A Christian Reading of White Fragility: chapter 6.

Chapter 6, “Anti-Blackness” addresses the sting in the tail of white racism. In understated ways, DiAngelo has recognized that all people groups tend to view themselves as normal and other as abnormal. Racism, in some form or another, is the default human condition. We all look at other races in particular ways. White racism against African Americans is particularly virulent because white racism is anti-black. “In the white mind, black people are the ultimate racial ‘other.’” A 2015 study found that the highest level of segregation in American society is between blacks and whites, the lowest is between Asians and whites, while the level of segregation between whites and Latino occupied an intermediate position.  “A majority of white, in both the expression of their beliefs and the practice of their lives, do not want to integrate with blacks.”

DiAngelo asserts that the fundamental driving force of anti-blackness is white guilt. White people, as a race, feel guilt about what they have done and continue to do and their complicity in the past and continuing torture and subjugation of black people, as a race. White people, as a whole, hate black people, as a whole, because of what blackness reminds white people of: that we are guilty of perpetrating immeasurable harm and that our gains have come through the subjugation of others.

One way to assuage white guilt is to view black people as those we can “save” through our own mercy. DiAngelo uses the film The Blind Side to illustrate the common ways we denigrate black people and see them as in desperate need of white rescue. When poor black youths do succeed, it is often through the goodness of white labors. The Blind Side reinforces many common white avenues of domination through patronization:

  • White people are the saviors of black people
  • Some black children may be innocent, but black adults are morally and criminally corrupt
  • Whites who are willing to save or otherwise help black people, at seemingly great personal cost, are noble, courageous, and morally superior to other whites
  • Individual black people can overcome their circumstances, but usually only with the help of white people
  • Black neighborhoods are inherently dangerous and criminal
  • Virtually all blacks are poor, incompetent, and unqualified for their jobs; they belong to gangs, are addicted to drugs, and are bad parents
  • The most dependable route for black males to escape the “inner city” is through sports
  • White people are willing to deal with individual “deserving” black people, but whites do not become a part of the black community in any meaningful way (beyond charity work)

Having never seen The Blind Side, I cannot speak to DiAngelo’s evaluation of it. Her list of charges have the ring of truth about them though. I have seen these things in other media, and felt them to varying degrees in my own life and experience.

This chapter, like those preceding it, does not offer any solution to the problem- perhaps that will come later. Nevertheless, the chapter is shot-through with the language of sin, guilt, and salvation. Throughout the chapter, DiAngelo is careful to couch her accusations corporately: white people as a whole are antagonistic toward black people as a whole. How then, does a 21st century white person find redemption for sins committed historically and corporately? How does a 21st century African American grant forgiveness for sins committed historically and corporately? How can white people repent? How can black people forgive? I am not sure DiAngelo will have the answers to these questions.

A Christian Reading of “White Fragility” chapter 5: The Good/Bad Binary

Chapter 5 is another chapter that seems like it could have come earlier in the book. One of DiAngelo’s foundational points is that racism is systemic, not a singular event. She describes singular events as demonstrations of prejudice and discrimination. Such acts are fueled and enabled by racist attitudes, but racism is a system of oppression. Viewing racism as individual acts of hatred and discrimination allows racism to survive and thrive. Few white people commit intentional acts of malice against minorities. Since most white people do not do these bad things, they do not consider themselves racist. They are not bad, therefore they are good. If racism is an act carried out by ignorant, bigoted, old, white, Southerners; young, educated, open-minded, Northerners don’t have to worry about being racist.

Two broad categories feed into the good/bad binary. The first is color blindness. This person makes claims like:

  • I was taught to treat everyone the same
  • I don’t see color
  • Race doesn’t mean anything to me
  • Focusing on race is what divides us

The second category is color-celebrate. People with this mindset will make statements like:

  • I work in a very divers environment
  • I have people of color in my family/married a person of color/have children of color
  • I was in the military
  • I used to live in New York [the big city]
  • We don’t like how white our neighborhood is, but we had to move here for the schools.
  • I marched in the sixties
  • We adopted from…
  • I was on a mission in Africa

All of these kind of claims “exempt the person from any responsibility for or participation in the problem.” After listing these responses (and quite a few more) DiAngelo spends the rest of the chapter poking holes (effectively) in some of the most common responses she encounters.

One of her examples is cross-racial friendships. She mentions that even those with cross-racial friendships seldom discuss race. Another example that she does not mention, is the depth of such friendships. In my life, especially in high school, I had a number of relationships I would describe as cross-racial. But I never went to their house for supper, nor did they come to mine. As a Christian, I know the importance, value, and signal, of table fellowship; it was something I never pursued while growing up with African-American friends. It was something I never felt a loss over either. I was happy to share time and life in the experience we shared together- basically school related activities- but never pursued sharing in their lives as they lived them.

DiAngelo ends with a helpful paragraph about viewing racism as a continuum. I am fully on-board with the inadequacies of viewing racism as individual events of intentioned malice. Such acts are committed because of deeper forces at work in the soul of man and society. Yet I am still apprehensive with viewing racism as a system of oppression. When it is described in such ways, escape almost seems hopeless. Seeing yourself on a continuum of racism opens up possibilities of escape. When racism is a continuum, and not a good/bad binary choice, my position toward racism is more immediate. Racism as a continuum changes the question from, “Am I racist?” to, “Am I actively seeking to interrupt racism in this context?” And how will I know?

A Christian reading of White Fragility: chapter 4, How Does Race Shape the Lives of White People?

Chapter 4 was pretty bad. I hope that is turns out to be the worst chapter of the book, because if there are worse chapters I don’t think I will be able to bear them. It was bad.

The key word in chapter 4 is “belonging.” White people have a deep, abiding, and consequential feeling of belonging to society in America because it is by-and-large their society. White people do not feel any burden about being white: they are never really in a situation where their whiteness is to their detriment. White people can go (pretty much) anywhere and do (pretty much) anything comfortably. White people consider themselves as normal people because white culture is normative in America. White people maintain this status quo through “white solidarity.” The force and demonstration of white solidarity is silence. White people do not speak out against other white people when obviously racist jokes, ideas, stories, etc. are shared.  

Most of these things should be considered “normal” for any majority population. Breaking news: most Han Chinese in Beijing consider themselves normal and as the standard for Chinese life. The Bemba peoples in southern Africa consider themselves normal and their way of like as normal. The Farsi people in Iran consider themselves normal.

If DiAngelo’s intention in the first ¾ of the chapter is to describe how all of this is part of our original sin, I don’t buy it. This is standard operating procedure. This is how things are everywhere. People view life from their own perspective.

DiAngelo does do some work to show the dangers of this reality, however. The truth of something does not mean all the ramifications are acknowledged. White people need to recognize and admit that race gives them inherent advantages. Hence, those of other races are at some inherent disadvantage. That white people can feel so comfortable without the presence of or interaction with other races is telling. While it is no longer legal, segregation is still practiced by and comfortable to white people.

Patterns of white socialization form the foundations of white fragility:

·         Preference for racial segregation, and a lack of a sense of loss about segregation

·         Lack of understanding about what racism is

·         Seeing ourselves as individuals, exempt from the forces of racial socialization

·         Failure to understand that we bring our group’s history with us, that history matters

·         Assuming everyone is having or can have our experience

·         Lack of racial humility, and unwillingness to listen

·         Dismissing what we don’t understand

·         Lack of authentic interest in the perspectives of people of color

·         Wanting to jump over the hard, personal work and get to “solutions”

·         Confusing disagreement with not understanding

·         Need to maintain white solidarity, to save face, to look good

·         Guilt that paralyzes or allows inaction

·         Defensiveness about any suggestion that we are connected to racism

·         A focus on intentions over impact

A Christian Reading of White Fragility: chapter 3, Racism after the Civil Rights Movement

Chapter 3 is a fitting follow-up to chapter two’s blunt accusations. Chapter 3 is the “I’m not racist, but…” chapter. Aren’t we post-racial? Segregation has been illegal for over a generation now. We are enlightened now. DiAngelo discusses three forms of racism still binding the thoughts of white people.

Color-blind racism ignores the circumstances of reality. In the introduction, DiAngelo surprisingly claims that white progressives cause the most daily damage to black people. To the degree that white progressives see themselves as having arrived, they put their energy into making sure others see them as having arrived. I have certainly seen that phenomenon at places like The Gospel Coalition’s website (tgc.org).  Young and middle-aged white men seem to occasionally engage in woke-off contests seeing who can lay claim to being the most racially aware.

Color blind racists claim to see no color. I don’t see a black man in front of me, I just see another human being: someone just like me. Such thinking is counter-productive and offers little solace. When white people claim to see no color, it denies the life experiences of African Americans and attempts to project the realities of white experience on people of color. Color-blind ideology makes it difficult to address unconscious beliefs formed through years of socialization.

Aversive racism is wink-and-nod racism. Aversive racism makes use of code words, euphuisms, and communal inside language to identify and marginalize African Americans. That side of town, urban, underprivileged, diverse, sketchy, as opposed to the good side of town, sheltered, safe, etc. No one ever says “where all the black people are” because no one has to. All of the participants in the conversation know what is being said, even as it is never mentioned. Because we are enlightened we would never say such things; so we just say such things without saying them. Holding this deep racially motivated suspicion while leaving it unspoken, offers little hope of escaping such thought patterns.

Cultural racism is “backstage” racism: it is practiced in all-white company. Here, the codes and symbols of aversive racism are discarded because white people see themselves in a safe place free from the threat of judgment or retribution. Jokes that depend on racial stereotypes are told, and laughed at, and not spoken against. Racially derogatory terms are used. These backstage performances create white solidarity and reinforce the ideals of white supremacy. Racism is kept in circulation in less formal, but more powerful ways. “Today we have a cultural norm that insists we hide our racism from people of color and deny it among ourselves, but not that we actually challenge it. In fact, we are socially penalized for challenging racism.”

These three forms of wink-and-nod racism help establish one of the pillars of white fragility: the refusal to know.

A Christian reading of White Fragility: chapter 2, Racism and White Supremacy

Chapter 2 was a mixed bag for me. I resonated with some arguments, was enlightened by others, and disagreed with a few.

DiAngelo begins with an important reminder: “there is no true biological race.” I freely admit that I am not as conversant in genetic biological research as I perhaps should be, but such a statement certainly seems to agree with the Holy Spirit’s assertion that God “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth.”

Creedally, America was built on the ideals of freedom and inequality. In practice, “the U.S. economy was based on the abduction and enslavement of African people, the displacement and genocide of Indigenous people, and annexation of Mexican lands.” I would put it a little more delicately than that, but the statements are materially true. And I have personally found that putting it more delicately does not really matter because when I tried to do so several years ago, such sentiments contributed to my being asked to find another church to attend.[1] Christians, white Christians, do not like to hear such things. But we need to. America has never, ever, been a Christian nation.

The end of the first section contains a crucial argument that should be helpful in opening our eyes to the systemic racism of white America: “if we truly believe that all humans are equal, then disparity in condition can only be the result of systemic discrimination.” If I could, I would highlight that to the moon, and most of the way back. If a minority group is consistently and widely behind a majority group in income, standard of living, life expectancy, etc. they must be somehow inferior to the majority group, or the majority group has implemented systemic controls to keep the minority group “behind.” I tend to see things in black-and-white (no pun intended) and find comfort in doing do; but I still think this is true.

Again, if America is a land of freedom and opportunity where anyone can succeed: why do African Americans consistently lag behind white Americans in all desirable measurements of success and achievement? If it is not because there are systems in place that keep them behind, then it can only be they either choose to live broken lives or they are incapable of it simply because of who they are.

After spending a fair amount of time trying to describe what racism isn’t, DiAngelo finally approaches a definition. When a racial group’s collective prejudice is backed by the power of legal authority and institutional control, it is transformed into racism, a far-reaching system that functions independently from the intentions or self-images of individual actors.” Racism is a system enforced through legal authority and institutional control. In the United States, “only  whites have the collective social and institutional power and privilege over people of color. People of color do not have this power and privilege over white people.” This is racism- systemic , and institutional control and power of one race over any another.

In America, whiteness is the standard or norm for what it means to be human and people of color are a deviation from that norm. Here, the author seems to be a little narrow-minded. This is analogously true in every nation of the world. In China, Han is the standard or norm. In Iran, Persian is standard or norm. In Jordan, Arab is the standard or norm. Toward the end of the chapter, she tells the story of a white mother being embarrassed that her child would point out the black skin of a stranger. It is presumed that this is embarrassing because the blackness of his skin is seen as undesirable and shameful. Or maybe 3 year olds just point out things that are different than they are used to seeing. A similar thing happened to me while I was living in China. On the major holiday, invariably Beijing would be swarmed by multitudes of Chinese who lived in villages far away from the modern life of the big city. On numerous occasions, some of these children would see me, point at me, and whisper to their parents, “foreigner!” Was it because China has an epidemic of three-year-old racists? No, I imagine it was simply due to the fact that I was a different kind of person than they were used to seeing.

There is a majority of one particular group in every nation. Guess what? That group usually sets the rules for everyone else. It would have been nice to see some of that nuance in the discussion of “white normalcy.”

As a Christian who has done missionary work, I was also put-off by DiAngelo’s inclusion of missionary work along with “movies and mass media, corporate culture, advertising, US-owned manufacturing, military presence, historical colonial relations…and other means” as a vehicle for spreading white supremacy around the world. Have some missionaries been guilty of spreading white American churchianity rather than the gospel? Certainly, and that is something I was always warned about in all my studies.

Someone, sometime, somewhere, will have to do the hard work of detailing how the gospel has shaped and formed Western (white) culture. All cultures are different, and all cultures have things that are naturally closer or further from the biblical ideal. For example, the Middle Eastern cultural aspect of hospitality is much closer to the biblical ideal than the Western cultural aspect of individualism. The African and Asian patterns of honoring age, is much closer to the biblical ideal than the American pattern of idolizing youth. White, Western, Christians cannot shy-away from the fact that they are heirs of centuries of gospel-influence. Just as they cannot ignore the fact that no nation is Christian, and no culture infallible. This is a struggle that I cannot expect a secular academic to wrestle with, however.

A final word: I found one illustration particularly relevant and helpful. Since white people view whiteness as normal, we tend to white-wash (ahem) history. To help us in that endeavor, we are not afraid to emphasize the heroics of certain African Americans ignoring our own villainy. Case in point is Jackie Robinson. Robinson is depicted as the first black man who had what it took to play professional baseball with whites, as if no one before him was strong enough to compete at that level. The story is never presented as: “Jackie Robinson, the first black man whites allowed to play major-league baseball.” Only one of those two versions is true; and it is not the one you tell or are told.

 

[1] I believe I phrased it, “America: founded on rebellion, built by slavery, expanded through genocide, enriched by abortion.”

White Fragility chapter 1: The Challenge of Talking to White People About Racism

In chapter 1, DiAngelo strikes the balance between confrontation and comfort. After reading the chapter, I am even more encouraged about progressing through the book. DiAngelo discusses three key terms in the chapter: individualism, objectivism, socialization.

Socialization is at work among all peoples everywhere. Socialization organizes, identifies, and values people in groups. These social groupings include: young and old, male and female, rich and poor, abled and disabled, etc.  While the valuations might vary across time and place, valuations are made. In Western society, young is better than old, male is better than female, white is better than black. Every culture socializes. White people must recognize and acknowledge this phenomenon. White people must recognize that in America forces of socialization make them the valued people and non-whites less valued.

Within American culture, individualism and objectivism further blind white people to the results of racism. Objectivism is the belief that we can see things objectively and impartially. DiAngelo only mentions this force and never really develops it. I would hesitate to classify objectivism as particular to American culture; or as stronger in American culture than in most others.

Individualism is where DiAngelo makes hay, and there is plenty of hay to be made.  Individualism is a particular emphasis of American culture, indeed one of the most prominent features of it. Individualism holds that every individual is unique and in control of his own destiny. Individualism maintains that things like race, class, gender, and social groups, have no bearing on opportunity to succeed. DiAngelo does not make use of it, but the illustration that comes to my mind is Clarence Thomas, or Barack Obama. The white American can point to either and say, “See! If he can do it, any black man can do it. They just need to put their mind to it.”

It is a devilish cycle: our fate is intimately connected to our social groupings, but our mantra is “I can be whatever I want to be.” Because we believe the one, we ignore the other. We believe a fact, but ignore the truth.

DiAngelo’s final section should probably take the place of the introduction. I can see some curious readers being put-off by the introduction. “Here we go again, tell me why I am to blame for all the world’s problems and what an awful person I am.” This attitude, however, springs from our faulty definition of racism: the definition of racism that we have embrace to protect us against the charge of being racist. As long as we define a racist as someone who consciously harms another person because of his race, we will revolt against the charge.

While she does not give her definition of racism, enough comfort is offered to lead on the soul that seeks genuine dialogue and change. To prepare the ground for that dialogue, DiAngelo ask several penetrating questions about the discomfort white people have in talking about race: “Why does this unsettle me? What would it mean for me if this were true? How does this change my understanding of racial dynamics? How can my unease help reveal the unexamined assumptions I have been making? Is it possible that because I am white, there are some racial dynamics that I can’t see? Am I willing to consider that possibility? If I am not willing to do so, then why not?”

A Christian reading of “White Fragility”: introductory thoughts

White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism was a 2018 New York Times bestseller.  If I am reading the codes right, my copy is already the 12th printing of the book.

I am a white, married-with-children, middle-aged, lower middle-class male. I grew up in half-a-mile from the projects and the worst part of town. I went to school with African Americans, played together at recess, sang and danced together in high school show-choir, spent time together before and after basketball practice. I never tended to view myself as racist- what kid would? Even as I came to learn what racism was, I tried to consciously distance myself from it.

I’ve lived in China for two years. I lived in Ramallah for a summer. I’ve taken multiple trips to Zambia to teach. I’ve been on my own in Mexico. I am literate in cultural differences and seem to be able to adapt and get along in most settings.

I am not a racist.

I am white.

I am a racist.

I am reading White Fragility to explore this truth. I am reading it, because the publisher’s blurbs did their job and convinced me that the book might have something for me. Whenever talk turns to racism, and white privilege, I have felt my internal defenses and anger rise.

In teaching a Sunday school class I shared a quote about the place of racism among whites and blacks that I thought was so self-evident it was indisputable. It was met with open scorn and rebuke. And it hit me. Maybe I am racist. Maybe all of us singing “Jesus Loves the Little Children of the World” are too.

Robin DiAngelo is a white woman writing to white people about white fragility: the immediate negative response white people have to any discussion of race, racism, or the possibility that they are racist or play leading roles in a racist society.

Her introduction to the book frames the discussion by sharpening the definition of racism. White people are fragile about race discussions because racism has been defined as “discrete acts committed by individual people.” As long as I don’t burn any crosses; spit in anyone’s face; fly any Confederate flag; use the N-word; I am not a racist. As long as consider racism an individual act against an individual person- of which I am not guilty- I will resent the accusation.

Instead, racism is “a system into which I was socialized.” My whiteness has been advantageous to me at every stage of my life here in America. My natural inclination, is to expect and protect those advantages. Power structures are people structures: as a member of the power structure I have no interest in seeing the current power structure altered in any way. As a member of the power structure, my natural impulse will be to revolt against any confrontation to that structure. I will even scoff at the very suggestion the power structure exists at all.

These aspects of the Introduction of White Fragility resonated with me. I recognize that my whiteness has brought privilege. I confess that I have often felt and demonstrated the anger, resentment, defensiveness, and dismissiveness when racial topics have been brought up.

I am looking forward to continuing in the book.