Susan Wise Bauer
No Exit? - Whiteness, part 2
The strategies of Whiteness re-education have not, so far, set college campuses on fire with reconciliation. But this should not surprise anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of human psychology—since this re-education binds a bagload of guilt on the backs of White students, without providing any convenient cross for them to drop it at.
The language of Whiteness is, more often than not, explicitly religious. "There is some burden we must bear by being white Americans," Jane Lazarre writes, describing the original sin of Whiteness. "I have been born into color." But beyond this flawed identity, there is hope for Whites who are willing to admit their participation in the original sin. Whiteness is "a burden which can be redemptive, not oppressive"—but only if white Americans are willing to be born again.
This rebirth is "into a consciousness of color. ... Being born means ... the development of knowledge over time." The new birth Lazarre suggests is a birth into a new way of thinking, and it has the power to change her very identity; she is no longer White, but something else. She concludes the story of her rebirth:
In all racialized situations, that is to say all situations in which Black people and white people who are not on close, personal terms find themselves together, I am always comforted by this thought: I am no longer white. However I may appear to others, I am a person of color now. ... Some color with no precise name.
What race scholars offer to well-intentioned whites is the equivalent of a religious conversion: Move from one identity to another. Shuck off the old man, put on the new. Admit that you wronged all non-Whites by your very existence. Society will be changed by White admission of guilt, and by White acceptance of a new central story around which Whites can build new lives.
But practically speaking, this admission of White guilt is made nearly impossible—because no atonement can ever be made for the sin of Whiteness. Unitarian theologian and race scholar Thandeka, psychoanalyzing Bill McCartney (from a distance), explicitly rejects the Christian theology of atonement for guilt by using McCartney as a paradigmatic Christian:
Writes McCartney: "We've stood against a lot of other social evils, but we have not stood against racism and called it what it is: sin! ... We should drop to our knees before Almighty God in repentance." McCartney, by transforming his feelings of shame into a recognition of white guilt for the sin of white racism, has turned both white racism and his own white racial identity into an affair that can be handled only by God and his Son. ... What remains is a man with a white racial self-identity desensitized to his own unresolved feelings from the painful awareness of his complicity in racist acts. Such a man emerges from this process with an arrogant Christian self-assurance.
Nor is there much prospect of forgiveness from those who have been wronged. Unlike the Christian confession, made before God in assurance of forgiveness, the confession of complicity in Whiteness is a horizontal one, made before nonwhites—and if you're White, nonwhites (at least the ones encountered during freshmen orientations) are furious at you. The widely used college orientation film Skin Deep is, in the words of Alan Kors, a
1996 film funded by the Ford Foundation [that] records an encounter at a retreat between college students from around the country. ... We meet white, Hispanic, black, and Asian-American students from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the University of California at Berkeley, and Texas A&M. ... When white students initially suggest that they personally did not do terrible things, the students of color fire back with both barrels. A first reply goes immediately to the heart of the matter: "One thing that you must definitely understand is that we're discussing how this country was founded, and because you are a white male, people are going to hate you." ... The Chicana, Judy, lets them know that "I will not stop being angry, and I will not be less angry or frustrated to accommodate anybody. You whites have to understand because we have been oppressed for 2,000 years. And if you take offense, so?"
White students who admit their complicity in Whiteness are offered no option but to live forever in a state of ongoing abject repentance, with guilt as an ever-present roommate. So, for example, Leny Mendoza Strobel, a professor of multicultural studies, excoriates the naivete of the suburban church she formerly attended:
The people of my church were good-hearted, well-meaning Christians who considered themselves open to encountering other cultures and ethnicities. They taught English classes to Hispanic immigrants, befriended newly arrived immigrants from El Salvador or Guatemala, and went on a mission trip to India to build water wells for a village. But in all of this, it did not occur to them—nor were they willing to consider—that such activities could also be complicit in Ethnic domination, a reinforcement of Whiteness as the standard to which others must adhere.
There's no way out.
White privilege is not a myth. The university where I teach has a strong contingent of talented black teachers and writers, but this high percentage of black faculty doesn't reflect the reality of life in Williamsburg, Virginia. When I walk to my office I see white and black students and teachers, but only black janitors and black groundsmen; when I eat at the Williamsburg Inn, I see white and black guests, but only black housekeepers, black waitstaff, black porters.
How should we understand such persisting inequality? In One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race, Scott Malcolmson writes that white European settlers encountering those of different colors were presented with three options. They could deny the difference, identifying themselves not as light or dark-skinned but simply as human; they could accept skin color as interesting but essentially unimportant; or they could grab onto skin color as a way of identifying themselves as more valuable, more powerful, and more human than anyone else. They chose the third option.
This reaction wasn't a "race problem." It was, rather, just one more manifestation of the impulse Thomas Merton describes so eloquently in New Seeds of Contemplation:
People who know nothing of God and whose lives are centered on themselves, imagine that they can only find themselves by asserting their own desires and ambitions and appetites in a struggle with the rest of the world. ... They can only conceive one way of becoming real: cutting themselves off from other people and building a barrier of contrast and distinction between themselves and other men. ... I have what you have not. I am what you are not. I have taken what you have failed to take and I have seized what you could never get.
Thus Christians in particular have to tread very carefully in rejecting Whiteness studies. We must somehow refuse the false guilt of Whiteness while admitting the real guilt of selfishness—and it is far too easy, as we argue against White guilt, to find ourselves suddenly insisting that the status quo is basically fine, and that all America needs is for God-fearing people to vote right, work hard, make money, and pay less of it out in taxes.
Indeed, scholars of Whiteness sound a more biblical note (quite by accident) when they insist that individual privacy and the exercise of self-determination will not lift us out of our racial stalemate. The white/black divide, Lipsitz suggests,
cannot be attributed solely to ignorance or intolerance on the part of individuals. ... As long as we define social life as the sum total of conscious and deliberate individual activities, then only individual manifestations of personal prejudice and hostility will be seen as racist. Systematic, collective, and coordinated behavior disappears from sight.
Whiteness studies suggests that we must pay attention to "collective" or community behavior. Rather than standing in dignantly on our own individual good will, we must (in the words of Harvard's Geoffrey Fowler) "envision ourselves at the center of a community that both defines who we are and charges us with the moral responsibility to work to wards the good of its ends."
Christians should resonate to this call to put individual privilege to the side, for the good of a community centered around greater ideals. But the claiming of a racial identity—either black or white—will bring a quick death to any real community. Surely the divisiveness of racial identity is on Paul's mind when he first claims his racial identity as a "Jew among Jews," and then re fuses to let that racial identity co-exist with his new identity as a brother of Christ.
Paul would have had strong words for race scholar Leny Strobel, who finally decided that she could no longer belong to a church that refused to acknowledge her racial identity as the core of her being. A "theological construct that erases differences in the name of a universal sameness as children of God," Strobel writes, was unacceptable: "To erase such differences ... was to render my life trivial. And no amount of belonging was enough to offset having my life trivialized. So I left that church, and am still searching for another."
It is difficult for a white person (like myself) to object to racial identity as a category; unlike an African-American or Hispanic believer, I have nothing to gain and a great deal to lose from accepting a racial identity. But fortunately there are more distinguished voices joining me. The most prominent is probably that of Paul Gilroy, an impeccably credentialed black scholar, professor of sociology and African American Studies at Yale, author of The Black Atlantic and There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack. Gilroy's most recent book, Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line, argues that racial identity pushes us further and further apart. "Race-thinking," Gilroy suggests, has "the power to destroy any possibility of human mutuality and cosmopolitan democracy."
The dismantling of racial identity is an unpopular project, Gilroy admits; both whites ("beneficiaries of racial hierarchy [who] do not want to give up their privileges") and blacks ("people who have been subordinated by race-thinking and its distinctive social structures" but have used race-thinking nonetheless to build "complex traditions of politics, ethics, identity and culture") have a great deal invested in the maintenance of the color-line. But the gains are an illusion: blacks and whites both lose from race-thinking, which "estrange[s] them from each other and amputate[s] their common humanity."
Reading Gilroy, I was suddenly aware of how long it had been since I thought of my sister without her race central in my mind. When I spoke of her to others, I identified her as black, in an attempt to make her concerns and difficulties real to them. And in doing so, I had cut her off; all of her personality, her preoccupations, her disappointments and her fears, became not hers, but black. I had fallen into the trap of race-thinking.
Gilroy, unlike Whiteness scholars, proposes a solution: we should replace the category of race with a "pragmatic, planetary humanism" based on "an abstract sense of a human similarity powerful enough to make solidarities based on cultural particularity appear suddenly trivial." And here I must part company with Gilroy, who several times contrasts his brand of utopian thinking with the traditional Christian belief in an otherworldly Kingdom. Christianity, he suggests more than once, hampered black efforts to "address the future" because "Black Christianity had been rooted in the belief that the only habitable future lay in another, better world beyond this valley of dry bones."
This dubious characterization of black Christianity as completely focused on another world ignores a substantial body of scholarship arguing that Christianity instead served as an impetus for social reform. Yet there is a sense in which Gilroy is right about the difference between his "planetary humanism" and the Christian world-view. For Gilroy, the core of "planetary humanism" is the will to shape our own destiny, and the corresponding freedom to do so. But as Stanley Hauerwas warns us in After Christendom, this power over our future and the autonomy that the human race claims as necessary to shape the future are not compatible with the life pictured in the gospel:
For the salvation promised in the good news is not a life free from suffering, free from servitude, but rather a life that freely suffers, that freely serves, because such suffering and service is the hallmark of the Kingdom established by Jesus. ... We have learned that freedom cannot be had by becoming "autonomous"—free from all claims except those we voluntarily accept—but rather freedom literally comes by having our self-absorption challenged by the needs of another.
Gilroy's free futuristic humans and the members of the Kingdom I inhabit are potentially at odds; both may reject race-thinking, but they are likely to come to very different conclusions about what should replace it. Ultimately, the communal identity we must build to replace Blackness and Whiteness is centered around the church: a community which does indeed (in the words of Geoffrey Fowler) define who we are and charge us with the responsibility to work for its good.
The next time I talk to my sister, I will not apologize for my Whiteness. I have plenty of real sins to apologize for: my lack of patience, my failures in humility and in kindness, my arrogance, my willingness to manipulate a younger sibling into doing things my way. I'll start there.
This is the second part of two-part essay.
Susan Wise Bauer teaches literature at the College of William & Mary.
Discussed in this essay
Geoffrey Fowler, "Of Nude Pantyhose and Storybook Dreams: A Wake Up Call to White America." Diversity & Distinction Online, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Winter 1998).
Jennifer Fox, American Love Story. Zohe Film Productions (1999).
Paul Gilroy, Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line (Harvard Univ. Press, 2000).
Stanley Hauerwas, After Christendom (Abingdon, 1991).
Alan Charles Kors, "Thought Reform 101." Reason Online, March 2000.
Jane Lazarre, Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness: A Memoir of a White Mother of Black Sons (Duke Univ. Press, 1996).
George Lipsitz, "The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: Racialized Social Democracy and the 'White' Problem in American Studies." American Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 3 (September 1995).
Scott L. Malcolmson, One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000).
Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (Norton, 1974).
Leny Mendoza Stroebel. "Surrounding Ourselves With Difference." The Other Side, Vol. 36, No. 1 (January/February 2000).
Thandeka, Learning to be White: Money, Race and God in America (Continuum, 1999).
Copyright © 2000 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture Magazine.
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