This Week In Whiteness

This is the first installment of what I fear will be an ongoing series.  At the end of our review of the film 12 Years A Slave, I made a case that there is a deep and central ongoing problem related to race in this country – that we don’t quite know how to get at.

Now, some of you may be thinking ‘that is the simplest and most obvious thing I have ever read. Duh!’  and you would be right …

But here is the thing: that is not the problem.

The problem is that there are a near equal amount of people whose response is ‘What? No there is not. Stop making trouble and bringing this up all the time.’PuzzlePiece

The conversation is frustrating because of a complex little piece at the center of the cultural-historical puzzle. The mechanism is two-fold:

  • Many whites know-sense-feel-suspect-intuit that something is wrong but don’t know how to address it.
  • Race issues are supposed to be a thing of the past. You hear sentiments like ” I thought we fixed that whole problem,  I mean  MLK … and the election of Obama and I like Beyonce’s music and Michael Jordan was my favorite basketball player …”

Plus” , I hear this often, “if people wouldn’t make such a big deal about one celebrity who says something they shouldn’t have … if things were not so darn politically correct these days then it would just be one person sharing their opinion – right or wrong“.

 

Later today Micky, Tripp, Callid and myself are going to put out a Culture-Cast as the Portland branch of our podcast family mourns the loss Mindy Green. Part of the Culture-Cast is a look at media and Micky Jones and I will talking about everything from Megyn Kelly to Duck Dynasty.

If you have read my stuff before, you will know that I am often not that interested in talking about the thing itself (I usually sit back on these hot-button issues and let those closer to the issue handle it as a I read and learn – what I am looking for is patterns that develop).  My concern is usually the thing behind the thing.

Here then is my fear: the issues related to race in N. America are not isolated to a certain generation nor are they limited to celebrities (folks like Paula Deen or the Duck Dynasty crew).

The very nature of whiteness has a built-in mechanism (the privilege) that does not allow itself to see itself (or at least makes it extremely difficult to).

Jemar Tisby does a masterful job in breaking down the complexity of the situation when describes:

What Phil Robertson and others get wrong is how they diagnose the state of race relations in America.  They use external cues like the frequency of a smile, and their personal exposure to overt instances of racism to judge the climate of a culture.  But what some people fail to understand is that there are unwritten rules of conduct when Blacks interact with Whites.

“External cues” can be such a distracting data-set when diagnosing the culture around you.

But of course ‘external cues’ are not the only variable. The larger issue is related to ‘social construction’. Categories like race are constructed socially and all of us are acted-upon by them.

So when Megyn Kelley says that Santa and Jesus are white and that this is historically verifiable … while she is wrong (of course)  - it is not entirely her fault.  I have been reading a fascinating book called The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America. It turns out the images of Jesus have a long, complex and troubling history on this side of the Atlantic.  One is almost led to have mercy on Mrs. Kelly for her mistaken notion (joke or not) simply because the images that she would have had available to her formation are in-themselves skewed.

 

If you want to listen to a fascinating examination of race – and specifically why is can be so difficult to even address the underlying issues, track down a Canadian (CBC) ‘Ideas’ episode called Is Race A Fiction (video)  or download it on I-Tunes (audio).

I hear this sometimes:

“Since race is scientifically unverifiable and we are all part of the human race … why don’t we just stop with all of the talk about race and treat each other like human-beings?”

If only it were that easy. As you will hear in that CBC episode – The problem is that race is now a social and historical category that has been both acted upon and which has formed us (part of our social construction) and that makes it ‘real’ even if it doesn’t actually exist!

In the end, these flareups about the color of Santa or the opinions of guys who make duck calls are not just the death-flalings at the end of a post-racial era. Nor are they the isolated opinions of few backward folks in rural pockets of this continent.
These issues are not soon to disappear nor will they simply go away with time.

There is something deep in the heart of whiteness that is not going anywhere anytime soon. That is why we can not simply ‘let things run their course’ or be passive about the ongoing perpetuation of false categories and attitudes. In fact, the deeper I look into the issue, the deeper and scarier the issue of whiteness appears.

It will be interesting to see what Micky has to say when we chat later today.

If you are going to comment- please do me a favor and remember that I am more concerned about the thing behind that thing than I am about the thing itself. 

_________________

For further reading:

Whiteness: a critical reader

The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege

After Whiteness: unmasking the american majority

I am going to cross-post this here and at Ethnic Space.

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10 comments
SEiseleDyrli
SEiseleDyrli

I'm new to this blog, but given the title, I was compelled to read it. I'm a white female Christian, and have been working to root out the belief that my skin color makes me superior (in the oh-so-many seemingly mundane and harmless ways) for only a few years. So when I find fellow Christians who are working to nudge the church to consider their part in maintaining and in tearing down racism, I can't help but try to connect.


As a fellow "sojourner," I want to humbly point out that while I completely agree with you that many people don't know how to talk about "race" (and by "race," do you mean racism and how it affects peoples lives in very real ways today, or about the lack of genetic or scientific basis behind the idea of "race"? All part of the challenge of talking about the subject), those people are generally white. This blog post, while I see the possibility of some really wonderful blog posts and reflection on the subject, is written from a white perspective without acknowledging such (since white privilege gives us permission to assume that things are white without having to say it), and without acknowledging the work that many people of color and white people are doing everyday to address the very issues you raise. You say that "I made a case that there is a deep and central ongoing problem related to race in this country – that we don’t quite know how to get at," but the problem is that white people don't know how to get at it, and that when people of color do get at it, white people tell them they're being too sensitive or seeing things that aren't there.


I do look forward to exploring this blog more, and to reading more reflections on this subject.


Peace.

Matt Cumings
Matt Cumings

I'm glad to read this will be a recurring theme in Homebrewed. Understanding white privilege goes hand-in-hand with unpacking feminism/womanism.

SlimMoon
SlimMoon

Thanks for this.  I happen to be reading The Color of Christ right now as well.  I am not far into it yet but I think it probably has some answers that could address kristenfilipic's comment and request for discussion.


Another terrific source of information is the PBS documentary Race: The Power of an Illusion, which can be found at: 


http://www.pbs.org/race/000_General/000_00-Home.htm

kristenfilipic
kristenfilipic

I've got a question to poke at. 

Of course the actual Yeshua of Nazareth who walked around Galilee probably didn't look much at all like Robert Powell or Willem Dafoe.  (Still curious how Megyn Kelly can historically verify the race of Santa ... but oh never mind.)

On the other hand, there's a strong artistic tradition of portraying Jesus and Mary in a variety of ethnicities (and in more than art, since we just celebrated the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and I think in the Kibeho apparations Mary is said to have appeared as an African woman oh but we're all Protestants here so let's just talk about art).  They very often appear as the ethnicity of the surrounding area.  So in African religious art they look African, in Asia they look Asian, etc.

This strikes me as a very good thing.

In that context, was the blond Jesus in my children's Bible a problem?

I still think so.  But it isn't because of "historical accuracy."  So what is it?

Discuss.

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@SEiseleDyrli I agree with many of your concerns. In fairness, as a first-timer you may not know that I am white but readers of this blog do. You can also see my pic on the about page. and if you listen to that episode where the quote is from ... that quote is in the context of talking about two white guys being asked to review a movie about slavery. 


I appreciate your concern, just wanted to point out that as a first-timer there was some context.  


hope to hear from you in the future.  all the best.  - Bo 

Ivy Onyeador
Ivy Onyeador

@kristenfilipic I think that a "historically accurate" Jesus is a great way forward because exposing your children to a historical lens to think about Jesus can be a beneficial part of their faith development. Blond Jesus doesn't have to be a "problem" as long as he is accompanied age-appropriate honest discussions about race, representation, why Jesus is so often cast as blond in the West, how other races/cultures portray Jesus, and why that happens (same reason Jesus is portrayed as blond in the West--we are motivated to identify positive figures with our ingroup). It'd be even better if there was also a discussion about why Blond Jesus might be disempowering to non-White people (the damaging idea everything and everyone good is White, evil is Black or non-White, so on and so forth). 

SEiseleDyrli
SEiseleDyrli

@BoSanders @SEiseleDyrli Hi Bo - thanks for responding! Actually, I did know you were white, both from the way your post was written and your photo (though of course, you can never assume a persons "race" from a picture - so that was my mistake!).



I guess my response wasn't very clear, it doesn't seem my point made much sense to you - as you note in the post, as white people we are still working to learn the language to speak about racism and white privilege. I'm still learning a lot! Nevertheless, I do look forward to continuing to read - I'm very happy to be connected with other self-identified white Christians who  are travelling together on this journey to understanding how to shine a light on white privilege in ourselves and lovingly bring others on this journey with us.


Peace,

Sarah

kristenfilipic
kristenfilipic

Thanks.  I don't think I can go down his road, but it's good food for thought!