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Whiteness: A clear and present danger


by Rev. Vonnie James, Grenada Baptist Association

Have you ever imagined that God was dead? Well in societies where years of exploitation, marginalisation, oppression, and subjugation exist, God seems dead.

The United States is one of these societies, where whiteness has prevailed so much, that for non-whites, God seems unable to bring liberation to God’s oppressed people, the way God did for the oppressed people of Egypt (Exodus 3, Exodus 9). Whiteness in the United States has become a clear and present danger to non-white people, especially to Black Americans, Caribbean and people of African descent living in this atmosphere. The recent international protest that started in the US, against police brutality and all forms of inequalities that have had worldwide implications for churches and governments is an attest to the problem of whiteness.

Using the theoretical concept of whiteness within a socio-historical framework, this writing aims to (1) bring attention to whiteness (2) inquire whether whiteness has affected the Grenadian and the Caribbean communities (3) explore some options to reduce its impact. As we proceed, however, it is important to note that public issues such as race, racism, racial inequalities, racial injustice and race relations all are related to the larger issue of whiteness. Therefore, we should discuss them in relation to this concept of whiteness. This article will attempt only to give a very brief description of whiteness.

Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre says, “‘Whiteness,’ like ‘colour’ and ‘Blackness,’ are essentially social constructs applied to human beings rather than veritable truths that have universal validity. The power of Whiteness, however, is manifested by the ways in which racialised Whiteness becomes transformed into social, political, economic, and cultural behaviour. White culture, norms, and values in all these areas become normative natural. They become the standard against which all other cultures, groups, and individuals are measured and usually found to be inferior (Henry & Tator, 2006, p. 46-47). “Whiteness studies [explore] what it means to be White in the United States and the global community,” and constitute “a growing body of books, articles, courses, and academic conferences,” (Rodriguez 1999:20).

Rightly observed, “America is inherently a “white” country: in character, in structure, in culture. Needless to say, black Americans create lives of their own. Yet as a people, they face boundaries and constrictions set by the white majority. America’s version of apartheid, while lacking overt legal sanction, comes closest to the system even now…” (Hacker 1992:4). Unfortunately, “Whiteness has been made to appear natural, that is, as objective scientific fact, in US cultural and legal history,” says Alex Mikulich (PhD) in his article “Race, Racism, and Whiteness.” Alex Mikulich is an anti-racist Roman Catholic social ethicist and activist.

Whiteness is complex, compelling and continues to be a very problematic issue. We know this because (a) all major institutions in the US have policies on racism, inclusion and the likes, surrounding whiteness; (b) with the recent uprising against police brutality and inequality in the US, numerous institutions across the world have released statements on the issue, including St. George’s University (Grenada) and the University of the West Indies-Mona (Jamaica). In these statements, these institutions categorically and clearly condemn all forms of racism, violence, intolerance, hate, and bigotry; (c) there is a quiet exodus in the USA that reached a crescendo in 2016, that saw black people leaving white churches, mostly because of the silence of the white evangelical on issues such as police brutality, racial inequality and such vices. See “A Quiet Exodus: Why Black Worshipers Are Leaving White Evangelical Churches“ an article that Campbell Robertson (2018) wrote in the New York Times.

So what? As a black, Caribbean person of faith in Grenada who often takes on the role of public theologian in the sphere of the Christian tradition, I or no one can deny the complicity of the white evangelical community in the USA on the issue of whiteness. That is a deep theological concern. Because of whiteness, God’s justice seems incapable of addressing vices that affect the black community and that makes the question of whether God is dead for black America and other non-whites is a justifiable one. Because expressed or not, some are beginning to question this God because of whiteness. So, either God is dead or God is only for white people.

I do not believe that God is dead. But if God seems dead for the black community, can we blame them? In religious education and formation, whiteness has seen a generation of Grenadian And Caribbean churchgoers growing up with a concept of Jesus as a White man? That is, despite many scholars, including Robert Eisler in a classic 1931 study of “Josephus’s Testimony” proving otherwise. And who is challenging Samaritan Purse, a US based Christian organisation that works in the Caribbean, when for example they distribute white dolls in their Operation Christmas Child programme in Haiti and the rest of the Caribbean?

Further, who is challenging the religious imageries of ‘white Jesus’ in artworks, in our edifices and colour code evangelism tools which almost always use ‘black’ or non-white as the colour for sin or death?

In Grenada and the Caribbean, we should challenge whiteness through public education such as intellectual debates, Bible studies on racial issues and ensuring that the languages we use in church and society do not place whiteness as the standard.

We should also challenge whiteness from a Biblical and theological position. God created all humans equal (Genesis 1:26-28) and that all humans regardless of the colour of their skin have a right to self-actualisation in Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:28-29) a concept that whiteness, ideologically opposes. In fact, we should literally remove any images of white Jesus, reject any books, paraphernalia or otherwise, that paints black as sinful, evil or associated with death. In situations where we present Jesus as white, we and our congregations should repent. Because in fact, the historical Jesus was not ‘white’, in any way, shape or form.


References

Guess, T. J. (2006). The Social Construction of Whiteness: Racism by Intent, Racism by Consequence. Critical Sociology, 32(4), 649–673. https://doi.org/10.1163/156916306779155199

Hacker, A. (2003). Two nations: Black and white, separate, hostile, unequal. New York:  Scribner’s.

Rodriguez, Roberto. 1999. “The Study of Whiteness. (Caucasians)” Black Issues In Higher Education 16(6):20–25.

Tator, C., & Henry, F. (2006). Racial profiling in Canada: Challenging the myth of “a few bad apples”. Toronto [Ont.: University of Toronto Press.

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