You might say that I was formed in a crucible of Whiteness and White identity. I grew up in Oklahoma, a land, known as Indian Territory that stretched from Oklahoma through Kansas and up to Nebraska, that was supposed to belong to Indigenous Americans. After the Civil War, when human beings freed from slave chains sought freedom from the South, many Black people sought refuge in Oklahoma to create an all-Black state. Oklahoma is the land on which I was formed, and those plains that were once sprawling became the suburbs of south Oklahoma City during white flight in the 1970s.
It is the land of Oklahoma that holds the silence of the state’s violent racial history. It is a history of the eradication of Indigenous life--language, plant, animal, people--and of controlling Indigenous people and land. That fight continues today in the highest court in our country. It is a history of systemic genocide of entire Indigenous people groups in order to gain control of their land that contained vast oil fields, which means vast wealth. It is the whispered history of the Tulsa Riots in 1921 and the destruction of one of the most flourishing Black communities in the entire country. This history, silent and unspoken, I did not learn until I was in college.
I grew up in a mostly white church in a mostly white neighborhood. My community was white, but sports provided me the opportunity to build friendships with Black people. I had a close friend who is Black, and we played sports together and had sleepovers. It was at his house that, looking back, I had my first realization that I was white and that being white meant my life and his life were very different. I knew that his mom and dad both worked and worked hard. She was a principal and he was a UPS driver. They were committed Christians of deep faith. They did everything with integrity, but our worlds were vastly different, our economic status vastly different, our neighborhoods only a mile apart but completely different worlds, our churches less than a mile apart but never any fellowship between the congregations.
I left the Moore Public School System when I was in the seventh grade and started attending a private school: Christian Heritage Academy. The school’s mission statement says, “The ultimate goal of the Academy is to produce true Christian scholars who will be used of God to propagate the Gospel throughout the whole world and to restore our American Christian Republic to its historic, Biblical foundation.” So, I was formed as a young person inside the entanglement of Christian faith and American nationalism. CHA is a small school. In my class of 52 people, though, there was not a single Black student. There were many Korean exchange students, who my white classmates and I constantly reminded that they were different from us through racist jokes and mocking their language. We wouldn’t even say their names but gave them “American” names.
CHA started in 1972 in resistance to school integration in Oklahoma. Their documented history chalks this up to busing and wanting neighborhood schools, but that history fails to see that fear of busing and a desire for neighborhood schools was just as much about fear of white children going to school with Black children. “Neighborhood schools” is code for White schools and Black schools. There are two foundational textbooks for every CHA student: Christian History of the Constitution of the United States of America and Teaching and Learning America’s Christian History. Again, I was formed in the entanglement of faith and nationalism. A group called The Foundation for American Christian Education wrote and published these textbooks, and, just to make the history and timeline clear, that foundation started in 1965.
I went to a private university whose student body was and still is majority white, and it was on this campus that I had the most shameful experience of my entire life. Intramural sports was a major part of campus life, and I was fully invested in playing flag football. My team of all white guys was playing the track team, a team of all Black students, who were also track athletes. In this one particular game a player on the track team and I started mouthing off to one another. I thought I was a good guy, kind and inclusive, definitely not racist. Yet, it was in a meaningless flag football game that my anger and mouthiness brought out the racist in me. I called this other young man--a successful student, a tremendous athlete, and a well-known socialite--a “boy.” I didn’t just say it once. I said it over and over. One of my professors in seminary once said that most Black people are just waiting for the moment when well-meaning white people will call them a racial slur. I became that person. I knew what I was saying. I knew the history of demeaning Black men by calling them “boys,” a history that goes all the way back to slavery.
Over the past few weeks I have written about Whiteness and White identity. These ideas can seem ethereal, unable to be understood, slippery, overly-academic, maybe even elitist, but they always come back to the land and to bodies. These are my stories of the very real formation these two powerful ideas had on my life, my body, the bodies of others, and the land on which we lived. I’ve told these stories not just to show that these difficult concepts work themselves out in real life and on real people but to show that I am still in the process of deconstructing my racial formation. I have been in that process for 7 years now, and most days I still think I’m just beginning.
I hope my stories, my formation, my deconstruction will encourage you, though, because it is in the last 7 years of reflecting on my own life that I have caught glimpses of true freedom and community. Most of all, the past 7 years have shattered me, but it’s in that shattering that I’ve witnessed the Holy Spirit putting pieces back together to make something new.