A White Supremacist Theology of Liberation

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.

Comments (7)

  1. TimN

    Interesting post, TimS. I agree with your general analysis of white racism. In MCC´s Damascus Road training, they framed it in terms of white privilege and defined all whites as racist using prejudice + power as a definition for racism. Checking out a black man following me more than a white man is prejudice and this is coupled with the privilege I have as a white person in the United States.

    The questions I have come when we choose the terms we use to explain this analysis. I spent two and a half years working in the United Kingdom and I worked with a colleague for whom the phrase “All whites are racist” was completely unacceptable in the British context. I suspect we would find the same reactions in many contexts to the claim that all theology done by white people is “white supremacist”.

    If this is the case we need to ask ourselves if this claim is the most effective way to express our perspective? If we agree on the underlying analysis of white privilege/racism/supremacy can we explore different terms that most effectively convey this analysis. Are the inflammatory connotations of “white supremacy” what we need to shake people out of their stupor? Or is the less loaded “white privilege” more likely to connect with people in a way they can hear?

    I think these are important questions.

  2. eric

    i love words. sometime’s i love words so much that i call myself a playwright (and it’s true, i’ve wrought a few plays (and maybe i’ll post one at some point…)). but words sure do land us in a tangled mess some of the time.

    a tip of the hat to TIMS for playing with some uncomfortable words, and to TIMN for calling him on it. i suppose i’m a white supremacist playwright, but i’m not sure that means much. (Peter Handke (another wright of plays) once said that any combination of words only holds significance the first time it is used. there’s something to that.)

    it is nothing short of brilliant to redefine terms in such a way that you can call even the hardest-core, most honest, aware, and concerned crackers “white-supremicists”. it works. it makes the point. it says it all. it makes me think by breaking my expectations. it turns my world upside-down and brings it all home by implicating every one of (me (at least)). that’s art. i love it. do it again.

    but it won’t stand up to much logical scrutiny. and why should it? logic is too small for that kind of paradoxical truth. and anyway, terms become too loose that way. anything can mean anything. if all white people are white-supremacists then what do we call the KKK? double-plus-white-supremacists? or intentionally supremacist? currently, white supremacy refers to a consciously held belief – not simply a failure to recognize power imbalances or predjudicies. i refuse to accept that you can be born into any belief system – white supremacy or the church. If being born into a culture saturated with ‘christian’ assumptions would make you christian, then i’m not sure what the point of a believer’s church is.

    but why let that ruin a great bit of word play? use it and let it go. it’s a wonderfully powerful little play on words that will make the smugest of (me (again)) stop and think – and there’s no reason it should have to withstand any more scrutiny than that.

    i will simultaneously confirm my white-supremacy as a playwright (and human) and refuse to accept that term as a valid box to keep me in. here i am. white. male. implicated. but not intentionally so (and fairly intentionally not-so). i’ve probably lynched and raped all of you by association – and no matter what i do i will never outlive that legacy. resistence may be futile, but i’ll be damned if i don’t go down swinging.

  3. TimS (Post author)

    Thanks to both eric and to TimN for complicating things a bit. It’s impossible to blog exhaustively around hard issues – and the beauty of a site like this is that different voices can hold us accountable to keeping things complicated. It is much more complicated (of course) than a bunch of white people being racist and needing to intensify their self-critique (although that’s certainly part of it).

    I simply want us all to be able to think and to talk about our compliance and proliferation of racism in the US and world. For some of us “white privelege” is provacative enough (and I agree with TimN, probably a more accurate descriptor and probably more inviting a term).

    As I read through her essay, though, Hawley Gorsline’s “White Supremacy” demanded this question – Does “white privelege” allow too much passivity? “White privelege” might be something we’re born into, something we’re stuck with. It’s something we should work against if we can, but understandible if it’s unnoticed by us in our busy lives. (I recognize this is not how all white people imagine “white privelege.”) I was challenged by Hawley Gorsline’s “white supremacy, though, to think more about how white people have actively pursued and retained privelege/supremacy. How much is it something we’ve been born into and how much is it something we’ve fought hard not to have to deal with?

    Somehow “supremacy” holds the potency I need right now to consider the issue with the most awareness/passion. Maybe it’s only word play, a game of words – I’m sure “privelege” works for some, where “supremacy” falls short or long or whatever. I’m glad we’re talking about it.

    I hope we’re thinking about more than the words we use to describe it.

  4. Carl

    Good post, TimS. Though I have to ask about:

    what I consider, along with Robin Hawley Gorsline, to be contemporary white-supremacy.

    Um, a little harsh picking on poor Robin in particular as an exemplar of contemporary white supremacy, don’t you think? Or did you mean what I, along with Robin Hawley Gorsline, consider… Sorry, had to say it.

    I remember one conversation about racism where a (white) friend asked me, “Why would I want to voluntarily claim a negative label like ‘racist’?” The answer, I think, is the same reason that people who go to AA meetings voluntarily claim the label “alcoholic.” It’s about acknowledging unhealthy addiction (to white privilege and power), ending denial, and developing the capacity to see and name the reality of racism (including in ourselves) more clearly.

    Obviously there are different types of racism/white supremacy. A consciously-held belief in white superiority is different from an unconsciously-assumed position of superiority. While the former may be more obvious and repugnant, that very obviousness makes it (I think) less dangerous. (Not to set the two against each other too much – KKK-style hate crimes and smiling liberal assumptions of white cultural superiority are mutually reinforcing, at least in that the first gives the second a convenient scapegoat. Both are certainly destructive).

    I also don’t see claiming the self-identification “racist” (or “white supremacist”) as necessarily negative or defeatist. One can aspire to be a “recovering racist” in the same way that many recovering alcoholics will still name themselves as alcoholics.

    Eric: I think it’s a little simplistic to say you can’t be born into a belief system. Of course you can – we all are born into all sorts of belief systems. It’s called “acculturation”, otherwise known as “growing up.” That doesn’t have to be negative or defeatist either – we have the power to change our belief systems. It’s easier to change surface-level (consciously held) belief systems than underlying (unconsciously assumed) values, but the more clearly we can name those ingrained values (including white supremacy) and identify their effects in our lives, the more effectively we can change them as well.

    TimS: Excellent question: How much is it something we’ve been born into and how much is it something we’ve fought hard not to have to deal with?

    Well, that time in the morning has come when the rest of the world wakes up and the kitchen table is no longer available for focussed writing. I do hope this discussion continues, because like you say, TimS, I think it’d be good to go past the terminology issue and start digging into particular characteristics of white supremacist theology/culture. I’ve read some articles on that that I’d be interested in sharing and talking about. Later… Thanks TimS for starting the thread.

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  6. Katie

    I’m not feeling particularly inspired to add much to this discussion at this time other than to say it reminds me a lot of a book I read recently and would suggest to others. It’s an easy read and helped me think about race, and white privilege and all that stuff. Heart of Whiteness by ?Robert Jensen?. I think that is the author. Anyway, read it, it is pretty decent.

  7. Ingemar Smith

    The thing I find most vexing and perhaps disturbing or discouraging is that most whites who begin to discuss white supremacy don’t, maybe until much later, realize that even in raising their consciousness to the level of examining, WS, they are still ensnared in its logic.

    One prime example of this is that when attempting to deconstruct WS, most white folks look to other whites for guidance when logic should demand that people of color will likely have a more cogent and developed analysis of it than white society. Just as a person kicked will tend to understand the dynamic of kicking from much better than the one doing the kicking because the survival of the kicked makes deeper and sharper understanding of the dynamic an imperative.

    So while I like Robert Jensen and his book, it is something of a superficial primer on this topic. I would suggest reading Derrick Bell, author of Faces At The Bottom of The Well or even better, Dr. Frances Cress Welsing, author of The Isis Papers. And there are many more authors of color with what many whites will probably find to be groundbreaking analysis of WS.

    One last point I’d like to bring up is that WS is a system that is not national in scope and scale but global. And it has been in existence for a millenia. What this means is that our sciences have grown up and (supposedly) matured inside of WS. Therefore, the very ways in which we, as a society, have been enculturated to view everything is through the lens of WS. The sciences are not immune from the contagion. I would suggest the Isis Papers and The Piltdown Man as books giving a better idea of what this means. But the point is that analysis of WS that diverge from the white supremacist backdrop of much of the historic analysis, will often seem quacky and perhaps unscientific or illogical because it is attempting to exist outside of the paradigm it is critiquing. A paradigm in which everything we know, including our very thoughts, exists.

    This makes the challenge of even thinking logically (that’s real logic not WS logic) about WS an even more challenging and urgent task.

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