White fragility, white guilt, and the ring of Gyges

I think these books were meant to be read together. They are coming from very different perspectives—one a white progressive and the other a black conservative—but they are both attempting to make sense of white psychology in post-Civil Rights America. Even the book covers look similar, with the black and white appropriately inverted.

Let me begin by defining their key terms:

  • White fragility: the process by which whites react defensively to racial stress in order to maintain their sense of comfort, privilege, and dominance in America’s racial hierarchy (cf. DiAngelo, 2).
  • White guilt: the vacuum of moral authority, or sense of loss of moral legitimacy, that comes with the knowledge that one’s race is associated with racism (Steele, 24).

Notice a key difference between these concepts: white fragility is about power, while white guilt is about authority. I think Steele is closer to the mark here, but there’s still something that both authors are missing. Allow me to explain.

DiAngelo recounts several occasions when, in the midst of her training seminars on how to be “less white” (DiAngelo, 150), she is met with frustrated and defensive responses from her white audience members. She concludes that these responses are really, deep down, just efforts at holding onto their privilege, which only further confirms her argument. I’ve previously noted the circularity of her argument here. I think her understanding of privilege is too simplistic, failing to take into account the more significant roles of class and family-structure privilege.

But there is some truth to what she’s saying, and this is where her argument overlaps with Steele. It can be reasonably argued that white Americans, however much or little privilege they may personally possess, do desire to maintain the image of their own goodness (DiAngelo, 71ff.). This, combined with a knowledge of America’s overtly racist past, is what produces the anxiety that so many whites feel, especially when confronted with accusations of racism. It’s not enough simply to be not racist; we have to convince others that we aren’t racist.

You can call this white fragility, but it’s actually rooted in a universally human truth. Go all the way back to the days of Plato’s Republic, when a conversation took place between Socrates and his friend Glaucon. In debating the meaning of justice, Glaucon raises the troubling suggestion that human beings care more about the mere appearance of virtue than about virtue itself. To prove his point, he recounts the fable of the shepherd Gyges, who one day discovered a magical ring that made its wearer invisible. Gyges used this ring to seduce the queen, slay the king, and seize the kingdom for himself. Glaucon is convinced that no man alive could resist the temptations of that kind of unchecked power. It is only a concern for our reputation that keeps most of us in line.

As it turns out, modern clinical psychology has largely vindicated Glaucon. In chapter 4 of The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt surveys a number of studies that demonstrate that humans aren’t so much selfish as they are “groupish.” Our thinking faculties are naturally biased in the direction of whatever tribe we most identify with. We tend to measure truth claims by a double standard: if it supports our tribe, we believe what we can, but if it contradicts our tribe, we believe only what we must. This enables us to maintain our goodness in the eyes of those whose opinion matters most to us.

White Americans today, who (like everyone else) are concerned with maintaining an image of moral innocence, are eager to distance themselves from America’s racist past. One path that this may take them down is the activist treadmill of DiAngelo’s antiracism: buy her book, attend her seminar, master the rules of discourse, buy her book, etc. This places the responsibility squarely on white shoulders. DiAngelo doesn’t acknowledge that this is still an exercise of power, even though it is power of a different kind. It is the power of paternalistic coddling, the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” Regarding our history of racial sin, Steele writes:

America’s great acknowledgement did not cause power to change hands directly from one race to another, but it did make the power that whites wield in society a contingent power—a power that must satisfy certain social or moral contingencies before it can be considered legitimate. After the mid-sixties, power exercised by whites, in the public and private sectors, had to dissociate itself from the sins that had caused whites to lose moral authority in the first place—racism and racial discrimination but also imperialism, ecological indifference, sexism, and so on.

Steele, 115 (emphasis original)

The antiracism of progressive elites may seem to be the polar opposite of our country’s historic white supremacy, but the two ideologies share at least two things in common. The first is that they measure moral worth in relative terms. White supremacy measured one’s worth in contrast to people of color, while progressive elitism measures it against what Steele calls the “unreconstructed white American,” who has not sufficiently dissociated himself from our racist past (Steele, 151). It is a moral judgment that reinforces tribal boundaries.

The second thing that progressive elitism and white supremacy have in common is this: they both (though in very different ways) treat people not as individual human beings but as representatives of a particular class of oppression. Both ideologies blind us to the person standing in front of us. Steele writes:

People who are in the grip of white blindness, and thus unaware of their true motivations, always miss the human being inside the black skin…. Your color represents you in the mind of such people. They will have built a large part of their moral identity and, possibly, their politics around how they respond to your color. Thus, a part of them—the moral part—is invested not in you but in some idea of what your color means. And when they see you—the individual—they instantly call to mind this investment and determine, once again, to honor it. They are very likely proud of the way they have learned to relate to your color, proud of the moral magnanimity it gives them an opportunity to express. So, in meeting you, they actually meet only a well-rehearsed and “better” part of themselves. Of course, if they are unapologetically racist, they would meet a well-rehearsed “superior” part of themselves. In either case, rage is likely to be your response.

Steele, 136

If we choose not to go down the path of progressive elitism, Steele holds forth a second possible path for us, though with some expressed hesitation. This is the path of character, with its conservative values of “personal responsibility, hard work, individual initiative, delayed gratification, commitment to excellence, competition by merit, the honor in achievement,” and so on (Steele, 109). These values are universal rather than tribal or dissociative, and DiAngelo is not a fan of them. She repeatedly critiques individualism and meritocracy for serving merely as smokescreens to protect white privilege (DiAngelo, 8, 26, 100).

Steele also recognizes that white conservatives, who have had a long history of championing these values for themselves while simultaneously denying them (and their benefits) to people of color, seem to lack the moral legitimacy needed to defend them: “After America admitted to what was worst about itself, there was not enough authority left to support what was best.” (Steele, 110).

Here I need to channel my inner Glaucon, and remind myself of my self-interested tendency to tell my tribe what it wants to hear, rather than seek truth for its own sake. The fact is, DiAngelo isn’t wrong to point to the ongoing effects of institutional racism, and the way that many whites today (even without their knowledge or intention) benefit from those past institutions. It’s certainly not the whole of the picture, and I have written previously about the various causes of today’s racial disparities. It would also be difficult to prove in a court of law just how much of the wealth we have received was stolen. Nevertheless, in countless ways that are difficult to measure but impossible to deny, today’s racial inequalities do owe much to the racism of the past. There’s no magic ring we can use to maintain the illusion of our innocence.

So how do we move forward? I do think that Steele’s path is closer to the right one, but as mentioned above, something’s still missing here. It’s missing from DiAngelo as well. Where’s the forgiveness? Some may understand the individualist approach to mean simply forgetting the past, while DiAngelo seems to want us to perform endless penance for the past. One is the path of denialism, and the other is the path of works-righteousness. Both are false ways of upholding our sense of righteousness. The fact is, there exists a moral debt in our country and it can’t be paid, at least not without creating more injustice and division in the process. Now we can’t demand forgiveness; after all, it’s a matter of mercy, not justice. Further, pleas for forgiveness can be made in bad faith, as a means to sweep past injustices under the rug, ignore the problem, and excuse inaction.

The difference between forgiving and forgetting is that we can at least acknowledge the hurt. We can be honest about the failures in our history. Read The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein to get an idea of how horrific our nation’s crimes were. It wasn’t just slavery and Jim Crow. It was federally-backed mortgages for whites only. It was residential redlining. It was exclusionary zoning. It was restrictive covenants. It was blockbusting. And then, after the Civil Rights era, it was reverse redlining and predatory lending. Our nation did all of this, and often our churches supported it. And it was wrong. [Update: to avoid confusion, I’d specify that this doesn’t entail a notion of white ancestral guilt; rather, it’s an acknowledgment of corporate responsibility on the basis of national citizenship and church membership. See more of my comments here.]

Asking for forgiveness is risky. There is a certain sense of powerlessness that comes with it, because it puts the debt in the open for all to see. But I hope that if we can learn to give and receive forgiveness, we can meet one another on equal footing with mutual dignity, responsibility, and respect.

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

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