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August 7, 2020Culture

White Fragility: Behind the Worldview

Unraveling the contemporary critical theory behind White Fragility is key to deciphering its meaning.
White Fragility: Behind the Worldview
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In our 2019 Gospel Coalition article “The Incompatibility of Critical Theory and Christianity,” Dr. Pat Sawyer and I recommended that Christians read White Fragility because it was —and is —the most popular example of a book rooted in contemporary critical theory, an ideology which is fundamentally incompatible with Christianity.

In this essay, I won’t address the text of White Fragility itself. Many different authors [1] [2] [3] from all over the political and religious spectrum, myself included, have explained in detail why the book’s central thesis and supporting claims are false, contradictory, and harmful. Instead, I want to focus on the overarching framework on which it is based. I worry that many Christians, because they are unfamiliar with contemporary critical theory, are misunderstanding DiAngelo’s book. Worse still, Christians may be unconsciously absorbing elements of its worldview without realizing it.

A helpful analogy might be to a Christian reading a Mormon book on parenting. While there may indeed be selected insights that he can appreciate, a Christian who is unfamiliar with Mormonism is likely to misinterpret Mormon references to “grace” or “the fatherhood of God” or “the eternal importance of family.” In the same way, Christians who come away from White Fragility thinking that DiAngelo is merely calling us to “be humble when talking about race” don’t fully understand what she’s saying. Putting White Fragility in the context of DiAngelo’s other writing will help us interpret her accurately.

Interlocking systems of oppression

DiAngelo’s book Is Everyone Really Equal? most clearly explains her ideology, which she explicitly roots in the ideas of Karl Marx, the Frankfurt School’s Critical Theory, and postmodernist philosophers (p. 25-27). In that work, she explains that society is divided into dominant/oppressor and subordinate/oppressed groups along lines of “race, class, gender, sexuality, ability status/exceptionality, religion, and nationality” (p. 44). Crucially, she understands “oppression” to refer not only to violence or coercion but also to “the imposition of the dominant group’s culture on the minoritized group” (p. 62). Consequently, “[s]exism, racism, classism, ableism, and heterosexism [i.e. affirming male-female relationships as the norm] are specific forms of oppression” (p. 61) because they all involve unspoken, taken-for-granted values which privilege some groups (men, whites, heterosexuals, etc.) and marginalize others (women, people of color, LGBTQ people, etc.).

This definition of “oppression” explains not only why DiAngelo understands “racism” in terms of structures and systems, but also why she sees racism as merely one form of oppression along with ableism and heterosexism. It also explains why a commitment to “Critical Social Justice” demands active opposition to all these various oppressions. To oppose racism but to fail to oppose heterosexism would, on her view, be as inconsistent as opposing abortion but not euthanasia. We must be actively working against all oppression, whether it’s based on race, gender, or sexuality: “There is no neutral ground; to choose not to act against injustice is to choose to allow it” (p. xxiv).

Subjective Knowledge

DiAngelo also insists that all knowledge is socially constructed. It is “never purely objective, neutral, and outside of human interests…Even the field of science is subjective” (p. 15). Knowledge is not “simply the result of a rational, objective, and value-neutral process, one that is removed from any political agenda” (p. 25). Instead, “knowledge is dependent upon a complex web of cultural values, beliefs, experiences, and social positions” (p. 29). “Language is not a neutral transmitter of a universal objective or fixed reality. Rather, language is the way we construct reality” (p. 70).

The naive view that there can be “objective knowledge” is what allows dominant, oppressor groups to disguise their values as neutral. Consequently, truth claims from dominant groups are suspect and those from oppressed groups need to be centered: “Dominant groups have the most narrow or limited view… Minoritized groups often have the widest view of society” (p. 70).

Obviously, this view of knowledge will have serious implications for whether Christians can continue to confess doctrines like the deity of Christ or the Trinity or the nature of the gospel as objective, universal truths which can be equally known by all people. Do we know any objective truths from the Bible, or do we only know our white, Western, male interpretations of the Bible?

Race and Racism

Finally, Christians alarmed by some of these ideas might nonetheless insist that DiAngelo’s views on race, at least, are valuable. Here, I’ll simply include a few quotes from her peer-reviewed papers on race to suggest that we need to read her statements more carefully.

In “Beyond the Face of Race: Emo-Cognitive Explorations of White Neurosis and Racial Cray-Cray,” she writes: “Under the power of Whiteness, the racial cray-cray becomes a socially-sanctioned process of engaging in the lies of White neurosis that everyone is forced to perform.” And “we hope to offer a new approach to racial healing by affirming Thandeka’s (1999) postulation of Whiteness as a form of child abuse.” And “the current state of White emo-cognition and rationality are incompatible.”

In Leaning in: A student’s guide to engaging constructively in social justice content, she criticizes statements like “People should be judged by what they do, not the color of their skin,” “My parents taught me that all people are equal,” and “I have friends from all races and we are all fine with each other” as “predictable, simplistic, and misinformed.”

It’s crucial for us to recognize that when it comes to basic worldview questions like “Who am I?”, “What is good?”, and “What is my purpose?” DiAngelo’s work provides very different answers than Christianity does.

Summary

As I said at the outset, I and many others have written about the problems with the text of White Fragility elsewhere. Moreover, I want to make it clear that I am not attempting to “poison the well” or to argue that everything that DiAngelo says is false. Indeed, Dr. Sawyer and I still recommend that Christians read this book to better understand our culture. However, we should read it in the same way that a Christian living in Utah reads the Book of Mormon. She reads it to better understand her Mormon neighbors, but with the recognition that it is built on a broken and spiritually dangerous foundation that will harm anyone who embraces it.

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White Fragility: Behind the Worldview