Review: White Fragility

white fragility

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About RacismRobin DiAngelo. Boston: Beacon Press, 2018.

Summary: Explains white fragility, its sources, expressions, the challenge it poses to conversations about race, and a different way to engage.

You’ve been there. A conversation about race begins and quickly, tension settles in the room. You don’t need a person of color to be present. The defensiveness is palpable and takes a variety of forms. For some the best defense is a good offense. In a conversation about the significance of the Black Lives Matter movement, someone pushes back and shifts the topic–“what about blue lives, what about unborn lives, what about all lives?” Another person might take an approach that personally distances them, saying that they have lots of black friends, or that when it comes to race, they are color blind. Some just become emotional, and the conversation shifts to comforting the weeping or upset person and shames the source of the bad feelings.

All of these, according to Robin DiAngelo are expressions of “white fragility,” a phrase she coined in 2011. She describes this phenomenon as follows:

“Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race. We consider a challenge to our racial worldviews as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people. Thus, we perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as an unsettling and unfair moral offense. The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable–the mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers a range of defensive responses. These include emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation. These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy. I conceptualize this process as white fragility.” (p. 2)

DiAngelo sees this first hand as an equity education trainer and consultant for corporations and educational institutions. Her most striking observation is that is it white progressives who cause the greatest daily harm, and it is primarily for this group of people that she writes. To understand why this is, she takes us to the roots of white fragility. She contends that we do not understand the powerful forces of socialization in our lives and consequently have a simplistic understanding of racism focused around conscious attitudes or intentionally offensive actions. Our problem is in what we don’t see, and one of the most compelling things about this book are the examples the author shares of her own unconscious biases and the ways these get expressed in her own behavior, as for example in a joke with one of her fellow trainers. We also do not understand the socially constructed character of racism in our national history. We speak of other racial groups but don’t grasp what “whiteness” means for us, thinking individually rather than collectively, even though we participate collectively in its benefits. We do not realize all the subtle ways whiteness shapes our lives, which DiAngelo chronicles.

Since the Civil Rights movement, among more progressive individuals racism takes subtler forms. We avow “color-blindness,” we maintain a positive self-image by using coded language like “good neigborhoods” rationalizations for white dominance, and maintain we have lots of people of color as our friends, or if we don’t that our neighborhoods are diverse. She calls this “aversive racism,” a form of denial that says, “this is not my problem.”  Much of this stems from a “good/bad” binary. You either are or are not a racist according to this binary in which racist is bad. This doesn’t come to terms with the formative character of being socialized as a white person, and how deeply racist bias and behaviors are embedded in our lives and society, regardless of our conscious attitudes or deeds done. The binary means that “progressive” folk are committed to protecting a racial “righteousness” and this often triggers white fragility when issues of race are raised, particularly of a personally critical nature. The author proposes we do far better to see ourselves on a racism continuum, where, with the help of others, including people of color, we are seeking to move toward growth.

She goes on to talk about things that trigger white fragility and the feelings, behaviors, claims, assumptions, and most important, function of white fragile behavior, which is to protect our image and dominance as whites. Her concluding chapters talk about the “rules of engagement” typical to racial discussions, that white feelings and sense of safety need to be protected, particularly by people of color. The author suggests a very different approach when being given feedback about behavior that has a racist impact:

  1. How where, and when you give me feedback is irrelevant–it is the feedback I want and need. Understanding that it is hard to give, I will take it any way I can get it. From my position of social, cultural, and institutional white power and privilege, I am perfectly safe and I can handle it. If I cannot handle it, it’s on me to build my racial stamina.
  2. Thank you. (p. 125)

Her final chapter on “Where Do We Go From Here?” has a number of additional suggestions as well as a story of how DiAngelo responded with “racial stamina” rather than “white fragility” in a situation where she had racially transgressed.

From a Christian perspective, I’m reminded of an old saw that says, “there is more to being righteous than being right.” Sometimes our compulsion to “be right” reveals the depth of sin in our lives that right beliefs, right words, and right actions do not address–our “rightness fragility” as it were. If racism is sin, it should not surprise us that it is deeply embedded in our lives and society, and that right attitudes, words, and actions are no surety that racism is not embedded in us, perhaps in ways we are blind to until others bring them to our attention. Eradicating sin in my life is not simply a matter of ceasing to do certain things. It is a progressive, transformational process where I am indeed on a continuum of being conformed to Christ’s image, always an incomplete process in our lives. I am, in AA language, a recovering sinner.

This book helped me realize both that I am a [recovering] racist, and that the “go to” responses of white fragility hinder my recovery and cut me off from those who might help. Instead, I need to listen, and learn to say, “tell me more,”  “I’m sorry, I was wrong” and “thank you.” This is an important book for individuals and organizations committed to racial equity, but wondering why they are not making progress. It suggests that for whites, even “progressive whites,” we may need to take a look in the mirror. In matters of race, as in many other things, we are often our own worst enemies.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Myth of Equality

the myth of equality

The Myth of Equality, Ken Wytsma. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: A white pastor explores the reality of white privilege from the perspectives of both American history and the gospel of the kingdom and how white Christians might pursue justice.

We all like to believe the best about ourselves.Most of us want to believe we are a society where everyone is equal. Most of us would like to believe racism and racial injustices are a thing of the past. And most of us, if we are white, squirm a bit when we hear the phrase “white privilege.” I can imagine some who are reading this composing arguments as you read for what you want to say in the comments section.

Ken Wytsma is a white pastor who believes Christians need to have honest conversations about these matters if we are to contribute to healing the racial divides within our churches and society. He speaks of a conversation with a young, white landscaper who has worked hard to build his business and didn’t think he’d enjoyed privilege. Wytsma recounts their dialogue:

“I asked him in what part of town he did most of his work.

‘In the suburbs,’ he said,

I then asked where, specifically, he did his work.

‘Mostly in people’s backyards,’ he answered.

I asked him when he did most of his work.

‘Well, during the day, of course,’ he quickly retorted.

I asked if I could pose one more question, and he said yes. So I asked him how he got most of his business.

He responded, ‘I put flyers in people’s doors and sometimes knock at houses where I think there’s a particular opportunity I can offer them.’

Having gathered all this information about his business and how his work functions, I asked, ‘If you were a young man of color in those mostly white suburbs, is it possible you would be received differently by some of the potential clients?’

. . .

He nodded, and I could see from the look on his face that he finally understood white privilege. White privilege doesn’t mean your life isn’t hard. It means that if you are a person of color, simply by virtue of that, your life might be harder.”  (pp. 25-26)

Wytsma’s book is broken into three parts. The first, titled “The Story of Race” explores the history of race in America through several historical lenses. He considers the history of immigration and the emergence of white supremacy. He steps back into European history and explores the roots of racism in Shakespeare, philosophy, colonization, and post-conquest treatment of Native Americans. He explores the history of slavery in the U.S., and the failed post-Civil War effort of Reconstruction succeeded by the rise of Jim Crow, disenfranchisement, political strategies of the Republican party to win the White south, and the war on drugs. The concluding chapter in this section is on the Great Migration to northern and western cities, and how redlining practices shaped these cities long after they were outlawed. He mentions the FHA/HOLC maps from the 1930’s that “graded” neighborhoods for the purpose of granting loans, with “D” areas in red, and deemed uncreditworthy. (Here is the map of my hometown of Youngstown; I grew up in a “C” or yellow area, but it was still part of the “white west side” and indeed, most Blacks lived in the “red” areas of town).

Part two focuses on theology as Wytsma considers “Equality and the Kingdom of God.” He speaks tellingly of all the “off limit” subjects in our “authentic” churches and how they reveal our conflicted loyalties between “empire” and “the kingdom of God.” He explores our truncated gospel, and how we leave out justice, not realizing that “justice,” “righteousness” and “justify” derive from the same words. To be in right relationship or justified with God and to be in right or just relation with neighbor are part of one gospel of the kingdom. He discusses what he calls our “salvation-industrial” complex that reduces salvation to how many have prayed a “sinner’s prayer,” a metric that can translate into enhanced donations for a ministry. This becomes a very individualized experience that fails to reckon with what it means to be incorporated into a new humanity that transcends all human-made divisions and national boundaries.

In Part Three, Wytsma outlines how we begin to address white privilege. He describes how implicit racial bias can shape our thinking, whether in an interview or a police stop.and how this may be overcome. He challenges our Christian conference complex that is often pervaded by white speakers from the platform, and other ways we simply don’t recognize people of other ethnicities and give them a place at the table, or even yield the table (or podium) to them. Finally he speaks of the steps we may take to open ourselves to the other, and even find ourselves in the other–listening and learning, lamenting, confessing, and laying down our privilege to raise up others.

What I appreciate throughout the book is that the point is not shaming or laying guilt but helping us understand and wake up to something to which we may have been oblivious. Wytsma helps us follow his own journey of understanding. Along the way, he helped me see that to attempt to deny or defend privilege is to carry a heavy burden, and one that isolates me from the manifold riches of a diverse community of believers. Recognizing privilege, honestly facing and lamenting the way it has hurt others, and laying it down as a gift to others, to bless others and share that privilege with them is liberating.

We are also facing a major demographic challenge as a nation, in which people of color will be in the numerical majority by 2050. It is one that faces white Christians with a challenge and an opportunity. Will we try to hang onto something of which others are desperately seeking a share, or will we both enrich, and allow ourselves to be enriched by brothers and sisters whose skin color is darker than ours? Instead of fearing what we might lose, might we consider both what we may give and gain?

 

Review: America’s Original Sin

americas-original-sin

America’s Original SinJim Wallis. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016.

Summary: Explores our nation’s deeply ingrained history of racism and particularly the challenges facing white Christians in bridging these racial divides.

“The United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the near genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another.”

The author of this book contends that this sentence, in a 1987 issue of Sojourners, was the most controversial sentence he ever wrote. The controversy behind that statement supports the thesis of this book, that racism is America’s “original sin,” a part of our beginnings as a nation that we have wrestled with throughout our national existence, but never truly repented of.

Wallis begins with his own story of growing up in Detroit and working with Butch, a black man who opened his eyes to two very different Detroits and two different realities–for example “the talk” that all black parents have with their children when they learn to drive that white parents do not have with theirs. This concerns how to act if stopped by the police, where to put one’s hands and so forth. He considers Ferguson, and Baltimore, two cities riven with turmoil after police-involved shootings of black men as parables revealing the racial fault lines in the American story. He then reviews our past history and current demographics and events to show that our attitudes around race are indeed our national “original sin” that only profound repentance can heal.

The next chapters explore the nature of true, rather than superficial, repentance, and that this means for the white community to which he writes a “dying” to our whiteness as we recognize the “white privilege” we have enjoyed. I suspect that for many this may be some of the most controversial material. I find this language uncomfortable. I grew up in a working class neighborhood and didn’t feel terribly “privileged” compared to more affluent people in the suburbs ringing my city. It was not until later years that I understood blacks had been red-lined out of our area of the city and I had the benefit of attending one of the best city schools with over 95 percent of the students being white. I began to realize the privilege that I had enjoyed in a racialized society. It also separated me from blacks in my city, made them an “other” who were treated differently in retail establishments, by the police and more. Real repentance means, even though I didn’t choose this “privilege,” to acknowledge that I have benefited from a sinful division of people, to not hold onto or idolize “whiteness” and to begin to intentionally seek a very different future.

The place, Wallis contends, where we begin, is the church, still a highly segregated entity. It means listening to different ethnic voices, and submitting to leadership from ethnicity other than one’s own. Another important place to begin is in the policing of our communities, where police move from being warriors to guardians and where police become integral part of the communities they protect and serve so that both they and their communities affirm both that black lives matter and that blue lives matter. It begins with advocating for restorative justice rather than a new form of Jim Crow justice with differential incarceration rates for the same crimes depending on one’s race.

Dealing with the sin of race extends to our immigration policies. Until our recent election cycle, there was a growing conversation in the evangelical community supporting immigration reform. Reading this post-election seemed like reading from a different world. Even the chapter title, “Welcoming the Stranger” seems foreign. Wallis then concludes the book talking about “crossing the bridge to a new America.” One of the most compelling passages for me was the interaction Wallis had with a group of fifth graders in a Washington, DC public school, who asked Wallis why Congress seemed afraid to change the immigration system. He writes:

     “I paused to consider their honest question and looked around the room–the classroom of a public school fifth-grade class in Washington DC. I looked at their quizzical and concerned faces, a group of African American, Latino, Asian American, Native American, and European American children. Then it hit me.

     ‘They are afraid of you,’ I replied

     ‘Why would they be afraid of us?’ the shocked students asked, totally perplexed. I had to tell them.

     ‘They are afraid you are the future of America. They’re afraid their country will someday look like this class–that you represent what our nation is becoming.'”

Re-reading this passage, I think of a Sunday School song I grew up with, admittedly one that indulged in some stereotypes about skin color for which I apologize, and yet that represented the underlying gospel values of my white evangelical congregation:

“Jesus loves the little children; all the children of the world.

Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight.  

Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

Wallis’s quote challenged me with the reality of whether we will love all the children of the world that God is gathering in our country, or fear them. Will we see that fifth-grade classroom as the realization of our deep gospel values, and strive for churches that reflect this in our love and our life. Or will we remain racially separate, hiding behind walls of fear, saying that it is OK for Jesus to love these children as long as they are somewhere else in the world.

Wallis contends we stand at the approach to a bridge between the racist America of the past and a different America that values “all the children of the world” in our midst. His book is an invitation for white evangelical America to walk the way of repentance and cross that bridge rather than walk away from it. I’m reminded that God does not forbear forever. If we miss this chance, dare we presume there will be another?