Waking up to Whiteness

art credit: Catherine Clark

I remember the first time it really registered with me that I was white. We had been living in South Asia for a few years by then, and I had gradually grown accustomed to being stared at constantly whenever I ventured out into public. My response to the unrelenting looks, comments, and stereotyping treatment had gradually shifted from overwhelmed to annoyed to humorous to tuned-out. I had finally integrated enough to speak the local language, develop my personal style within the cultural milieu, and feel like I fit in with my local friends. One day we were in a sari shop together, and I turned to the mirror with a potential purchase draped across my shoulder.  I almost dropped the sari with shock over the lanky white woman staring back at me. I don’t know what I expected to see, but this woman stood out like a sore thumb from all the delicate brown faces around her. No amount of linguistic or cultural adaptation would be able to hide her very white features. The incessant reactions from strangers in the marketplace were simply a reiteration of my irreconcilable “otherness.”

Years later I shared this story with an African American friend. He laughed and welcomed me to the club. Racial un-consciousness, he pointed out, is the luxury of the dominant group. When you are a minority, you can never forget that you are different. The moment you do, someone else will remind you.

Racial un-consciousness is the luxury of the dominant group.

And he was right. Sometime later I was sitting by this same friend at an elegant dinner party in honor of the former Archbishop of Canterbury. Around our table were prominent leaders, clergy, and academics, of which he was all three. If anyone didn’t belong there, it was little old me. After scintillating conversation around the lecture we had just heard, someone at the table asked my friend a subtle question. At first I missed it, until my friend’s deflated expression clued me in to the fact that he just been the subject of a racist joke. My guess is that the joker was simply trying to be funny, but his insensitivity to someone who has endured a lifetime of demeaning treatment effectively communicated that despite his degree, position, and invitation to the table, he was irreconcilably “other,” excluded from being one with the rest of us. 

When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”
Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”
The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. …
Matthew 8:5-8

The Roman centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant must have lived with a profound consciousness of his race and the way it affected those around him. On one hand he was the despised outsider, the “dirty Gentile” whose very presence in Palestine represented and enforced foreign oppression. On the other hand, he belonged to the race with superior power, affording him authority, legal rights, and military rank that were denied most Jews. It meant that he had to constantly calculate how his actions would be interpreted and what impact his words would have on the situation around him. In the midst of such a racially charged situation, he did not have the luxury of throwing around a careless joke or of assuming that the cruel behavior of other Roman soldiers bore no connection to how he was seen by the Jews. Like it or not, he was a part of the system that had hurt a lot of people, and as kindhearted and well-intentioned as he was, he had to tread carefully in the way he approached Jesus.

Similarly, white people in America represent systems and individuals that we may disagree with, but which our racial heritage inextricably connects us to. It is not enough to abstain from racist comments or discriminatory practices. In the eyes of those who have been repeatedly hurt by people like us, we represent a system of historic oppression that has continued to break trust in its treatment of its African American citizens. We can point to the times that our system has gotten it right (like integration of schools, equal opportunities legislation, and African Americans in the highest levels of leadership), but we cannot ignore the many ways in which racism continues to rear its ugly head, even in the actions of “crazy” individuals or “fringe” groups. Each time an unarmed African American is unjustly killed by a white American, the scab gets ripped off of a deep wound in the community of which he or she was part. And that wound was inflicted by one of “us.”

As followers of Christ, the onus is on us to go the extra mile in affirming the culture, ideas, and leadership of those “our people” have hurt.

We need to learn how to handle our whiteness. In the South Asian context, my whiteness represented a history of colonial oppression. As a follower of Christ, the onus was on me to go the extra mile in affirming the culture, ideas, and leadership of my brown neighbors. Even in situations where my position or experience may have “earned” me the right to take charge, I had to learn how to intentionally make room for people who “my people” had treated as inferiors. We both had to work at this, learning to speak openly about our differences and laugh together at the things we had once assumed when all we had known of each other was “white” or “brown.” I am amazed at the level of grace my brown neighbors were willing to extend to me, but it also took a lot of needed humbling on my part (a humbling which, I might add, did not always feel nice, especially when my friends took me at my word and treated me accordingly).

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Matthew 8:10-12

The Roman Centurion humbled himself, showing a deference towards Jesus that even His fellow Jews did not, and was commended for his faith. We, who have now been included “at the table” along with him, would do well to follow his example.

4 thoughts on “Waking up to Whiteness”

  1. Thanks for your honesty. I lived as one of the white privileged during Apartheid South Africa. Our country is now democratic, and whites make up the tiny minority. In our house church we have a mixture of about four culture groups. Only perceptive reading of the Bible and the practice of ‘agape’ love toward one another has guided us and helped us through. One of our former black activist members, beaten up by white farmers in the early 80’s, recently shared (having studied Marx, Engels, etc) how only the Bible gave him a sense of acceptance, dignity and being loved for who he is.

    1. Erroll, thank you for giving us a glimpse of what this process can look like, and for the hope that it can lead towards healing. Would you be willing to share more about how your community has been able to “live out” the agape love of Christ in a racially charged environment? How did you take the idea of love and put skin on it?

  2. I guess ‘messy theology’ had something to do with it! We are far from living out Jesus’ agape as we ought, but I jotted down a few pointers from our own, perhaps limited experience. Firstly, we meet as an organic house church, at grassroots level. This implies face-to-face participation by everyone, getting to know each other ‘warts and all,’ accepting one another because of Christ’s gracious acceptance of us. I pastored mainline churches for 38 years, but after researching ecclesiology around the world (with visits to China, S. America, etc) my wife and I decided to open our home 14 years ago to folk as a place of authentic, unconditional fellowship. I merely facilitate the group, and we try to hear God’s voice together through his Word and under his Spirit. Secondly, because Covid19 has prevented us gathering physically, we set up a very informal whatsap chat group which just took off, with daily inputs by most. The result has been that we’ve drawn even closer, breaking down paternalism, dependence, reservedness, etc. Some of our group live in very poor areas, so we have shared monetary gifts, clothing and food parcels, etc. Together we also run a little community garden, supplying a soup kitchen feeding young children on a regular basis among in a very poor community. Our chat group notifies us of health needs, personal needs, community needs, etc – we all commit to praying daily for one another and and our respective communities – with some amazing answers to our humble prayers. Thirdly, some of us have read up on MLK’s sermons and local writers on racial issues here in SA, and we have shared some of these findings. Fourthly, we regularly receive missionary input from some missionary friends in closed countries around the world and try to intercede for some of the local issues they are facing.

    As you can see, nothing revolutionary or earth-shaking! We are very happy to learn from yourself and your experiences, and any input by your many blog-followers.

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