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.”

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