Monthly Archives: July 2020

White Fragility, by Robin Diangelo

White FragilityRobin Diangelo, formerly a tenured professor of Multicultural Studies, has spent years presenting workshops to various organizations in an effort to help white people to recognize and overcome the racism that she believes they hold, but often do not see. It is in these workshops, as well as in her own life and in the public conversation at large, that she has observed and defined the phenomenon that she describes as “white fragility.” As one may imagine, a large portion of her audience is not pleased to be accused of racism, and they will deny it, become angry, burst into tears, and generally push back at the idea that they harbor racist beliefs.

According to Diangelo, prejudice is when an individual holds belittling or negative views of a person of another race, and discrimination is when a person or group acts in such a way as to harm someone against whom they are prejudiced. Racism, however, is a larger, societal concept whereby the laws and accepted culture of the entire nation discriminate against a particular group. She believes that the history of the United States has inculcated racist views into every American, despite the abolition of slavery and the end of Jim Crow. We may not recognize these attitudes within ourselves, but they continue to operate underneath all of our social, professional, and legal transactions, keeping the white-dominated hierarchy in place.

Once Diangelo establishes her thesis, she continues to repeat it relentlessly until the reader despairs of there being any proper response to her claims. Although the book has only 154 pages, it is about 125 pages too long. One anecdote after another parades her hapless workshop participants being berated for having the wrong reaction to a charge of racism. Eventually, we learn that Diangelo believes that white people are going to be racist forever, but that they can learn how not to treat people of color. The last chapter gives some practical suggestions.

How can the same book be simultaneously the #1 national bestseller and the most hated book in America? It depends on your viewpoint. I was prepared to be terribly offended by this book, but in the introduction, Diangelo points out that she is aiming at white progressives, who, she believes, have caused more trouble for people of color than anyone else. (p. 5) Since I am not a progressive, I was then able to listen with an open mind. Truthfully, I was very rarely offended in these pages, and I did learn a few things. Interestingly, she shares two opinions with Pastor Swanson, the author of Rediscipling the White Church (reviewed here), that white people are much more likely to emphasize the individual, rather than the group, and that white people use their own experiences and beliefs as the yardstick for measuring the world. White people generally believe that their culture is the neutral norm.

Reading this book as a Christian, Diangelo’s solution, when she finally gets to it, sounds  like a watered-down version of what is already laid out in scripture. We could probably all find some prejudice in our hearts because we are all sinners by nature. Matthew 18 tells us to be open and honest with one another and to apologize when we’ve hurt someone. The purpose of loving confrontation is not to be defensive– or “fragile”– but to restore relationships. The Bible tells us to lift up the oppressed and to avoid favoritism, and since we live in a democracy, we can protest oppression and advocate for just laws.

The neverending masochism that Ms. Diangelo prescribes seems to be the modern, secular version of wearing a hair shirt and whipping one’s back. This exhausting obsession offers no solutions, just incurable guilt. The problem is real, but we can look to other voices for better answers.

Coming up in the Anti-Racist Reads category: James Baldwin and Ijeoma Oluo.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Academic Board Books

War and Peace BBIt all began with literary classics, and I said “Are you kidding?” to War and Peace for infants. The only people who want their six-month-old to read Tolstoy on 32 board pages are yuppies who are obsessed with getting Suzie into an Ivy League college before she can tie her own shoes. Wuthering Heights BBI mean seriously, Wuthering Heights? Babies need time to understand that most people—hopefully including Mommy and Daddy—have nice, normal relationships before they learn about creepy guys who dig up their beloved’s grave in order jump into her moldering, beetle-crawling arms. Call me old-fashioned, but I think kids should at least be toddlers before they are confronted by such deviance.

RNA BBSo I ignored the whole phenomenon of academic board books for a long time. Not ABC’s and 123’s, which are the traditional domain of board books, but nuclear physics, engineering, and the intricacies of manipulating RNA, for sure.

Astrophysics BBThen one day, I received a request for Astrophysics for Babies. Really? I thought, but I bought it.  “Who will check this out?” I wondered.

Everyone. Everyone checked it out. All of the excellent, education-minded parents where I work checked it out. My friends with little ones checked it out, too. I tried a few more: organic chemistry, robotics. Forty copies of every title, all checked out.

Blockchain BBPublishers knew that they had struck gold and launched new series, and I kept buying. Finally, one day, I took a look at the books that had just been unpacked and thought, “Blockchain for Babies. I have never understood blockchain.” So I opened the book and read 32 board pages about it, and now I get it. No kidding. I couldn’t work with it professionally, but I get the concept and can discuss it without embarrassment. Now I’m a believer. All adults should read board books about Ph.D.-level topics.

Simone de Beauvoir BBOur latest batch of board books is about famous philosophers: Aristotle, Socrates, and so on. I checked out the one on Simone de Beauvoir, who, according to this volume, believed that everyone is equal, that everyone should be free to be themselves, and that everyone should be nice. In children’s biographical literature, all heroic people of all times thought that everyone should be nice. To the relief of parents, nothing is mentioned of Simone’s eclectic romantic pursuits, including her humiliating relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, who was repeatedly unfaithful to her and seemed to undermine everything she had to say about women’s equality. (French wine, berets, and cigarettes sold separately.) However, let me point out that Sartre is not one of the philosophers highlighted in this series (so there), perhaps because his existentialist viewpoint is difficult to explain in 32 or even 3200 pages, but has lately come to have some connection to climate change.

I highly recommend that parents of precocious children should acquaint themselves with world philosophy by reading board books and children’s nonfiction in general. That way, when your seven-year-old comes home from Harvard for Christmas break and mentions studying Descartes, you can nod sagely and intone, “I think, therefore I am,” and he will believe that you know what you’re talking about. It’s not until he is ten that he will roll his eyes, take a drag from his Turkish cigarette, and groan, “Oh, Dad. I know you read that in a board book.”

Disclaimer: I have read a boatload of these adorable little books as library copies. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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This Chair Rocks, by Ashton Applewhite

This Chair Rocks

“We contain all the ages we have ever been.”- Ann Lamott

Throughout the millennia, cultures all over the world have revered the oldest members of their communities for their wisdom gained over decades of joys and sorrows. Younger people have flocked to them for advice on navigating life’s difficult passages, and their words have been carefully considered. Societies have made loving arrangements for the care of older people within the heart of their families, grateful for all the care they have given in their younger years for their children and grandchildren.

Not this society, though.

In the twenty-first century west, age has become shameful. People are hesitant to state their age, even though we all rejoice that we are living longer than ever. Ashton Applewhite wants us to proudly own our years. She is trying to show us how “You look great for your age” is not a compliment. Does this mean that most women your age look like hags? We have all— including “olders,” as she calls them— internalized damaging stereotypes about older people and believed negative talking points that pit one generation against another. As she says, “…pitting groups against each other… is a time-honored tactic used by the wealthy and powerful to divide those who might otherwise unite against them in pursuit of a fairer world for all…. When issues are instead framed as zero-sum—more for ‘them’ means less for ‘us’—it’s harder to see that the public good is at stake and the issue affects everyone.”

For example, the idea that older people are using up younger workers’ money because they require so much care. First of all, senior citizens paid into the Social Security System all of their lives, so those benefits are not an entitlement. Secondly, everyone uses the greatest amount of health care money in the last two years of their lives, whether they die at 19 or 90. We are blessed in our country to usually be at the higher end of that lifespan.

Applewhite takes on many such issues with hard data and practical advice. She discusses the plight of the more seasoned adult who does not want to retire early, including those who take on a second career. She talks about older and younger people relating to one another in the workplace, and she is sensitive to ageism toward younger people, as well. Brain health is one of our foremost worries as the years go by, and she has good news on that front. She also writes about senior sexuality, physical health, and independent living. Applewhite looks death squarely in the eye, presenting information from a secular, practical viewpoint. Lastly, she brings together all of the topics she has covered into an action plan with something for everyone. Some of us can run for office or start organizations, but others may just finally get the courage to tell that young nurse, “Please stop calling me ‘dear’ and ‘sweetheart.’ I am not a toddler.”

So get ready to hold a lively conversation the next time you hear, “OK, Boomer.” Baby Boomers are responsible for the greatest increase in civil rights in this nation, and they are a hard-working, responsible generation. We’ve gone from paper and pencil math to iPads, and we’re loving it. There is much to celebrate here, and much to deplore. Ageism is the last “-ism” to be tolerated in our country, and it is way past time to put legal and social improvements in place to bring it to its final resting place. Ashton Applewhite will be your passionate and erudite guide to make it happen now.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, although it was published in 2019. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Anthem, by Ayn Rand

Anthem“We are living through Anthem right now. You should read it,” urged a man whose opinion I respect, and so I did.

Equality 7-2521’s preferred pronouns are “we,” “us,” and “our.” He lives in a dystopian world in which no one has thoughts of his own, but is part of an enforced hive mind. Children do not know their parents, but are educated communally until the age of 15, at which time they are assigned a profession. Conformity is the ultimate virtue. No one should say or do anything on their own or even think an original thought. At the age of 40, workers report to a retirement home to die by the age of 45.

The problem is, Equality 7-2521 is curious. He loves to learn, and he hopes to be assigned to the scholars when he turns 15, but when he reaches that age, he is assigned to be a street sweeper. He rejoices, since this will keep him far away from the pursuit of unauthorized knowledge, and he will have the satisfaction of knowing that he is a virtuous citizen. However, one day while sweeping streets, he comes upon an abandoned, hidden entrance to a tunnel from the Unmentionable Times, and he can’t resist.

In his world, all memories of the past had been erased so that a new social order could be enforced by a few elites who make all of the decisions for the common people. Education consists of brainwashing the children into believing that the past was evil, and that conformity was utopia. When he was 10, Equality 7-2521 witnessed the execution of someone who used the word “I.” That experience reinforced the importance of sticking with the herd for a whole generation.

After secretly spending time in the tunnel from the Unmentionable Times, Equality 7-2521 created an invention that would help the community greatly, moving their entire culture forward, but when he brought it to the World Council, he was condemned because he had done this on his own, without permission. The glory of his invention was swept away by the horror of this evidence that Equality 7-2521 had spent time studying by himself. He had to escape.

Ayn RandAs usual, Ayn Rand writes a quasi-essay novel in order to convey her philosophy of Objectivism, although this one is only 95 pages long, as opposed to Atlas Shrugged, which I read decades ago and weighs in at 1,168 pages. The Duke Classics ebook edition of Anthem was only 70 pages long! My own quick explanation of her philosophy is that those who can, should, and those who can’t should get out of the way and be grateful. The strong and smart should be rewarded with power, because if they are given free rein, everyone will benefit. However, her vision is atheistic and harsh, and she is well-hated by many. Darwinism at its purest. Objectivism is brutally efficient and could lead to great progress, but it could not also lead to the death of the poor and less gifted. Rand is not concerned with them at all. On the other hand, her honesty and rationalism can be bracing in the face of Newspeak and political correctness. She writes on one side of a very wide spectrum.

Forced conformity, revisionist history, repression of free speech, a small, powerful ruling class, and the cancellation of original thought? Obviously, Anthem is contemporary realistic fiction.

Disclaimer: I read a library ebook of this title. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Rediscipling the White Church, by David W. Swanson

“…One of the significant challenges of discipling white Christians away from segregation is that we do not consciously identify ourselves as a racial group. We don’t consciously think of ourselves as white.” (p. 159)

Rediscipling the White ChurchAfter the death of George Floyd, there was a very short time in which we began, as a nation, to unite around the tragedy of racial injustice. Within days, however, protests turned into riots, which took over broadcast and social media and split the national conversation into political parties so that we could slide back into our camps and not have to go through that uncomfortable, squirmy examination of our consciences.

Before that slide, though, I ordered a whole pile of anti-racist reads, just to make sure that I got really uncomfortable and stayed there. The one I picked up first is pointed at the white church, since I pitch my tent in the community of those who call Jesus Lord.

David W. Swanson is a white pastor in the Bronzeville section of Chicago who regularly speaks on issues of race, particularly addressing the white church. Because churches, particularly Protestant churches, are usually segregated to at least some degree, it is difficult for us to empathize with believers of color, since we never see them. Swanson points out three ways of thinking that are largely invisible to us but are influencing all of our conversations about race within the church.

First of all, white Christians are very proud of the American ideal of rugged individualism. We are quite sure that if each person worked harder and took personal responsibility, they would be fine. It worked for us, it will work for everyone. Often, we refuse to acknowledge that slavery and Jim Crow— although they are in the past and perhaps none of our personal ancestors were involved in them— have caused lasting damage to our society and our national psyche so that it is far more difficult for people of color to advance in the world.

Secondly, white evangelism and preaching appeal to the intellect. While we are rational creatures, we are also physical beings with emotions. Salvation is not an assent to a logical proposition, but a life that has been radically changed by the grace of God. As a result, we take up our crosses and follow Jesus. Discipleship engages the whole person.

Finally, white Christians tend to be anti-structural. That is, they are so afraid to shift blame away from the individual that any mention of “social justice” smacks of politics, and so they turn away. Eschewing the beautiful example of Christian abolitionists of the past, we forget that the Bible tells us that God requires us “to act justly and to love mercy.” (Micah 6:8)

Building upon this foundation, Swanson explores several ways that the church can reorient its discipleship toward solidarity in the kingdom of God using the Lord’s Supper, preaching, children’s ministry, liturgy, evangelism, and the many other ways in which we relate to one another. He also asks church leaders to examine their bookshelves to see whether there is diversity in the voices they are hearing. Perhaps no one will be able to use all of these suggestions, but they may be a springboard to the imagination for churches that desire to move into a true picture of the kingdom of God.

Although Pastor Swanson has years of experience living out his own ideals, his thesis will offend some readers, which is one good reason to hear him out. In this polarized time, all of us, Christians and non-Christians, seem to have drawn into two camps on nearly every question. In this instance, some churches have become all about social justice, as if that is the purpose for the existence of the church itself. Other churches are so opposed to that view that they refuse to confront the issue of racism at all and never approach the issue humbly, examining their own hearts. In my reading of scripture, though, it seems that the church exists, first and foremost, to worship God. After that, Jesus tells us to “go and make disciples of all nations,” teaching people to follow Jesus. Flowing from our love for God, we repent of our sins, and as we are Christians who happen to be Americans, it is completely Biblical to lament for our nation’s sins. This is not false guilt, and it does not involve kneeling before anyone but God, but it is acknowledging that the sin of racism is real. We must consider how we, as priests of God (1 Peter 2:9) can further the kingdom and “do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” (Micah 6:8)

There are two points that Swanson and others make that hit home with me and encourage me to continue reading and meditating on this issue. One is that white people may have suffered in their lives, and we all do, but we have never suffered because of the color of our skin. Millions of people have to go through the same trials that we endure in addition to overcoming our society’s hurdles caused by racial oppression.

Secondly, white people, often unconsciously, consider our lifestyles, our preferences, our speech, and our modes of worship to be the neutral standard by which everyone else is measured. Even in a multicultural church, the church leadership is most often white. Swanson talks about an exercise that he and his wife went through to adopt trans-racially in which the participants examine how many people of color are authority figures in our lives: your boss, your pastor, your doctor, and so on. The stratification of power in our world may seem invisible to us, but what are we silently communicating to our children?

In other words, although we may not consciously hurt other people, it is important to understand the other person’s perspective and to see if there is some way that we can change to bring about a more equitable society. As David pleaded with the Lord in Psalm 139:

Search me, God, and know my heart;
Test me, and know my anxious thoughts
See if there is any offensive way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting.

Scripture tells us over and over to examine our hearts. “As the eagle stirs up its nest” (Deut. 32:11), our churches should encourage us to get uncomfortable, to grow up, to act justly, and to raise up the next generation to love others who may not look like them.

We can start here.

Disclaimer: I purchased a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or any group.

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