White Fragility

The death of George Floyd, the outpouring of anger, the marches, people “taking the knee” and the apology videos seem an age away now.  Few people are talking about #BlackLivesMatter and a significant proportion of those who are, do so negatively as part of counter attacks against Marxist wokeness.

Yet if we genuinely are concerned to see Gospel churches in our cities that reflect the diversity of humanity, we cannot simply let the matter get put to bed. Black lives mattered before the hashtag, they matter after.  So, from time to time, I keep returning to the question of race in my reading, thinking and writing.   I’ve recently read the book, White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism by Robin Diangelo and so I would like to share some thoughts on it here.

Diangelo is an associate professor of education at the University of Washington with a PHD in multicultural education. Her area of focus is in critical discourse studies and whiteness studies.[1]  White Fragility is a book encouraging us to think carefully about the problems of systemic racism.  Our tendency is to associate racism with “bad people,” with those who express hatred towards people of colour and express it in offensive words, overtly discriminatory behaviour and violent actions. However, she argues, as have numerous authors recently that it reflects more a culture in which people experience systemic discrimination because the world is stacked in favour of white people. Furthermore, whilst white people may want to believe that they are free from racism, especially when endorsing liberal values, underlying prejudices are often still, even if subconsciously present in how we talk, act and think.

Much of what Diangelo argues on this point is persuasive and worthy of attention.  This is important for Christians when engaging in conversation about racism and sin. We may be able to identify individual examples of sin whilst missing the ways in which idolatry shapes a whole culture. 

Diangelo distinguishes between prejudice and racism. We all have prejudices. People from different ethnic groups can be prejudiced against each other and against white people. When Diangelo talks about racism, she is talking about power as well.  Historic economic and political power resulting from colonialism, slavery and segregation mean that there is a difference between the prejudices we see and the experience black people have of white supremacy and racism. 

This also means that whilst overtly racist language and actions may be diminished, more acceptable ways of raising the threat or enacting prejudice against blacks may occur. Diangelo particularly highlights how a particular neighbourhood may be portrayed as unsafe due to crime whereas a different neighbourhood reflects aspiration and opportunities for better language.

She further highlights how racial prejudice is suppressed rather than dealt with. She talks about how a white child spotting a black person may comment on the person’s skin colour only to be shushed. The child learns that colour is something negative and taboo. They have not learnt to be racist, they have learnt not to talk about people of colour. 

Finally, for consideration is the issue whereby whiteness is seen as colour/ethnic neutral, the default option.  I have personally observed this in different ways over the years.  Perhaps the most embarrassing example was the enthusiastic mission team who stood up to do their kids talk about how we can all be united equal in Jesus.  They came onto the platform and displayed a visual aid, lots of coloured diamonds. We are all different. But look, we can come together as one.  If the illustration had finished there, it wouldn’t have been too bad.  However, the now joined together diamonds were turned over, yes there was the diversity of colour but look, they were united and the same, despite all their differences, together, they were bright, shining and … you’ve guessed it … white.  

Another example we see is the way in which theologies are described as Black, Asian and Latino whereas western theologies are just … theology. Whiteness and western thought becomes the neutral arbitrator of everything and the lens through which we read and evaluate everything else.

I believe that White Fragility helpfully raises a number of issues concerning race that will challenge us and get us thinking. It is so easy for me to say “I am not a racist…” and then to give various reasons as to why I am not racist whilst both holding onto prejudices against people from different ethnic backgrounds, enjoying the privileges of whiteness and failing to spot or to act upon the systemic causes of injustice in society.

However, I did find problems with the book and my first problem is the feeling that the fact I have a problem is likely to blamed on my whiteness and not on any failings by the book and its author.  Part of that arises because at times it feels like the book asserts too much when there is a greater need for demonstration and evidence.  But it also arises out of how I see the author interact both with her audience  among her readership and with the examples she uses from her own experience as a diversity trainer and facilitator. The assumption is that white people cannot talk easily about race because of the problems with our whiteness. We are fragile and angry. Yet, whilst to some extent that is true, I don’t think this excuses, especially fellow white people a responsibility to think carefully about how they engage. The author frequently returns to the examples of people in her diversity classes who receive personal, public, negative feedback. When they leave her classes distressed and alienated, this further evidences their fragility and racism rather than raising genuine questions about whether or not as a facilitator she might have handled things better.

Like a lot of contemporary literature, I believe that the book is most likely to support and reinforce people in the conclusions they have already come to regarding race. It is therefore unlikely to be a game change in the way that other works are.

Secondly, I am not convinced by the prejudice/racism distinction.  I agree that there is a difference between prejudice in terms of general wariness and dislike versus discrimination where the discriminator has power. However, it is possible that between cultures where white people are absent that other ethnic groups might hold power and in micro-cultural contexts where it is not the white working class person who has power but middle class people from other ethnic backgrounds.  White fragility may ultimately prove too simplistic an analysis.

Thirdly, her solution to the problem of white fragility is to be a little less white. We cannot, in her opinion recover a positive white culture. Whiteness, is in her opinion, irreparably, irretrievably racist.  I wonder at this stage whether she is truly speaking for black people or is in fact appropriating their sense of injustice in order to base her own negative attitudes and resentments towards her own culture, particularly if she feels that this culture has failed her.

Here of course we cut to the heart of a godless attempt to produce ethics. We end up with guilt and shame that we cannot recover from, that we cannot atone for and that where is no-one who is able to atone for it on our behalf. Such a situation is hopeless.  Is there really nothing to take pleasure in, nothing to redeem about 40,000 fans singing on the football terraces, or a welsh male voice choir singing Guide me oh thou Great Jehovah, in visiting Blenheim Palace or eating fish and chips for tea on a wet and windy seafront?  In moving from bad people versus good people to bad culture versus good culture, do we end up simply continuing the problem?

Is there an alternative? I’ve been writing about subversive fulfilment in an urban context recently but I want to suggest that this applies tom white middle class culture too. We need to apply the tools of missiology on our own hearts and cultures. This means being willing to step back into white culture, to recognise that in it we’ll find people’s questions, searching for answers and hope, we’ll find positive points of contact with the Gospel  we’ll find aspirations and dreams.  White society and culture should be as recoverable by the Gospel as any culture.  Ultimately White Fragility like any human fragility is hopeless because it lacks the Gospel. Ultimately, the Gospel brings hope to the most futile and hopeless seeming situation.

[1] Robin DiAngelo – Wikipedia

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