Giving Up Whiteness – Day 5/40: Take Up Blackness and Follow Me

Yesterday, we talked about how whiteness was “taken up,” adopted and used by immigrants to the United States in order for them to be safe from the machinery of whiteness that would otherwise target them and their families.

Today, I want to introduce the possibility of taking up, adopting, and using blackness as a way to resist and ultimately dismantle whiteness.

Is it possible to take up blackness?

If we go back to James H. Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation, we will hear him describe the task of Christian theology and ministry to be the work of taking on blackness.  He writes:

It is unthinkable that oppressors could identify with oppressed existence and thus say something relevant about God’s liberation of the oppressed. In order to be Christian theology, white theology must cease being white theology and become black theology by denying whiteness as an acceptable form of human existence and affirming blackness as God’s intention for humanity. White theologians will find this difficult, and it is to be expected that some will attempt to criticize black theology precisely on this point. Such criticism will not reveal a weakness in black theology but only the racist character of the critic.
– “A Black Theology of Liberation” by James H. Cone

This is what Jesus called us to when he said, “Take up your cross and follow Me.”

 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?  – Matthew 16:24-26

Cone isn’t saying that white people should literally become black.  He is referring to blackness as a symbol, in the same way I have used whiteness as a symbol.  He writes:

In this connection we may observe that black theology takes seriously Paul Tillich’s description of the symbolic nature of all theological speech. We cannot describe God directly; we must use symbols that point to dimensions of reality that cannot be spoken of literally. Therefore to speak of black theology is to speak with the Tillichian understanding of symbol in mind. The focus on blackness does not mean that only blacks suffer as victims in a racist society, but that blackness is an ontological symbol and a visible reality which best describes what oppression means in America.
– “A Black Theology of Liberation” by James H. Cone

It is easy to understand why people who identify as white or Caucasian would resist this conversation.  If life, theology, faith, and culture becomes about something other than centering whiteness, there is an immediate reaction to the threat of non-existence.  Most people who identify as white have not had the occasion to reflect on their location at the center of life, theology, and culture.

People who have not extracted themselves from the context of whiteness are fearful people.  Whiteness requires people it controls to be terrified of non-whiteness.  It has corrupted and mutated the truth of their relationship to humanity, the purpose of faith, and their ability to rationally evaluate their assumptions about and their participation in the machinery of oppression.

And that’s why we are having this conversation.  To develop the ability to heal the fear in people who are overcome by whiteness and to lay the foundation to dismantle it altogether.

Tomorrow, we’ll begin to look at how whiteness shows up in our reality today.  We’ll turn our attention first to someone who has mistaken the call to take on blackness for a call to pretend she is black, Rachel Dolezal.