White Fragility: Sin, Salvation, and the Gospel The Trade
Although Robin DiAngelo's # 1 New York Times bestseller, White Fragility, was published in 2018, he is back at the top of the bestseller list following recent racist tensions and protests in America. In her book, DiAngelo unpacks the phenomenon of "white fragility," the inability or unwillingness of white people to speak about race, and argues that it "is not a weakness in itself … (but) a powerful means of controlling the white race ". The book's provocative thesis has led to a number of critical reviews (p. 2). The book has been criticized for its circular logic, lack of empirical evidence, problematic epistemological assumptions, “dehumanizing condescension”, and opportunistic allusion to the trillion-dollar (white) wellness and self-help industry.
What the growing home industry has surprisingly lacked from White Fragility Reviews is a theological criticism of this flawed but culturally important work.
While it may seem unfair to theological criticism of a diversity counselor's book, there are two reasons why such a review is overdue. First, in addition to winning the NYT's bestseller list, this book has appeared on numerous recommended reading lists published by evangelical pastors and leaders. While Christians should read a lot to study culture, they should also think critically and theologically about what they read. Second, its theme – racism and whites reluctance to expect it – raises inevitable theological questions. We just can't talk about racism without talking about sin and evil – concepts completely absent from DiAngelo's book. And we cannot talk about white fragility without talking about repentance and redemption (even noticeably absent). In short, White Fragility struggles with racism or even with "White Fragility" because DiAngelo has a deficient doctrine of sin and an incomplete doctrine of salvation.
Racism and the Doctrine of Sin
One of the main goals of DiAngelo in White Fragility is to argue that racism is not just the discrete bigoted acts of racist individuals, but rather an ubiquitous and "complex, interconnected system" of racial injustice and oppression into which we are all born and socialized. The result is that racist assumptions and ways of thinking, regardless of your upbringing or your self-image as a non-racist, cannot be absorbed. While some may argue with DiAngelos exaggerations and simplifications, I think she is largely right about the systemic nature of racism. It is the water that we swim in.
The problem is that DiAngelo doesn't go far enough or not deep enough.
She is unwilling, or maybe unable, to call racism what it really is – sin. DiAngelo's attempt to explain racism without reference to cosmic evil lies in what Charles Taylor calls the "immanent framework" of the secular, and ultimately fails to justify the racial injustice. For DiAngelo, racism manifests itself in “problematic” racist assumptions that can lead to “offensive” behavior. According to DiAngelo, these problematic assumptions are based on ignorance and socialization in a racialized society.
While this argument is not in and of itself wrong, it is a scandalously flat representation of racism. And it is unable to answer the most basic question that their argument raises: How did we come to have a racialized / racist society in the first place?
Up to this point, DiAngelo maintains: "The exploitation came first, and then came the ideology of dissimilar races to justify this exploitation" (p. 16). Maybe, but why do we exploit other people, be it because of race, gender, disability, etc.? DiAngelo doesn't answer. It is as if she is ready to view racism as "hereditary corruption", the first half of Calvin's definition of original sin, but not as "the depravity of our nature," the second half of Calvin's definition (Calvin's Institute, Book II, chap 1.8). DiAngelo advocates that racism is something that corrupts us from the outside (through socialization), but she is unwilling to acknowledge the deeper and more terrible truth: the human tendency to exploitation and its racial justification comes from the deep parts of the human Heart.
As the apostle Paul explains, human depravity is rooted in idolatry: "They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature, not the Creator …" (Romans 1:25 ESV). In my opinion, this is the best one-sentence explanation for the origins of racism and white supremacy. White domination is not just an intellectual justification for exploitation. It is a false god who demands loyalty and human sacrifice.
It is loyalty to this false god that explains white fragility – the unwillingness of many (but not all) white people to expect racism in America and in their own hearts.
White Fragility and the Doctrine of Salvation
Since DiAngelo is convinced that racism is based on socialization and ignorance (and not on sin and idolatry), her solutions are, of course, "ongoing self-knowledge (and) education" (p. 4). While it never makes the explicit connection, "self-awareness" works like a secularized concept of repentance and "formation" works like sanctification.
For example, when condemned whites come to DiAngelo at the end of a diversity training and ask how they can become anti-racist (in other words, “What do I have to do to be saved?”), She encourages them, a “transformed paradigm “About racism and some new behaviors and assumptions about race (pp. 140-41). To be clear, I find much of your list of new behaviors and assumptions very helpful. However, something is noticeably missing from DiAngelo's idea of repentance – forgiveness.
In a revealing anecdote, DiAngelo tells the story of a time when she insulted an African-American employee with a race-insensitive joke. DiAngelo told of the painful conversation in which she identified her “problematic” (read: sinful) behavior and asked if she could “repair” the racism she had committed (read: reparation), and modeled in many ways how we helped This should be avoided by humiliating conversations and resisting the urge to justify yourself. In an otherwise exemplary conversation, however, the term forgiveness never came up. Her colleague “accepted” and “appreciated” her apology and went on, but DiAngelo never asked for forgiveness – or forgiveness of guilt, while apologizing.
When DiAngelo addresses the relationship between racism and guilt, he writes: “I don't feel guilty about racism. I did not choose this socialization and it could not be avoided. To the extent that I have done my best at every moment to interrupt my participation, I can rest with a clearer conscience ”(p. 149). In a sinless world – just "problematic" assumptions and "offensive" behavior – there is no guilt and hence no need for pardon. The result of this secularized understanding of racism is an incomplete process of redemption: confession without absolution, repentance without forgiveness.
DiAngelo's concept of “further education” works in a similar way to a semi-Christian idea. Like the doctrine of sanctification, anti-racist upbringing is "an ongoing, lifelong work, because the forces that condition us in a racist framework are always involved" (p. 9). Even DiAngelo, as an expert on this subject, humbly admits that she is “involved in a lifelong learning and growth process” (p. 140).
In contrast to the Christian understanding of sanctification, which leads to final salvation, DiAngelo offers no such hope to the aspiring anti-racist. DiAngelo admits: “Racism is so deeply embedded in the fabric of our society that I don't see myself escaping from this continuum in my life. But I can always try to keep moving ”(p. 86). DiAngelo's goal for her own life is rather bleak: "Ultimately, I am striving for a less white identity for my own liberation and my sense of justice, not to save people with color" (p. 149).
Hope and the Gospel
In DiAngelo's favor, it does not address the utopian fantasies of some racial justice activists who envision a world without racism, without recognizing what it would cost. Throughout her work, DiAngelo remains within the immanent framework and accepts the inherent (and tragic) limits of our secular age.
But the Christian doesn't have to.
In the gospel we discover the two truths that transformed John Newton, the abolitionist slave trader: "I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior." We just cannot expect racism, either in our souls still in our systems if we join a robust doctrine of sin and understand that our struggle against racism is not "against flesh and blood, but … against the cosmic forces over this present darkness against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places “(Ephesians 6:12). Because if we have the wrong diagnosis, we will offer the wrong cure to the world.
But we can't stop there.
Like DiAngelo and other anti-racist activists, we should preach repentance and promote lifelong sanctification. However, only the Christian can preach repentance with the promise of forgiveness and sanctification with the hope of glorification.
Only a Christian can sing as in the old African American spirit; "There is balm in Gilead / To heal the wounded / There is enough strength in Heaven / To heal a sin-sick soul."