By the time I had graduated from divinity school, I had probably heard the word ‘whiteness’ defined over twenty times, conversed with several professors and peers about it, and taken several courses where it was a central topic, but it was only toward the end of my seminary career that I first thought, “I think I might be able to articulate this concept to someone else.” This word is hard to understand because it does not originate from our traditional sources: the bible, the church, and theology. It is speaking a language with which we are unfamiliar.
Whiteness has to do with all people. When we talk about whiteness, we are not talking about the color of anyone’s skin. We are talking about the ways people are formed to live in relation to one another. Whiteness is a name for the ways we have been conditioned to think about ourselves and others in relation to race, and it affects people of all skin colors. It is a way of thinking and living to which all people are susceptible. So, whiteness is also broader than our own personal experiences of race. Whiteness is a way to name those invisible forces of formation we are not always aware of, which create systems that we oftentimes don’t even see but participate in nonetheless. Systems that impact our communal decisions on where we live, where we go to school, where we go to church, what neighborhoods we value and which ones we don’t, and how wealth and services are distributed.
‘Whiteness’ is not a reference to skin color, and it is bigger than personal experience. When I talked last week about “dismantling whiteness,” I was not condemning people with white skin, claiming that having white skin makes someone a sinner, or asking for an apology from people with white skin for having white skin, or stating that everyone with white skin is racist. Trust me: I am as white-skinned as they come. When I was a teenager, my brother and I had a lawn mowing business. One day it was particularly hot, and I was sure to wear a t-shirt while we mowed. The problem was I wore a white shirt. After 8 hours of mowing, I got home, took my shirt off, and found that I had a sunburn under my shirt. That’s as white-skinned as it gets.
A related question to the conflation of whiteness and white skin, is the question of whether or not God made us the way we are. Didn’t God make me with white skin, brown skin, etc.? Yes, God made each of us exactly the way that we are, skin color and all, and we are each precious in God’s sight. We hear that truth put beautifully in Psalm 139:13-14, “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.” We know that since God made each of us we are God’s beloved creatures and, like we heard this past Sunday from Romans 8, “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We might even say we could add “skin color” to Paul’s list in Romans 8:38-39a, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor skin color, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Having white skin is not a sin. It is equally important to say that having any color of skin is not a sin. God’s love and forgiveness are not skin-dependent, and it is because God loves us that we have to take an honest account of our history and how that history impacts our present. Race has been used in the past to alienate, persecute, and belittle people of color, and that past continues to impact our present and the world we live in. White Christians have used and abused Scripture, especially Genesis 9:25 and the curse of Ham, for centuries to defend slavery and invalidate the humanity of black people, saying black skin was a sign of sin. These past realities continue to impact the present. The conversation about whiteness, then, is a conversation that hopefully leads us closer and closer toward an embrace of the common humanity we have in Jesus, and allows us to better understand and articulate how we have been formed, and how we might have accidentally distorted the Gospel along the way.
The purpose of talking about whiteness is to ask ourselves hard questions about things we do not often have to think about. How did I come to live in the physical place I live, with people that look very much like myself? How did my neighborhood, especially if, like me, you live in the suburbs, come to exist in the way it exists? Why do large parts of our communities continue to live segregated lives? Why is the economic divide between white and black people and families so wide in our country, even after the abolition of slavery and the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1965? When we talk about whiteness, we are not talking about skin color, we are trying to get to the bottom of these very elusive questions. As Christians, this points us to much more important questions: How does our Communion with Jesus actually impact how we live in the world? How does our Communion with Jesus move us towards compassion for those we have trouble understanding? How did my church come to be and look the ways it does? How was I taught to read the bible? How was I taught to think about myself in relationship to God?
I know last week I said I was going to do a series on the story of our faith. Last week’s blog, which you can see below, was about the Canaanite woman, who comes to Jesus begging for her daughter’s life. I used this story to talk about how, at first, Jesus’ back is to us, the gentiles, but, by the Holy Spirit’s drawing, life with God is opening up for gentiles through Jesus. I said, “Jesus does not belong to us; we belong to Jesus.” This radical inclusion and love and welcome is our story. I’m also telling this story because it’s crucial for us as we engage in conversations about race. I wanted to pause that series for a week, though. I thought it might be helpful to give some clarity about this concept called ‘whiteness’ I’ve mentioned in a lot of my blogs because of how confusing the concept can be and the questions it raises.
I hope this blog keeps open or opens up lines of communication as we all dream and work for that world of love, joy, and intimacy with God and each other we desire.