What Color Is White? (January 15, 2012 )

posted Sep 3, 2009, 12:22 PM by Neal Jones   [ updated Apr 5, 2012, 8:06 PM ]

        I have to confess to you that when I began thinking about a Martin Luther King Day sermon, my initial reaction was a yawn.  What could I possibly say about race and equality that I haven't already said and that you don't already know.  I had the same reaction when I initially looked over my required reading list to become a fellowshipped UU minister.  I was required to read a long list of books and confirm my ministerial fitness in 16 "competency areas": theology, world religions, Hebrew and Christian scripture, church history, UU history and polity, social theory and ethics, human development, my personal spiritual development, religious education, worship, pastoral care, leadership, administration, professional ethics, sexual justice, and the whole area of anti-racism, anti-oppression, and multiculturalism.  Leave it to Unitarians to compulsively cover all the bases and then some.  Now that I am a credentialed UU minister, I am an official Know-It-All.  Ask me anything about Unitarian Universalism, and if I don't know the answer, I know how to sound like I know the answer. 

        I'll make another confession: I thought I knew a lot about ministry in all these areas, especially the topics of anti-racism, anti-oppression, and multiculturalism, but the truth is that I learned a lot through this credentialing process.  I was guilty of thinking that we liberals have dealt with our prejudice.  We aren't racists.  Racism doesn't pertain to us.  It pertains to those snarling, Confederate flag-waving protestors who will greet us tomorrow along the parade route for King Day at the Dome.  Racism pertains to the Tea Party crowd, who openly brandish their guns at rallies, carry posters depicting our first African American President as Hitler and as a monkey, and spit on and shout racial slurs at Congressmen. 

        Racism doesn't pertain to us.  It pertains to Right Wing bloviators, like Bill OReilly, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck, who say things like, "President Obama has a deep-seated hatred for white people and white culture" (whatever that is).  Racism pertains to pandering politicians who will say anything to get elected while appealing to the worst fears, prejudices, and stereotypes of voters.  Like Newt Gingrich, who said recently that he was willing to go before the NAACP and urge black people to demand paychecks, not food stamps" and who lambasts our African American President as the "best food stamp President in American history."  Or like Rick Santorum, who said recently that he did not want to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money.  I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money."  Racism pertains to these kinds of people, but not us.

        But here is what this liberal learned from his readings while preparing for his credentialing examination:  Racism is not just about personal prejudice and interpersonal actions; its also about institutional and systemic patterns that operate to the benefit of white people and to the detriment of people of color all the time, no matter if white racists or black people are present or absent.  Racism is independent of you and me.  Racism in endemic in our social, political, and economic systems and institutions so that unequal wages, unequal treatment in the legal system, and segregation in jobs, housing, and education continue no matter how much prejudice we may have overcome or how color-blind we think we may be.  In fact, as long as we remain focused only on our individual attitudes and actions and ignore institutional patterns, we will leave the system of racism intact.  Overcoming our personal prejudices is the starting point, but it cannot the end point for ending racism.  To use Biblical language, "we struggle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers that govern this world" (Ephesians 6:12).

        We sophisticated types dissociate ourselves from working class whites rednecks, as we call them because we prefer that they carry our racism for us.  We know were not one of them.  They are the ones who use the N-word and belong to the Klan and use violent words and actions against people of color, and we just dont do those kinds of things.  We forget that working class whites are among the most powerless and vulnerable and scared members of our society, and people without a voice often resort to violence to make themselves heard and to feel powerful.  We forget that more powerful and well off people can simply move to segregated gated communities and send their kids to segregated Christian academies and make corporate decisions that are harder to see as racist.  We forget that wealthy white people control the media, the textbooks, the housing and job markets, and the police.  If were not careful, we will scapegoat working class white people for being racist and not see racism in its higher up hiding places. 

We need to stay focused on institutions, organizations, and systems more than on people.  We need to remember with St. Paul that "we struggle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers that govern this world," lest we fall prey to the manipulations of the elite power brokers who want us to become preoccupied with our whiteness and distracted from seeing the gross inequalities of class right under our noses.  White is more than a color.  Its an identity and an ideology which holds tremendous power over our lives, black and white.  (By the way, let me apologize now to people of color because I will be speaking today almost exclusively to the white people present, and I will be doing so because too often in discussions about race, we white people instruct black people about what we think they should be doing or not doing.  Its past time for white people to discuss with each other what we should be doing or not doing.)

Racism became comingled with classism with the institution of slavery, when aristocratic plantation owners convinced poor dirt farmers that people with darker skin were inferior to them and that therefore it was permissible to buy and sell them on the auction block like livestock.  Race was used, in other words, as a way to pit poor whites against African slaves so that the two would not join forces against a common enemy.  Then the plantation owners convinced the dirt farmers to fight a war to preserve a privileged way of life that did not include them.  When that war was lost, the dirt farmers were told that it had been a noble lost cause and that they could preserve their dignity by creating a segregated society that denigrated the dignity of former slaves.  When the plantation owners became the mill owners and the dirt farmers became the mill workers, they were told they could not form unions because black workers could not earn wages and benefits equal to white workers. 

And when it came time to win elections, the elite power brokers created a Southern strategy of convincing blue collar, working class whites to vote against their own economic interests in order to maintain their supposed racial superiority.  They were told, You may not receive an adequate education or livable wages; you may not have health insurance or a pension; your children may not be promised a better future than yours; you may work your fingers to the bone and never get ahead in this life; but at least youre not black.  People who have nothing will cling to something if it gives them a sense of pride, even a false racial pride.  By focusing on their whiteness, working class whites have been misled to believe that they actually have more in common with Donald Trump than fellow working class African Americans.  White is more than a color; its an identity and an ideology.

It would be hard to believe that centuries-old attitudes and stereotypes brought to the shores of this new world from the old disappeared overnight when the Colored Only signs were taken down.  We have inherited a bias that associates positive qualities with white people and negative qualities with people of color.  Actually, the bias goes deeper than that.  We associate positive qualities with all things white and negative qualities with everything dark.  This is reflected by our language:  blacklist, black market, blackmail, black sheep, black magic, black hearted, black deed, Black Death, black lung, Black Mass, dark clouds, dark days; white knight, white hope, a little white lie, lily white, pure and white, clean and white, white as snow. 

It goes deeper than our language to our very way of thinking.  Thanks to our Greek heritage of either-or logic and to our Christian heritage of good vs. evil, we in the West have a tendency to see reality in sets of opposites, in black-and-white categories, figuratively and literally.  I have listed some of these binary qualities on the cover of our order of service.  On the left are what we typically regard as dark qualities, while on the right are positive qualities associated with whiteness.  No matter how color-blind we think we are, it is nearly impossible to dissociate positive qualities with being white and negative ones from people of color, whether you are a white person or a person of color. 

Whiteness is assumed to be the norm.  We typically assume white unless otherwise noted, in the same way we usually assume people and animals are male unless otherwise noted.  Listen to these sentences:

        He walked into a room and immediately noticed her.

        The new sitcom is about a middle-aged, middle class couple and their three children.

        The average American drinks two cups of coffee a day.

        She didnt know if she would get into the college of her choice.

        I have a friend with AIDS.

        He won a medal in the Special Olympics.

Didnt you assume that all these people are white?  In fact, we white people are not even used to thinking about being white.  We take it for granted. 

        To be white is to be in the in-group, while everyone else is an outsider.  In colonial times, only those with English heritage were considered to be white.  The Irish and Spanish were considered darker races, sometimes even black.  The category of white was gradually expanded to include northern and middle European immigrants, but it took even longer for eastern and southern Europeans, like Italians, Poles, Russians, and Greeks, to be counted as white.  From the beginning, the category of white has been fraught with difficulty, and its been a category that has been constantly stretched, redefined, and adopted to fit the agenda of the Europeans and Euro-Americans who have used it.  What to do with Native Americans, Hispanics, and Jewish people?  Are they white?  When California became a state, the great debate was how to classify the Mexicans and Chinese.  Since there were still Mexicans who were wealthy landowners and business partners with whites, they were classified as white; whereas the Chinese, who were exclusively railroad and agricultural workers, were lumped with blacks and Indians, without the right to become a citizen, own land, or marry a white person. 

        Whiteness has long been associated with purity, and around the world, from the United States to Germany and South Africa, white people have been obsessed with protecting the racial purity of the so-called "white race" from being contaminated and defiled by non-whites.  Whether people of color, Native Americans, or Jews, non-whites have been seen as dirty, and  whiteness has been protected from these impurities by ethnic cleansings, segregation, anti-miscegenation laws, concentration camps, and genocide.  White people have considered anyone with even a "drop" of African- American, Native, or Jewish "blood" to be impure and alien.  I believe many of our fears today of darker-skinned immigrants stem from this historic obsession with racial purity.

        Whiteness has long been associated with Christianity.  Being a "good Christian," being moral, virtuous, hard-working, saved, civilized, decent, or God-fearing is synonymous with being white.  When someone refers to a Christian school, a Christian academy, a Christian camp, a Christian home, a Christian family, or a Christian anything, you can be sure that it's white.  Even the Christian God and Jesus are white, even though the historical Jesus must have surely been dark-skinned since he was from the Middle East.  I'm not sure what color the Holy Ghost is, but if he resembles Casper, then he must be white, too.  Throughout the centuries, the white Christian God has sanctioned violence in the form of inquisitions, pogroms, crusades, and holy wars to save the souls of "uncivilized" and "godless" people, usually at the expense of their very lives.  Whether they have been Native American "pagans," Jewish "heathens," or Muslim "infidels," the victims of Christian violence have been, almost without exception, non-white.

Whiteness has long been associated with Americanism.  To be patriotic or all-American is synonymous with being white.  Every immigrant group that has come to this country has been willing to give up its unique history, language, accent, dress, family name, and culture in order to assimilate, and everyone who could has tried to pass as white in order to be accepted as a full-fledged American.  To be regarded as non-white has been to be regarded as less than American, as un-American, and sometimes even as anti- American.  It was no accident that during World War II, U.S. citizens of Japanese heritage were sent to internment camps, while U.S. citizens of German heritage were not.  And it is no accident today that some members of the Tea Party are still demanding the birth certificate of our President.  They just cannot accept this African American President as a real American.

White is more than a color; its an identity and an ideology, and any white person who has dared to challenge that racist identity and ideology has had his or her own whiteness called into question.  As many of you  know, labels such as "nigger lover," "race traitor," "un-American," "unchristian," "Communist," and "socialist" have been used to discredit one's credentials as a white person and alienate one from the white community.  And as some of you know all too well, behind the names and labels lies the threat of violence.  UU theologian Thandeka has discovered in her extensive interviews with white people that shame is used to keep us in the white fold.  As a part of growing up, many of us were humiliated by the very people who loved us and ostracized from very the community that nurtured us if we did not indulge in white prejudice or if we allowed ourselves to feel empathy for the victims of white prejudice.   Shame is a powerful method of control because once shame is instilled in you, you no longer need an external "shamer" to keep you in line.

I remember very clearly how racial shaming works.  When I was a little boy, before starting school, I was kept each day while my parents were at work by my great aunt, who lived on a farm out in the country.  Adjacent to their farm was the farm of a black family with a little girl my age.  Kay and I became daily companions, digging holes and building forts in the field between our houses and exploring the deep, dark woods that lay behind both houses.  In the morning with dew still on the ground, we would burst outside and yell for each other across the field, and we would run to meet each other half way.  When my father discovered that Kay and I were friends, he teased me to no end.  It wasn't just that I was playing with a girl but that I was playing with a black girl.  When I started my all-white school, my white socialization continued so that I understood without ever having to be explicitly told that "they" were different and that "they" could never be our friends.  When I was in the fourth grade, integration began, and lo and behold, Kay and I ended up in the same class.  We had not seen each other for four years.  I wanted to speak to her, but instead I turned my head and pretended not to see her.  I don't remember ever speaking to her.

If you are white and don't uphold the white code, you can be kicked out of the white club.  Many of us Southern liberals lost our membership in the white club a long time ago.  I am sure that I am not the only white person in this room who feels more at home among people of color than among most white people we know.  To be a Southern white liberal is to be an alien in your own land and an outcast in your own family.  Perhaps this is why so many of us here finally feel at home in this predominantly white liberal denomination and in this predominantly white liberal congregation.

        At one time, racial differences were thought to be scientifically important.  The old classification system of Caucasian, Negroid, and Mongoloid was invented by white Europeans, and guess what, they decided that people who looked like them were genetically superior to Negroids and Mongoloids.  They even assumed that skull sizes varied according to ones race.  Today we know better.  Today we know that race is not a valid category and that genetic differences among humans dont correspond to skin color or any other physical characteristic.  In fact, skin color doesnt tell you much of anything about a person nothing about their country of origin, their culture, or their character.  Nevertheless, we still attach moral qualities and moral judgments to skin color.  We cant help it.  These biases are hundreds of years old.  They have been a part of our culture from the beginning and have been passed down to us from parents, schools, churches, literature, TV, and movies.  For anyone to claim to be unaffected by these biases is like a fish thinking it can swim above the water.

        These biases afford benefits to being white.  Now I realize that talk about white benefits rings hollow to many middle class and certainly to many working class whites who are struggling to make ends meet and dont feel that they are enjoying any benefits.  Just because we may not enjoy the economic privileges of those with more money doesnt mean they we havent enjoyed some of the benefits of being white.  No matter your economic condition or level of education, if you are white you enjoy the benefits of being white in this society.  But that will be the topic of a later sermon to be delivered, appropriately enough, on Lincoln's birthday.

                                                                                                                                                                            Rev. Dr. Neal Jones