Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Color of White: Race and the Emergent Church, Part 2

While this post does not offer reflections on the Emergent church as such, it is the second of a series of posts in which I have and will address race (and the EC). Inching forward from the first post of this series, we now begin to define what I brought up in earlier comments: white privilege.

First, though, what is whiteness?

I offer the observation of labor historian David Roediger to contextualize the contents of today's post:

“[F]ew Americans have ever considered the idea that African-Americans are extremely knowledgeable about whites and whiteness. In the mainstream of American culture, and certainly in intellectual circles, a rough and unproductive division of labor exists where claiming expert knowledge and commonsense wisdom on race are concerned. White writers have long been positioned as the leading and most dispassionate investigators of the lives, values, and abilities of people of color. White writing about whiteness is rarer, with discussions of what it means to be human standing in for considerations of how racial identity influences white lives. Writers of color, and most notably African-American writers, are cast as providing insight, often presumed to be highly subjective, of what it is like to be “a minority.” Lost in this destructive shuffle is the fact that from folktales onward African Americans have been among the nation’s keenest students of white consciousness and white behavior” (from Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to be White, p. 4).

So, taking Roediger’s comments seriously -- slowly, carefully, and thoughtfully consider the observations of:

1. Ralph Ellison, “What America Would Be Like Without Blacks” (1970)

“Materially, psychologically, and culturally, part of the nation’s heritage is Negro American, and whatever it becomes will be shaped in part by the Negro’s presence. Which is fortunate, for today it is the black American who puts pressure upon the nation to live up to its ideals. It is he who gives creative tension to our struggle for justice and for the elimination of those factors, social and psychological, which make for slums and shaky suburban communities. It is he who insists that we purify the American language by demanding that there be a close correlation between the meaning of words and reality, between ideal and conduct, our assertions and our actions. Without the black American, something irrepressibly hopeful and creative would go out of the American spirit, and the nation might well succumb to the moral slobbism that has ever threatened its existence from within” (from a selection in Black on White, p. 166).


2. bell hooks, Black Looks (1992)

“Although there has never been any official body of black people in the United States who have gathered as anthropologists and/or ethnographers to study whiteness, black folks have, from slavery on, shared in conversations with one another “special” knowledge of whiteness gleand from close scrutiny of white people....Even though legal racial apartheid no longer is a norm in the United States, the habits that uphold and maintain institutionalized white supremacy linger. Since most white people do not have to “see” black people (constatntly appearing on billboards, television, movies, in magazines, etc.) and they do not need to be ever on guard nor to observe black people to be safe, they can live as thought black people are invisible, and they can imagine that they are also invisible to blacks. Some white people may even imagine that there is no representation of whiteness in the black imagination, especially one that is based on concrete observation or mythic conjecture. They think they are seen by black folks only as they want to appear. Ideologically, the rhetoric of white supremacy supplies a fantasy of whitness.” (from a selection in Black on White, pp. 38, 42).

About Gayatri Spivak’s The Post-Colonial Critic, in which Spivak discusses hegemonic discourses and the process of dehegemonizing, hooks observes that “this process of repositioning has the power to deconstruct practices of racism and make possible the disassociation of whiteness with terror in the black imagination. As critical intervention it allows for the recognition that progressive white people who are anti-racist might be able to understand the way in which their cultural practice reinscribes white supremacy without promoting paralyzing guilt or denial” (Black on White, 53).


3. James Baldwin, “White Man’s Guilt” (1965)

“I have often wondered, and it is not a pleasant wonder, just what white Americans talk about with one another.

“I wonder this because they do not, after all, seem to find very much to say to me, and I concluded long ago that they found the color of my skin inhibiting....This is utterly futile, of course, since they do see what they see. And what they see is an appallingly oppressive and bloody history known all over the world. What they see is a disastrous, continuing, present condition which menaces them, and for which they bear an inescapable responsibility. But since in the main they seem to lack the energy to change this condition they would rather not be reminded of it. Does this mean that in their conversation with one another, they merely make reassuring sounds[?]. It scarcely seems possible, and yet, on the other hand, it seems all too likely. In any case, whatever they bring to one another, it is certainly not freedom from guilt. The guilt remains, more deeply rooted, more securely lodged, than the oldest of fears.

The record is there for all to read. It resounds all over the world. It might as well be written in the sky. One wishes that Americans – white Americans – would read, for their own sakes, this record and stop defending themselves against it. Only then will they be enabled to change their lives.

“The fact that they have not been able to do this – to face their history, to change their lives – hideously menaces this country. Indeed, it menaces the entire world.

“White [person], hear me! History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read....the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations. And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this.

“My point of view certainly is formed by my history, and it is probably that only a creature despised by history finds history a questionable matter. On the other hand, people who imagine that history flatters them (as it does, indeed, since they wrote it) are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world.

“This is the place in which it seems most white Americans find themselves. Impaled. They are dimly, or vividly, aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly a lie, but they do not know how to release themselves from it, and they suffer enormously from the resulting personal incoherence. This incoherence is heard nowhere more plainly than in those stammering, terrified dialogues....The nature of this stammering can be reduced to a plea. ["]Do not blame me. I was not there. I did not do it. My history has nothing to do with Europe or the slave trade. Anyway it was your chiefs who sold you to me. I was not present in the middle passage. I am not responsible for...the cotton fields of Mississippi....I also despise the governors of southern states and the sheriffs of southern counties, and I also want your child to have a decent education and rise as high as capabilities will permit. I have nothing against you, nothing! What have you got against me? What do you want?["] But on the same day, in another gathering and in the most private chamber of his heart always, the white American remains proud of that history for which he does not wish to pay, and from which, materially, he has profited so much.

“[T]he history of white people has led them to a fearful baffling place where they have begun to lose touch with reality – to lose touch, that is, with themselves – and where they certainly are not truly happy for they know they are not truly safe. They do not know how this came about. On the one hand they can scarcely dare to open a dialogue which must, if it is honest, become a personal confession, a cry for help and healing which is, really, I think, the basis of all dialogues and, on the other hand, the black man can scarcely dare to open a dialogue which must, if it is honest, become a personal confession which fatally contains an accusation. And yet if neither of us cannot do this each of us will perish in those traps in which we have been struggling for so long.

“The American curtain is color. Color. White men have used this word, this concept to justify unspeakable crimes and not only in the past, but in the present. One can measure very neatly the white American’s distance from his conscience – from himself – by observing the distance between white America and black America. One has only to ask oneself who established this distance, who is the distance designed to protect, and from what is this distance designed to protect?” (from a selection in Black on White, pp. 320-323).


How is whiteness defined, explained, theorized, dispayed, and perpetuated -- in subtle ways? Have you -- do you think about these things?

1 comment:

Cambridge said...

My name's Cambridge Broxterman. I live in Cincinnati, Ohio. As a white American, I find truth with all of your words.

I was raised in the outskirts in Cincinnati; as so, my mother, grandmother, and father constantly reminded me that this was the "nice" part because only black people live in the city and it is, therefore, dangerous.
I went to catholic schools for 12 years wherein I had contact with ONE black girl named Fameta. She was my 1st grade "little sister" that got assigned to when I was in 8th grade. I wasn't even aware of racism until then: other kids started asking me questions about her and asking me to tell them if she talked ebonics or to explain other stereotypes she didn't act. It was disgusting to me, as a 13-year-old.
I grew up, made odd trips with my grandmother to places downtown, and was told to lock the doors. I finally asked, "Why?" and she said, "Because it's dangerous." I said, "No, it's not dangerous. The news makes you think that it's dangerous." To which she hastily replied, "The black people make it dangerous."

Growing up in this backward environment has, fortunately, only made me question what the hell people of my race actually -know- about people who aren't white. My conclusion: not much. And it's out of plain and simple fear. What do they even have to be afraid of? I have no idea. I don't even know how they feel comfortable just assuming things about other races without even questioning why they think that in the first place.
Unlike the rest of my family, however, I chose a different route during college and have taken classes that allow me to learn a different perspective. Currently I'm taking a course entitled Comteporary Religious Ideas in which I got the opportunity to look at history through the eyes of African Americans (and considering I've only even had history lessons that teach me about white Europe and white America, this is huge thing for me).

I can only hope that one day, I will be one of the millions of people in my generation to change the collective stereotypes of other races. The way I think, the way a lot of people my age think, and the way I imagine we will raise our kids to think is going to change this world from a fearful one to an understanding one.