Anyone who has bothered to dive into the deep writings of Martin Luther King, Jr.—anyone who has waded beyond a shallow understanding of the “I Have a Dream” speech—cannot help but feel exasperated by the way King’s sharpness has been softened, downplayed, and neutralized by apologists for the status quo and advocates of “post-racial” niceties, into a one-dimensional liberal tolerance of illiberality. The more one learns about King’s life and work, the more astonishing it becomes when people spout a handful of his sentences to anesthetize any discussion about racism that becomes too uncomfortable for them. If you’ve lived in the United States for a length of time, you have surely seen this in action, no doubt by somebody who claims that they “don’t see color.” It doesn’t take them long to quote King’s sentence: “I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by content of their character.”[1]

Lots of people have pointed out the numerous problems with this so-called “colorblindness” and how it hijacks the language of egalitarian human rights in order to allow white people to enjoy the benefits of white supremacism while disavowing its existence or their role in its perpetuation. I have nothing especially original to add to these excellent arguments. Instead, in light of the neo-Nazi violence yesterday in Charlottesville, I want to draw from some concepts in one of King’s lesser-known works—“A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart,” a chapter in his most extensively theological book of sermons, Strength to Love—because I think King’s analysis from 1963 can give us fresh insights into white fragility in 2017.

White fragility can be briefly defined as the proclivity on the part of white people to interpret events, stories, and utterances that work outside a white supremacist worldview as offensive or threatening to white people, out of an exaggerated or fabricated sense of grievance. It undergirds a reverse scapegoating, where white oppressors (or beneficiaries of white supremacist culture) regard themselves as the truly oppressed. One example of white fragility is the proposal from a number of white fans to boycott Episode VII of Star Wars because it introduces a Black man and a Latino man as central characters, and they see the (long overdue) diversification of leading roles in Hollywood as a sign that white men are under attack. Another example of white fragility is the phrase “All Lives Matter,” coming as it does from white people who see the Black Lives Matter movement as “violent,” when the large majority of their demonstrations involve no violence against people or property, or as “biased,” when BLM simply calls for the law to be equally applied and for police brutality (something we should all be against) to be fairly and speedily prosecuted. In both cases of white fragility, a truly impartial and egalitarian standpoint is felt to be extreme, “politicized,” biased, or even oppressive, simply because it is different than what strikes many white people as normal. White fragility is the constant expectation, continuously internalized and reinforced through subtle social messages, that white people have an almost sacred right to be the center of attention (or more pointedly, flattery).

I single out white fragility here for three reasons. First, I am white, and “good white people” such as myself need to acknowledge the racist ideology they have internalized so they can work at overcoming it in themselves. Second, when one looks at the discourse the “alt-right” uses to defend itself, it springs out of white fragility and tries to intensify white fragility so as to take higher and higher levels of offense, so that more and more violent “solutions” to this pseudo-problem appear more rational. Third, given the propensity of white Americans to utilize King in defense of white supremacists out of a misguided or delusional sense of “neutrality,” people are going to start defending the domestic terrorists in Charlottesville using de-contextualized quotations from King, so I think it’s important to clarify the falseness of this rhetorical move.

King’s “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart” is a beautiful reflection on a biblical verse that always baffled me and no doubt baffles other Christians, Matthew 10:16: “Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (ASV, quoted in King’s original text).[2] Here Jesus seems to be instructing his disciples to behave in an underhanded manner (“wise as serpents”), when he continuously commands a high-minded ethics of nonviolence (“harmless as doves”). This injunction strikes us as paradoxical, or perhaps even nonsensical and therefore incapable of being believed. But King draws from his favorite philosopher, Hegel, to argue that a synthesis of these opposing qualities of the serpent and the dove is possible.[3] A person who is both dove-like and serpent-like—or in King’s terms, both toughminded and tenderhearted—is a fully integrated human personality. By natural disposition, each person tends to be either one or the other: “To have serpentlike qualities devoid of dovelike qualities is to be passionless, mean, and selfish. To have dovelike without serpentlike qualities is to be sentimental, anaemic, and aimless. We must combine strongly marked antitheses.”[4] Only people who have achieved the integration of both working with others who have achieved it—or, more realistically, people who are achieving it supporting others achieving it, with this ideal explicitly in mind—can recreate the social order to be truly just.[5]

To clarify this possibility, King articulates two pairs of opposites—softmindedness and toughmindedness on the one hand, and tenderheartedness and hardheartedness on the other hand—and analyzes what makes each distinctive. People who are softminded tend to be tenderhearted (dovelike) and people who are toughminded tend to be hardhearted (serpentlike). People are either soft or hard, generally speaking, and the difficulty of activism lies precisely in being hard on those ideologies that inhibit humane relations without losing the softness necessary for genuine relationship to begin with. We benefit from a more detailed view of what King means by this hazard.

Softmindedness is the propensity to accept what is immediately around oneself or what currently exists as exhaustive of what is possible. Softmindedness is a kind of mental laziness that is easily exhausted in imagining things any other way than how it has been told: “There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”[6] King cites examples of softmindedness in superstitions, religious dogmatism, racism, and King expounds at some length how dictatorships capitalize upon the softminded as easily suggestible and docile.[7] I find especially interesting King’s observation that the softminded person operates with a sluggish and lazy relationship towards time:

The softminded man always fears change. He feels security in the status quo, and he has an almost morbid fear of the new. For him, the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea. An elderly segregationist in the South is reported to have said, “I have come to see now that desegregation is inevitable. But I pray God that it will not take place until after I die.” The softminded person always wants to freeze the moment and hold life in the gripping yoke of sameness.[8]

When you pair this passage with a statement from King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” on the way that time can be used with moral creativity instead of wasted with immoral unimaginativeness, there is some promising potential here for recasting how we think about the temporality of moral religion: “We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”[9] The toughminded person who subjects prejudices, ideologies, and one-dimensional thinking to critique opens up the future to be qualitatively different than the past and not just “more of the same.”

Moreover, this future is opened up as guided by an ideal sort of personhood—the aforementioned fully integrated personality that King identifies as pure moral character, God[10]—with whom and toward whom we work together as “co-workers,” for what King calls “the beloved community.” Such a person does not think moral action is for a future time, but that future time is for moral action. With such a mindset, even an eternal future in an afterlife would be no pretext for moral procrastination, for “…the time is always ripe to do right.” This eagerness for a dynamic future in which to act is a sign of a tough mind, which King defines as “characterized by incisive thinking, realistic appraisal, and decisive judgment. …The tough-minded individual is astute and discerning. He has a strong, austere equality that makes for firmness of purpose and solidness of commitment.”[11]

The problem with toughmindedness is that it often comes with hard-heartedness; that is, while the toughminded are eager to act, they easily lose sight of who they are acting for, and thus lose the “co-” dimension of being a co-worker with God even as they assiduously apply themselves to the “worker” dimension of that calling:

The hardhearted individual never sees people as people, but rather as mere objects or as impersonal cogs in an ever-turning wheel. In the vast wheel of industry, he sees men as hands. In the massive wheel of big city life, he sees men as digits in a multitude. In the deadly wheel of army life, he sees men as numbers in a regiment. He depersonalizes life.[12]

Because King identifies personality as the deepest truth of the universe[13], to dehumanize people out of a misguided toughmindedness leads to evils of another sort as those of softmindedness. To be hardhearted is to pass by your fellow human being, your neighbor, and feel no real connection to them, or to put it more intellectually, to feel that any obligation to them is unreal. “Life for him was a mirror in which he saw only himself, and not a window through which he saw other selves.”[14] King cites examples of hardheartedness in utilitarianism, militarism, egoism, capitalism, and the zeal of armed resistance on the part of Black nationalists.[15]

Tenderness of heart is necessary for being a humane human being, because any human being lives and must live alongside other human beings. To be tenderhearted is to have the disposition of feeling consistent with what Arendt calls “the interhuman,” the shared space of laboring and working and acting that constitutes true politics, and not the pseudo-politics of squeezing out benefits for “me and mine.” King does not draw from Arendt here, and Arendt’s stated views on segregation would not be that heartening from King’s perspective, but we can synthesize their points to say that the segregation today’s neo-Nazis wish to recodify is the product of hardheartedness and thus a refusal of the political process itself, a refusal to be the political being that Aristotle defines human being as, a refusal to be the intersubjective being that Hegel and other German idealists define personality as. By “thingifying” fellow persons, segregation hardens the heart and keeps the segregator from being fully human toward themselves:

Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority, and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. To use the words of Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher, segregation substitutes an “I-It” relationship for the “I-thou” relationship, and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. So segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, but it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation.[16]

By way of summary, we can say that softminded and tenderhearted people value sympathetic connection, but conceive of that social order as static (that is, as ahistorical), and therefore lazily accept inconsistencies and irrationalities in the status quo merely because they are familiar. Contrariwise, toughminded and hardhearted people seek to get things done, but lose sight of persons for the sake of things, and thus they value a dynamic but disconnected future. That we tend to be either softminded but tenderhearted, or hardhearted but toughminded, means that the large majority of people tend to have some redeeming quality in their heart or in their mind. Yet when facing a society that needs redemption—that means you and me—we need to find a way to integrate these qualities in ourselves:

A third way is open to our quest for freedom, namely, non-violent resistance, that combines toughmindedness and tenderheartedness and avoids the complacency and do-nothingness of the softminded and the violence and bitterness of the hardhearted. My belief is that this method must guide our action in the present crisis in race relations. Through non-violent resistance we shall be able to oppose the unjust system and at the same time love the perpetrators of the system.[17]

King’s criticisms of some Black nationalists’ methods of asserting their human rights through violence are something I hesitate to reconstruct, if for nothing else than for the propensity of your average American to give King’s nonviolent resistance quite a lot of lip-service, but when you go below the surface of this prolific praise you find that they are fixating on the nonviolent dimension of the equation to the exclusion of resistance. Indeed, white fragility not only advocates nonviolence in isolation from resistance, but interprets resistance of any sort as equivalent to violence; this is why Black Lives Matter strikes the paranoid white person as violent simply because its actions resist the capacity of a racist society to go about “business as usual” (for example, by activists blocking freeways with their own bodies). To give equal time to King’s criticism of the Black Panthers as to his criticism of Bull Connor and the white segregationists and the white moderates is to engage in a false equivalence King would abhor; a world where Black nationalists take over and make white people everywhere just as subjugated as Black people have been for centuries is quite a hypothetical world, to put it mildly, and it’s one where the historical facts of colonialism would have to be ignored.

Instead of playing into this colossal yet common ignorance, I want to abide for a second on how this false equivalence is so attractive to white people that they jump at the slightest shadow of a possibility of it, and how this white fragility fits into the framework King provides. When white people say Black Lives Matter is violent, they are singling out a few instances and taking them in isolation from a context of provocation by the police, ignoring the myriad instances when BLM demonstrations are perfectly nonviolent (to both property and more importantly to people). Furthermore, they ignore the asymmetry in how such demonstrations are typically handled by police and framed by news media; after a sports victory white people can burn couches, smash store windows, and even topple over police cars, and all this hooliganism will be chalked up to good-natured exuberance and handled as such, with hardly any arrests, prosecutions, or bitter condemnation. To put these two sorts of violence in the same category is only possible if you see people of color as subhuman and concomitantly engage in apologetics for a pseudo-theology of Whiteness as automatically innocent. As King said in his “The Other America” speech with great insight and human sympathy, even as he condemned rioting as a futile method, “Riots do not develop out of thin air. …In the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard”—and in any case, Black people do not riot nearly as often or over as little as white fragility would have it, and our system is set up in such a way that white people are usually assured a proper hearing.

The white fragility that underlies this asymmetry, by failing to analyze factual and historical reality in a truly impartial and mentally copious way, is softminded. Likewise, by so vehemently designating BLM activists as “animals” and dehumanizing even the victims of police violence in whose names these protests happen, white fragility is hardhearted. I therefore submit that white fragility fosters the worst aspects of the heart (hardheartedness) and the worst aspects of the mind (softmindedness), and as this restriction of human agency and social possibilities, it defaces the imago Dei and rejects the kingdom of God, and should therefore be designated as the willful separation King calls sinful. This apartness, this mental and material apartheid, is hardhearted and softminded.

White fragility is morally, spiritually, and socially hazardous because it is softminded enough to regurgitate prejudiced talking points on the flimsiest of factual bases. We can see this in a Breitbart article that screams immigrants are dangerously criminal and will overrun and ruin “Western civilization,” yet obscures the fact that most of the crimes in this statistic are the “crimes” of simply crossing the border into the country in question. The softmindedness that falls for and propagates this misleading statistic springs out of and reinforces hardheartedness, a lack of basic human sympathy that recognizes immigrants and asylum-seekers as just as unmotivated to leave their home countries as the presumed white reader would be, and therefore, willfully blind to whatever considerable economic, environmental, or social plight must be driving people to rebuild their lives all over again in a foreign land. White fragility trades in emotional and intellectual phantasmagoria, a noxious necromancy that makes prejudicial error feel like forbidden truth, and cruel antagonism seem like prudent resolve. A story that aired recently on NPR’s This American Life program illuminates just how insidiously and absurdly pervasive white fragility can be: a tiny town in one of the most remote upper regions of Alaska that has had no immigrants for quite some time descended into acrimonious infighting over the mere proposal to make a legally non-binding statement about the purely hypothetical scenario of how the town would feel if immigrants were to come there.

Beyond the otherwise natural pitfalls that come with being tenderhearted but suggestible, or being toughminded but selfish, white fragility skews white people toward both vices if they are not careful. It brings out the worst in them. I see white fragility at work in the destructiveness of the neo-Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville yesterday. These are white Americans who are so scared by the thought of no longer being a social majority—or more precisely, at the thought that people of color will treat white people the way white people have treated people of color—that they turn to the ideology of fascism as though it were the lesser of two evils. Even more alarming is that among the ranks of the “alt-right,” fascist society does not even appear to be an evil but a good, or even the highest good imaginable.

Theirs is a pathetic stance of baseless fear and biased fury, and in my calmer moments I can see this neo-Nazi backlash as coming from a place of pitiable lostness. The dovelike response to them is to see them—at least in general—as retaining some remnant of moral potential, which we have to figure out how best to reawaken; at the same time, serpentlike caution and discernment is necessary to not allow their inexcusable fascist violence to gain yet more ground and trample over people of color in the process. For reasons that I believe I’ve established, their white fragility does not mean that they are delicate snowflakes who will be meek and mild; quite to the contrary, their hypersensitivity to non-threatening situations makes them more dangerous, especially given the fact that so many of them are coming out in public heavily armed and unmasked (and therefore, confident of their impunity). I must confess that, at this point in time, I lack the moral imagination to know the right way of dealing with these neo-Nazis in our midst that would combine both dovelike and serpentlike qualities. Like any sane person, I want to find the most peaceful way of maintaining justice. But before we can have a genuinely rational, unbiased, and humane discussion about the appropriate methods for dealing with fascism today, we have to overcome softmindedness and hardheartedness, which are combined in an especially subtle and pernicious concoction in white fragility.


[1] Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream,” in A Testament of Hope, p. 219.

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr. “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart,” in Strength to Love, p. 9

[3] King, Strength to Love, p. 19

[4] King, Strength to Love, p. 14.

[5] King, Strength to Love, p. 14: “We as Negroes must bring together toughmindedness and tenderheartedness, if we are to move creatively toward the goal of freedom and justice.”

[6] King, Strength to Love, p. 10.

[7] King, Strength to Love, pp. 11-13.

[8] King, Strength to Love, p. 11

[9] King, “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” in A Testament of Hope, p. 296

[10] King, Strength to Love, pp. 15-16: “I am thankful that we worship a God who is both toughminded and tenderhearted. …God is neither hardhearted nor softminded. He is toughminded enough to transcend the world; he is tenderhearted enough to live in it.” This should be read alongside his statement in “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” in Strength to Love, pp. 154-155: “I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose, and that in the struggle for righteousness man has cosmic companionship. Behind the harsh appearances of the world there is a benign power. To say that this God is personal is not to make him a finite object besides other objects or attribute to him the limitations of human personality; it is to take what is finest and noblest in our consciousness and affirm its perfect existence in him. It is certainly true that human personality is limited, but personality as such involves no necessary limitations. It means simply self-consciousness and self-direction. So in the truest sense of the word, God is a living God.”

[11] King, Strength to Love, p. 10

[12] King, Strength to Love, p. 13

[13] King, Strength to Love, pp. 154-155.

[14] King, Strength to Love, p. 14

[15] King, Strength to Love, pp. 13-15

[16] King, “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” A Testament of Hope, 293-294. For more on how treating people as things desecrates the sacred imago Dei, and how this idea that personhood is never to be instrumentalized is identical to Kant’s ethics of human dignity, see King, “The Ethical Demands for Integration,” in A Testament of Hope, pp. 118-119.

[17] King, Strength to Love, p. 15