The murder of George Floyd has surfaced centuries-long racial tensions in American life, and people have started (again) to look for answers about how they might respond. Thus, the leap of Robin DiAngelo’s volume White Fragility up the sales charts to become an #1 overall best seller. The sudden prominence of the book has sparked its own sub-conversation of both praise and protest. In light of all of this, how should we as evangelical Christians think about this volume?
I am a white pastor who served for nearly nine years in a majority black church and community. I am now planting a church in a relatively homogeneous, white community in South Florida, with tremendous diversity literally across the street. I have been wrestling with conversations and tensions surrounding race for years, recently finishing my PhD dissertation on the subject of the multiethnic church. In light of my previous study and experience, White Fragility struck me as somewhat unremarkable. The book offers some helpful things for majority/white people to consider, while those helpful aspects are often undergirded by problematic worldview presuppositions and paralleled by other problematic assertions.
In this article, I want to explore four questions about the book so that we can think about it a bit more clearly.
Why is White Fragility so popular?
I have some theories about the popularity of White Fragility, especially among evangelical, Bible-believing Christians. Here’s my main one: too often, evangelical theology has a thin theological vision that leaves us vulnerable to overreaction. Too often, evangelical ontology (doctrine of being), theological anthropology (doctrine of humanity), soteriology (doctrine of salvation), and eschatology (doctrine of last things) leave a lot of biblical goodness on the table. This leaves us looking for answers, especially in the overt surfacing of underlying racial tension and injustice. In such times, Christians look for explanations about society and our own experiences, finding a book like White Fragility and saying, "This sounds exactly like what I've been looking for!" We eat the meat, but sometimes may also swallow the bones. Much like the "cage stage" of a newly convinced Calvinist or charismatic, we are seeing a lot of "cage stage" awareness of racial injustice. And, as the "cage stage" of anything provokes visceral (over)reaction, the new "wokeness" has been met with a visceral reaction against it. That in part explains the controversy.
Why is White Fragility so controversial?
Many have pushed back against the book, some going so far as saying that Christians should leave the church of a pastor who would recommend it. They have argued that the book is undergirded by anti-biblical presuppositions, and they might be right about that. The book fails in its presuppositions about the problems of the human condition. The Christian worldview shaped by the Scripture understands the world around us as a created good, though now corrupted by sin and awaiting final restoration. The problems of the human condition are rooted in a primal, culpable rebellion against the Creator. This sin-problem pervades every heart and every system inhabited and built by sinful people in a world contested by hostile principalities and powers. The book offers much diagnosis and description of the problems plaguing our culture, but little constructive, redemptive prognosis for how to deal with racial issues. In turn, many have argued that these shortcomings undermine the book’s value entirely, and even make the book dangerous for Christians.
Thus, we see an evangelical “fight or flight” instinct at play: instead of constructing a more biblical, robust theological vision, conservative evangelicals either join the crowd or fight the crowd. But I think a robust theological vision allows us to appreciate some parts of White Fragility while rejecting its problematic assumptions and assertions.
What is helpful about White Fragility?
Like I said, my primary thesis is that this book is not particularly praiseworthy or pernicious. It has helpful elements, and many problematic ones. Helpfully, it does diagnose symptoms of racial ambivalence that rang true to me in my years of engaging the issue. Anyone who has worked to bring the gospel to bear on the issue of race to an audience of white Christians has experienced situations like DiAngelo describes. Defensiveness, denial, and reversing the suffering narrative seem to be common reactions from white Christians when presented with biblical discussions about racial injustice. Likewise, evangelicals too often individualize sin to the exclusion of systemic aspects, and we would do well be aware that systems inhabited by sinful humans and haunted by principalities and powers can be corrupted apart from any conscious intent from an individual at a given time. It is here that White Fragility might help white people like me to see the ways racial realities are more prevalent than we have assumed. When we discover that our white experience in society often differs from a black or minority experience in that same society, it helps us better love our neighbors and our brothers and sisters in Christ.
What is problematic about White Fragility?
If evangelical theology can overly individualize the problem of racial injustice, this volume does the opposite. White Fragility misdiagnoses the source of the problem, rooting the problem in a non-biblical ontology, anthropology, soteriology, and eschatology. It wrongly bundles racial issues with LGBT+ concerns, and tends to reduce human nature to any given social context. It overly structuralizes and de-individualizes the problems surrounding race in our society. It gives virtually no room for an understanding of a common humanity created in the image of God with the ability to respond to the world around them. It creates a false narrative that boils people down to their social and cultural norms, encaging them in that narrative with little hope of escape. It holds no hope for a primary teaching of the Christian gospel: God can and does change human hearts.
Part of what sparked my desire to write a theological dissertation on the subject of the multiethnic church was a comment that much of the work on the topic had been sociological rather than theological in nature. As Christians, we view the world and people through a fundamentally theological lens, believing that God can and does change people, hearts, and social structures through both ordinary and extraordinary means. Thus, if this book is dangerous in some way, it would be the way DiAngelo totalizes her sociological claims and the implications for issues of race and injustice. This is my biggest fear about the volume. Too many people will read it as the way to view race and the white-black dynamic in our culture and either (a) reject the necessity of wrestling with the issue; or (b) they will become “white fragility fundamentalists” and cancel anyone who is beyond the bounds of their own established orthodoxy.
How should we respond to White Fragility?
As I’ve alluded to, part of both the popularity and the protesting of White Fragility flows from evangelicals failing to envision a robust, biblical framework of the issues it addresses. We need to listen, again, to our Bibles. We need to hear the heart of God for humanity, for justice, for redemption, and for reconciliation. When we look at the book through the eyes of Scripture, we find that we can gladly and gratefully appreciate some helpful things, while we reject the rest of its nonbiblical assumptions and assertions.