This was first published in my newsletter earlier this year.
Here’s a confession: I haven’t read White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. Over the past couple of years, conversation partners have sometimes assumed that I’ve read it – You know, like how DiAngelo writes about white people in her book. – and I’ve generally just nodded along. That’s probably not a good thing and I hope to get to the book one of these days; it’s obviously been helpful to a bunch of people.
(One of the reasons I’ve yet to get to the book is that I’m prone to prioritizing books about race, including about whiteness, by people of color. If memory serves, the only white authors I engaged on the topic while writing my book were Wendell Berry, my friend Daniel Hill, and Eula Biss, a white woman whose essays about race are not nearly well enough known.)
White fragility – the concept, not the book – as I understand it has to do with the all-too-common tendency for white people to crumble in response to relatively straightforward conversations about race and, in particular, whiteness. As DiAngelo puts it in one interview, “For a lot of white people, the mere suggestion that being white has meaning will cause great umbrage.”
As I’ve listened to white Christians talk about the patterns associated with white fragility it often sounds like they are describing what, in some Christian circles, we might call spiritual immaturity. Throughout his epistles, Paul often urges the young Christians to grow up in their faith, to put away childish behaviors. And isn’t this what white fragility describes? Defensiveness, deflection, selfishness, denial, etc.
These are the sorts of reactions we might expect from a child or, in Christian terms, a spiritually immature person. Rather than having the depth to sit with tension or conflict, the fragile/immature person makes the moment about himself and steers the conversation away from the thing that deserves attention.
Nowhere is this tendency more apparent than in the immature white Christian’s refusal to hear the truth. Rather than absorbing difficult new insights having to do with, say, historical racism or the nature of racial privilege, the immature Christian defaults to debate and denial. This happens, horrifyingly, even when a Christian of color is narrating the truth about her own life and the impact of racism on it. Surely we could expect that, between Christians, white people would be able to hear and hold painful truth. But no, oftentimes our fragility reinforces the deceit which defines so much of the white experience.
White fragility is real, and yet I find myself wanting to highlight the biblical language of immaturity and spiritual growth as I talk with white Christians. The reason for this has to do with a worry I have. In the time I’ve shared with Christians of color, especially African Americans, I’ve come to see the biblical language and theological imaginations for conversations about racial justice which many of these friends have access to. They belong to communities of faith which have histories of thinking, talking, and acting in response to racial injustice with the mandates and metaphors of Scripture.
White Christians, on the other hand, usually have none of this. We lack the biblical vernacular and theological constructs to respond thoughtfully to, for example, systems of white supremacy. And so, as we awaken to racial injustice, we grasp for tools and language wherever we can find it. But we don’t expect to find it within our own faith tradition because, well, our segregated congregations haven’t been interested. So the good and helpful tools of psychology, sociology, philosophy, and history become our guides and we don’t even consider the fact that many of our fellow Christians have found the deepest wisdom to be found in the same Bible we esteem so highly.
I don’t think we shouldn’t read books like White Fragility. Not at all. There is so much helpful history and analysis out there and we ought to read widely. Rather, the solution to our bereft imaginations is to push through the bounds of our segregation so that we can begin to see how others in our Christian family have read the Bible. We can listen to preachers of color, listen to old gospel music, read theology by women and men whose traditions have always found biblical insight for confronting racial injustice. I could go on, but hopefully the point is plain: as Christians we have access to a spiritual tradition which many have long found to provide wise resources for the battle some of us are just now waking up to.
So, for now at least, when I observe my fellow white Christians exhibiting our trademark fragility, my response will be, Grow up! You can say the same to me.