When Whiteness Came To Sparrow
In the early 17th-century, when a young Isaac Newton first saw the apple fall from a tree, he began to ask himself why do apples, or anything for that matter, always fall straight to the ground? Through repeated observations and experimentations, he published his first paper in 1687 on the law of universal gravitation. In it were the three cornerstone laws of motion, which is still in use to this day. Newton carefully observed, thoroughly experimented, rightly interpreted, and successfully published his results. Much of the success of science is built upon observation and experimentation, but many don’t understand that much of science is interpretation of what we observe and experiment with. Because of this, what was considered scientific 100 years ago is not considered scientific today. Why? Because much of the scientific interpretation 100 years ago was faulty on some level. In fact, 100 years from now, scientific interpretations we make today will be considered obsolete. The key to Newton’s enduring legacy was his correct interpretation of his observations and experiments.
Interpretation is key to not only science, but to every area of our lives. We interpret everything we see, hear, and experience through the lens of our context, language, culture, history, and beliefs. Christians are not immune to interpretation. Our faith is built upon the interpretation of the Bible. The only question is, is our interpretation correct?
Over the past couple of weeks, a ruckus has been caused by an interview at a women’s conference known as Sparrow Women. Ekemini Uwan was interviewed on racial identity and her own personal experience with it. As a conference built on reconciliation, specifically racial reconciliation, this was hardly a surprising topic. What surprised many was her critique of “whiteness,”
“So then when we talk about white identity, then we have to talk about what whiteness is. Well, the reality is that whiteness is rooted in plunder, in theft, in slavery, in enslavement of Africans, genocide of Native Americans…It’s a power structure…”
She went on later to say, “whiteness is wickedness.” This prompted several women to walk out in protest. In the ensuing aftermath, Sparrow refused to release miss Uwan’s photos and videos (they later backpedaled). As someone who tries not to take personal offense at speech I disagree with, I wanted to hear what she had to say instead of people’s interpretations of what she said. As someone who respects Ekemini Uwan as a sharp, intelligent theologian, I walked away with more confusion than clarity.
If you’re like me, this is probably your first introduction to the term “whiteness.” I want to offer what I think is a quick introduction to its history, its meaning, and finally my lingering questions, especially related to my brothers and sisters in Christ who promote the ideas surrounding “whiteness.”
I’ll Take “Whiteness” For $500
Historically speaking, “whiteness” is a 20th century term, having gained more prominence in the 1990s with the publication of The Wages of Whiteness by David Roediger. In his paper titled, “Whiteness and the Historians Imagination,” Eric Arnesen says, “For those seeking to interrogate the concept [of whiteness] critically, it is nothing less than a moving target.” Indeed, when one looks at the ever-expanding verbiage surrounding the term “whiteness,” one this is clear: no one knows how to define it. In Ekemini’s view, “whiteness” is a power structure. To Roediger, it is synonymous with racial hatred. To Noel Ignatiev, it is the conflation of race with a higher economic position. To Bradley Mason, it is a “socially created system and concept designed for the very purpose of according rights, privileges, and legal standing.” To Darrell Harrison of the Just Thinking podcast (by no means a proponent of “whiteness”), it is anything that is not blackness.
In sum, we can only assert sweeping thematic elements that tie these definitions together: “whiteness” seeks to interpret history through the language of racial structures created by people identified as “white.” Structures used to create prejudice against black people through labor, psychology, economic benefits, and power. “Race,” to almost all “whiteness” academics, is seen as a social construct. As Arnsen cheekily replies, “To anyone familiar with American historiography of the past half century or so, none of this is particularly new.” So in “whiteness” academics minds, you can be “white” (a social construct) but be divested from “whiteness” (a power structure built on social construct).
Peter Kolchin, in his paper Whiteness Studies: The New History of Race In America, says,
At times, race—and more specifically, whiteness—is treated as an artificial construct with no real meaning aside from its particular social setting; at other times it becomes not only real, but omnipresent and unchanging, deserving attention as an independent force.
To boil it down: “whiteness” can be seen as an interpretation of history. An interpretation that sees the construction of race as a means by which we must view not just American history, but global history through acts of colonialism, specifically in Africa.
We have to take a pause to make some affirmations. There are things in “whiteness” scholarship which are historically true: namely race is a social construct, the systemic degradation of black Americans happened through that construct, and the lingering effects of that degradation are still felt today. This is not divisive, these are just facts. I believe my brothers and sisters in Christ, like Ekemini Uwan, Thabiti Anyabwile, and Jackie Hill Perry, among others, are sincere in their promotion of Ekemini’s definition of “whiteness.”
However, I believe there are both serious concerns with using the term “whiteness” as well as serious questions that must be answered before we give our promotion to it.
History is complicated. Those who love reading history books like myself, to those who are historians clearly see the complicated nature of both history and historiography (the study of how we study history). It is a complex, intricate weaving of hundreds of thousands of strands, many of which are actually lost forever. In a few words, “whiteness” is too simple. Peter Kolchin, again, says, “making whiteness omnipresent, whiteness studies authors risk losing sight of contextual variation and thereby undermining the very understanding of race and whiteness as socially constructed.” Breaking everything down into black and white misses much of the larger fractions that were happening in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Who defined “white?” Who was included in “white?” Can you become “white?”
Even further, does the acceptance of the term “whiteness” continue to give legitimacy to this “wicked” social structure? Does using the term “black” or “blackness” affirm the terms given by this oppressive system? Shouldn’t we seek to usurp it? Does a “black” person who benefits from “whiteness” become “white?” Does “whiteness” take into account the racism that took place in Europe before the 1700s between the Jews, Slavs, Irish, etc.? What do we make of not only the ethnic conflicts, but religious, gender, occupational conflicts during not only that time period, but of our time now? How does “whiteness” classify those conflicts? What word do we use to describe the racial or ethnic hierarchy in India? China? Middle East?
Does your head hurt yet?
The affirmation of “whiteness” brings with is a staggering amount of questions. Questions not even the scholars of “whiteness” have yet to answer with concrete solidarity. I’m not against using secular terms to understand history, indeed secular terms can be incredibly helpful tools. But if as Christians we are to use terms like “whiteness,” we must do so with a grain of salt. “Whiteness” is a developing interpretation of history, one that has serious flaws and must make immense historical and psychoanalytical gymnastics to make sense.
If anything is to be clear, it’s that if anyone is elevating themselves, their cultural heritage, systems they may or may not have benefited from, or their ethnic bloodline, they must repent. Whether it is “whiteness” or “blackness,” if any of these things come before our identity found in Jesus Christ, we must repent. I am in agreement with Ekemini that God made us with a specific skin color and a specific ethnicity and a specific cultural heritage. They are many of the God-ordained means by which our faith is expressed. But they should not stand in the way of our fellowship in Jesus Christ and the communion of saints.
In fact, the apostle Paul declares in Philippians 3:8 about his Hebrewness and Jewishness: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” All of those things, from our gender to our ethnicity, will be brilliantly, beautifully, and sinlessly displayed around the throne of God as we all sing, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
We still have a long way until we get to that point and I’m not convinced acknowledging “whiteness” will get us any closer to that reality. I believe in 100 years it will become as obsolete as many scientific interpretations of the past are today. I’m not saying we must ignore the history of America or the oppression that has happened in the name of race, we must tell the truth about it. But I want us to build upon an interpretive legacy that will outlast “whiteness” and bring us to a fuller, more complete picture of history. And for Christians, we must build upon a greater, more perfect interpretive legacy, one that will outlast even Newton. Because in the end, the only interpretation that will matter is our response to Jesus’s words, “who do you say that I am?”