The Gospel as an antidote to white fragility

When it comes to talking about race, white people often feel defensive, angry, and afraid. White people can completely shut down because conversations about race or privilege are so uncomfortable. A researcher named Robin DeAngelo calls this “white fragility“. In a conversation with Sam Adler-Bell, she describes why white people completely shut down:

For white people, their identities rest on the idea of racism as about good or bad people, about moral or immoral singular acts, and if we’re good, moral people we can’t be racist – we don’t engage in those acts. This is one of the most effective adaptations of racism over time—that we can think of racism as only something that individuals either are or are not “doing.”In large part, white fragility—the defensiveness, the fear of conflict—is rooted in this good/bad binary. If you call someone out, they think to themselves, “What you just said was that I am a bad person, and that is intolerable to me.” It’s a deep challenge to the core of our identity as good, moral people.

This is something I sense often when I’m broaching the subject of race or racism with Christian people. When I gave feedback to a  multi-denominational and national conference for catering completely for white people and making racially insensitive jokes, I had two phone calls and a long email from the organizers. I was so thankful they were engaging with me about my concern (YAY!) but basically all I received was one long defense of why what they did was just fine, and that I was being overly sensitive. (Basically- we weren’t meaning to be racist, so, you know, it’s your fault if you think we are).

So, yes, white fragility. It’s a thing. An understandable thing. But it’s something we need to face, white people. And I think if we’re Christian people, our worldview actually empowers us to move through white fragility and into a posture where we are able to receive and accept criticism for the way institutions, structures, and individual acts perpetuate racism.

It’s called the gospel.

Tim Keller says the gospel tells us that we are far worse than we ever imagined, but we are far more loved than we ever dreamed.

We are far worse than we imagined…

In a culture that hypes up self-esteem and tells us we’re all good, moral, acceptable people, the gospel tells us actually we’re flawed, broken, and sinful, and even our best intentions are tainted. The Bible goes so far as to say in comparison with the complete goodness of God, our best intentions are like filthy menstrual rags. There’s ugliness in all of us. We are capable of causing great pain. We unintentionally wound everything we touch. We are not perfect.

And we remind ourselves of this every week when we stand and confess together, “We’re sinners.”

How’s that for an antidote to white fragility? When you call out racism you see in me or my institution, or my culture, I don’t have to defend myself. I’m free to accept it because I know I’m actually far worse than anything you could ever say. You are not telling me anything new about myself. I’m not surprised when you call me racist- even if I’ve never considered myself racist, my worldview actually supports the idea that even with good intentions I could still benefit from and perpetuate racism.

Followers of Christ should be the most humble people, willing to admit fault, willing to accept criticism, because we know we are sinful.

More loved than we dreamed…

Once we’ve acknowledged how broken we are, the fact that God would move towards us in love, would repair our broken relationship even though we’re hurtful, sinful people is humbling and liberating. We don’t have to build a reputation for ourselves based on being a good-white-liberal. We can just accept the lavish love God pours out on us undeserving people.

We build our identities around the fact that we are precious, unique, beloved children of God, and no one else’s opinion of us can ever shake that. We are loved. God was willing to die to be with us. We are so loved.

How is this an antidote to white fragility? This also gives us strength to face uncomfortable truths. Who we are is not based on our performance for others- it’s rooted in what God thinks of us. When someone calls us out for racist behavior we don’t have to feel smothered in shame and reject it out of hand to protect ourselves. Instead, we can remember who we are in Christ, and find the strength to work on our internal racism.

Christian white people should be leading the way when it comes to pushing through white fragility. We have the tools.

It’s not easy. But did anyone ever say that becoming like Jesus was easy?

41CFb-QyWSL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgAre you like- YES, I want to think more about this but I don’t even know where to begin? Check out Jody Fernando’s book “Pondering Privilege”. This is a great resource for church leaders or Christians who want to understand what all this white privilege talk is about, and how to have a humble Christian response. Jody writes with passion and honesty, but with an inviting gentleness as well. She shares stories from her own journey, and each chapter ends with reflection questions. You can get it in e-book or hard copy here! 



5 thoughts on “The Gospel as an antidote to white fragility

  1. Nice post Steph. This is something that I’ve been wrestling with because to some extent I feel my own fragility in the conversation. A while ago I read about Trump gaining popularity because he was defending people who felt like they couldn’t speak up for themselves any more because their defence was always “intolerant” and Trump doesn’t even give cursory nods towards polite/civil dialogue never mind being politically correct. That appeal makes sense to me because of how easy it is to smash someone in the face with charges of racism and how difficult it is to foster dialogue when that happens (so the one party gets defensive and the other party takes the moral high-ground – Trump is offering an alternative to the defensive response). When we hear we’re sinners it’s pretty natural to be defensive but I think you’re right, if we keep hearing it and believing it we’re far more likely to be willing to identify its manifestations.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I’m with you about how easy it is to alienate people with language and take the moral high ground rather than trying to really engage with people and move them in a more positive direction. I’ve also been thinking lately about the different roles of church and state when it comes to things like this. Some people complain, for example, that the US pushed for Civil Rights and integration too quickly in the South, and the South wasn’t ready for it, and if they had gone more slowly, white people would have bought into it rather than being forced which caused external compliance with a law, but no real perception/heart changes. But I think that’s the role of the government– sometimes they pass laws that are for the good of the nation, but it isn’t enough just to have a law, and that’s where the church has a massive role to play, in helping people’s perceptions and hearts change. If the church in the US South (or white churches in South Africa) were committed to discipleship that included radical love for neighbor (especially when that neighbor is different), perhaps there wouldn’t be this tension between what is legal and what is believed on the ground.


  2. So, I agree that we are all sinners in need of the daily saving and redeeming grace Christ offers, and I appreciate that that grace should help me be willing to admit my sin at any given situation and to be willing to grow and change. I wish I were better at saying sorry in every context, not just when racism is involved. But help me understand the difference between admitting I’m a racist and admitting I am a beneficiary (and perhaps sometimes a perpetuator)of white privilege. The latter is pretty painless and obvious to me. The former is very painful and makes me feel defensive. Yet you seem to be equating the two. And what is the difference between racism and prejudice or bias? It seems in sociological terms only privileged people can be racist, but everyone has bias or prejudice. Is that right? And why is one worse than the other? Don’t they flow from the same source of fear, selfishness and lack of knowledge?


    1. Thanks for the question! The author I quoted is talking about racism as a social system that privileges white people. It does get confusing in conversations about race because sometimes sociologists use “racism” in a more technical way than the average understanding. Here are a couple of examples, maybe it will help (and maybe I should just turn this into a blog post 🙂 :
      Racism is a system of privilege & discrimination based on race, and in our world it’s based around privileging white people. So, we say things like the criminal justice system is racist because it incarcerates black people at a much higher rate than white people for the same crimes. Or the church is racist when it promotes white leaders and gives them more authority and power (officially or unofficially) in its organization. Or it is racist when it excludes black voices from being heard. Or the university is racist because it is much harder for black professors to get tenure etc. All of these are systems that are racist. Individuals in these systems can be racists (knowingly or unknowingly) when they uphold the status quo and perpetuate the system of discrimination. Racism has to do with who holds the power in society. So if a black principal does not hire a white teacher because he wants more black teachers, that’s not racist because in society white people have more privilege and power and the system is not stacked against them (there is not a system of discrimination against them in hiring). So “reverse racism” isn’t a thing, because racism is about the system.

      Discrimination is actions that deny people access, and this can be intentional or unintentional– so my church could love everyone, but discriminate against Zulu people by only speaking English, or by having a location that is far from public transport. Anyone can discriminate, it doesn’t have to do with who holds the power in a society– however it’s interesting to see that it is easiest to discriminate against groups that don’t have power in a society, and that once power is equalized, systems tend to become less discriminatory. It can also work the other way though- people who don’t have power find groups that have less power and discriminate against them (for example, white women being very discriminatory towards black maids in the South in the 1950s because they lacked power- like the book The Help).

      Prejudice is thoughts or feelings of superiority or having preconceived negative thoughts/dispositions towards other groups of people. So if I don’t like black people, I might intentionally discriminate by building my church building far away from predominantly black areas. But prejudice + discrimination do not always go together. I can hate handicapped people, but have a store that has a ramp to give them access.

      Governments can legislate to try and change racist systems that discriminate, but there isn’t anything governments can do about prejudice.

      When talking to white people who are part of racist systems and benefiting from those systems, I think it’s most useful to talk about privilege and beneficiaries, because a lot of white people aren’t prejudiced or intentionally discriminatory. And saying, “You’re racist” or “That was racist” just shuts down the conversation. However, individuals *do* still do racist things as part of larger systems. (for example, if I was talking to a principal of a South African school that had not hired any black teachers in the last 15 years, I would say, “this is racist” not just “you’re a beneficiary of white privilege”).
      I hope that helped clarify a bit! 🙂


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