A friend recently told me that I should start saying things, whether I have them right or not – that the saying, the conversation is what matters. So, in that spirit, here’s a glimpse into what I consider, along with Robin Hawley Gorsline, to be contemporary white-supremacy. And why we can’t just say white supremacy exists out there, but that all white people, including you and I, are white-supremacists.
I am attempting to discuss a way of living and being – a particular ethic. My deepest hope is that it corresponds as closely as possible with the way of being and living that Jesus asks of us. I’m using theology as a medium to talk about the broader issue of white supremacy that white people continue to enforce (whether consciously or not) in the US (and world) today. So this essay is a theological one in the same way that an essay from George Bush on “a Jesus Ethic” might be a presidential one. Bush could offer an anti-white-supremacist presidential perspective to help us think about our own stories of white-supremacy – presidential, theological, economic, pedagogical, etc.
About the title (and an intro into my thoughts): White supremacy makes me think of the KKK and I really don’t like that organization. Theology makes me think of Karl Barth and Paul Tillich and, on occasion, James Cone (all theologians – two are white and better known). Liberation makes me think of oppressed groups of people empowering themselves toward freedoms. I put them together because they don’t really fit and because, in actuality, this particular combination is exactly what we need to learn to fit together.
In the essay Shaking the Foundation: white supremacy in the theological academy, Robin Hawley Gorsline, writes from the assumption that societal United States is still grossly racist. Specifically, she says that white people are racist – and she calls the racism from whites “white supremacy.” What she means is… well exactly what she says. Don’t ask me to offer any softer or more benevolent interpretation of her words. The systems that dominate the narrative that the United States exists under are racist – and each white person is culpable, both on a personal and societal scale. But how? When I categorize my black friends because of similarities in their communication styles (whether I want to or not and whether I kick myself for it later or not) that is racism. I look over my shoulder to “check thing out” more consistently when a black man is following me in a city at night than I would if it were a white man – that’s racism. When I am thankful, even though I’m not sure I support it politically, that they’ve arrested another bomb-carrying middle-easterner by way of racial profiling, that’s racism. And my silence around all of these hugely important issues in my life is racism. Maybe you’ve matured past all this, but think about it, I bet you can come up with your own examples. We all have prejudices and when our prejudices get mixed up with our power – that’s racism.
White people don’t talk (or even think) about these seemingly tedious issues because we don’t notice them all the time. And this “not having to notice” is what I mean by “our power.” The positions that we hold in society – politically, economically, socially and theologically – are largely privileged ones. And “minorities” then are only allowed to contribute their stories (even if we consider them with the utmost respect) into the larger story of who we are as white US Americans (consider the Native American scholar or the black church – the white teacher just sounds funny). Theological, economic, societal, presidential conversations always start with a white standard – and this is what is signified by the “supremacy” or white supremacy. We run the show. And if we don’t fight against that actively, the show rolls on in the same way it always has. (Black men begin to believe that they can scare me when they see me looking over my shoulder all the time, the story becomes the “middle-easterner” with the bomb – forget the Timothy McVeigh’s – and all black women become aggressive and inaccessible to me.)
Alright. I can tie it all back to the title for you – if you need that sort of finality (there is still a little modernism left in me as well). I am caught up in white-supremacy. I have to admit that. I have to call my socio-political starting point what it is. Any theology that I do is white-supremacist theology – in the same way that James Cone does black (liberation) theology. I can only contribute to unqualified “theology” from my particular white-supremacist standpoint – retrospectively, we might even think of Barth and Tillich in the same way (they were, indeed, white-supremacist theologians). The liberation comes in because I don’t like the way white-supremacy entraps me as a white person. I don’t like not being able to trust guys just because they’re black or brown. So if I were a real theologian, I would want to be included in the chorus of liberation theologians. Not because I have any illusions that I’m being particularly or abnormally oppressed, but because I want my theology to be based partially on anti-oppression work, not the denial of, and collusion in, white supremacy.
So that’s why I chose the title. Now we have to figure out what that theology consists of.