(Author’s note: “Whiteness” is capitalized throughout this article to highlight its historical importance as a constructed system of oppression that can have an end, like Pharaonic Egypt and the Roman Empire.)
We’ve been scammed. Many of us have been raced-as-White by Whiteness, or raced-as-“less than White” by Whiteness. You and I have both been raced by a system. If you were raced-as-White, as I was, try thinking of yourself as “raced-as-White-by-Whiteness-for-light-skin-privilege.” It might be uncomfortable, but that’s okay. The question is this: How can people like me who are raced-as-White go boldly where relatively few from the United States’ settler class have gone before?
I have been socialized to be nice. But whereas kindness is a virtue, niceness was constructed to promote complicity with injustice and exploitation. Acting “nice” for me would be passively and silently accepting privilege based on my White racing and the systems that support light-skin privilege. So I will be kind, but I will not play nice.
Emilie Townes, an ethicist and Dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, encourages people-raced-as-White to interrogate their own coloredness. She says we need to air our dirty laundry, soak it in the sun, and talk about Whiteness as openly as we can and not hold anything back. People raced-as-White need to explore the historical and theological realities and admit how messed up it has been, how messed up it is, and discover how the Spirit can disempower us in our Whiteness and help us become different and better. So we take our first step into this difficult journey by sharing stories. Here’s part of mine.
I was a Jesus-lovin’, tongue-talkin’, gun-totin’, American flag-wavin’, foreigner-hatin’, Christian raced-as-White boy reared in a 99 percent White county in Kansas. Even though my mom and dad raised me to love everybody, I was a raced-as-White boy who told many, many racist jokes. I told jokes mostly about African Americans, but also about Latina/os, Asian Americans, Asians, and Africans. I still remember many of them because I repeated them a lot.
I went to church at least three times per week and I learned many of the racist jokes from my youth group leaders. I would go to revivals, support missionaries around the world, and pray at the altar for hours; and I also ridiculed, insulted, and mocked the appearance, intelligence, morality, histories, and cultures of people whose skin pigment was darker than mine. I’d probably said the n-word, as a racist, hundreds of times in my life.
In college I met my first African American friend, Baby James. But I could have a raced-as-black friend and still be prejudiced. And one of my closest friends was Chun Young-Ku from South Korea, but stereotypes die hard.
I do not think I realized I was a racist until a friend in college told me that I was. While stranded on the side of Highway 287 after running out of gas near Ennis, Tex., I received a piece of evangelistic literature from a member of the Ku Klux Klan. He did not say whom he represented, and the association was veiled in the material, but I read it through and agreed with most of it. When I told my friend about this, he explained some things to me in a way I do not remember having heard as clearly before that day, and I began to have a series of epiphanies about my own deeply held prejudices. Although they felt like epiphanies for me, they really are basic steps in the journey of conscientization, or, as Paolo Freire calls it, “becoming aware of your oppression or your participation in oppression.”(1)
In graduate school I read Documents of American Prejudice that had quotes like this one from Abraham Lincoln:
I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of White and black races, [applause] I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with White people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the White and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the White race. . . . I do not understand that because I do not want a Negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. [Cheers and laughter.] So it seems quite possible for us to get along without making either slaves or wives of Negroes. I have never seen to my knowledge a man, woman, or child who was in favor of producing a perfect equality, social and political, between Negroes and White men. . . . I will to the very last stand by the law of this State, which forbids the marrying of White people with Negroes [laughter and applause.]. . . . I am not in favor of Negro citizenship [renewed applause.](2)
I really started to dislike White people. I remember when I consciously realized and said to myself, “I am not smarter or better or superior in any way because I’m White.” George “Tink” Tinker says that White liberation must include confession. In my experience of assuming the inferiority of people who were not raced-as-White, it was remarkable to realize with such great clarity that I had been duped. I had been living in a powerful lie that privileged me by abusing others. The way I understood myself began to change radically.
As one raced-as-White who seeks to exit Whiteness, this brief autobiographical counter-narrative provides context for a reading of Scripture that might help people raced by Whiteness as White find an open future not so determined by oppressive institutional systems of light skin and cultural privilege. But some people are raced by Whiteness as inferior to others; they are “othered.” Whether my reading helps those raced by Whiteness in othered ways can be analyzed by those who have suffered the destructive effects of White supremacy in all its pseudoscientific, political, economic, and cultural manifestations.
In my experience of assuming the inferiority of people who were not raced-as-White, it was remarkable to realize with such great clarity that I had been duped. I had been living in a powerful lie that privileged me by abusing others. The way I understood myself began to change radically.
Noah’s hangover and the curse of Whiteness
To get beyond Whiteness, those raced-as-White need to explore a space and time before Whiteness, a “previous spatial existence” long before they were raced for privilege and conquest as settlers and colonizers. In a different article and forthcoming book, I explore Egypt as Whiteness and the possibilities of a White liberation theology. But in this article I go to the biblical narratives even before Egyptian captivity and read them for liberation. As a Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, I’ve learned some hermeneutical methods from the rabbinic traditions where faithful readings of the text interrogate the texts and the characters within them. Sometimes the biblical stories invite us to ask harder questions than some of us are used to asking, but in order to deal with the deepest issues of oppression and racism, the hardest questions have to be asked. Native American theologian Robert Warrior proposed a “Canaanite hermeneutic” many years ago—to read Scripture through the eyes of the Canaanites. Since systems of superiority and inferiority are often backed up theologically and biblically, the rabbinic tradition of asking tough questions combined with the Canaanite hermeneutic may lead us into a better promised land without so much oppression.
Egypt—the metaphor I use for Whiteness—first appears in the biblical narratives immediately after Abram arrives in Canaan from Ur (in what is modern-day Iraq). But the Canaanites were already living in the land that was promised to Abram. Canaanites predate Abram in that land. When Abram entered the narrative, Canaanites had already enjoyed the milk and honey of the land, and they did not know that anyone was coming from Ur with a God who had promised him the land where they lived. If Canaanites already had the land and Abram was all the way over in Iraq, where in the biblical narrative did these hierarchical identity distinctions come from? Noah.
Noah awoke from his drunken stupor and, with a hangover, “raced” his three sons (Genesis 9: 24-27). This pro-Semitic text is anti-Hamitic, yet I seek to read it in a way that is pro-Semitic, pro-Hamitic, and pro-Japhethic. I read Noah’s angry words as the confused speech of a man with a splitting headache. Through the fog of his hangover he hears that he has been violated and, rather than forgiving his youngest son, he issues the first stammering words of Whiteness.
Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers. Blessed be Yahweh, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. May God extend the territory of Japheth; may Japheth live in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be his slave.
Noah sounds like an angry coercive voice of Whiteness, an offended and hung-over power that establishes the structures of domination and oppression. I see at least two ways to unmask and interpret this story so that racial domination systems like Whiteness and White supremacy are dethroned.
The first strategy is to engage in a kind of theological jujitsu when Canaan (Ham) is “cursed” and named as a slave three times—slave, slave, slave. Jujitsu is a martial arts form that uses the force of one’s opponents against them rather than confronting them solely with one’s own force. The Canaanite woman in Matthew 15 received Jesus’ derogatory insult (when he called her a “dog”) and then she turned the force of it back on him, further empowered by her own re-analysis (“even the dogs”), thus winning the argument. This Canaanite-woman-style, jujitsu, liberatory move here is to re-member these brothers, with the first becoming last and the last becoming first. The Canaanite Jewish Jesus embodied the “very nature of a slave…humbled himself…and God exalted him to the highest place” (Phil. 2).
In cursing Canaan to slavery, Noah thus cursed him to the highest place above all. In cursing Canaan, Noah cursed God, who is “the least of these” at the bottom of the pyramid of oppression. This “straight lick with a crooked stick” reading is to accept the curse as a blessing, the naming as “slave” as the naming as leader of all, the racing as nonWhite as a destiny of greatness. In this reading, when Whiteness races the other as nonWhite, it sows the seeds of its own destruction. A system can only coercively dominate for a limited amount of time; eventually the oppressed overthrow the masters. When coercive voices and bodies of Whiteness named others as nonWhite inferiors during the last several centuries, those systems of oppression named the voices and bodies who are blessed on a trajectory for greatness. Those who are cursed are the only hope of salvation for those raced-as-White, their only hope to get beyond Whiteness.
The problem with this reading, and the reason I resist it and offer my preferred one below, is that it too highly values the currency of accepting racist terminology and White supremacy. It accepts slavery, servanthood, and abuse in the hope that someday it will get better and the tables will turn. It may have limited liberatory potential or sustaining power because it shows a way of living within a domination system as one who is systemically dispossessed, but it does not challenge Noah the way White supremacy and oppressive racializing need to be challenged.
The second strategy, my preferred reading, is for all three sons to repudiate their father’s ridiculous morning greeting. Ham speaks first and refuses to receive the racing, the curse, and the oppression placed on him. Ham says, “No! I will not accept your curse or your racing as nonWhite and I will not be the lowest of slaves. In fact, I won’t be any kind of slave. If you are offended by what I did, I will ask for your forgiveness, and you can offer it—but we should talk about this. I’m your son for crying out loud. Have you gone mad?”
Japheth also refuses his father’s racing, for it includes the extension of his territory, the enslaving of his brother’s descendants, and he himself living in Shem’s tents. Japheth says, “No! I will not let you race me either. I will not take territory through conquest, enslave and oppress Ham’s kids, or be subordinated to Shem. I reject your pseudo-blessing.”
Shem, the one most highly favored by Noah, refuses to accept the blessing directed toward him and his God since it seems to be possible only through the cursing and enslaving of Canaan: His superior positioning is ensured only by the inferior positioning of others. Shem says, “No! I will not let you race me as superior. I am Ham’s brother, not his master.”
Having all said “No!” to Noah, the three brothers then ask, “And what about our sisters? Why have you left them out?” Then God, hearing the Spirit-inspired resistance to Noah’s misuse of God’s name, says to him, “Your sons are right. Listen to them. But your daughters have even more to say, so don’t go back to sleep just yet.”
But in the received text, Ham, Japheth, and Shem did not confront Noah’s curses and blessings. And they all three suffered from them. They did not have God’s noncompliant spirit of resistance so as to make a more egalitarian and equitable world. Perhaps Noah should have died on the ark.
I’m theorizing Whiteness as a historical and spatial reality with entry routes and exit routes that are continually presented to us. Each time a person or institution accepts or believes a naming that issued from White supremacy it is like accepting the curse/bless from Noah. Second and third millennium CE Whiteness is a reincarnation—a re-embodying or re-enfleshing through bodies raced for enfranchisement and disenfranchisement—of the structures of domination and exploitation that have existed for millennia.
“White American Christians need a liberation theology of their own to free them from the denial of their own past…. White Amer-Europeans must courageously own their past—without guilt but with great intentionality—to change the present and the future. This means Amer-Europeans will have to engage in a collective or corporate type of confession and repentance that looks incisively at the systemic and ingrained violence that has been such a consistent part of the American experience….”
~ George Tinker
A friend of mine was a lifelong Christian. She played the organ and piano in her church for at least 50 years; she taught Sunday School, took meals to sick folk, drove the elderly to services, and grew some of the best peaches and tomatoes I’ve ever tasted. She also owned a couple of small rental homes in the part of town that used to be “White” but slowly became predominantly Latina/o with a few African Americans as well. One day a young African American woman with a small child knocked on her door and asked if she could apply to rent one of the homes, which was vacant. My friend told her it had already been rented, but later she explained that she “never rents to colored people or Mexicans because you can’t trust them.”
My friend had played a race card. That young African American woman had been dealt a race card by this lady, who had dealt untold numbers of them during her 40 years of renting out those two houses. The woman who received the card certainly has stacks and stacks of them that have been dealt to her. When raced-as-White people cry out defensively, “They’re playing a race card!” they forget why there are just so many race cards out there. Raced-as-Whites have manufactured and distributed them by the millions, just like my friend and I did. We raced-as-White folk just about perfected the racializing system that produces race cards, but we really don’t like it when one gets handed back to us. It feels a lot better to give them than to receive them.
These uncomfortable stories are what I call protestimonies. They are protests and testimonies combined. They are counter-memories, and they are subversive moves. When I tell the stories of my own prejudicial actions and beliefs, I am interrogating my own coloredness. Uninterrogated coloredness is deeply problematic. By telling these stories, these testimonies, I am protesting the injustice and I am un-silencing the “White” silence. Yet while uninterrogated Whiteness perpetuates racial discrimination and structural injustice, Emilie Townes rightly points out that all too often White confession and “White resistance to White supremacy [are] weirdly elevated to a higher ethical and moral terrain.”(3) I reject the idea that my confession of “White” racism is superior to anybody else’s stories related to race and ethnicity; my resistance, antipathy, and deconstruction of racist structural evil is not better than anybody else’s. My only option thus far is to do it as a person raced-as-White since that’s what the system has raced me as.
When I reflect on Paul’s claim that there is “neither Jew nor Greek” in Christ Jesus, I think Paul was trying to protest the exclusion of Gentiles, women, and slaves in the people of God and testifying and arguing that they should be included. But perhaps Paul’s “neither Jew nor Greek” was like a person raced-as-White saying we should all be colorblind, which I occasionally hear from raced-as-White people. They’re saying: “Color shouldn’t matter; we should all just get along.” But color does matter. We are not supposed to be colorblind, because there are colors and shades and complexities within the shades, so we should see the colors, and injustices, and oppressions, and exploitation clearly and work for liberation rather than seeing color and furthering injustice, as my friend and I did.
Colorblindness is “the polite language of racism.”(4) It’s trying to be nice. It avoids “the messiness and complexity of race in the quest for a colorblind stance” and it often ends up bracketing and ignoring coloredness. “When taken to the extreme, it assumes a noncolored self who, when disrobed, is actually Whiteness redux.”(5)
So rather than saying “there is neither Jew nor Greek” or calling for colorblindness, perhaps Paul could have written that “there are both Jews and Greeks…for you are all many in Christ Jesus.” This is a call for a re-cognition of diversity and particularity, a valuing of one’s own and the other’s bodily and culturally inscribed differences. Not blindedness, but seeing as clearly as possible and valuing highly the differences as well as the similarities. This does not essentialize race, which is a social construct, but recognizes that human beings are diverse. So as I acknowledge what I know about racings and racism, try to learn more about the much that I do not know, interrogate my coloredness, and engage in counterhegemonic protestifying, I close with one question and one suggestion.
Liberation for the raced-as-White
What does White liberation look like? I benefit from light-skin privilege since I’ve been raced-as-White and live in a world that still codes and stratifies according to that system—but I don’t want to use that language of Whiteness any longer, and I want those systems dismantled and reconstructed.
But not calling myself White does not mean that others do not see me as White. Not calling myself White does not mean that I have not accrued truckloads of benefits from being raced-as-White in a society structured, built, and dominated by Whiteness and White supremacy. I want to claim my historical spatial heritage that predates the social construction of Whiteness. My ancestors came from ‘Europe’ (and before that the ‘Middle East’ and before that ‘Africa’) and elsewhere—those are geographical spatial places, not colors (in a forthcoming article I will explore this more closely).
People raced-as-White could help us get beyond White supremacy by refusing to submit to racings. Instead, claim a geographical heritage and hyphenate and hybridize, so there’s no “American” for raced-as-White people unless it is hyphenated or qualified with another identifier. As Tinker predicts, de-racializing will be necessary for living in a world beyond Whiteness and the oppression that it continues to bring.(6) I do not think that people raced as White can find a “natural” past or an original identity, but we can find non-White pasts and can construct non-White futures.
What actions are necessary to dismantle the structures and constructs that sustain White privilege? To cease being called a color that was created to oppress is a partial answer, but to dismantle the structures of privilege that accrue to that color will take a lot more work. Routes and paths out of Whiteness must include building structures of equity not based on racings, but taking into account the continuing effects of past racings. I wish it were as simple as the nonviolent direct action of not marking “White” on data forms, but that is one way that anyone who has been raced can mess with the system if they think it doesn’t have the right space for them. If there is not an identifier you are comfortable with, check “other.” That space may provide a buffer as we exit Whiteness and move into a world beyond. People raced as White need to accept their otherness, identify as other, and live as other, perhaps for a few generations. As Latina feminist theologian Leticia Guardiola-Sáenz writes:
First, identities are constituted by power relations: they are created in relation to outsiders, the “other”…. Second, identities are not unified: they are fragmented, ruptured, discontinued, and contradictory. We are split among political allegiances, and we have multiple identities that struggle within us. Third, identities are constantly in flux: they are not final productions but productions in process.(7)
Whiteness must be “discontinued” as we produce identities not designed for oppression but produced for equity. And some of the scriptural stories have to be re-narrated and re-interpreted from beyond Whiteness because, as they stand, many stories in the received texts are over-determined by domination systems and racializing. Tinker explains:
The planting and uprooting of power and powerlessness is not at all a smooth, sequential plot. Colonizing and imperializing powers, as we know, have a chameleon-like capacity for persistence. Decolonization and liberation are, therefore, not a given, nor an unfinished business…. To be in the struggle for justice and liberation is, therefore, to be in la lucha continua, the struggle that always continues.(8)
I hope that future generations can inhabit a world in which no human being refers to herself or himself as White and that privilege no longer attaches to skin tone. Whiteness must become history, a construct that folks in the future study as a construct of the past. Perhaps in a few centuries people will be amazed when they learn that for several hundred years of human history some people called themselves “White.” Let’s start building that world, now.
Paul Alexander is Ronald J. Sider Professor of Social Ethics & Public Policy at Eastern University’s Palmer Seminary and co-director of the Sider Center.
1. Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Herder and Herder, 1970).
2. Abraham Lincoln, “Fourth Lincoln-Douglas Debate, Charleston, Illinois, September 19, 1858,” in Speeches and Writings 1832-1858 (Library of America, 1989), 636-37.
3. Emilie Townes, Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 70.
4. Frankenberg, quoted in Townes, 71.
5. Townes, 71.
6. George E. “Tink” Tinker, American Indian Liberation: A Theology of Sovereignty (Orbis, 2008), 21.
7. Leticia A. Guardiola-Sáenz, et al., “Reading from Ourselves: Identity and Hermeneutics among Mexican-American Feminists,” in Maria Pilar Aquino, Daisy L. Machado, and Jeanette Rodriguez, eds., A Reader in Latina Feminist Theology: Religion and Justice (University of Texas Press, 2002), 86. Emphasis added.
8. Musa Dube, Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible (Chalice Press, 2000), 197.
9. George E. “Tink” Tinker, American Indian Liberation: A Theology of Sovereignty (Orbis, 2008), 150, 160.