Making whiteness strange


Raging protests across America (and many other nations), raging debates, and sheer outrage (see the close of this John Oliver Last Week Tonight show) – the lid has been blown off the pressure cooker of systemic racial inequality going back centuries.

There are multiple factors at play – not least colonialism, slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, massive economic and social inequality, a reckless sociopath as President, and the militarisation of policing to a point where moderate white American professors of theology in their late 60s have concluded that America has become a police state.

In the last post I finished with a series of self-critical questions for predominantly white churches / Christians. In this post I’d like to push a bit further.

The questions in the last post focused on the church being an alternative community of justice to the world, not mirroring the world but being a unique place of equality for all in Christ – regardless of ethnicity, race or any other marker of difference. They also called for listening hard and well to black brothers and sisters.

But there is more to engaging with the realities of systemic racism and inequality than asking – and acting on – hard questions about our own attitudes and behaviour.

They should also provoke us to consider the issue of ‘whiteness’ itself.

I mean by this what’s been called the ‘invisibility of whiteness’. In other words, those who are white tend to think little about what it means to be white. I’ll put my hand up here and say I’m in my 50s and have rarely, if ever, thought seriously about the colour of my skin.

By ‘seriously’ I mean in thinking about how my racial identity shapes what I do, think, see, ask, and do not ask.

Yes, of course, in certain circumstances you are very aware of being white. Two examples stick in my mind. One in the south-west USA travelling through Navajo territory. The other in the Australian outback and camping in a predominantly Aboriginal town. The parallel in both was of a native population decimated and demoralised by Western appropriation of land, culture and identity.

[While America is (rightly) in the news, the Australian story of race is beyond terrible in its brutal history of extermination and and everyday contemporary racism].

The point though is that my whiteness only becomes ‘visible’ to me in exceptional circumstances – when faced with an experience of suffering and deprivation caused by white colonialism (i.e., invasion, massacre and discrimination in the case of the Navajo and Aboriginal populations.) In normal circumstances here in Ireland it’s the default – and you don’t think about the default, you take it for granted as the norm.

And Ireland does pretty well thank you on racism as well.

But of course if you are African-American or Aboriginal or one of multiple other non-white identities, you don’t have that luxury: you are forced to think about your skin colour relentlessly – everytime you experience different treatment because of your ethnicity. This from Tobi Lawal, speaking to white people in Ireland:

“Show that you can understand the struggle and understand your privilege, in the sense that you get up every day and go out; you don’t have to think about whether you’re going to get refused from somewhere, whether when you go to work you’re going to have to fight to get a new position; you don’t have to think about whether you go to a nightclub and someone is going to say something to you about your hair or your colour.”

Tobi Lawal

Since this is a theology / biblical blog let’s look at this dynamic in biblical studies. David Horrell from Exeter University, and who comes to NT studies via a social-scientific angle, is one of the very few white NT scholars to broach this subject.

He did so via a plenary paper called ‘Paul, Inclusion, and Whiteness: Particularlising Interpretation’ at the British NT Conference in 2017 which happened to be held in Maynooth, the town where I live in Ireland. So I heard him give the paper. It was published in JSNT and a book will soon be published by Eerdmans called Ethnicity and Inclusion Religion, Race, and Whiteness in Constructions of Jewish and Christian Identities.

To cut to the chase, he argues that how you read the Bible is deeply influenced not only by your culture and personality, but by your whiteness.

And in biblical studies there has generally been a failure by scholars to recognise how their interpretation of the Bible has been shaped by their context of the white Christian West.

This isn’t to say that such white readings are without merit. It is to say that they, like any other readings, need to be understood as a particular reading, not as the obviously correct and normal reading.

He looks at the example of Galatians 3:28

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

He covers a lot of ground (and you can download the full paper here) and I hope to return to his arguments in other blog posts. Here is his conclusion, shaped in the form of a question – one well worth reflecting on.

“Can we possibly imagine that our own reconstructions of the earliest Christian communities and exegesis of the Pauline letters are not shaped, inflected, by our contemporary social, political, religious and racial location? And though it may be uncomfortable to acknowledge it, is not our racialised identity one significant part of that complex intersection of facets of identity to which we should – indeed must – pay attention? Part of the force of whiteness studies is to insist that if we find it reasonable to think that, say, African-American interpreters, or other interpreters raced as nonwhite, might find their identity and experience relevant in shaping their reading of the New Testament, so too those of us raced as white should equally expect that our ethnic or racial identity constitutes part of the package of factors that shapes our reading. I may well be wrong in the way I have tried to identify some of the respects in which interpretation of Paul – and of Gal 3.28 in particular – remains enmeshed in the ideological particularity of the white, Christian West. But I would challenge those who think so to propose their own critical analysis of how this particularity becomes visible in our exegesis. Assuming that our interpretation is uncontextualised – unmarked, unlocated, unraced– is, I would suggest, no longer a feasible option.” (my emphasis)

And if this is the case, the point of ‘making whiteness strange’ is to become far more aware of the limitations and provisionality of our own perspective.

Once we get to that point, then we are at least open to the necessity of listening to voices other than our own in order to more accurately hear what the Bible is saying to us all today.

And if that is all rather technical and academic, here’s a picture that says it all:

It was painted by Chicago-based Warner Sallman in 1940 and became one of the most influential images of Jesus in American Protestantism, selling over 500 million copies. This was one of the first times that ‘Jesus went commercial’. Mass production and clever marketing made this image synonymous with who Jesus was in popular imagination.

How do you ‘read’ this image? For me it is white, polite, Western and non-Jewish. Very much like the Jesus of 19th century liberalism and not at all like the Jesus of the Gospels.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

4 thoughts on “Making whiteness strange

  1. Thank you Patrick for This entry. I just want to amplify a bit the picture for those who are not aware. South America, conquered by Spain mainly and Portugal planted a good amount of seeds of racism. During the XVI century the court and the church where discussing if the natives of the new Indies were human! Until a priest called Bartolomé de las Casas around 1536, finally convinced them the natives were in fact humans. Even when they did not understand the language they were forced to convert to Catholicism. Spain took the lands and the natives ended up with very little. By the end of the 17th century beginning of the 18th, the area that is today called Argentina and its surrounding was well organised into classes according to your family tree, everybody was well labelled according to the mixed races: the son of a spaniard with somebody from the land was called: criollo, then there were other classes: mulato, mestizo, depending if the mixture was of African background or native aboriginal.
    Today, Argentina is made up of European descents. The natives were all killed by sickness introduced by the Europeans or by war. A few remain in the north and south with very little privileges, still fighting for a piece of land of their own. The people who are descents of the natives are called derrogatively: black heads.
    A lot of the countries in South America have quite a lot of resentment towards the whites (descendants of the Spanish) they still have the power and the money.
    All the colonisation was done in the name of God and the crown. I think when we mix the Kingdom of God with the kingdom of man, we are in trouble.

  2. You undermined the artiicle by attacking the President of the United States. Millions of white American Christians voted for him and will do so again. Whatever required change in their racial values is better influenced by a biblical / theological Kingdom perspective which I believe your blog is. I felt your attack on the President was un-Kingdom like. I remind you that In February Ireland came within a hairs breadth of having the leader of a terrorist backed political party as President. My family in Northern Ireland then would have had similar fears as the black community in US. Presidents come and Presidents go but Jesus is King and I agree that Kingdom people should seek justice.

    • Welcome David and thanks for your comment. I’ve deliberately said virtually nothing about Donald Trump, I think since a post back before the election saying that a vote for him would be recklessly irresponsible. I stand by that view after all that has transpired, but I want to resist the trap of being obsessed with Trump, as if he holds the keys to the future. As you say, he will come and go and Christians follow the one true Lord and king. But that is not to say that a President is somehow above critique – especially when he so blatantly attempts to co-op God on to his side by holding up a Bible after using the army to clear the street. That’s the sort of ‘religious nationalism’ that Ana is talking about in Latin American history – where religion is used to justify and sanctify political power. You mention Northern Ireland – Irish history has also been plagued by religious nationalism – both Irish nationalists (like Pearse) and Ulster Unionists (Paisley) are recent examples. I’m not equating them all – it’s complex, but they are different expressions of a malign, and I think idolatrous, impulse to legitimate one’s own ambitions and demonise one’s enemies.

  3. That’s a fascinating account Ana, thank you. It’s a part of the world I know very little about. I’m familiar with the story of Liberation Theology, but am not aware of more recent theological voices talking about race and colonial history in Latin America – any good recommendations?

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