Editor’s note: This entry is the first in a multipart series on white fragility. Every other Tuesday through mid-May, look for new posts from Martin Zimmann on this topic.
Why should a white cis-gendered heterosexual male teach a seminary course on white fragility? Wouldn’t it make more sense to hire a person of color who can speak firsthand to the experience of black disenfranchisement and segregation on a Sunday morning? Well, yes and no.
I’ve told my students in no uncertain terms that I cannot speak of the black experience in America’s churches except by virtue of what I can quote from authors of color. What I can speak of from experience is a world lived unwittingly in a mostly white bubble, assuming that the bubble was perfectly harmless and constituted normalcy. It was fine that the people of color sat together in the school cafeteria, and white people sat somewhere else. On Sundays “we” went to our (white) churches and “they” went to theirs. This was normal. Everyone said so.
Except it wasn’t.
It was systemic racism at work. It was an insidious corporate evil that was firmly rooted in the ethos of American culture dating back to the Emancipation Proclamation (and before). And one of the mitigating factors that perpetuates this system of separation is white privilege—two words that trigger feelings of apprehension in white folks like me.
This is why we don’t talk about white privilege in our congregations. People get upset. People become defensive. They deny that they had any more advantages than any other person regardless of skin color; their success in life was purely of their own making. After all, America is a place where anyone can succeed if they try hard enough. These reactions are white fragility at work. After 20 years of parish ministry among mostly white folks, perhaps even a white guy like me who is striving against all odds to be “woke” can discuss white fragility with seminarians to help other white people reach a place of better self-awareness. I’m not the best qualified or most learned expert, but by the grace of God I try, because I, too, am a person who benefits unfairly from white privilege, and I’m not proud of it.
And one of the mitigating factors that perpetuates this system of separation is white privilege—two words that trigger feelings of apprehension in white folks like me.
None of us like to hear that we’ve had an unfair advantage to get us where we are. My students and I talked a great deal about this during our first class discussion. We don’t meet in a regular classroom. Our “classroom” is an online video conference. Students “zoom” in from Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Illinois. And they all understand the same basic premise: Being a rostered minister who dares to speak about issues of race in the congregation is a daunting task. No one likes to be told they are people of privilege. When we dare speak this truth to power, whether in Detroit or New England, people strive to tune it out through a variety of responses.
I have some good students in this class. Their narratives of self-discovery and passion for truth give me hope for the church. Over the course of this semester, I am going to write about the progress we make together—the challenges we face, the moments of shame when we discover our own passive racism at work, the triumphs when we see others moving past their inherent assumptions and the day-to-day messy work of the gospel that pulls us from complacency into dangerous territory.
Robin DiAngelo coined the term “white fragility” back in 2011. She warns that mentioning white privilege to people who identify as white will more than likely trigger immediate and strong reactions. They will resist engaging in dialogue. They might shut down or tune out. Sometimes people become emotionally incapacitated. Sometimes they simply leave the room. The students in my class have already witnessed this in their ministries, and some of them have yet to be ordained or consecrated.
If you’re still reading by this point, I hope you’ll continue doing so as I try to relate the experience of teaching this class from now until the middle of May. Reading these articles, taking courses, visiting museums, taking diversity or anti-racism training—these are all good things. But we can do more. Much more. Systemic racism, white privilege and white fragility have existed in this culture for more than 200 years. Those saints who have come before us have started the work of dismantling the system. We need to prayerfully, humbly and courageously continue what they started.