Not White Fragility—Mutual Responsibility – George Yancey

Watching a country tear itself apart is quite the spectacle. It’s the cycle I’ve come to expect, though, as we continue enduring racial violence. But is it a cycle we can break? Not if we keep doing what we’ve done before.

What follows is my attempt to move away from that cycle and to encourage us to imagine another approach.

Anti-racism is the philosophy that undergirds much racial activism today. And much of this philosophy has been promoted by a book that’s been number one on The New York Times bestseller list—White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo. I will use this work to represent the ideas behind much of what has been called anti-racism. While my criticisms of DiAngelo’s approach may not apply exactly to other popular anti-racist writers, such as Ibram X. Kendi, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Reni Eddo-Lodge, much of it will relate to their work as well.

Rise of White Fragility

DiAngelo’s basic thesis is that whites have been socialized to have “a deeply internalized sense of superiority and entitlement.” All whites, then, are racist, but not overtly so; they are racist in that whites are complicit in society’s institutionalized racism. And their defensiveness about this—their “fragility”—needs to be broken down, DiAngelo argues, if we’re to move beyond a white-dominated society. This isn’t the totality of her argument, but it’s a key point I’d like to discuss.

Though I support some of DiAngelo’s points, our disagreement is pronounced. As an African American who has not only done academic work on these issues but had to navigate the issues of racism personally, I recognize the irony of reviewing a book by a white woman. But as a professor in the social sciences, I believe she provides little empirical work to support her assertions. The work on implicit bias is questionable at best. Implicit bias may be real, but it doesn’t seem a major factor in why people discriminate against others. Another empirical problem is her lack of research for the unique defensiveness of white people. Where’s the cross-racial research indicating fragility is unique to them?

How can we test for white fragility? As far as I can tell, the only way a white person can’t be “fragile” is if they agree with the accusations brought against them. Any reaction other than compliance is taken as evidence of white fragility. This is not useful as a conceptual tool for hypothesis-testing.

What about empirical results of anti-racism techniques? The type of diversity training that emerges from such efforts has been shown to have little long-term effect on prejudice. Further, focusing on privilege can actually decrease sympathy for poor white people while not raising the overall sympathy for black people. Research seems to indicate that taking the route of DiAngelo is not lessening our racial hostility—but it may be making that hostility worse.

The concept of white fragility is an academic way to tell white people to be quiet and listen. Bottling up the expressions of white people, though, is not the path to addressing our society’s racial alienation. Indeed, it’s a path that will continue to frustrate attempts at correcting racism’s genuine effects.

Research seems to indicate that taking the route of DiAngelo is not lessening our racial hostility—but it may be making that hostility worse.

I’m not the first one to criticize DiAngelo’s work. Several others have also pointed out these flaws. My criticism, however, comes with an alternative. I have a different approach—supported by previous empirical work—that I believe is better suited to bring us together. I call it the “Mutual Accountability Approach.”

Mutual Accountability Approach

It’s well established that we have a racial history in which white people have abused people of color—and that this history has yielded a contemporary system in which people of color are often disadvantaged. We need to move from racialized institutions that only benefit the majority to institutions that are fair for everyone.

But proven sociological theories of group interest get in the way of this aim. Why? Because we’ll favor institutional systems that help our own group, even at the expense of other groups.

For white people, given that the status quo works to their advantage, it makes sense that their typical solution is to ignore racial problems. The anti-racism crowd is spot on when they point this out. But what they miss is that group interest affects people of color, too. People of color can also go too far and set up unfair conditions for whites. Group-interest theory indicates that allowing either group total control means that one group will create rules that benefit themselves, while disadvantaging others.

Given group-interest theory, as an African American I shouldn’t feel comfortable living in a society where white people have the final say in race relations. And given the implications of group-interest theory, it’s reasonable for a white person to not feel comfortable with African Americans having complete power either. Indeed, one of the problems of the theory of white fragility and anti-racism is that white people are expected to rely on people of color to not abuse their newfound authority. But such an assumption, empirically speaking, is naive.

How can we work past such mistrust? How do we find a solution that serves everyone? It is both simple and difficult. We have to work with each other to find win–win solutions instead of relying on win–lose scenarios. I need to hear from whites about their concerns, and they need to listen to me about mine. Only then can we work toward mutually beneficial solutions to our racialized problems.

How can we work past such mistrust? How do we find a solution that serves everyone? It is both simple and difficult.

Does research support this? Yes. Empirical work suggests that a theory known as the contact hypothesis may offer us answers. It basically states that, under the right conditions, intergroup contact produces more tolerance and less prejudice. While I won’t go into all of the necessary conditions, there is research indicating that, when we share an overarching identity with those we’re in contact with, we begin to see them as part of our group. At that point our biases are dramatically reduced.

These principles underlie the mutual responsibility model. I came up with it as I conducted research on multiracial churches and interracial marriages. Religious institutions and marriages are two areas where the conditions of positive interracial contact can be met. From that research, I begin to argue that interracial contact—done correctly—is a vital element for producing positive racial change in our society.

I simply don’t see how we can deal with our racial issues if we don’t learn how to interact in healthier ways.

Is This Approach Biblical?

It’s one thing to argue that scientific research supports the mutual accountability approach. But as Christians we must also ask if there’s a biblical basis for this approach.

The doctrine of human depravity, I think, lends support to my approach (Gen. 6:5; Rom. 3:10–11; 1 Cor. 2:14). We are fallen. Sin causes us to be selfish and self-centered, which results in neglecting the needs of out-groups. Given this reality, we should be slow to think we’ll construct solutions for everyone’s problems. Indeed, given our depravity we’re much more likely to construct solutions that meet our own needs and the needs of those we like. 

Interracial contact—done correctly—is a vital element for producing positive racial change in our society.

We can see this problem in the attitudes of white people who don’t want to change the status quo that benefits only them. We can also see it in the white-fragility paradigm, which effectively silences dissenting voices. Human depravity doesn’t ensure that either approach is completely wrong—but it does indicate that each approach is incomplete since they’re focused on benefiting one group. If we take human depravity seriously, therefore, we need mechanisms that mitigate our propensity to privilege our group at the expense of another. 

In contrast to human depravity, secular movements have emphasized human perfectibility. They have put forth the notion that we can use reason to determine the best approach and we can socialize others to accept it. This overconfidence has only furthered the ongoing racial conflict and fueled the cycle of racial hatred that plagues our society.

A mutual accountability model is rooted in Christian values. White fragility is not.

Active Listening

One essential aspect to this process is the skill of active listening. Without this we have no chance of success in learning how to communicate with each other.

I use active listening whenever I interview research subjects or conduct focus groups. Active listening is listening for understanding, rather than for argument. Often when discussing controversial issues, we only listen so as to make a counter-argument. There is, of course, a time and place for that. But we need to overcome our instinctive tribalism if we want to work toward win–win solutions. Active listening foregrounds empathy, rather than argument.

A mutual accountability model is rooted in Christian values. White fragility is not.

So how do we actively listen? We do so in a way that enables us to vocalize the attitudes and concerns of those to whom we’re listening, where they agree with how we’ve articulated their beliefs. To respond productively to racialized problems, we must have individuals representing the interests of racial groups involved and listening to one another—not for argument, but for understanding. Only then we have a chance to find solutions that serve everybody.

I’ve been talking about active listening and trying to find win–win solutions for years. Sometimes I’m talking with white people who wonder why this is a necessary conversation. Some of them even question the existence of institutional racism, assuming it’s just a way for people of color to heap more “white guilt.” As I’ve tried to explain to many of them, we can’t ignore racial issues and hope they go away. For them, I’m the problem. So I’ve had my share of frustration in dealing with white people who don’t take ongoing racism in America seriously.

But this isn’t the case with all white people I’ve worked with. Some do understand that we can’t simply wish racial inequality away. Some do want to engage in the types of conversations that can lead to real solutions. Though some white people remain stubborn to racial realities in this country, there are those who truly want to address them.

People of Color’s Objections—and a Plea

A hard as it has been to deal with stubborn white people, it’s been more difficult reaching people of color. For many of them, this is the first time they’ve felt any cultural power in our society. Finally, it seems, people are listening to them. It can be hard to give up that sort of power and influence. The temptation to hold on to such legitimacy, after it has been denied for so long, is strong. And I fear this temptation is blinding many to the danger that this moment of racial unrest, in the summer of 2020, might turn out to be no different than what happened after Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and Trayvon Martin—a exhaustingly predictable pattern of (1) racial incident, (2) protest, (3) backlash, and (4) return to “normalcy.”

Without a more constructive approach, it will just be more of the same.

I anticipate that some people of color will object strongly to my mutual accountability approach. Why should they listen to white people? That’s not fair—not after the centuries of racial abuse they’ve suffered at the hands of European Americans. And that’s right, to an extent. We people of color have suffered far more in our exchange with white Americans than vice versa. So I understand the emotional drive for some people of color to pull away from conversation and to rely on making demands.

I’m not going to make an emotional appeal here, but a rational one: If we rely on accusation, blaming, and canceling to compel white people to support us, we will get what we have gotten thus far. Some white people will respond to that. Others will backlash. Others will simply ignore us.

This is the choice that reality has provided people of color. We might get 100 percent of what we want, but it’ll be temporary. In the backlash about half the population will work to sabotage that solution. Or we can get 70 to 80 percent of what we want though active listening and working with those who are sympathetic. That 70 percent to 80 percent we receive is more sustainable as we seek to pull together as a group across racial and ideological lines. The practical smart play is to engage in active listening to work out win–win solutions if we want longterm success.

The practical smart play is to engage in active listening to work out win–win solutions if we want long-term success.

If you’re still not convinced that working for win–win solutions is the best approach, let me frame this one final way. Think about the white people who want to help solve our racial conflict but aren’t comfortable being silenced. The ones open to both learning about institutional racism and contributing to the solution. In many ways, their choice right now is either to embrace an anti-racism program where they’re told to be quiet, or to just ignore racism altogether. In my experience, many of them will try anti-racism but give up after being permanently tarred a racist.

There are so many white people caught between their inability to trust anti-racist groups and their desire to help. I know this because I’ve met them and heard their stories. Some activists say we should just forget about them. But we can’t lose these people in the fight against racism. We must enlist them.

Mutual Accountability, Not Mutual Alienation

We need solutions that pull us together, not drive us apart. That’s the only way out of the racial alienation that’s poisoning our society. We don’t need more recrimination and name-calling. “Victories” through those techniques will be temporary, and they will continue to cause alienation. The only way forward is together.

We need solutions that pull us together, not drive us apart. That’s the only way out of the racial alienation that’s poisoning our society.

In sum, contrary to the questionable research surrounding white fragility, research suggests that a common identity and fruitful interracial contact can reduce prejudice. My own work indicates that interracial couples and multiracial churches have found ways to solve racial problems equitably. Conceptually, the mutual accountability approach is more likely to produce unity across racial and ideological groups since it doesn’t force anyone to ignore their own group interest—only to compromise a bit.

Working together will be hard. Extremely hard. But why should we be surprised at that? Usually the things worth having are hard.

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