In the beginning of Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s book, White Fragility, she explains that she wrote the book for white progressives. Her emphasis on this group of people is understandable, given a common mindset among progressives that points to engagement in social justice as a way to pardon oneself from being racist. However, I also believe this book can apply to any white person—progressive, conservative, Christian, non-Christian—who is interested in moving toward racial healing and justice in our country.
I think this book is important for evangelical Christians, particularly white evangelical Christians (both people who would identify as progressive, conservative or a combination of the two), because it speaks a language that has been almost completely missing within the white evangelical church throughout its history: a language to identify, name, and describe white supremacy and the difficulty and refusal of white people to speak this language and move toward healing. This language is one that black scholars and leaders have been speaking for many years, however, the white Christian church has not only failed to listen, learn, and change, but often has attempted to eradicate the language from our culture. The irony of this failure is that this language was necessitated largely because of the actions of white Christians and the white Christian church for centuries. Few white Christians I know have an understanding of this history. In this short reflection, I do not have time to do justice to this history, however, I will provide two examples here.
White European Christians originally enslaved black bodies for economic gain but justified their greed by framing slavery as a Christian act: evangelization (Kendi, 2016). Eventually this evangelization included creating a racial taxonomy that equated lighter skin color with becoming a better Christian, which was revealed in this Jesuit missionary’s writing about the Japanese and Indian people in the 16th century: “Since [the Indian people] are blacks, and of small sense, they are subsequently very difficult to improve and turn into good Christians; whereas the Japanese usually become converted...in obedience to their lord’s command; and since they are white and of good understanding and behavior... they readily frequent the churches and sermons, and when they are instructed they become very good Christians” (Boxer, 1974, p. 94). This excerpt reveals Christian evangelization ascribing greater worth to lighter skinned individuals and conflating “good” Christianity with skin color.
DiAngelo’s writing does not trace the roots of racism to the white Christian church in this way. However, in her review of the social construction of race in the United States, she does highlight the way exploitation precedes ideology, to which we as Christians can relate with regard to a history of white biblical interpretation. DiAngelo argues, “Exploitation came first, and then the ideology of unequal races to justify this exploitation followed.” The same could be said about white Christians’ use of the Bible to justify slavery. They did not interpret the Bible and then from that interpretation exploit and enslave black bodies. White Christians exploited and enslaved black bodies and then interpreted the Bible to justify it. This exploitative lens can be seen in the incorrect racist interpretation of Genesis 9, which eventually white Christians named as the curse of Ham—an interpretation that translated Ham as dark skinned and insisted that dark-skinned bodies could be enslaved (Goldenberg, 2003). This interpretation became the norm when a European biblical textual critic assisted the British government in defending the enslavement of black bodies. White Christians in the United States used this interpretation for centuries to insist on the necessity of slavery from a biblical perspective even using it on the floor of the U.S. Congress (Whitford, 2009).
I teach graduate courses in Christian institutions on these topics and in every class, my white students say, why have I not heard this before? Why didn’t I learn this in Sunday school in my church? How could I have gone this long in my life without understanding how Christianity has been a part of this racial past? I believe the answers to these questions are found in this book. DiAngelo gives us language to not only understand our racial past, but to understand why it has been in the benefit of whites (which includes white evangelicals) to avoid the truth of our past and the reality of our present, and why it is so difficult for whites to talk about race and racism now. Furthermore, my students asking these questions points to the failure of the white evangelical church to lead the way in creating a language to name this history and to create a culture around racial healing and reconciliation where whites fully engage in the painful truth of our past and the hope for a biblically just future. As white evangelicals, we have failed to understand whiteness and white supremacy through the lens of the Gospel. Consequently, DiAngelo’s book serves as a reminder that when Christians fail to address issues of individual and systemic sin like white supremacy, the world will address it.
We can reject this book as secular and unbiblical, or we can glean from it and write our own books about whiteness and about the truth of the past and present racial trauma that the white Christian church has created and defended; and we can do this work through the lens of the Gospel, which is our hope for moving forward.
I see a book like DiAngelo’s as a magnifying glass. It is a way to examine how and why white supremacy continues to dominate our culture today in overt and covert ways and why white people have avoided addressing it. Just like a magnifying glass helps a person see what is not easily recognizable, DiAngelo has done that for white people with regard to race. However, I see the Gospel as a set of binoculars; a way to look ahead and see what is there, but not quite visible to the naked eye. The Gospel of Jesus Christ points ahead to the future and calls us to something that we cannot see without it. The Gospel reminds us that the way of Jesus is the way of humility, surrender, and sacrifice.
Boxer, C. R. (1974). The Christian century in Japan: 1549-1650. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. (Original Work Published 1951)
Goldenberg, D. M. (2003). The curse of Ham: Race and slavery in early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Kendi, I. X. (2016). Stamped from the beginning: The definitive history of racist ideas in America. New York, NY: Nation Books.
Whitford, D. M. (2009). The curse of Ham in the early modern era: The Bible and the justifications for slavery. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.