A Book Review from Books At a Glance
Gary L. Scott
White Fragility names a cancer that Robin DiAngelo believes is contributing to the ongoing Systemic Racism that plagues American culture and civic life. Non-whites, in this paradigm, are exploited and enslaved by a social structure intentionally created and rigorously maintained by whites to empower themselves and disenfranchise Non-whites. DiAngelo describes her take on the failure of white people to understand and respond to these issues as “white fragility.” It might be likened to the hardening of the arteries—a disease that makes the blood vessels brittle and impedes the normal and healthy flow of blood. White fragility describes the calcified, brittle, and awkward attempts of whites to understand and engage the current narrative on racism—whites, both consciously and unconsciously, perpetuate their dominance by this intentional strategy of defensiveness and dismissal.
The target audience for White Fragility is specifically white progressives, and its intended goal is to expose this weakness and awaken them to a new, authentic, and perpetual penance for their alleged inexcusable and systemic racism. DiAngelo has not only reached this target group but has found a wide acceptance in a much broader audience: her book has become immensely popular. White Fragility could be seen as a bitter diatribe that caustically denounces anyone who disagrees but is at the same time a winsome and personal narrative of her growing effort to shed her own fragility.
The power of her book lies in the personal stories—the lived experience—that have shaped her pilgrimage in Critical Theory. DiAngelo has led many training sessions in the corporate world to expose the implicit racism of whites and to effect racial sensitivity in the work place and encourage and model a personal transformation in relationships with non-whites. Her goal is not simply to awaken understanding and compassion for the disenfranchised but to help her embittered, brittle, and sometimes clueless white peers attain to this new sociological nirvana called “wokeness.” To be woke is to come to embrace, understand, and advocate for a major racial revolution as proposed by Critical Race Theory and engage in perpetual penance (there is never ever any forgiveness or constant shaming).
While White Fragility can be seen as a winsome narrative of woke-conversion, it is certainly not a dialogue that invites opposing perspectives and criticisms. This whole approach has the system rigged against honest dialogue and interaction. Whites, in DiAngelo’s perception, are so tone-deaf that they are expected and required to be quiet, listen, and learn from the life experience of the sufferings and exploitations of non-white oppression. Any attempt to interact with the ideology or the facts is not only unwelcome but an insult to those who have been abused by the system of white power. Whites and non-whites have been the terminology most often used; that is quickly being replaced by “woke” and “non-woke.”
From time to time we read articles on some well-known personality who is being body-shamed; the self-appointed body critic will most often shame a person for their weight or some other weakness, through criticism, sarcasm, and ridicule. This is never intended to be constructive but critical and demeaning. It does not invite dialogue and interaction; it foments anger, shame, and defensiveness. While DiAngelo works very hard to make her critique seem constructive, it is, in fact, an exercise in “woke-shaming.” She needs to answer her own question from this perspective, “Why is it so hard for woke warriors to constructively dialogue with non-wokes?”
Let’s use her own outline to press for answers that she and her other woke warrior allies should be willing to explain.
There are real challenges in dialoguing with woke warriors about racial and social justice. They really don’t see themselves as shamers; they construe their activism as compassionate and liberatory. Their project rests on an ideology called Critical Theory that is always running in the background. This can be intentionally hidden or thinly veiled but rarely is it openly affirmed or receptive to criticism and constructive dialogue. These woke warriors either don’t understand the underlying totalitarian tyranny their system inescapably produces or they intentionally divert attention away from this. Their embrace of Cancel Culture, Political Correctness, and Intolerance is constantly in the news. Any public personality that disrespects this agenda will be summarily removed from their job, have their voice silenced, and then removed from any platform of power or influence. Wokeism embraces a sinister perversion of justice; for all the talk and hype about Social Justice, their form of justice is a social construct that makes fairness and equity equivocal.
Wokeism and woke warriors demand a thoughtful and persuasive response. “Wokeism” is not woven into the fabric of Western civilization and particularly in America; it is a Social Construct that has emerged from the developing philosophy flowing first from Classical Marxism then through Cultural Marxism (the Neo-Marxism of the Frankfort school that relocated to Columbia University in NYC in the 1930’s and were the early proponents of Critical Theory), and finally blended with Postmodernism. The exact lines of development are hard to trace, and so there is some difference in reconstructing this process; however, the fact of this metamorphosis and the final shape are undeniable. DiAngelo never focuses directly on this ideology but it is always running in the background and shapes her entire narrative in a subtle but powerful way.
Woke and non-woke fundamentally disagree on the source and substance of legitimate authority. For the non-woke Christian, that authority resides with the Creator God who not only established moral absolutes but constantly monitors how human beings respect or disrespect them. The whole debate about sexual ethics is shaped by one’s acceptance or rejection of God’s authority to set boundaries for marriage and sexual expression. Much of the LGBTQ+ pushback on sexual standards, that to them are sexually repressive, are not oppressive rules set by white, male, heterosexual, cis-gendered, able bodied bigots oppressing free sexual expression, but the clear unchanging moral code demanded by our Creator, God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Wokeism is not an anomaly here or there in our cultural matrix but is pervasive and persuasive. Critical Theory, read “Wokeness,” is an umbrella term that addresses Race—Critical Race Theory, Education-Critical Pedagogy, Sex—Queer Theory, etc. One writer, James Lindsay, names these “Grievance Studies” and has just released a book entitled Cynical (Critical) Theories. Woke warriors criticize the oppressive power of dominant social groups, especially whites; the hegemony they denounce in dominant white culture is just as evident in the hegemony weaponized by Hollywood, academia, and the LGBQT+ crowd. There is a disturbing silence to call out this hegemonic power. Wokeism and its warriors are a growing and existential threat to human flourishing in our culture.
DiAngelo laments and denounces the White Social Frame, that is, “how whites circulate and reinforce racial messages that position whites as superior.” This frame is deep and extensive and is a key mechanism of white supremacy. It would be just as easy to turn the tables and denounce the Woke Social Frame where, “woke warriors circulate and reinforce racial messages that position whites as oppressive and exploitive. This frame is deep and extensive and is a key mechanism of Woke Supremacy. The real problem is not in hegemonic framing but in sinful hearts that infect every human being whether socially dominant or repressed. People need to be divided not by race, class, gender but by sinner and saint. This recognizes both the dignity of each person and group as well as their sinful propensity to abuse any privilege they may enjoy.
Wokeism after the Frankfort School. DiAngelo sees the civil rights movement as a pivot point for critiquing white fragility. She applauds Martin Barker’s term “new racism” and references Bonilla-Silva’s book Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America. The civil rights movement did not end racism but inadvertently gave rise to a more genteel and adaptive form of racial oppression in America. In so doing, racial oppression has continued but with a more pleasing shape. Robin DiAngelo should account for the color-blind wokeism that completely reverses that usage by Martin Luther King. Any white person that now uses this phrase insults the distinctiveness of being black or non-white. Just as there is aversive racism (racism that retains power by rationalization and avoidance) so there is aversive wokeism where their activism is cloaked and disguised to gain access to platforms that would otherwise restrict or reject their involvement. Critical Pedagogy in higher education is an excellent example of such duplicity. DiAngelo embraces, applauds, and advocates for Cultural Wokeism; while she targets white progressives she knows that in doing this she is at the same time influencing the culture at large to embody this ideology and join in actively promoting its agenda—cultural revolution, or shall we say, Systemic Wokeism.
How does wokeism shape the lives of woke warriors? DiAngelo begins her fourth chapter with a quote from Ijeoma Oluo, White People: I don’t want you to understand me better; I want you to understand yourselves. Your survival has never depended on your knowledge of white culture. In fact, it’s required your ignorance. That sets up her question, “How does race shape the lives of white people?” She contends that being white shapes our perspectives, experiences, and responses; this is shared by virtually all white people. The very same perspective, experience, and response shapes woke warriors as well. Ms. DiAngelo should consider that the powerful effect of belonging to the woke community is just as great and perhaps even more caustic than the sense of belonging to the white community. Consider the power of their Political Correctness Protocols; any public personality can be instantly censured and often removed by violation these Wokeish protocols. Woke warriors are emboldened by their peers who not only surround them but support and cheer them on. They feel a freedom to express their critical ideology and assume friends will be supportive, enemies will be intimidated, and non-white resisters can be dismissed with “Internal Oppression Syndrome.” This provides a kind of woke solidarity or ideological bonding.
Woke warriors are rewarded for not raising justice issues with their agenda (rioting, burning, looting) and staying within the Woke narrative. After the recent Chicago riot there was an estimated $60,000,000 loss in damages and theft; the Woke Mob declared that to be reparations for past oppression and so was justified. Such a profile of innocence and self-justification is way beyond hypocrisy.
DiAngelo properly denounces the segregation that has characterized life in America in the past. However, wokeism has generated its own kind of segregation. Eric Mason, a black, Reformed, Evangelical church planter, recently wrote a book entitled, The Woke Church. He is calling Evangelical Christians to join the Woke movement but while he embraces racial reconciliation and understanding he at the same time refers again and again to the black church and worries that whites will invade it and change it. It is hard, no it is impossible, to have it both ways. The vision of Evangelical Christianity is peace, or better, Shalom that surrounds the throne of God with ethnic diversity demonstrating the uniting power of the gospel. There is no pervasive place for division, suspicion, or intimidation. DiAngelo needs to show how woke warriors can avoid the same systemic division she denounces among the White crowd.
The Right/Wrong Standard of Justice. Ms. DiAngelo contravenes the standards of justice by denouncing Binary standards as good/bad. We are told without equivocation that every person is, “… still affected by the forces of racism as a member of a society in which racism is bedrock.” Racism is redefined; it is no longer an intentional unkind act of injustice intentionally perpetrated against someone of another race but the subtle and invisible complicity with White Supremacy. For DiAngelo, most attempts by Whites to deny racial hostility are met with a condescending attempt to correct their implicit an unrecognized prejudices. Any denial of racist attitudes exposes one to being charged with either hypocrisy or cluelessness. On page 78, DiAngelo makes a striking and significant claim. As she unravels the dynamics of racism, DiAngelo unveils what she views as the most significant question that can be asked, “How does this claim function in the conversation?” The question is never, “Was racism an issue?” but, “In what way did racism display itself?” It always assumed to be present. She rejects even the possibility that these claims may be either true or false or can fit into an either/or dichotomy; everything is understood as having only one cause, Racism. In every case these claims insulate and protect the white perpetrators from honestly addressing racism and so protect the status quo.
For the non-woke, this signals two intentional strategies of wokeism; first, the underlying motivation to frame all dissent as hypocritical or clueless. The system is rigged against honest and open dialogue and mutual understanding. Instead it is used to intimidate, raise suspicion, and stoke racial divisions that will ultimately bring about cultural revolution.
The second and even more troubling problem is the latent relativism characteristic of postmodern thought. This relativism—no right/wrong, no true/false, no good/bad—flows from a socially constructed worldview that removes the divine presence and the corresponding authority the Creator properly exercises over his creatures and his creation. The authority to set forth abiding and unchanging standards for social relations is not only abandoned but rejected and then vilified as the ultimate oppression. It is not just non-woke culture that is oppressive but any such God that stands behind this must be the ultimate oppressor. Instead of revealed moral law there is relative and changing perspectivalism; instead of individual responsibility and answerability there are social groups with corresponding oppressive group think. Wokeism will celebrate the courage of those who looted and pillaged in Portland, Chicago, and NYC. It has been justified as just reparations for past abuse. What happened to the progressive chant uttered again and again against our current President, “No one is above the Law!” Any resistance to acknowledging these underlying attitudes and accepting these labels of racism is met with condescending scolding.
White Fragility is, in fact, Woke Hostility or Woke-Shaming. It is a grotesque form of cultural bullying that would move us away from personal and corporate freedom toward group think and ultimately totalitarian control. There is a growing impact of woke dominance in the media elite, social networks, higher education, left-leaning progressive politics, Hollywood, and even in major corporations, especially the tech sectors that should awaken in us a passion to respond and contest this vicious ideology.
White Fragility is not an innocent appeal to greater racial sensitivity, nor a call to dialogue and correction but a passionate mission of radical revolution. In the Bible, Jude explains that his desire to enjoy and revel in a common faith was overridden by the pressing demand to contend for the faith once-for-all delivered to the saints. This is our time to stand for the truth against this agenda of darkness. It is time to put on the armor, prepare our apologia, take twisted ideology captive, and demolish strongholds. By God’s grace, through the strength of the indwelling Christ, and the presence of the Holy Spirit the church of Jesus Christ will prevail in either the thrill of victory or faithful witness in the face of temporary defeat. Soli Deo Gloria.