Good Christian Racist

NOTE: I wrote this reflection as part of my current class on Dismantling Whiteness. It interweaves my own journey with several of our class readings, but I think it will be accessible to anyone, even if you haven’t read the background material.

Good Christian Racist: My (Still Unfolding!) Journey Out of Whiteness
David R. Weiss – August 3, 2020

Introduction. As a child I had frequent night terrors. I would waken frozen in fear, convinced there was something frightful lying in wait beneath my bed. The best my dad could do was show me with a flashlight—scanning the bare carpet floor left to right—that there was nothing beneath the bed. The lesson tormented my mind because although my dad seemed to be right, the moment the light was off and he’d left the room, my heart knew that the Nothing under the bed was more real than any flashlight could capture.

James Baldwin describes whiteness as a lie, a category without real existence but with very real effects. It is a moral catastrophe for those who embrace it, since it presupposes (was created precisely to presuppose!) an otherness within humanity that invites people raced as white to act inhumanly toward our fellow humans. Despite its nothingness, it poses a deadly threat to persons deemed other, because it was created out of (and amplified) disparate power relations. Whiteness, then, is a Nothingness that “exists” only to fracture creation. [1] I don’t think I was scared of whiteness beneath my bed, but maybe I should’ve been. It’s been hiding out “in, with, and under” me since my birth.[2]

Beginnings. I was born into a good Christian racist family in 1959. “Good” and “Christian” because my family raised me to be empathetic and merciful, values reinforced by the Christian beliefs we held and the Christian practices we pursued. “Racist,” because my family had been blissfully raced white long before I came along. We weren’t overtly or antagonistically racist, but the waters of white supremacy in which we swam, buoyed us up, even while they swallowed others whole. We did not march with the Klan (not even when asked to!), but we benefited from a host of social conventions that kept us “safe” in a necessarily dangerous world.[3] I was taught these things—to be “good,” to be “Christian,” and to be racist—by those who loved me. And I learned the lessons well.

I was not once taught to think of Black people as less than … but I was seldom if ever encouraged to directly question the world that clearly thought Black people were less than. And this was despite the fact that this disparate world was in my face. Every day of my young life.

From birth through high school I lived in Michigan City, Indiana. I knew there were Black people in my community (25-30% of the city’s 30,000 people). And I knew they were, on the whole, poor. Michigan City as a whole has a poverty rate (27.2%) almost double the state’s rate (13.5%). But for Blacks the rate is 2½ times that of whites (41% vs. 17%). The neighborhood I grew up in, unimpressively middle class by most every measure, has a poverty rate just under 7%. But both my church/school and my grandparents’ home were in neighborhoods with poverty rates triple that—and racial demographics to match. I didn’t know the numbers, but from my youth my eyes told me that whiteness tilted my neighborhood toward “nicer.” Without judgment. It was simply the way it was. Then again, without judgment, it was implicitly-obviously simply the way it was meant to be.

My dad grew up in the 1930’s and 1940’s on the city’s west side, at the time a patchwork of working class immigrant-ethnic neighborhoods that grew up in walking distance to the city’s industrial base. Germans, Poles, Blacks, Lebanese, and Syrians, as well as a smattering of others. As my dad’s generation became adults, those who were raced as white often moved outward to the developing parts of the city, while black families bought or rented the homes left behind. Thus, as the city grew, the north and west sides became increasingly dense in Black population and the south and east (growing) edges of the city became largely white. Even without redlining,[4] it’s likely that banks, realtors, and residential racial bias shaped the city’s racial geography.

My Lutheran day school (grades 1-8) was probably 95% white. All eight teachers were white. My public high school (with probably 15-20% Black students) had about 100 teachers; five were Black; none taught me. Of the roughly 80 faculty at my small Lutheran college none were Black; one person appears to have been Middle Eastern. From kindergarten through college I was educated by people raced as white—teachers who, mostly unwittingly I suspect—raced to pass on whiteness to me.

I had only a couple brief friendships (and a couple tutoring relationships) that crossed racial lines, but none offered real engagement. Black people lived on the other side of the city, in other homes, and had other lives. Looking back, my childhood community had all the materials to be a learning lab for racial disparities and injustice, but it never appeared at the forefront of any school curriculum, any church emphasis, or any family values. We never met racial injustice with anything stronger than (occasional) charity. We meant no one harm. But the fact is that people—Black people—were being harmed on our watch, and we (I, at least) barely noticed. We were, after all, good Christian racists.

Adulting. I attended college and seminary in (overwhelmingly white) Iowa. Only one college course (in sociology) directly addressed race. It invited me for the first time to look beneath the surface of what “simply was,” to begin—ever so faintly—to see the structural “why” underneath.

Seminary (1982-86) is where and when I first became aware of my maleness, my straightness, and my whiteness. But just barely. I participated in an intensive 3-day “in-your-face” training on race awareness led by C.T. Vivian (colleague of MLK; just died July 17, 2020, age 95). I remember being intimidated in the training—but little else. One “blessing” of whiteness is that it readily welcomes you back into its arms if you only stray for a few days and don’t have any plans to abandon it with ongoing vigor. Absent any provisions to sustain me in ongoing discomfort or even mundane practices, I marked “racial awareness” off my “to do” list … and got on with my white life.

Because my awakenings to feminist and LGBTQ+ issues—and, hence, my own sense of being male and straight—were embedded in lasting friendships they continued to unfold in the coming years. These friendships, alongside some courses in feminist theology and my involvement in anti-apartheid work (I had casual friendships with Namibian seminarians who lived under apartheid) led me to recognize that sometimes “the way things are,” is grotesquely unfair—by design.

Around age 25 I had my first(!) teacher of color, a Guyanese seminary professor, for a course on Marx and Liberation Theology. However, in a bit of irony, this Latin American Lutheran theologian seemed intent on discrediting both Marx and Liberation Theology for placing too much “faith” in human works rather than in God’s grace. I didn’t yet have either the guts or knowledge to push back on the professor, but my intuitive gut-knowledge was coming clear: God sides resolutely with the poor. And those of us who wish to be in the company of God belong there too.

After seminary, from 1985-2005 I developed my own theological voice around justice, doing graduate study in Christian Ethics and then teaching college myself. I became feminist; actively working to de-center the male-default in my language and thought. I became an articulate, trusted, vocal ally for LGBTQ persons. I embraced—as theologian, writer, and civilly-disobedient activist—a variety of justice issues … but not racial justice. (Except for a single service-learning course I taught in 2000 on a Navajo reservation; an opportunity offered to me just that once.)

Despite growing up in a community marked by race and racial disparities I turned my energy in nearly every other direction from my early twenties until I was almost fifty. There are many reasons, I’m sure, but as Robin DiAngelo notes: “White people are taught not to feel any loss over the absence of people of color in their lives.”[5] Lacking any genuine cross-racial friendships, my concern for racial justice was a matter of principle … tempered by convenience; a conviction held in the abstract … but not wrapped in warm flesh.

Finally, working in campus ministry (2006-2009), I was paid to learn about racial justice. As I led service-learning trips to the Mississippi Delta I began to stretch myself theologically and personally. Then, in an irony of second-hand intersectional oppression, I lost my job in campus ministry over my growing voice (off campus, apart from my day job) seeking justice for LGBTQ+ persons in faith communities. And with the end of that job, my passion for racial justice conveniently waned. L

With the killings of Michael Brown (2014) and Freddy Gray (2015) and Philando Castile (2016), the anguish and anger of Black people swept into my consciousness. I had friends (a deacon in Ferguson and a pastor in Baltimore, both raced as white) who put their faith and the feet out in the streets alongside the Black communities in each case. Their witness pressed me … inconveniently. Philando worked at the school across the street from my church; the young girls next door to us knew him from the lunchroom. Heartbroken, I wept.[6] I marched. I blocked the interstate. I wrote.

In response to Philando’s killing my church formed a racial justice team. Over the next two years my wife and I worked closely with two Black women (sisters and peers to us in age) to facilitate learning in the congregation. (I’ve since left that congregation but my wife is still part of that work.) Besides leading conversations around A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota (Sun Yung Shin, ed.), Waking Up White (Debbie Irving), and White Fragility (Robin DiAngelo), the “behind-the-scenes” planning done with these strong Black women provided regular opportunities for humility, accountability, and internal growth. Our collegiality was deeply appreciated, but we got no free passes.

Imperfection. In the spring of 2017 I was invited to teach a “Contemporary Topics in Christian Ethics” course of my own creation—a rare offer for an adjunct at Hamline University. I taught “Climate Change, Queer Christians, and Race.” I felt competent to teach climate and LGBTQ issues but hardly ready to teach on race. Still, I knew race was as pressing as any challenge facing the church. So I taught—imperfectly—moving humbly, uncertainly, but with conviction through texts, ideas, and conversations. At the end of the semester I asked one of my sharpest students, a young Black woman, if we could … just be friends … now that class was over. I rather stammered that I wanted more Black relationships in my life and that my wife and I would be honored to get to know her better. Three years later it’s proven one of the wisest decisions of my life; Tachianna not only challenges my thinking, she fuels the passion with which I think and write and act.

Over the past year, I’ve intentionally, civilly, stridently engaged my right-leaning friends and family on Facebook over the implicit and sometimes explicit racist assumptions in their posts. I don’t expect I’ll change minds (although I’ve had a couple difficult but extended and substantial exchanges), but I no longer offer the silence of “white solidarity.”[7]

Then George Floyd was murdered. I made signs, marched, kept vigil at the Capitol, and penned more words. “Words” sounds almost innocuous. But I’ve written 15,000 of them across thirteen blog posts as part of my contribution to the Uprising. This flows directly out of my growing conviction that “White racism is ultimately a white problem and the burden for interrupting it belongs to white people.”[8] I concluded in a June blog post:

“Theologically, to frame our work for racial justice as being an ‘Ally’ doesn’t simply fall short: it completely misses the mark. We work for racial justice because in a moral universe only this work justifies our being here at all. … only so do we bring the church into being … only when we conspire in this work do we meet the God who meets Moses in the burning bush and cries, “I can’t breathe.” … We either conspire (breathe together) with God in liberating deeds … or we have our knee on God’s neck. It’s that simple.”[9]

In posts written mostly to others also raced as white, I’ve argued that sometimes “riots are an act of God.”[10] I’ve written a whole series of evocative essays suggesting that Christians have every reason to support calls for police/prison abolition.[11] My voice has been strident, audacious, and, no doubt, imperfect. But this work now matters so deeply that I’m willing to makes some mistakes and missteps (learning as I go), lest my preference for perfection keep me altogether silent.[12]

Lastly, “Roots Deeper Than Whiteness,”[13] really resonated with me. Agreeing with Baldwin’s declaration of the sheer lie of whiteness, it’s clear (to me) that our resistance to white supremacy cannot be done as “white people.” But I’ve been at a loss for how to be “post white.” Dean’s essay helps me envision a pathway backward and “deepward” into roots that are more particular than “white”—and more universally human as well.

Image: Wikimedia Commons – public domain
This photo is from Gainesville, Florida, Dec. 31, 1922, but there were KKK cross burning in the Michigan City Dunes.

There are such roots in my family, although I only have inklings of them. A great-grandfather who refused to join in when the Klan marched past the front of his home. Instead he declared that the cowardice of their hoods signaled the dishonor in their actions. Another great-grandfather was a poor laborer, such that when one of his children died at age six, the church held the funeral but refused to toll the bell because he was behind on his church dues. Fifty-some years later he kept his pledge that no bell would ring at his own funeral either. And a great-great grandfather who helped dig canals in Germany, living himself in earthen holes dug in the side of the canals where they worked. And there are more. Echoes of ancestors whose solidarity had roots deeper than whiteness. Whose shoulders rise out of the past, waiting for my feet to stand on them. Now.

***

drw

[1] James Baldwin, “On Being White … And Other Lies.” Interestingly, the great Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) defined evil as Das Nichtige, “nothingness”: evil paradoxically has no being, but is intrinsically committed (against God’s active beingness) to fraying God’s creation. Race has an uncanny kinship to Barth’s Das Nichtige.

[2] Martin Luther used “in, with, and under” to describe the wholly encompassing “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharistic bread and wine. I’m using it to suggest the tragically wholly encompassing “real presence” of whiteness in my life, a presence that is anti-sacred. L

[3] Baldwin saw whiteness constructed in part as the false choice of safety; it only seemingly transferred all risk to those deemed “other” because humanity (like creation itself writ large) is one, regardless of the presumptions we make.

[4] Michigan City fell just below the threshold (40,000) for an official “redlining” map by the Home Owner’s Loan Corp.

[5] Robin DiAngelo, “White Fragility,” p. 58.

[6] On reckoning racism as beginning in complete heartbreak: Vickie Chang, “On the Demon Called Racism, Part I.”

[7] Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility (the book), pp. 57-58. (Rereading this alongside my wife this summer.)

[8] Robin DiAngelo, “White Fragility,” p. 66.

[9] www.davidrweiss.com/2020/06/22/coming-out-against-white-allies/

[10] www.davidrweiss.com/2020/05/30/sometimes-a-riot-is-an-act-of-god/

[11] www.davidrweiss.com/2020/06/09/come-this-wilderness/ (this first essay includes links to the other five).

[12] On not letting whiteness/perfectionism get in the way: Bay Area Solidarity Action Team, “Protocols & Principles.”

[13] David Dean, “Roots Deeper than Whiteness.”

* * *

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

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