Neil Shenvi on the Contemporary Critical Theory Behind ‘White Fragility’

Robin DiAngelo’s 2018 book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism is experiencing a resurgence amidst a national reckoning surrounding issues of racism and its consequences. In consideration of its immense popularity and numerous critics, The Exchange has invited several authors of various backgrounds to engage in a two-part discussion of the merits and flaws of White FragilityPart one included the initial reviews to the book from five different individuals, with part two providing a platform for others to respond to the book and these reviewers.

So far, we have heard from Allison AshGeorge Yancey, and Danny Slavich. Today we will continue on with part one of this series with Neil Shenvi. Neil Shenvi currently homeschools his four children and tutors for Classical Conversations. He received his PhD in Theoretical Chemistry from UC Berkeley and spent several years conducting research at Duke University. He has written often on topics related to Critical Race Theory and we are glad he agreed to participate in this symposium.

n our 2019 Gospel Coalition article “The Incompatibility of Critical Theory and Christianity,” Dr. Pat Sawyer and I recommended that Christians read White Fragility because it was —and is —the most popular example of a book rooted in contemporary critical theory, an ideology which is fundamentally incompatible with Christianity.

In this essay, I won’t address the text of White Fragility itself. Many different authors [1] [2] [3] from all over the political and religious spectrum, myself included, have explained in detail why the book’s central thesis and supporting claims are false, contradictory, and harmful. Instead, I want to focus on the overarching framework on which it is based. I worry that many Christians, because they are unfamiliar with contemporary critical theory, are misunderstanding DiAngelo’s book. Worse still, Christians may be unconsciously absorbing elements of its worldview without realizing it.

A helpful analogy might be to a Christian reading a Mormon book on parenting. While there may indeed be selected insights that he can appreciate, a Christian who is unfamiliar with Mormonism is likely to misinterpret Mormon references to “grace” or “the fatherhood of God” or “the eternal importance of family.” In the same way, Christians who come away from White Fragility thinking that DiAngelo is merely calling us to “be humble when talking about race” don’t fully understand what she’s saying. Putting White Fragility in the context of DiAngelo’s other writing will help us interpret her accurately.

Interlocking systems of oppression

DiAngelo’s book Is Everyone Really Equal? most clearly explains her ideology, which she explicitly roots in the ideas of Karl Marx, the Frankfurt School’s Critical Theory, and postmodernist philosophers (p. 25-27). In that work, she explains that society is divided into dominant/oppressor and subordinate/oppressed groups along lines of “race, class, gender, sexuality, ability status/exceptionality, religion, and nationality” (p. 44). Crucially, she understands “oppression” to refer not only to violence or coercion but also to “the imposition of the dominant group’s culture on the minoritized group” (p. 62). Consequently, “[s]exism, racism, classism, ableism, and heterosexism [i.e. affirming male-female relationships as the norm] are specific forms of oppression” (p. 61) because they all involve unspoken, taken-for-granted values which privilege some groups (men, whites, heterosexuals, etc.) and marginalize others (women, people of color, LGBTQ people, etc.).

This definition of “oppression” explains not only why DiAngelo understands “racism” in terms of structures and systems, but also why she sees racism as merely one form of oppression along with ableism and heterosexism. It also explains why a commitment to “Critical Social Justice” demands active opposition to all these various oppressions. To oppose racism but to fail to oppose heterosexism would, on her view, be as inconsistent as opposing abortion but not euthanasia. We must be actively working against all oppression, whether it’s based on race, gender, or sexuality: “There is no neutral ground; to choose not to act against injustice is to choose to allow it” (p. xxiv).

Subjective Knowledge

DiAngelo also insists that all knowledge is socially constructed. It is “never purely objective, neutral, and outside of human interests…Even the field of science is subjective” (p. 15). Knowledge is not “simply the result of a rational, objective, and value-neutral process, one that is removed from any political agenda” (p. 25). Instead, “knowledge is dependent upon a complex web of cultural values, beliefs, experiences, and social positions” (p. 29). “Language is not a neutral transmitter of a universal objective or fixed reality. Rather, language is the way we construct reality” (p. 70).

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Source: Christianity Today