Thursday, July 2, 2009

Context Matters, Part 1

In the last week I've had two experiences that re-affirm my commitment to paying attention to how social systems influence my understandings and assumptions. They were unsettling and thought-provoking, and I am curious if others can locate themselves in similar situations.

The first experience happened within a conversation I was having with a self-described "radical non-denominational Christian" friend on our way home from visiting her church. Emerging out our (admittedly uncomfortable) conversation about race and access to the Abrahamic covenant, I had a startling realization. My friend, who is mostly Malay, was sharing with me her perception of being racially excluded from the covenantal grace extended to the biblical/mythic figure Abraham and his descendants (à la Genesis 17-- a perception that seems to me to flow out of Christian discourse than to be a view held by the vast majority religious Jews). As I was responding with what it meant to me-- someone of Anglo-European descent-- to identify Abraham as my spiritual ancestor I suddenly wondered how much this identification had to do with me being white.

And by invoking my whiteness what I am really invoking is white privilege.

White privilege means that “white” is defined as “normal.” Being white in the U.S. means that I don't have to think about my race or my ethnicity. Some white people even experience a sense of not having a race or ethnicity due to the way that whiteness is portrayed as normative. (See this intriguing article by Ashley Doane for a deeper exploration of this.) Because I come from this context in which whiteness is the racial standard against which all other people are held I wonder if that extends to the way that I easily see myself connected to the Abrahamic covenant. I wonder if this connection has less to do with some rationale provided by the Apostle Paul regarding heritage-through-faith (see Galatians 3:6-9), but because I assume that my race-less-ness allows me to transcend the racial boundaries that my Malay-American friend sees.

Additionally, I realized that the Sunday school image of Abraham and Sarah as an elderly white couple is still present in my mind, even though there is little chance that these two Middle Eastern nomads look much like my Northern European-heritage grandparents. This rocked me, since of late I have been getting antsy with idea of reading our modern assumptions about religion and race into Jesus, who was not a Christian and who certainly was not white. I find that by emphasizing Jesus’ Palestinian ethnicity and Jewish religious identity I can resist falling into the trap that I “know” Jesus—i.e. his cultural and religious sensibilities are like mine. In the same way, the conversation I had with my friend makes me think about the ways I kid myself by thinking that I “know” Abraham.

What are other folks’ experiences? How else does white privilege blind us? What are the ways that we’ve suddenly become aware of how racism affects the texts and issues we care about?


  1. Having gone to many churches in my time, I remember one consistent image I always saw: the white Aryan-looking Jesus, typically with dirty blonde hair and blue eyes. The Virgin Mary the same. However, I have to wonder. Is it white privilege or cultural bias? Societies often portray Christ in their own image. For example, in Ethiopia its common to find icons of saints and Christ with an Ethiopian appearance. Would this be an example of "Black Privilege"?

    Another thing is the talk about being white in America and how a lot of us act like we don't have an ethnicity. You attribute this to believing that whiteness is normative, but it could also be the assimilation of white ethnic groups. A lot of European immigrants back in the day came to America not just for opportunity but to lose their culture. They probably didn't expect it, but it happened, typically through public education and social pressure.

    Many Caucasians do not have a second language or another culture like their friends do, leaving them feeling a lack of cultural identity. I think the rise of religious fundamentalism correlates with the fall of cultural identity. The fostering of assimilation in nations like ours creates a large group of cultural orphans, who in turn lacking cultural loyalty turn more loyalty to their religious convictions. So I doubt racism can be noted as fully culpable, or maybe even a factor.

  2. Michael, two things:

    1)Privilege = power. There ain't no such thing as Black privilege in the U.S. If there were, it might be concentrated in a few situations, but always overshadowed by white normativity. I'm fine with Christ depicted as multiple ethnicities; he is the Human One (Son of Man), after all. What I'm cautious of are the assumptions of whiteness that many U.S. Americans of many races have about characters in the Bible, and how that relates to our articulations about God.

    2) I think your hypothesis about religious fundamentalism correlating with the loss of an ethnic identity is interesting. Maybe we could talk about that more sometime. For the record, I personally believe that white normativity and the assimilation of ethnic groups into the paradigm of whiteness set up by those of Anglo descent (either accepted as white or treated as inferior to white) are the same thing.