So, whiteness and white privilege; let’s review previous posts very quickly:
Labor historian David Roediger points out that many white people have never once thought that African Americans are expert observers of whiteness, and therefore know it and can identify it while many white people rarely think about why they think of themselves as white, let along investigate the ways in which they live life based on the assumption of white privilege.
Ralph Ellison’s 1970 article reminds readers that woven throughout America’s “heritage” are African and African American culture(s), and without them, America would not live up to its so-called “ideals” of freedom, etc.
Writing in the early 1990s, bell hooks, in her customarily engaging and critical way, comments on the ways in which white people never “see” black people in a white supremacist culture since a white “rhetoric…supplies a fantasy of whiteness.” She then references post-colonial theory that seeks to dismantle hegemonic discourses of oppression that perpetuate and encase societal expectations and “ideals” – in this case “white” customs and traditions.
James Baldwin insightfully enters a place that white people know, live in/with, yet rarely discuss but repeatedly enact – white guilt – and identifies dialogue as one way to begin a process of change.
Journalism scholar Robert Jensen offers his own definition of white privilege, as does feminist scholar Peggy McIntosh, musician Derek Webb, and finally, Robert Paul Wolff in his important Autobiography of an Ex-White Man (2005).
Finally, I narrate my own recent moment during which white privilege dominated the conversation, and importantly, resulted in a productive and positive exchange; it was a consciousness-raising moment.
I bring these threads of conversation up because I want to suggest that in Emergent conversations about diversity and multiculturalism, if they are to proceed forward with rigor and meaningful depth, a clear witness to whiteness and white privilege must be part of the discussion.
This is important, I believe, for at least five reasons:
1. Like it or not, the face of the Emergent church is largely white, and largely male. To be fair, this is partly a function of how the media present and discuss the movement/church, but it also reflects the reality of the movement’s leadership at this point in time.
2. Though global in orientation and global in scope, to more cogently and faithfully enact the gospel and participate in the Kingdom, the Emergent church in the U.S. must deal with the issue of race. This issue is part of the missional landscape of which the Emergent church is a part (more on this point below). As the Emergent church shares various interwoven threads of the larger evangelical quilt (to adopt a metaphor from Randall Balmer’s Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory ), larger, structural realities of evangelicalism matter for the Emergent church.
3. Recent research provides data that attest to the importance of the issues I raise. Based on sound scientific research, in Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (2000), Michael Emerson and Christian Smith find that despite paying lip service (sometimes) to interethnic initiatives, the political, social, and economics structures of evangelicalism and U.S. society result in white evangelicals perpetuating and supporting racial division. This manifests itself very often, the authors demonstrate, with white evangelicals (when they admit it) claiming that racial tensions are the result of individual conflicts, and shy away from acknowledging larger structural parameters of racism.
Consider this quote from Divided By Faith: “Like their forbears during Jim Crow segregation, who prescribed kindness toward people of other races, but did not challenge the Jim Crow system, present-day white evangelicals attempt to solve the race problem without shaking the foundations on which racialization is built. As long as they do not see or acknowledge the structures of racialization, they inadvertently contribute to them. And, insofar as they continue to give solutions that do not challenge racialization, they allow racial inequality and division to continue unabated” (132).
4. In a provocative article titled “The Economics of the Emerging Church,” James K.A. Smith baldly asks, “What’s the median income of a ‘new kind of Christian’”? “How bourgeois is the emerging church?” “What can we do to prevent the emerging church from being simply another bourgeois institution?” [Smith refers to the “emerging” church in the U.S.] In essence Smith points out that to “be” postmodern and to ask the sorts of cultural questions raised by the Emergent church implies a sort of privilege. “But how will the postmodern church reach those who’ve been on the underside of modernity?,” Smith asks. Smith positively notes the missional nature of the Emergent church and suggests that it has the potential to address “socio-economic structures that systematically disempower” places and peoples. A concern for these things in the North American context, Smith suggests, is not enough; the Emergent church must powerfully speak to exploitative socio-economic structures globally as well.
I deeply, deeply appreciate and embrace (what appear to be) Smith’s socialist analysis of the Emergent church; his comments resonate in important ways, and provide an opportunity to suggest that discussions of class come with conversations about race. If theology is praxis, as Gustavo Gutierrez and James Cone show, then both race and class deserve equal attention. The North American context (to say nothing of the global situations) demands it.
6. The missional character of the Emergent (Emerging) church suggests an orientation that is conscious of the embedded character of the Christian gospel and the importance of the particularities and situatedness of issues related to life in North America. And the most important issue at hand, I suggest, is race. Because the Emergent church is missional, and because of this (by definition) attuned to the particularities of the North American context, then the Emergent church must grapple with the issue of race in profound and radical ways if it is to faithfully carry out its missional tasks.
So, if my assessments in this series are accurate and if my suggestions are worthy of reflection, then what is to be done? What kind of educational/pedagogical (or ecclesial) initiatives must we undertake to begin the task(s) I propose? Any ideas or suggestions?
Here’s one, and I’m sure there are more.