotional incapacitation, and withdrawal. These responses can be prompted when hearing:

    • references to race, white privilege and/or white fragility
    • a person of colour speaking about their lived experiences
    • discussions about harassment and discrimination (including systemic discrimination) on the basis of race
    • a claim that their views are racist, harmful and/or had a negative impact on a person of colour

White fragility can also be marked by “colour-blind” statements made to suggest that one does not notice race, for example, “I don’t care if you are green, purple, or polka-dot. I don’t see colour.”3 As noted by Constance B. Backhouse in her article published in the Dalhousie Law Journal, when discussing white fragility,

[T]he myth of “colour-blindness” leads us to deny the unavoidable reality of racism, and underscores our lack of understanding about what racism is,” … [and,] “insisting that we just don’t see race… silence(s) people of colour attempting to articulate the racism we face.” …If we stop using racial categories, “then we will not be able to identify racist policies…” [emphasis in original]

Responding in a way that dismisses and prevents discussions about race can contribute to racial harassment and discrimination, which explains why white fragility can form part of these types of allegations or how the concerns are categorized. With this understanding, an investigator can consider concerns of white fragility and work to understand the parties’ experiences and interpretation of the conduct at issue.

Let’s discuss how to address allegations of white fragility at different stages of an investigation.

    1. Gathering evidence in interviews

When hearing allegations that are categorized broadly, such as white fragility, it’s important not to make assumptions about what that means to the person raising it. Hear how a party understands and experiences white fragility and spend time deciphering and unpacking what is being alleged. If a party has reported white fragility, ask them directly what they understand white fragility to be and how specifically they believe it has manifested. Also, dig deeper and request examples of comments and/or conduct that they feel demonstrates white fragility – because ultimately it is those comments and/or conduct on which you will be making factual findings.

    1. Drafting the allegations

Generally, if a party were to broadly allege, for example, a toxic workplace or discrimination, the allegation, without more, would not be put to the respondent for their response. In fairness to the respondent, an allegation must contain enough information so that the respondent knows what specifically has been alleged against them to allow them to respond. The same is true for concerns of white fragility. The allegations presented to the respondent should reflect the specific interactions alleged to support the overarching allegation of white fragility.

In other words, white fragility is how the complainant may have categorized the behaviour, but the specific interactions alleged is what the respondent will need to respond to. For example, the allegation may be a specific instance where an issue of race was raised by the complainant and dismissed by the respondent. The allegation should contain the particulars regarding that instance, and should also indicate that the complainant feels as though the type(s) of behaviours outlined in the allegation demonstrates white fragility.  That way, the investigator communicates the complainant’s perspective, which is the substance of their allegation.

    1. Addressing white fragility in your conclusions

Ultimately, the investigator would not necessarily make findings on white fragility; rather, the investigator will make factual findings as it relates to the specific allegations and determine whether the facts breach the policies that they have been asked to apply. However, because the behaviour is categorized as white fragility, the investigator can include some discussion on the topic vis-à-vis the findings that are made. That way, the investigator makes the relevant findings but still appropriately acknowledges the concern of white fragility in their conclusions. For example, if the investigator has found that there has been a defensive reaction or dismissiveness in matters related to race, the investigator may comment on why the complainant interpreted the respondent’s conduct as white fragility.

1 Dr. Robin DiAngelo, “White Fragility” (2011) 3:3 International Journal of Critical Pedagogy 54-70, available at: https://libjournal.uncg.edu/ijcp/article/viewFile/249/116, and White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018).

2 Constance B Backhouse, Turning the Tables on RDS: Racially Revealing Questions Asked by White Judges, 2021 44-1 Dalhousie Law Journal 181, 2021 CanLIIDocs 1675, <https://www.canlii.org/t/t9fz>

3 see Note 2 above

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