Giving Up Whiteness – Day 4/40: Give Away Your Whiteness and Follow Me

Over the last few days, I’ve attempted to articulate what whiteness is.  As we progress through Lent, I’m going to engage the question of what giving up whiteness would look like.  To lay the foundation for that question, I want to engage the work of Kelly Douglas Brown in her book, “Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.”  This was a powerful book for me and I will keep coming back to it in this study, but today I want to highlight a part of the book where she describes the expansion of whiteness in the history of the United States of America.

Rev. Dr. Kelly Douglas Brown

The construction of whiteness for these European immigrants was admittedly a complicated one. Identifying as white was the way they negotiated their “real life context and social experience,” which was riddled with contradictions, most notably in terms of their relationship with the black community. As is pointed out by a group of researchers on the invention of ethnicity, such negotiation is in fact how ethnicities are constructed. For these “new stock” immigrants, whiteness was a way “to reconcile the duality of the ‘foreignness’ and the ‘Americanness’ which [they]…experienced in their everyday lives.” It essentially provided them with security, power, and, most of all, an American identity in their “in-between” space. While these Europeans may not have been the descendants of Anglo-Saxons, they were not the descendants of slaves either. And, they “quickly learned that the worst thing one could be in the Promised land was ‘colored,’ and they distanced themselves as best they could from this pariah population.” (emphasis mine)

– “Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God” by Kelly Douglas Brown

Most white people in the United States today, I assert, don’t believe they’ve had a conscious role in their inclusion in the privileges and power of whiteness.  I will address later why this isn’t the case, but for now I will at least grant that this feeling of innocence is due to what Kelly Brown Douglas is describing.

The Great White Myths of American Exceptionalism and Anglo-Saxon heritage were being severely threatened by immigration.  We have used many methods to reduce this threat, but this one, the method of allowing people to include themselves in whiteness, proved to be one of the most effective.

Thus, while the “new stock” immigrants may not have had Anglo-Saxon blood, at least they had the requisite foundation—biological make-up (white skin) and cultural disposition (anti-black bigotry)—upon which Anglo-Saxon culture and customs could be grafted. Even President Theodore Roosevelt allowed that they could be properly assimilated within “the space of two generations.”

– “Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God” by Kelly Douglas Brown

Over and over again, whiteness is something that is taken up and actively used by people, groups and individuals.  It is something held on to with an iron grip and only shared with those who won’t threaten it’s power, control, and resources.

Reflection

Consider the words of Jesus in Luke 12:22-31

He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

Friends, my point is this:  Whiteness is always a product of fear.  Whiteness is always a sin.  Whiteness was created and continues to be used as a response to the fear of non-existence.  It was manufactured as a way to justify killing millions of native bodies, stealing land, enslaving millions of black bodies.  Whiteness has continued to evolve today.  It has become so effective it has infected every aspect of life in our country and has been exported around the world.  The rest of this Lenten study will begin to highlight examples of this pervasive sin.  And since the source of this sin is fear, we will also begin to engage how to heal the fear at the heart of whiteness.

I know this may seem heavy, hopeless, depressing, shaming, etc.  To descend to the depths of our sin, to inspect it, and to become acquainted with the suffering it has caused seems dangerous and overwhelming.

But this task is filled with hope!  With each step, each encounter with the impact of our sin, each reflection, each theologian, each video, each prayer, we are all moving closer to being able to authentically repent and turn away from this sin.

The journey of Lent is a time of letting go, of healing, of meditation, of turning towards God so that we might be ready to encounter the miracle of the resurrection at Easter.

It’s time to begin to give our whiteness away.