The reality of whiteness affording privilege in America continues to be a touchy subject in our nation. While many (not all) would agree that minorities are marginalized and discriminated against, somehow the idea of some necessarily being disadvantaged does not automatically translate into privilege for those who enjoy dominant places in American society. The truth is that to be considered white, and to have obtained whiteness in America has always, and continues to offer privileges. Consider this finding, in which various ethnic minorities went to the courts to legally battle for white status before the law in the early 1900’s.
Court decisions on white status were based on a mix of supposedly scientific criteria and the common understandings of the day, leading to a mess of contradictions. Syrians were deemed white in 1909, 1910, and 1915, but no in 1913 or 1914. Asian Indians won white status in 1910, 1913, 1919, and 1920, but not in 1909, 1917 or after 1923. The persistence of immigrants in suing for whiteness is evidence of the financial and social benefits that came with white status. After all, no one sued to be considered Asian, much less black.[i]
Beyond the absurdity of the fact that the criteria for whiteness was so arbitrary that people went back and forth being deemed white and then once again recognized as a person of color, we must also consider its broader significance. Very quickly, even in the 1900’s, immigrants realized that there were serious social benefits that went along with being recognized as white in America and therefore they fought for such status in the court room. Whiteness then clearly affords benefits to those who arbitrarily fall into the right side of the haphazard pseudo-scientific racialization of people groups.
Now if race is a racial construct, which has the sole purpose of racially dividing society to benefit some while disadvantaging others, then whiteness from a Christian perspective must be dealt with. To be European, is to talk about one’s ethnos, a people group and ethnicity recognized by God. To be White, however, is to embrace and utilize man-made racial hegemony and social domination. Whiteness equals oppressive societal positioning. Following Christ however, necessitates a rejection of privilege and oppressive lifestyles. Remember what Paul said:
You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had, who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8)[ii]
For the Christian, an emptying of whiteness and a taking on the form of marginality is a necessary social performance that must be enacted to faithfully have the same attitude that Jesus had. The fairly obvious theological conclusion has been avoided and skirted around for a long time, because in America, despite our peculiar calling, we have decided that it is best to take advantage of all our privileges and opportunities. The concept of rejecting any privilege runs counter to American values and norms. Only a radical awareness of the Lordship of Jesus over all things could and would lead someone to rearrange their lives in ways that currently reject social, political, and economic benefits. Hopefully, the end result will be the humanizing response of European men and women who stand with rather than on top of their darker pigmented brothers and sisters.
[i] Meizhu Lui and United for a Fair Economy, The color of wealth : the story behind the U.S. racial wealth divide (New York: New Press : Distributed by W.W. Norton, 2006), 250.
[ii] Biblical Studies Press., NET Bible : New English Translation., 1st Beta ed. ([Spokane Wash.]: Biblical Studies Press, 2001).
Published by Drew G. I. Hart, PhD
Drew G. I. Hart is a theology professor in the Biblical & Religious Studies department at Messiah College with ten years of pastoral experience. Hart majored in Biblical Studies at Messiah College as an undergraduate student, he attained his M.Div. with an urban concentration from Missio Seminary in Philadelphia, and he received his Ph.D. in theology and ethics from Lutheran Theological Seminary-Philadelphia. Drew was born and raised in Norristown, Pa and has lived extensively in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, PA as well.
Dr. Hart’s dissertation research explored how Christian discipleship, as framed by Black theologies and contemporary Anabaptist theologies, gesture the Church towards untangling the forces of white supremacy and the inertia of western Christendom which have plagued its witness in society for too long. As two traditions that emerged from the underside of violent and oppressive western Christian societies, he found Black theology and Anabaptism each repeatedly turning to the particularity of Jesus in the gospel narratives. From that arises an ethic of solidarity with the oppressed and pursuing liberation in Black theology and an ethic of radical peacemaking and ecclesial nonconformity in the Anabaptist tradition. Each challenge the violent and oppressive logics of mainstream western Christianity and salvage the call to follow the way of Christ. Together in dialogue they deepen our analysis of the churches failures and the need for Jesus-shaped repentance.
His work beyond teaching and writing has included pastoring in Harrisburg and Philadelphia, working for an inner-city afterschool program for black and brown middle school boys, delivering lectures and leading anti-racism workshops, collaborating with local faith-based organizers and activists in his city, and doing a broad range of public theology. He is also a co-leader for a local Harrisburg faith-based relational network called FREE Together which has collaborated with POWER Interfaith, MILPA, the Shut Down Berks Detention Center movement, and a little with the Poor People’s Campaign.
Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism by Drew Hart, has received great reviews by Publisher’s Weekly and Englewood Review of Books. Endorsing this resource, Shane Claiborne said, “This book is a gift from the heart of one of the sharpest young theologians in the United States. Hold it carefully, and allow it to transform you--and our blood-stained streets.” As a text, Trouble I’ve Seen utilizes personal and everyday stories, Jesus-shaped theological ethics, and anti-racism frameworks to transform the church’s understanding and social witness. Trouble I’ve Seen focuses on white supremacy as an overarching framework for understanding racism, with careful attention to its systemic and socializing dimensions. However, unlike sociology textbooks on the subject Dr. Hart also considers the subversive vocation of Jesus and the nonviolent yet revolutionary implications his life ought to have for his followers today.
His newest book project is entitled Who Will Be a Witness?: Igniting Activism for God’s Justice, Love, and Deliverance and will be published September 1, 2020. Who Will Be A Witness? invites the church to liberate its centuries long captivity to supremacist practices, and to expand its restricted political imagination in view of Jesus’ messianic reign. The book guides disciples of Jesus into joining God’s delivering presence through scriptural reasoning, historical reflection, practical theology for congregational life, social change theory, and the Christian call to love our neighbor. It is written for congregations, leaders, and students that understand that pursuing God’s justice goes way beyond waiting around for electoral seasons to come around. It is about the ongoing vocation of the Church right now, at the grassroots level, seeking after the wellbeing of their neighbors through faithful, strategic, and concrete action.
Drew recently joined the Inverse Podcast team serving as a cohost along with Australian peace activist Jarrod Mckenna. Together they interview interesting people and explore how scripture can turn our ethical imagination and the violent and unjust systems of our world upside-down, which contrasts with interpreting the Bible as a tool for the status quo.
Dr. Drew Hart was the recipient of bcmPEACE’s 2017 Peacemaker Award, a 2019 W.E.B. Dubois Award from a Disciples of Christ congregation, and in October 2019, Dr. Hart was chosen as Elizabethtown College’s 2019 Peace Fellow. Each award recognized him for his local and national justice work and public theology. You can find Drew Hart on Twitter and Facebook, or you can catch him as he travels and speaks regularly across the country to colleges, conferences, and churches. Drew and Renee, and their three boys (Micah, Dietrich, and Vincent) live in Harrisburg, PA and attend Harrisburg First Church of the Brethren.
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4 thoughts on “Emptying Whiteness: Engaging In Absurd Christian Social Performance”
Good post Drew
Agreed. But the idea of privilege is a hard one to swallow for many whites (Christian or not), even those in the younger generation. As a researcher of youths’ attitudes toward race, I’m finding that the desire to be “colorblind” permeates classrooms. When I talk about white privilege to white youth, often the immediate response is the constructing of a defensive wall that says, “I am not to blame!”
The point you make in this post is explored in my blog as well — http://risforrace.blogspot.com/