Wednesday, July 15, 2020

White Fragility - A Brief Theological Review




I read Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. I read a book like this because many are referring to it, and I want to know what it says. 

When I read a book, my goal is to understand it. One cannot evaluate it without first understanding it. 

I found myself making theological connections. I am not ascribing my theological thoughts to DiAngelo. No, she doesn't share my faith in Jesus. That it, ultimately, where the book falls short to me. So, this is a brief theological review of White Fragility. (Note: not a full review, which would include a critique of the ending, which is unsatisfactory to me. Plus a number of other things.)

In the biblical book of Romans we are told that, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” I am certain this is true. All of humanity faces the sin problem. The biblical book of 1 John says that even Christians can and do still sin, even though the blood of the cross of Christ has atoned for our sin.

DiAngelo claims that whites have unconscious racial bias because they are (for the most part) born, not by their choice, into a culture of white privilege. To understand what she means by saying this, see the footnote below.* 

At this point in the book I found myself listening, and looking at myself. I have been taught by the Bible to engage in self-evaluation. This almost always happens to me, whatever book I read.

Here an understanding of the ubiquity of sin helps me. I have always believed in the fallen, broken nature of persons. Me included. This seems to me to be the kind of reasoning DiAngelo is using. No, I am not reading theology into her book. Even though I'm not with her on that, what she is saying seems something like what Christians have called "identificational repentance."


DiAngelo defines “racism” as largely unconscious, unreflected-on bias which brings compliance to racial structures. For example, I was a young boy in the time when many blacks could not use the same bathrooms as whites, or the same drinking fountains as whites. The thought of this amazes and saddens me. This was just the world I lived in. (Black women were not officially allowed the privilege to exercise their right to vote until 1965! I was a sophomore in high school at the time. This amazes and saddens me today. It was the world I lived in.)

Given DiAngelo’s understanding of racism as unconscious white privilege, I am self-examining. Because, while my sins are covered and cleansed by the blood of Jesus, my character still falls short of my Lord. I consider this, and don't wish to be "fragile" and defensive about the possibility that I'm not all the way there yet. 

I found it interesting that DiAngelo has white liberals and white progressives especially in mind. She says their strong objections weaponize their racism. This, to her, becomes a highly effective way to punish people who try to challenge racism. 

Even though DiAngelo is not a Jesus-follower, some of her words, like the words of Jesus, challenge any self-righteousness I might have. This is the "search me, O God" attitude that got into me when I became a Jesus-follower. I may be tempted to say, “Thank God that I am not like that racist over there!” But God has called me look deeper, into the depths of the human heart where we will find, as Thomas Merton wrote, "ancient selfish motives moving comfortably like forgotten sea monsters in waters where they are never seen." 

I am not interested in calling you "racist." Again, I am in self-examination mode.  

DiAngelo says she does not feel condemned over her implicit racial bias. She did not choose to be born so privileged. But she sees her own racism, and feels the need to self-examine. She concludes the book by offering suggestions for self-examination. (As a Jesus-follower, here is one place the book falls short for me. I need more help than she seems able to give.)

This, of course, requires humility. The ability to introspect. It requires listening, in order to understand. I saw this attitude in her writing. I thought of James 4:6 – “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

DiAngelo rightly believes our learning is never finished. In the first place, this means our self-learning. Like the psalmist, I regularly pray, “Search me O God, and know my heart. See if there be any wicked ways in me.” Even unconscious complicity in racism. If it's there, God, tear it out of me!"

I can agree with the apostle Paul who, regarding the formation of Christ in him, did not claim to have fully arrived, but pressed on to make this his own. Make what his own? The character, the ways, the attitudes, of Christ, who loved and loves the whole world enough to die for every tribe, every ethnic group, every race.


***


*In my discussion with A.G. he pointed out DiAngelo, p. 22:


"Racism is a society-wide dynamic that occurs at the group level. When I say that only whites can be racist, I mean that 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."


Does this mean other people of color could not, could never, be racist? I don't think so. If by "racism" is meant "having the collective and social power and privilege over people," then, logically, the white people group is racist. I think it is true that whites in America have this collective social power and privilege over people of color. Therefore, given these distinctions, "only whites can be racist," because, for centuries, whites in America have held such power and privilege. I assume that, because power and privilege corrupt, another color group would fare no better. This concerns my Christian belief that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.


You may agree or disagree with DiAngelo here. I'm just trying to understand her, because you can't meaningfully agree or disagree with someone until you first understand them.

**Further note, for my own education - Brown University Prof of Linguistics John McWhorter blasts DiAngelo's book as being condescending to whites. McWhorter is black. I think DiAngelo could have made her point in a different way; viz., by pointing to white privilege without indicting all whites. See - https://www.foxnews.com/media/john-mcwhorter-white-fragility-robin-diangelo-atlantic
I became familiar with McWhorter via his critique of the Sapir-Whorff Hypothesis in linguistics, which I've studied for years and incorporated in my dissertation and my book Leading the Presence-Drive Church
See also McWhorter, "The Dictionary Definition of Racism Has to Change." For anyone who thinks definitions do not change, that is simply untrue, as regards many terms. I learned about this in my studies of "mental lexicons." You easily see this in a study of dictionaries (lexicons) over the centuries.