As a theologically conservative Asian-American, I must admit that reading White Fragility felt a little like listening to someone else’s family meeting. This should not be surprising since Robin DiAngelo is clear that her intended audience is white progressives like herself.[i] One of the first-round reviewers, Allison Ash, points this out in her article, but also believes DiAngelo’s book can apply to white conservatives and Christians alike. And while not explicitly written this way, George Yancey’s full review is an important outsider’s perspective as an African-American and as a social scientist.
It is this outsider’s perspective that I specifically want to address.
There is no monolithic non-white perspective on the ideas described in White Fragility but it is important to acknowledge they exist. To put it plainly, non-whites are watching whites have this conversation amongst themselves. From my perspective, some of it is hit or miss as pointed out by many of the first-round reviewers. For a long time, whether progressive, conservative, racist, or an ally, whites have managed much of the narrative for how race is framed and talked about in America. And whether non-whites find DiAngelo’s ideas helpful or harmful or a combination of both, the outsider dynamic to this conversation increasingly matters as we consider that the percentage of the white population in America continues to shrink and the complexity of racial categories continues to grow.
My aim here is to frame a perspective of how I see this conversation developing, first through the eyes of a minority in America and second as a missiologist concerned with how this fits into Christian mission.
The Process of Becoming a Minority in America
W.E.B. DuBois penned these powerful words describing the African-American experience as he saw it in the late 19th century:
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.[ii]
As articulated by DuBois, the African-American “double-consciousness” is a very nuanced phenomenon painstakingly developed through historical experience and generations of struggle. DuBois offers something that many African-Americans have found helpful and insightful in their American experience. It is unique to African-Americans and should not and cannot be appropriated onto other racial groups in America.
Related but tangential to DuBois, the process of discovering what it means to be a minority in America is fraught with non-stop subconscious self-examination, false ascriptions, and overt animosity. As a minority, there is an ongoing frustration in wanting to express your thoughts and ideas only to find the race conversation make its way back to centering the dominant group experience, framed primarily to enlighten them rather than to truly advance the conversation. The day to day work of a minority in America is to see yourself the way white Americans see you in order to articulate your point in a way that makes sense to them. While this is a necessary skill in a diverse and pluralistic society, the mental, spiritual, and physical work of managing this consciousness causes fatigue.
But whites are getting fatigued, too.
Maybe not the way African-Americans and other minorities get fatigued. But the point of this book is that more now than ever, some whites are resistant and tired of having to see themselves through the eyes of other groups in order to better articulate their points in a way that makes sense to others. It is tiring to have to always consider what another group has to say before you decide on something!
But this has been the modus operandi for minorities in America. And now whites are feeling it more and more.
White Fragility is a tell-tale sign of how some whites are learning to deal with the increasing diversity, which is happening faster than anyone’s expected. Like other groups, whites are developing a secondary consciousness about themselves that a generation ago did not exist—at least not on a wide scale. This consciousness is very different from the African-American double-consciousness and the self-awareness I feel as an Asian-American. But it is related in that almost daily, an increasing number of whites are having to see themselves through the eyes of others.
But I want to offer a very real warning here: we cannot confuse white self-awareness and secondary consciousness as advancing the plight of minorities in America, particularly African-Americans and indigenous peoples. DiAngelo’s last chapter entitled, “Where Do We Go From Here?” offers whites, who are engaging in these conversations, tips for how to deal with white fragility. However, it does not go far enough to teach whites how to reframe and recenter the conversation around the minority experience.
So as an outsider looking in, the concepts developed by DiAngelo, along with the contributions in this symposium, are helpful insofar as they serve the greater purpose of resolving racial tension in America by focusing on the plight of actual minority groups.
Observing White Fragility as a Missiologist
Reading DiAngelo offers some insight into how some white progressives understand themselves, the structure of society, human depravity, and the way towards human flourishing. As a missiologist, I have a paradoxical view of DiAngelo and her audience. To me, they simultaneously represent a prophetic voice to conservative evangelicals while at the same time remain one of the most difficult population segments in America to reach with the gospel. One telling paragraph is this one:
To understand how white people become so difficult in conversations about race, we need to understand the underlying foundation of white fragility: how being white shapes our perspectives, experiences, and responses.[iii]
I read DiAngelo’s ideas about whiteness throughout her book and think two things: 1) I hope evangelicals consider some of her analysis and interpretation of white fragility even though they might disagree with her worldview, and 2) if what DiAngelo writes is even partially true for how some whites think about themselves, then we need to truly pray that the gospel can deliver them and (all of us) from “whiteness”.
While I agree with DiAngelo that for whites, whiteness as a social construction has almost become a lot in life—or at least tends to be the social script they live by—the beauty of the gospel is that the idol of whiteness can be defeated. If there is anything oppressive about whiteness, it will be overcome. If there is anything redeemable about whiteness, it will come to light. If whiteness is simply a false idea, it will be replaced by a more authentic identity in Christ.
In White Fragility, DiAngelo is in a way showing evangelicals—whites and non-whites—how some white progressives are in need of the gospel. But do we have ears to hear? As a non-white evangelical, I am trying to listen. Many of the other reviewers participating in this symposium are listening, too. And if so, our response should not be argumentative and condescending. We should humbly discern how God might have us learn from DiAngelo and others like her to improve our obedience to his mission as the church. Moreover, we should seek to understand them better and to be understood better by them. Like with any other group, it is likely that an authentic relationship with transparent communication is the only way we can help DiAngelo’s audience see the gospel as the ultimate solution to racism and white fragility.
[i] DiAngelo, Robin J. 2018. White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. Boston: Beacon Press, p. 4.
[ii] Du Bois, W.E.B. 2017. The Souls of Black Folk (AmazonClassics Edition). Kindle. AmazonClassics, p.3-4.
[iii] DiAngelo, p. 51.