How Young Adults Understand White Fragility—and What Adults Can Learn from Them: A Q&A with Toni Graves Williamson
Two years ago, Toni Graves Williamson, Friends Select School’s director of equity and inclusion, was asked to write an adaptation of Robin DiAngelo’s New York Times bestseller White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism for young adults. Williamson worked with Ali Michael, with whom she co-leads the Race Institute for K-12 Educators, along with DiAngelo, on taking the concepts of the original book and gearing them toward young adults. The resulting adaptation is a groundbreaking new way to explain systemic racism to young readers—and a guidebook for how they can recognize it in themselves and the world around them.
Watch the recording from the book launch party for White Fragility (Adapted for Young Adults) here.
Why is the concept of white fragility important for young readers to explore?
It's a big concept to talk about dismantling systems of oppression, so our challenge was to find ways we could say that to young people. We also want to normalize discomfort, to help people not think about “what's wrong with me because I'm feeling uncomfortable here?” but to embrace the discomfort because that's where real learning happens. We wanted young people in particular to understand what fragility is—not just white fragility, but dominant fragility. Like for me, I'm cisgender, I'm a Christian—how does that show up? When someone calls me on things that I do that are difficult for someone who is from that marginalized identity, I want to have a response that is helpful to the conversation and not something that keeps barriers between us.
Why did you decide this was something you wanted to do?
Ali and I are co-directors of the Race Institute for K-12 Educators, and Ali really wanted to work with a person of color on this project. We also feel like some of the concepts from the first book were a bit, I don't want to say harsh, but they definitely spoke to folks who were ready to hear more difficult conversations about race and antiracism. So we thought, “How do we make that easier for people to grasp, but still get the same points across?”
What challenges did you encounter when adapting the book for young adults?
Probably the biggest challenge was finding the right balance between hard and soft, to help communicate that white people have racist behaviors without making people feel bad for it. That was a struggle. I've been working with young people for very long time, and having to figure out how to say things to them that are hard, how to say things that are more abstract—that's where I brought my expertise into the project.
How is this book’s message different from Robin DiAngelo’s original?
One thing that Robin asks in her book is, “Do you think that young people nowadays are less racist than folks that are my age or older?” And her argument is: yes. The book is not about “are you racist or not”—it's about understanding where racism comes from. It's about understanding how we are all a part of a racial hierarchy, and that kids of color and white kids need to understand that. We felt like we had to go back and put some foundational information in on the topic for young people.
How have the responses from young people differed from those of older readers?
A lot of our students have already been thinking about these concepts, and they were excited that we found a way to talk to their friends who they've been trying to explain things to for years, even at their young age. All the comments from young people were positive and excited about having this resource.
How does this book fit into the national conversation about teaching kids difficult subjects, and what parents want their kids to learn in school?
Dave Younkin, our lower school director, was on his way to his lake house and he stopped at a library, and out in front of the library, they had a box of banned books. And our book was there! I was so excited because it means that folks are realizing it has stuff that's controversial. I do believe that kids want to be reading that—they want to be challenging themselves. When I stand up in front of my students, they want to push back. At the end of every chapter, there's discussion questions, journaling prompts, ways that kids can talk that are beneficial and not just speaking against each other. I tell the kids all the time that as adults, we are really not doing a great job of figuring out how to talk about difficult topics. The analogy that I use is: “Y'all have a cell phone. Back in my day, we had a calculator, a video camera, a computer and a watch. And y'all can do all those things with your cell phone. So you need to help us because we're pretty antiquated.” And students really rise to that occasion to push our conversations forward. This adaptation was written with young adults in mind, but I find that any age can read this adaptation, and find use in it. I have folks like my sister, who has never read any work that I've ever done. She's reading the book, and she and I are talking about how white Santa Claus is part of the racial hierarchy; I never would have been able to have that conversation with her previously. So I'm hoping that folks who are not just young adults find it as a good resource as well.
If there was one lesson that you would like readers to take away from the book, what would that be?
Everybody has some sort of fragility. I have fragility when it comes to being a cisgender person. Folks who are Christian in this country have some fragility—when we're called on stuff that makes us nervous because we don't understand it, there's all kinds of defenses that come up. And so I want folks to know it is okay to be uncomfortable about your fragility because that is the only way we will move through it.
White Fragility: Why Understanding Racism Can Be So Hard for White People–Adapted for Young Adults is available at bookstores including Harriett’s Bookshop.