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?