I once attended a missions conference run by a predominately white evangelical organization where, for one night, black styles of worship, preaching and spirituality were the focus. The worship team wore Black Lives Matter shirts and the preacher exhorted the thousands present to repent of the ways that evangelicalism is in bed with white supremacy.
The black attendees reflected on how we had never felt so seen, empowered or cared for in an evangelical space. But shortly after, several white male colleagues began to publicly question on social media whether there was space for them as conservative white evangelicals in the organization.
An hour-and-a-half of honoring and caring for black people sent them spiraling into their feels. They operated from the assumption that calling out white racism was persecution or created disunity in the body of Christ. This is white fragility.
White supremacy ensures that white feelings will always trump the lived experiences of people of color.
When situations arise where race and privilege are questioned and criticized, often times white people free fall into fear, anger, silence, denial or guilt. These emotions, while understandable and not bad in their own right, typically derail and recenter race conversations around the feelings of the privileged white person instead of on the lived oppressive reality of people of color.
White Evangelical Christians are particularly fragile, with whiteness being normalized and pandered to in society and theologized in the church. Evangelicalism at large cannot even identify with its inherent Christian privilege, let alone with the sexism or racism within the church. It is wholly unsurprising that if Evangelicals can claim to be persecuted even as 83 percent of Americans identify as Christian, they will almost certainly interpret the suggestion that their whiteness has negative meaning as an attack on the very core of who they are.
Faith is a central part of any Christian belief system. Certainty is often revered as better than doubt or questioning, and thus Christians are compelled to create, in the context of their faith, defensive postures against anything that dares to challenge what they know to be true. Any counterpoint, any varying belief, is seen as an attack on Christian values as a whole. Christians are taught that what they perceive of what is inside of them is the most important factor in any scenario ― race not excluded.
At a base level for Christians, challenges to racial understanding feel much like challenges to faith. That it is to say that when the “truth” that you know is under attack, you feel it viscerally and thus seek to defend your current position. If a white Christian believes that they are a good person, redeemed and saved in the eyes of God through the sacrifice of Jesus, any suggestion that they may not be perfect in the eyes of the world because of their whiteness is a challenge to that faith. And all challenges to faith ― the root of Christianity ― should be argued, defended or silenced.
This posture of Christian white fragility produces communities that are so defensive that any questioning about race is seen as dividing the body of Christ along racial lines, instead of what it is: creating a space for everyone (people of color) in the church to feel seen and heard.
The manifestation of white fragility and the resulting recentering on white people’s feelings create unsafe spaces for people of color. From the church’s silence about the continued oppression of people of color at the hands of police, to the tacit approval and elevating of a president who explicitly expresses racist ideologies and sentiments, it is often hard to see where far-right politics end and evangelicalism begins. White supremacy ensures that white feelings will always trump the lived experiences of people of color. The white person’s “heart” becomes the focus instead of the tangible implications of racism on people of color.
The perceived victimization of white people creates victimizing experiences for people of color.
Ultimately, white fragility conflates an inability to cope in conversations about race with actual racial trauma or danger. The need for white people to dominate spaces makes it difficult for people of color to find a safe place to simply be themselves and speak honestly. One needs to look no further than the arrest of two black men waiting in Starbucks to see that the most basic threat to the white feelings of safety or comfort quickly turns waiting into trespassing. And writer Amber Phillips was recently accused of assault and had the police called on her all for simply being too close for comfort to a white woman on a crowded airplane.
Black people who fight for their right to live without police persecution are deemed terrorist because they challenge the status quo and threaten the prolonged existence of white privilege.
The perceived victimization of white people creates victimizing experiences for people of color. Even though calling out white racism is not persecution, nor an attack on individual whites, without the coping mechanism that people of color are forced to have, white people frequently take on the role of the victim through outrage, tears or other derailing tactics that in effect only seek to reinforce white supremacy ― the normalization of and catering to white people at all costs.
In any type of race conversation it is more likely than not that when a person of color identifies the culpability of white people at large in perpetuating racism and upholding white supremacy, white people begin to conversationally implode like dying stars. Often times, the mere suggestion that whiteness has negative societal implications at all is enough to create emotional backlash. White people, being protected from the most direct and violent impacts of racism and white supremacy, are never required to develop the emotional skills required to navigate scenarios where their experiences are not the priority or when the perception about them isn’t neutral or assumed good.
This fragility is a choice. Instead of feeling attacked or excluded, white people and white Christians who are privileged enough to engage in race conversations should practice empathy with the experiences of people of color. There are many churches that do actively engage with communities of color and create space for them to feel supported and valued. More people who claim Christian values should step out of their comfort zones and follow suit.
Brandi Miller is a campus minister and justice program director from the Pacific Northwest.