Article ID: JAV432 | By: Matthew M. Kennedy
This article first appeared in the Viewpoint section of Christian Research Journal, volume 43, number 2 (2020). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Are all white people intrinsically racist? That is the question raised and answered with a definitive yes by Robin DiAngelo in her bestselling book, White Fragility.1 Of course, she does not mean that every white person consciously harbors animosity against people of color. She means that because the formal and informal institutions and societal systems of the United States have been constructed to maintain white superiority and because white people have been socialized to accept, support, and participate in them, white people have necessarily been complicit in the maintenance of racial oppression and have internalized racist attitudes and behaviors.
White fragility, DiAngelo argues, is one way racism is perpetuated. When a white person is told that he is a racist, he reacts defensively. He thinks to himself, “I do not feel any animosity toward people of color. I treat everyone the same. I have many friends who are people of color. I judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. I am not a racist.” Because white people are raised to believe that racism has to do with an individual person’s conscious hatred of people on the basis of skin color to the exclusion of their participation in corporate systems and institutions that perpetuate racism, they cannot see their complicity and take offense when it is pointed out. This defensiveness, or fragility, serves to preserve the racist status quo.
To rectify this conditioning, white people must first be made aware of it through various forms of diversity training. They must take stock of just how deeply racist assumptions are embedded in their way of life and spend the rest of their lives divesting themselves of the privilege that comes with whiteness.
Challenges to White Fragility
Critics have identified several significant weaknesses in DiAngelo’s analysis and remedy. For instance, John McWhorter, in his scathing review of White Fragility, writes, “I see no connection between DiAngelo’s brand of reeducation and vigorous, constructive activism in the real world on issues of import to the Black community. And I cannot imagine that any Black readers could willingly submit themselves to DiAngelo’s ideas while considering themselves adults of ordinary self-regard and strength. Few books about race have more openly infantilized Black people than this supposedly authoritative tome.”2
In addition to McWhorter’s critique, there have been significant challenges to the notion of implicit bias upon which DiAngelo’s argument hinges,3 to her unfalsifiable charge that all white people are racists and those who disagree are fragile racists,4 and to the efficacy of the techniques she advocates to fix the problem.5
Racism and Original Sin
The purpose of this article is not to review or refute DiAngelo’s book. My interest is the way in which the charge that all white people are racist has been imported into the Christian world and, in particular, how it has been defended by appeal to the doctrine of original sin.
It is clear that the charge of universal white racism has been imported into the evangelical world. The United Methodist Church denomination website, for example, features a 20-minute teaching video by DiAngelo instructing watchers to deconstruct “white privilege”;6 and a simple Google search reveals that numerous churches sponsor White Fragility book studies, like First St. Charles United Methodist Church in St. Charles, Missouri.7 Even in my own conservative denomination, the Anglican Church in North America, several clergy have recommended White Fragility.8 Evangelical organizations laud DiAngelo’s books and theories, including Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, which recommends White Fragility as a secular resource “useful for understanding race relations in America and how to engage with unjust structures in today’s society.”9 Clergy and conference leaders exhort white people to acknowledge complicity in perpetuating racist systems. For instance, in 2018, pastor and theologian Thabiti Anyabwile told white people to acknowledge that “their parents and grandparents and this country are complicit in murdering a man [Martin Luther King Jr.] who only preached love and justice.”10 And at the 2019 Sparrow Conference, theologian Ekemini Uwan called “whiteness” wicked.11 The question the white Christian should ask is not whether he is a racist — of course he is — but how his inherent racism manifests itself.
I recently encountered this narrative when one of my faithful parishioners told me that she, too, believes all white people are racist. When I asked her why, she told me that she believes that it is just part of being a fallen human being. Her answer intrigued me. Subsequently, I began to notice the same appeal to original sin cropping up on social media. Since we are all sinners and sin in ways unknown to us, we can assume that we are all racists and that we must all repent and do penance by getting on board with the latest progressive anti-racist program.
It is important to consider racism biblically. It is troubling that many within the church seem to uncritically accept secular definitions of racism. For Christians, Scripture is the supreme authoritative measure for determining what is right and what is wrong. All secular philosophies and ethical systems should be considered in light of God’s self-revelation in the Bible. Whatever conflicts with Scripture is untrue. Whatever cannot be established by Scripture cannot bind the conscience. Article Six of the Anglican 39 Articles of Religion asserts that “Whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.”12
One tactic of the legalist is to persuade the Christian that he cannot truly follow Christ without also applying the law in a particular way. The fundamentalist might say that if you go to the movie theater, you are breaking God’s law against various forms of lust. Scripture forbids lust, but it does not forbid entertainment; and not all forms of entertainment, certainly not all films, induce lust. But if you fall for the legalist’s application of the law, you bind your conscience to an extra-biblical ethical regulation. You become enslaved by the preferences of a human lawgiver. You bear “guilt” for “sins” for which there is no true remedy apart from working ever harder to please the human master. Allowing any human philosophy to distort biblical ethics runs the risk of enslaving the soul.
So does the doctrine of original sin imply that all white people are racists? The idea that there are multiple races is itself an extra-biblical construct. All human beings of every skin color are descendants of one human couple. There is only one race. But there are many peoples, nations, and ethnicities. It is true that enmity and strife between ethnicities have, at their source, original sin. Tim Challies describes the process:
One terrible aspect of having a sinful nature is that we are consumed by self-love. This self-love manifests itself in a bias toward people who are like us and a bias away from those who are unlike us. We know this sin as “partiality.” Because of our partiality, we are endlessly creative in setting aside our common humanity, our common parentage, and our common identity as members of the one human race to instead identify and prioritize lesser marks of distinction. As humanity spread over the globe and diversified, any and every distinction became a cause of conflict.…Men and women joined together to form arbitrary clans, tribes, kingdoms, and nations, and then immediately set themselves against others despite being descendants of the same original parents.13
DiAngelo and others argue that anyone, regardless of ethnicity, can harbor ethnic prejudice, but only those who wield societal power (like white people) can be racist. Scripture knows nothing of this distinction; rather, it binds both the powerful and the powerless under the same rule of impartiality. Ethnic prejudice, as Challies describes it, is a species of narcissism — the zealous, violent self-love residing at the core of the human heart. In Deuteronomy 1:16–17, Israelites are admonished to judge righteously between their brother Israelites and foreigners, showing no partiality. In Acts 10:34, Peter declares that God exercises no partiality between ethnicities. Partiality toward the wealthy and against the poor is condemned in James 2:1–5. Partiality, as it is addressed in Scripture, can be exercised formally, in law courts, and informally, as with James’s illustration of giving a rich man a better seat in the synagogue than a poor man. This indicates that partiality is a sin that can work its way into formal institutions and systems as well as into informal groups of friends and worshipers. It is important for everyone to consider his or her society, culture, and community and measure their practices and norms. Are they just? Do they treat everyone impartially? If not, then the Christian is responsible to work toward change. The abolitionist and civil rights movements are superb examples of Christians doing just that in the context of ethnic partiality. And the Christian can agree with those who argue that the work is not done. There are still, for example, ethnically partial zoning patterns14 and consistently inequitable judicial sentencing practices.15
Since Jesus has taught us that the sins we commit in word and deed flow out of the heart (Matt. 15:17–20), it is critical to point out that partiality has its seat in the soul. Even if I do not act partially toward people of my own ethnicity or speak in unkind ways about those who do not look like me, that does not mean I am free of the sin of partiality. I must examine my heart in light of God’s law, and whatever prejudice I find, I must confess it and receive the forgiveness Jesus won on the cross and ask Him to change my heart.
It is then true that there is a connection between ethnic prejudice and original sin. It is true that partiality pervades both the human heart and human institutions and systems. But is it necessarily true that all white people harbor ethnic prejudice specifically or that being raised as a white person in the United States necessarily means complicity with racist systems?
That’s not how the doctrine of original sin works. We confess ourselves to be wicked in general and also confess sins known and unknown, but the idea that because we are sinners by nature and action, we must, therefore, have all sinned in every kind of way is specious. We are all, for example, guilty of some kind of lust. But, no, we are not all guilty of bestial lust or incestuous lust or homosexual lust. Likewise, we are all guilty of some form of partiality, but we are not necessarily guilty of racism — white people are not necessarily guilty of white supremacy. The conclusion of necessary complicity flows from the addition of secular ideological categories into the biblical category of sin. If you have knowingly or unknowingly supported an ethnically partial system or institution judged by biblical standards, repent and work to change the system. But not all systems and institutions are necessarily so, and not all people, even those surrounded by such systems, are necessarily complicit in them. If in your heart you harbor ethnic prejudice, repent. But not every heart bears this particular corruption. Beware of false guilt.
To bring about true conviction, there must be the transgression of God’s law, not human ideology, and the accurate accusation of sin. Jumping wildly from original sin to the conclusion that all white people are racists fails on both counts.
Matthew M. Kennedy (M.Div, VTS) is the rector of The Church of the Good Shepherd in Binghamton, New York.
- Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2018).
- John McWhorter, “The Dehumanizing Condescension of White Fragility,” The Atlantic, July 15, 2020, www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/07/dehumanizing-condescensionwhite-fragility/614146/.
- Jesse Singal, “Psychology’s Favorite Tool for Measuring Racism Isn’t Up to the Job,” New York Magazine, January 11, 2017, www.thecut.com/2017/01/psychologys-racismmeasuring-tool-isnt-up-to-the-job.html.
- Paul Austin Murphy, “Robin DiAngelo’s Theory of ‘White Fragility’ is Unfalsifiable,” Medium, July 8, 2020, https://medium.com/discourse/robin-diangelos-theory-of-whitefragility-is-unfalsifiable-8e217bc4f57f.
- George Yancy, “Not White Fragility — Mutual Responsibility,” The Gospel Coalition, July 27, 2020, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/white-fragility-mutualresponsibility/.
- “Deconstructing White Privilege,” The United Methodist Church, https://www.umc.org/en/content/deconstructing-white-privilege-gcorr.
- First Saint Charles United Methodist Church, https://firststcharlesumc.org/connect/white-fragility-book-study.
- See, for example, “Books, Websites, Podcasts, Etc.,” Good Shepherd Nashville, https://goodshepherdnashville.org/resources1; Greg Goebel, “Readings for Pastors on Race in America,” Anglican Compass, January 30, 2020, https://anglicancompass.com/readings_for_pastors_on_race/.
- See “Christian Resources About Racial Justice,” InterVarsity Diversity, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ukjPvB2jjX-xuTwV4ZVioTDj_KJWSnOmzYUl1KFD3uE/mobilebasic.
- Thabiti Anyabwile, “We Await Your Repentance for Assassinating Dr. King,” The Gospel Coalition, April 4, 2018, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/thabiti-anyabwile/await-repentance-assassinating-dr-king/.
- Nicola A. Menzie, “Comments About ‘Whiteness’ Prompt Controversy at Sparrow Women Conference, Religion News Service, April 6, 2019, https://religionnews.com/2019/04/06/comments-about-whiteness-prompt-walkout-at-sparrow-womenconference/.
- The Book of Common Prayer (Huntington Beach, CA: Anglican Liturgy Press, 2019), 773.
- Tim Challies, “White Fragility and the Bible’s Big Story,” Challies, July 22, 2020, https://www.challies.com/articles/white-fragility-and-the-bibles-big-story/.
- Tracy Jan, “Redlining Was Banned 50 Years Ago. It’s Still Hurting Minorities Today,” The Washington Post, March 28, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2018/03/28/redlining-was-banned-50-years-ago-its-still-hurting-minorities-today/.
- For example, the U.S. Sentencing Commission reported that, “Black male offenders continued to receive longer sentences than similarly situated White male offenders.” “Demographic Differences in Sentencing,” November 14, 2017, https://www.ussc.gov/research/research-reports/demographic-differences-sentencing.