We Talk. We Listen. is now moving to arguably the implacable foe of diversity advocates: white privilege. White privilege is often the most sinister root of all that plagues United States. The student uprisings taking place at the University of Missouri, Yale University, and many other institutions of higher learning, not to mention the recent protests of Moral Mondays in Illinois and the way that white privilege relentlessly skews public policy to the detriment of people of color – all of these point to the fact that if we are to truly build a more just and beautiful society white privilege is something that we must understand – lives are at stake.
The massacre at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston on June 17 of this year made this need as clear as it ever was. There was also a tragic poignancy to the shootings – as not only were both Mother Emanuel’s senior pastor and assistant pastor alumni of the Lutheran Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina, but even the shooter was a baptized and confirmed ELCA member as well. The ELCA’s Presiding Bishop – Elizabeth Eaton – issued a candid epistle in response to the revelations, as well as sponsored a special web-cast (#ELCAConfrontRacism) calling upon parishioners in the ELCA to be a catalyst for the hard conversations about race that are so desperately needed in our country. This then culminated in a special initiative, “Commitment to End Racism,” an effort by both the ELCA and AME churches to worship, pray, and discuss the legacy and effects of racism in churches across the country.
At We Talk. We Listen, we have then decided to take the initiative and contribute PhD student Adam Braun’s trenchant commentary and observations on white privilege. We hope you enjoy his reflection, and share it with friends and colleagues.
We are also presenting his reflection to “prime the pump”, so to speak, for an important public conversation taking place at LSTC in the coming days – “Facing White Privilege as a Challenge and Opportunity for the Public Church.” The presidents of both Chicago Theological Seminary (Alice Hunt) and the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (James Nieman) will be having an open conversation on how the public church can and must address this most crucial issue. The discussion will be held Tuesday November 17, 2015 between 2 and 4 p.m. in the East Conference Room at LSTC (click here for map/directions). Admission is free and open to the public.
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthrpology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
Baby Suggs…. the afternoon of the last day of her life when she got out of bed, skipped slowly to the door of the keeping room and announced to Sethe and Denver the lesson she had learned from her sixty years a slave and ten years free: that there was no bad luck in the world but whitepeople. “They don’t know when to stop,” she said, and returned to her bed, pulled up the quilt and left them to hold that thought forever. – Toni Morrison, Beloved.
The white man has enjoyed, the privilege of seeing without being seen; he was only a look…. The white man—white because he was man, white like daylight, white like truth, white like virtue—lighted up creation like a torch and unveiled the secret white essence of beings. – Jean-Paul Sartre, Black Orpheus
I am overdetermined from without. I am the slave not of the “idea” that others have of me but of my own appearance. I am being dissected under white eyes, the only real eyes. I am, fixed. – Frantz Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks
When I began my time in seminary, I did not know that I was white. Even after three years in Korea. Even having been in an embrace with my (Korean) wife, and she said, “I never understood why white people said I was yellow. But when my skin is next to yours I can see it.” Sure I knew my skin tone was different. But whiteness is not skin tone. “Whiteness is a chosen (though socially conditioned) way of being-in-the-world.” (Birt, 55)* It is a set of cultural values, often invisible to those who possess these values. In this post, I aim to explain my new critical awareness of my whiteness and the whiteness of LSTC/the ELCA.
The world is not made up of diverse races. The world is made up of diversity. Period. Race only becomes a category in the moment of exclusion. But the most important thing to notice historically is that the race-concept is developed by its relation to whiteness. Think particularly about the history of the accumulation of resources through Western colonization, industrialization, and neo-liberal globalization. The white center is essential to the concept of race. And anytime the concept of race is used, it invokes the privileged, powerful position of whiteness. For this reason, some scholars recently prefer to name racism as “white supremacy.” Therefore, any white institution that wishes to fight racism/white-supremacy must divest itself of its power and resources that are gained through its whiteness and invest in that which has been deemed non-white** by whiteness.
Below are some of the critical steps that have helped me develop a counter-whiteness logic:
- In much the same way the category of religion developed to describe social phenomena that was other-than-Christian, the category of race developed to describe peoples who were other-than-white.
- As such, it is possible to say that “white-skinned” is not a race, but the feature whose absence defines all other races.
- The world’s wealth and resources are mostly in the hands of those who are considered white. Even if spaces (land, nations, etc.) are not predominantly white, many of their resources have been acquired and/or exploited by lands that are predominantly white through colonialism, industrialization, and global capitalism.
- These attributes of whiteness, make white the center, and non-white the margins.
- White-centeredness creates a power dynamic where whites can more easily hold positions of power over non-whites. This results in White Supremacy.
- It is incomplete (and incorrect) to think that race is the color of one’s skin and racism is personal bigotry against people who have a different skin tone than one’s own. All races do not start off on equal footing. All races are always already beholden to whiteness. Personal bigotry related to skin tone is a symptom of racism. Institutional racism and systemic racism are RACISM, that is why it ends in an “-ism.” Other racially charged individual thoughts and actions are the products of racism.
- There is no line where one starts or stops being white, pink, yellow, brown, black, et al. But these terms are socially configured around whiteness and its relationship to the allocation of resources.
- Characteristic: Whiteness is privileged. Privilege is often blind to itself. Therefore, whiteness is blind to its own whiteness. For this reason, it is always easier to point out characteristics of non-white groups than it is to locate a cultural attribute of whiteness, particularly for those who are white. In addition, the people who most often say (altruistically), “I don’t see race,” are white.
- Characteristic: Since whiteness is often unaware of itself and its privilege, white culture is often thought of as that which is universal to humanity. We can find this readily within the discipline of Theology. There is Systematic Theology. And then there is that which is not Systematic Theology: Contextual, Postcolonial, (Feminist) Womanist, Black, Liberation, Muerjista, Ajuma, (etc.) theologies. As such, theology done by whites is Systematic and comprehensive. The implied meaning is that the other Theologies are not.
Takeaway: Whiteness is socially constructed, not an essence based on skin tone. Whiteness is the privileged center of the category of race. Whiteness expresses itself through the accumulation and hoarding of material resources and through the universalization of its human experience, eliminating the differences of non-white experiences.
Critical questions for reflection and discussion:
- When did you first realize you were culturally white?
- What are the cultural attributes of your own whiteness?
* Robert E. Birt, “The Bad Faith of Whiteness,” from Yancy, George. What White Looks Like: African-American Philosophers on the Whiteness Question. New York, N.Y. ; London: Routledge, 2004.
** “Non-white, Non-whiteness”: Dear White People, in our context it would be inappropriate to use this term normatively in conversation. I use it here, in particular for us whites, that we may be unsettled by an awareness of the marginalizations that are caused by the very presence of our skin in coalition with our white-centered culture. In addition, there is no “reverse” racism against whites, since racism is always determined by whiteness. In conversations, it may be more appropriate to use “People of color,” but more accurately, to describe others the way they wish to be described.
A animated short that vividly illustrates the systems and processes that create white supremacy, “The Unequal Opportunity Race.”
“Calling a Thing What it Is: A Lutheran Approach to Whiteness” – a powerful paper by Deanna A. Thompson, a professor at the Religion Department
Adam F. Braun is an aspiring feminist, anti-white supremacist, as well as a PhD student in New Testament Christology at The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. A former facilitator at Boston Pub Church, he describes himself as a general radical who looks for radical potential in radical Christian gatherings – prefering darkness to light, and solidarity to love.