You don’t normally see a lot of white people in this part of town. So of course my curiosity was piqued. The first thing I observed as I approached was that they were all wearing bright, loud, matching yellow T-shirts. They clearly didn’t want to be missed. White people were here! Drew G.I. Hart, Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism (p. 98)
In Chapter 5, “Whiteness Matters,” Dr. Hart begins with a description of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he lived in a “socio-economically challenged” neighborhood, Allison Hill, while working in a church after graduating from a college in the nearby suburbs. The stage set, he tells the story of coming upon the group described in the paragraph above, handing out bags of groceries and inviting local residents to a “block party.” Hart asks important questions about the actions of the organizers:
What caused them to think that they ought to invade another community’s space in such a way? Why did the come without working with the already existing black and brown groups and leaders who have been engaging in creative and restorative ministry in the city? … Why did they establish themselves as the hosts and saviors of our community? (pp. 99-100)
Hart uses this story as a foundation for interrogating whiteness – how and why it was established, how it is maintained, how it has expanded beyond Anglo-Saxon Protestants (in some cases by legal petition), and how its benefits are so widespread and subtle that many white people never even have to think about it. Further advantages come in the form of active and historic discrimination against non-whites in loan practices, housing and federal programs like the Homestead Act and the G.I. Bill. If one group is disadvantaged, it stands to reason that another group is over-advantaged, says Hart. This can be seen in studies of employment practices (pp. 104-105).
By now the reader may be thinking, “Wait! I’m a nice person. The people in my church are nice, too!” How can it be true that white people, and particularly white Christians, are racists? Hart takes us back to his campus experience, where strangers viewed him with suspicion, and friends simply decided he was the exception. He reminds us that while black young men, for instance, must prove themselves an exception, white young men are given maximum latitude for “just being kids.” (p. 107) He warns against the notion of colorblindness, stating,
White racism has always been veiled by “civil” culture. The first necessity is to interpret society’s way of life with high ideals. More than just nice, it is civil, fair, equal, and just. In our day, the colorblind rhetoric is a mutated form of this approach. Notice that it is primarily white conservative Americans, and decisively not African Americans, who praise colorblindness as our path toward a better future. (p. 108)
Jesus himself, Hart says, has been made white, and the culprit is not just American culture, but Western culture. By making Jesus white and convincing converts that they must become Westernized in order to be good Christians, Western Christianity imposed whiteness on the Imago Dei itself.
In transforming Jesus (both physically and culturally) into a white man, people of European descent gained a controlling interpretive grip not only on Jesus, but also on the god revealed in Christ, and there on all the church. (p. 110)
Hart brings the chapter to a close with an exploration of which Jesus we are called to follow as Christians. While he has made a historical and sociological case, ultimately his conclusions are theological and scriptural. The Jesus created by white, Western Christianity stands on the side of oppression. The Jesus of the Bible stood on the margins with the oppressed.
To follow Jesus meant to renounce domination and alignment with the worldly powers…God as invited us all to come alongside the crucified of every time and place…This means that white Christians must renounce the desire to control other people’s lives and must reject the innocent savior complex, which sees everyone but oneself as in need of transformation. (p. 116)
Some of this week’s discussion questions are taken from Herald Press’s excellent discussion guide.
- How did you react to the story about “Harrisburg Invasion Day?”
- Although your theology may be different, can you identify with the underlying attitudes of the people who swarmed a disadvantaged neighborhood? When have you shown up in a place you were not invited?
- We explored racialized images of Jesus in an earlier discussion. How is your image of the first person of the Trinity influenced by whiteness?
- If you are white, when have you benefited from whiteness on an everyday basis or in a major life experience?
- Consider the story of the white woman who attended the invitation-only conversation on race without an invitation. To what extend did you identify with her? Have you experienced your own moments of “white fragility?” How have you worked through it?
- Where do you see Jesus standing? Can you see yourself coming alongside the crucified?
About the RevGals Anti-Racism Project: As a majority white organization incorporated in the United States, the leaders of RevGalBlogPals feel called to confront systemic racism in the U.S. As a global ministry, we feel called to oppose minority oppression and racial injustice in all nations. We hope this book discussion will be a step toward awareness and away from unconscious centering of whiteness.
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