400 Years of Blinders, Counterintuitive Solidarity, and the Epistemological Advantage of the Oppressed

“In being pushed to the margins of the system the repressed not only gain an alternative perspective–you see things from the underside that you cannot see from the top, especially the distortions of the system–but they also gain surplus energies and enjoyment that escape the powers that be in a twofold sense.” – Joerg Rieger[1]

Like clockwork our country cycles through event after event that sparks outrage over issues of race and racism in America. The responses to events like these are predictable, as many fall into their default positions, because people’s perceptions of what took place are equally shaped by race as much as the event itself that triggered the conversation. A slight majority of white Americans will deny and dismiss the outcry and experience of black Americans, claiming that it is emotionalism and an inability to deal with the facts. From their vantage point, only they are seeing things objectively. Their experience tells them that America is generally speaking a good, fair, and equal country. The continual outcry of black Americans, therefore, is a result of media manipulation and race card playing for sympathy. In the end, these White Americans apparently know and understand black experience better than black people themselves know it. Despite the fact that those who deny systemic racism most, are actually more likely to have less racially diverse networks than white Americans who also recognize the racial inequalities in America similar to African Americans (check out Divided by Faith).

And there lies the problem. White intuition and experience (limited by homogeneous networks) is signifying one thing while black experience is claiming an alternative reality. What are people who participate in dominant society to do when their intuition and experience contradict the experiences of oppressed people? It is on that subject that we must gain some historical insights from before we can offer a constructive path forward.

It was in the 17th century, that masses of Europeans bought into the myth of race as a justification for chattel slavery. Ironically, the majority of Europeans were not wealthy enough to purchase slaves themselves. In fact, many Europeans were themselves indentured servants in no better situation than most Africans. The motivation of wealthy Europeans who could actually afford paying for slaves was obvious; they could increase their production and labor while living a more luxurious life. But, what was the motivation for poor Europeans who could not afford to pay for slaves? It seems as though the main reason was simply the relative status offered of knowing that no matter how hard things were, they could count their blessing that they were not black! That is right, the relative social status of being a part of the new found ‘White Male Citizenry’ proved to be more important than linking arms with the people who actually had more in common with them economically in absolute terms. The invitation from the elite to participate in the relative psychological gain of white identity and social life outweighed the absolute realities these European men were living with. The privilege of Whiteness blurred the reasoning of these people, which while looking back now seems “self-evident” (to use modernity’s universalist language) that they were blinded by their desire for acceptance and superiority. It is also worth briefly noting that throughout most of slavery, the majority of White Americans did not think we had a racial problem.

Let’s jump forward to 1857 and the Dred Scott decision. It was at this point that the honorable and esteemed Supreme Court of the United States, dispensing truth, justice, and equality, came to the clear minded 7-2 decision that black people are not citizens and could never be citizens, and therefore did not have the right to sue for their freedom when moved into free states. This decision after the fact has been agreed upon by just about all legal scholars to be one of the most horrific decisions by the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, at the time, while still a boost to the Southern way of life and the larger U.S. slaveholding economy, it was not so obvious to most people who benefited from this arrangement that this was a poor decision. White privilege blinded people’s moral vision.

That was not the only decision that now as Americans we can all look back on and (almost) agree was a terrible decision by the Supreme Court. Consider Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896. It was in this 7-1 decision by our highest court, that racial segregation was decisively affirmed as legal and promoting equality. Looking back, most white Americans could agree that that was a terrible decision, but that was not the sentiment at that time.

Jump forward to the racial unrest of the mid 20th century, which climaxed during the Southern Freedom movement. We can all picture from the old black and white footage, black school boys and girls being hosed down against walls and sliding down the street while dogs are set loose on them during the Birmingham demonstration in 1963. Or how about remembering ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Selma, Alabama, where peaceful marchers were clobbered and beat senselessly. We all (mostly) can look back and say that racism was a huge problem at that time. Guess what, when polled in May 1946, about 7 out of 10 White Americans believed that “negroes in the United States are being treated fairly”.[2] This of course was in the midst of Jim Crow segregation, the terror of the KKK and the White Citizens Council, and the regular lynching of black people in America. That almost 7 out of 10 white Americans could think that black people were being treated fairly, questions the capacity of any oppressive dominant society to look even remotely objectively at a situation. Of course, for the black community the majority of them knew that they were being treated unfairly. That so many in the midst of racial segregation and oppression could think that things were fine and pretty much equal for all, at that time, must be seriously wrestled with for its epistemological significance.

What I have very briefly and quickly tried to do is highlight the epistemological blinders that most White Americans seemed to have had for about 350 years. That they were epistemologically impaired is a given today. Almost everyone, except for the very fringe of society will agree that the majority of white people got it wrong for the first 350 years. What we are considering now is the implications of 350 years of those within dominant society, to not be able to recognize, see, or know racial injustice in whatever new social manifestation it appears in their time.

Why does this matter? Well, as I mentioned, polls continually demonstrate that race tends to be a decisive factor in interpreting these highly charged racial moments in our country. Likewise, I have seen online and in person some people speak from a place of privilege in which they dismissed the experiences of race in American society as expressed by black Americans. Their own experience and intuition tells them that race is not a significant reality in this country. However, we must keep history in perspective as we consider current perspectives on race.

I guess, given our history, should we really consider it logical to believe that people, who benefitted from the racial system and have repeatedly been perceptively wrong for 350 years, now have suddenly gained an epistemological advantage over those whom they have historically oppressed? Even more implausible is to believe that at that exact moment that those in the dominant culture somehow suddenly got their act together that black people who have been epistemologically right for 350 years also instantly lost the ability to interpret their own experience now. To affirm that position seems to be the more emotional response not based on serious reflection of our past.

This is where I will employ some Christian white men to make this point for me. John Howard Yoder argued that those at the bottom actually have an epistemological advantage and what they know to be reality is closer to the real thing than the perceptions of those in dominant or privileged positions in society. In his words, “This phrasing points us to the awareness that the first question is not who should be fed or who should govern, but whose picture of things is correct. We speak of an epistemological advantage. To see things from below is a truer way to see things as they are.”[3] In light of the Trayvon case, some have seemed to think that since the courts ruled a verdict, that justice has spoken and the case is closed. This flows out of a naïve assumption that our legal system actually dispenses justice. Black people now that the verdict and reality often do not coincide. Yoder pushes this point as well. He states:

We are still part of the generation that believes that the wicked won’t really prosper, at least not for long, at least not if we do our job right. We believe that some of the people in power in Washington, DC, are on the side of the good; some of the oppressors’ hearts can be touched, and some people will give in a little, if just to get us off their sidewalks. That the wicked really prosper is a piece of world history and a part of the Old Testament witness, and a part of the Jewish and black experience, that we have not learned to take with deep seriousness in North America.[4]

What we are moving towards as a solution is completely counterintuitive. It is to trust the intuition of oppressed people over against one’s own gut and experience, which is proven to lead you astray when operating from a vantage point of dominance. Privileged people must do something very absurd and unnatural, they must move decisively towards a counterintuitive solidarity with those on the margins, while allowing the eyes of the violated to lead and guide the way.

In the end it is Dietrich Bonhoeffer that really understood the need to do that very thing. Coming from a very elite and privileged family it boggles the mind to think about the type of solidarity Bonhoeffer repeatedly sought after throughout his life. Whether it was in Harlem attending the famous black prophetic church, Abyssinian Baptist, while Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Sr. was the pastor or his later participation with the Confessing Church in Germany as he defiantly confronted the violence being done against Jewish people, Bonhoeffer continually chose solidarity with the oppressed. This counterintuitive solidarity gave him new eyes to see and evaluate the world. Therefore, as he lived out his final days in prison before being hanged, he could write these profound words:

It remains an experience of incomparable value that we have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed and reviled, in short from the perspective of the suffering. If only during this time bitterness and envy have not corroded the heart; that we come to see matters great and small, happiness and misfortune, strength and weakness with new eyes; that our sense for greatness, humanness, justice, and mercy has grown clearer, freer, more incorruptible; that we learn, indeed, that personal suffering is a more useful key, a more fruitful principle than personal happiness for exploring the meaning of the world in contemplation and action.[5]

This call for counterintuitive solidarity and trusting the historically marginalized and oppressed perception above one’s own is not easy. But I believe that Jesus’ own emptying of himself and taking on slave humanity models for us The Way forward. Jesus’ own solidarity performance is a call to discipleship and imitation as a way of being in the world. It is the cure for privileged blinders that leaves people’s own vision impaired and unreliable. The Spirit is pulling all of us to see things “from below” because that is where God has chosen to move, work, and transform the world (1 Cor. 1:18-31).


[1] Joerg Rieger, Christ & Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 9.

[2] Hazel Gaudet Erskine, “The Polls: Race Relations,” Public Opinion Quarterly 26, no. 1 (1962).

[3] John Howard Yoder, “On Christian Unity: The Way From Below,” Pro Ecclesia 9, no. 2 (Spr 2000): 175.

[4] John Howard Yoder, Glen Harold Stassen, and Matt Hamsher, The War of the Lamb: The Ethics of Nonviolence and Peacemaking (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2009), 195.

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Fortress Press, 2010), 52.

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33 comments

  1. Robert Martin · August 7, 2013

    May there be more white men like Yoder and Bonhoeffer to step down and recognize the clarity of the vantage point from below.

  2. Carolyn Custis James · August 7, 2013

    Truly an eye-opening article! I am reminded of the OT book of Ruth where power and powerlessness collide in the persons of Boaz and Ruth. What changes the story into a picture of the gospel (and I’m not referring to the Cinderella interpretation of this narrative) is the fact that Ruth lives on the hungry side of the law, and Boaz, a man of wealth and privilege is willing to listen to her concerns. (See The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God Enough to Break the Rules, Zondervan) Exactly your point.

  3. whitbyforum · August 7, 2013

    Truly an eye-opening article! I am reminded of the OT book of Ruth where power and powerlessness collide in the persons of Boaz and Ruth. What changes the story into a picture of the gospel (and I’m not referring to the Cinderella interpretation of this narrative) is the fact that Ruth lives on the hungry side of the law, and Boaz, a man of wealth and privilege is willing to listen to her concerns. (See The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God Enough to Break the Rules, Zondervan) Exactly your point.

    • Drew Hart · August 7, 2013

      That is a great example. Thanks for that insight.

  4. tylertully · August 7, 2013

    Except when Yoder is sexually assaulting, that is. Drew, great stuff again. Have you ever read Miguel de la Torre? I recently was on the panel of our Institute of Mexican American Studies Conference, where a Latina psychologist was doing some groundbreaking work in studying this exact phenomenon. Her hypothesis came from the statement from Sonya Sotemayor, who spoke to the effective judgement of Latina’s specifically because they were minorities and women. She found, through many different studies, that “token” minorities not only hold a distinct advantage of objectivity when put in the same boat as those in a dominant position, but their worldview and life experiences also put them at an advantage of making more just and fair decisions for all peoples involved in their decision making.

    • Drew Hart · August 7, 2013

      Hey Tyler,
      Yeah… I just got a facebook message from a mennonite woman scholar who loved the piece but also rightly wanted to keep Yoder’s ethical hypocrisy on the table. I haven’t read any of his works but am familiar with his work. I think that is right. I often talk about it from a womanist vantage point, but same argument. I think I will be following up with another post that gets to that a little bit more. Peace.

      • tylertully · August 7, 2013

        Cool. I studied his “Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins” book. Its well worth the read. He dedicates an entire section on describing why we cannot base a Christian Ethic upon the dominant majority’s interpretation.

      • Drew Hart · August 7, 2013

        I will have to look into that. It might be useful in my work.

  5. Scott Hutchinson · August 7, 2013

    Drew,
    An outstanding, wonderfully challenging piece, particularly following our recent conversation. It drives me more deeply toward manifestions of trust while embracing (and being embraced by) the “emptying” and “taking on slave humanity” that is so clearly in the call. Engaging the narrative from the underside involves not only opening to new leadership and wisdom, but necessarily to new location. Terra incognita for many of us, spiritually, physically, interpersonally . I am hopeful that the embodied prayer of “counterintuitive solidarity” will yield new found and surprising experiences of mutuality!
    Scott

    • Drew Hart · August 7, 2013

      Scott,
      Yes location and proximity that creates space and opportunity for authentic interactions is a prerequisite for counterintuitive solidarity to happen. Peace brother, was glad to meet you over a meal.

  6. Chris Schini · August 7, 2013

    Thanks for another intellectually and morally challenging post. As a member of the dominant culture (mostly), it’s hard to see outside of that perspective. Still, I’m not sure there is a coherent “dominant culture” or if it is a patchwork of cultures. I feel a lot of sympathy with the Occupy Wallstreet movement, to hold banks and politicians accountable for what they have done/are doing to the world. But this doesn’t seem a dominant perspective. Also, as someone who regularly deals with mental health issues, I can say I often feel outside of the mainstream and not understood by “normal” or healthy people. Not that these issues are the same, but I see some similarities on how perspective plays into them.

    • Drew Hart · August 7, 2013

      Chris,
      You are absolutely right, many people are not cleanly in only one category, but many are privileged in some ways while also being marginalized in other ways. My experience has been that white people who feel significantly marginalized in one way or the other are often much more open to hear and wrestle with the realities of racism. There is a lot of intersectionality around these issues. However, there certainly remains a huge overlap between whiteness and dominant culture. It is these complex realities that must be worked through carefully. Peace brother!

  7. Chris Lenshyn · August 7, 2013

    To sit here in Canada and write a response to this knowing full well that I am of privilege because of genocidal actions of my white settler ancestors from Europe is quite difficult. I am a product of a system that is oppressive to indigenous people (other races too, but predominately indigenous) of whom my ancestors took this land from, in some cases, in Jesus’ name. Finding my way into counter-intuitive solidarity with people of whom my settler defined context systematically oppresses is similar to navigating a treacherous labyrinth (I’m thinking of that David Bowie movie back in the 80’s) with no hope for any kind of justice saturated relationship.

    Much love for these words! But also completely discouraging and terrifying.

    • Drew Hart · August 7, 2013

      Chris,
      I’m glad you were willing to contextualize it and let it challenge your own social location. This argument obviously must go beyond only dealing with American racism. Thanks for drawing that out.

  8. Presumably you are not asserting that the “intuition of the oppressed” is ipso facto, categorically superior to the “vantage point of dominance,” in all matters of racial discourse, at all times and in all situation. Assuming that’s the case, what safeguards or principles would you suggest as a counterbalance to the inevitable–if only occasional–excesses and overstepping that will occur when the other side gets control of the ball?

    • Drew Hart · August 7, 2013

      Right, I wasn’t making a legalistic rule to follow. But at the same time, I am claiming that people from the dominant culture cannot and should not trust their own intuitions over against the experience of the oppressed. Yet, I am not asking people to turn off their brains but in the midst of critical thinking one must lean towards trusting marginalized realities over against the limited scope that is available to those in who are often blinded by privilege. I guess the goal would be to develop a vision “from below” so that you yourself can begin to see more clearly. I don’t principles or safeguards other than allow following Jesus to help offer some clarity and perspective. I am convinced that yielding to the Spirit as we follow Christ concretely in life offers much more in this area than most have been open to previously.

  9. RodTRDH--@ politicaljesus.com · August 7, 2013

    YESSSSSSSSSSS! Love this post.

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  12. Kyle · August 9, 2013

    “Jesus’ own solidarity performance is a call to discipleship and imitation as a way of being in the world. It is the cure for privileged blinders that leaves people’s own vision impaired and unreliable.” This is great Drew. I think seeing ourselves as forever learning what it means that Christ put on flesh and lived among us is a first step towards reconciliation and solidarity. When asked how can we approach the process of reconciliation I think we need to look no further than Luke 2:6-7 (God came near). I think Bonhoeffer aptly demonstrated what a ‘lived theology’ looks like. So some ask, ‘what can I do to reduce blind spots?’–work alongside and under marginalized communities to at least get a flavor of history/perspective. I would add that no one is asking folk to agree with African American culture–I think to start out ‘respect’ and a listening ear is a reasonable expectation.

    • Drew Hart · August 9, 2013

      Yup, not sure why it is so threatening of an idea for some to allow oppressed people to expand their perspective. It really is enriching not limiting.

  13. keytruthsblogger · August 22, 2013

    Drew, Carolyn Custis James pointed me to your blog. I deeply appreciate this post. It puts into words what has profoundly gripped me on the journey that has produced my wrenching work, “We Confess! The Civil War, the South, and the Church” (WestBow). I truly want to see. Thank you for helping me.

    • Drew Hart · August 23, 2013

      Thank you for stopping in and for desiring to listen and learn. I appreciate the encouragement, blessings!

      • keytruthsblogger · August 26, 2013

        Thank you, Drew! One other thought on this matter: My study of the white church culture in the nineteenth-century South has revealed what I believe to be a major reason why white US church-goers today can “see” many of the collective wrongs of the past, yet remain blind to similar wrongs in the present. Looking back, it’s not too threatening to acknowledge grave injustices of other eras that we’re not doing the same way today. It’s much harder to recognize and admit the unrighteousness attitudes in our ancestors that fostered those injustices (pride, greed, thirst for power, etc.). And it’s terrifying to let God reveal our own hearts, so that we see which of our ancestors’ ungodly attitudes have been passed down to us and what injustices we’re unwittingly promoting as a result. – Deborah

  14. lesmcdaniel · August 31, 2013

    Though I am new to your writing, I appreciate your words deeply. It seems there is still an enemy that ultimately haunts any “powerful” class, gender or race in the end and that is the notion that we have power at all. For me to choose to step down, lower myself and/or empower others MUST come with a confession of my true fleshly nature that renders me unable to save myself from this life. Without that confession the temptation is to lord power (though false power) even in giving it away. The challenge for this white male is to be powerless not a distributor of power –a job reserved for the Almighty who I depend on for any good and holy thing I do in my life. Likewise, it is not to shift power from one flesh to another but rather to BE the empty and available vessels filled by the Father, Son and Spirit within. Lord help us. To Him be the glory!

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  17. Brad Wylie (@BradWylie) · October 22, 2014

    There is a scene in the TV show Hell on Wheels where an Irish immigrant is brutalizing a freed black man. When asked why, his response was that his family were the n*****s of Ireland and this was his way of proving he was no longer at the bottom. The example may be more extreme than what many white Americans do, but maybe not so far off from how they feel. In a society built on greed and power, the people have a need to know they are not the bottom. And pretty much any minority will fit the bill. Even if I do not actively participate in racists acts, I find myself guilty of these thoughts. I catch myself smiling every time I fly, knowing that I can get through any major airport in this country with the minimum of security screening simply because I look “safe”. I stand condemned and I need to change.

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