Whiteness is Not the Plumbline (Introducing Logia’s 2019-2020 Blog Series) by Christa L. McKirland

Over this past year, we have focused on the question: “Why is it important for women to study, teach, and contribute to the fields of theology, biblical studies, and philosophical theology?” We had scholars from all three of these disciplines provide excellent answers to this question as well as suggest practical ways for individuals and institutions to encourage women in these pursuits.

However, as this question was explored, an additional layer became more and more clear—and that is how important it is for women of color to be contributing to these fields and recognized in these guilds. This was especially evident from Juliany González Nieves and Dr. Mitzi Smith’s posts. Reading their stories brought me back to my Women’s Studies program at the University of Georgia when my professor said that to be a woman and to be a woman of color meant that you already had “two strikes” against you. Growing up in the American South, those strikes were readily apparent.

Gender and race are arguably the most phenomenally salient aspects of how we are perceived in the world. Based merely on appearance, one is often negatively pre-judged by these identifiers. Ideally, we’d be able to address these biases head-on so that coping with them is not just a matter of avoidance but of true eradication. To move toward this ideal, those of us who hold power, influence, and privilege (whether we think we do or not), need to learn how to listen. We need to be confronted by narratives that are not our own. We need to recognize the pain that comes from systems that continue to disadvantage individuals for no fault of their own. We need to see each other as fully human.

A friend of mine recently presented a paper on how the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer provides us with a rich starting point for talking about race. In Bonhoeffer’s thought, when someone is confronted by Christ, there are three options: to die, to willingly participate in the killing of Christ, or to think we have died but be self-deceived (which is itself, of course, a more subtle, but no less culpable participation in the killing of Christ). I think many of us, especially in the Western church, believe we have died but are, in fact, self-deceived. The reason being, if we really had been incorporated into the death of Christ, our identities would not be so bound up in our political positions, our “rights,” or our freedoms. To be put to death means that all of our freedoms are now handed over to and redefined in Christ. It is only in this death that there is truly life.[1]

However, I don’t often see this kind of life-giving death. Ego, self-preservation, and “might makes right” are alive and well. This self-deceived life is characterized by defensiveness—the true mark of the undead, because that which has died does not defend what has been surrendered to a crucified and resurrected Lord.

At the same time, this does not mean that everyone from within the majority group has it easy. No one is saying that. “Nobody is mad at you for being white,” as one eye-opening opinion piece communicates.

My hope, through this year’s series, is that we are confronted by our self-deception. By hearing the stories of women of color from around the world, perhaps we can pay attention to our quick dismissals, our distancing, and our justifications. If and when those crop up, perhaps we can instead think about what it must be like to be negatively judged solely on the basis of our skin tone and gender. Perhaps we can try to listen first, empathize with the pain, and think of ways to influence change in our own spheres of influence, before we judge, dismiss, or criticize.

As we do this, our theology will actually become deeper. For instance, in my own work on theological anthropology, when I realized how much the “image of God” concept had been used to justify the oppression of non-white bodies, I was shocked by how shallow the exegesis and consequential theologies have historically been. For instance, Charles Carroll published a book entitled “The Negro a Beast” or “In the Image of God”, where he claims, “If the White was created ‘in the image of God,’ then the Negro was made after some other model.”[2] While he first published this in 1900, it was republished in 1967, 1969, and 2012! In this line of thinking (which extends far beyond this singular work), the white male is the ideal person—the true image of God—and all other persons are diminished images.[3] However, his conclusion goes far beyond what the text actually states. Such a reading motivated me to understand what the text does instead say.[4]

We can try to dismiss this conclusion as a racist ideology of the past (even dismissing the recent republication of Carroll’s work as a fringe phenomenon), but these ways of thinking still pervade everyday experience. For instance, the image of God is often associated with reason, and white men are seen to embody this attribute. The result of this ideology is subtle but pervasive. I remember mentoring a young African American woman a few years back, and she shared how she was sitting in the library with one of Plato’s books and a white, male student came up to her and asked, “why are you reading that?” She was crushed. As Mitzi Smith discussed in last month’s post, students of color are often assumed to be less competent than their white peers. Teachers then teach to this bias, reinforcing it in their students, who then believe they are less competent. As a result, these students don’t pursue higher education or become professors modeling in the classroom and through publications that you can be what you can see. This again reinforces that people of color just aren’t cut out to be scholars, and the cycle begins again.

My hope is that we can start to change this reality, which is why this year’s series will be rooted in that aim. As I approached different women to contribute to this blog, they were asked the following:

What are you researching/teaching and why is this important to you? Have there been specific challenges that you have faced as women of color and what were they? What are the ways we (institutions, professors, peers) can encourage women of color to study and/or teach in the divinity disciplines?

Interestingly, not every woman was comfortable with the designation “woman of color,” especially if she came from a context where she shares the dominant skin color. I found this acknowledgment helpful and humbling. As women, especially in the West, have sought to find a way to define themselves positively (“women of color”) instead of negatively (“nonwhite”), the presumption remains that these women are “other” because of their race.[5] Furthermore, this was a valuable reminder that Western constructs of whiteness are not dominant everywhere and in all places. Whiteness is not the plumb-line by which all other others are measured, which is why this standard of measure is a reality that must be actively deconstructed and overcome.

I hope you will journey with us over this year’s series and perhaps even allow yourself to sit in some discomfort. I know that is a big ask in an increasingly comfort-driven culture, but I believe we will all be better for it. I will be sitting in this with you and would love for you to join me. Consider this your invitation.

 

Christa L. McKirland is a Research Fellow in the Logos Institute. Her research proposes a pneumatologically-Christocentric anthropology based upon the significance and uniqueness of the fundamental human need for intentional dependence upon the divine presence. She is the Executive Director of Logia.

 

[1] Bonhoeffer is a powerful example of a man who used his privilege to speak on behalf of the marginalized. Likewise, so was my friend’s (also a white man) appropriation of his theology to speak to issues of racial injustice. Thank you, Koert Verhagen.

[2] Charles Carroll, The Negro a Beast: Or, In the Image of God, (Mnemosyne Publishing Company, 1969), cited in John F. Kilner, Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 25.

[3] For a brief overview of this historical trajectory, see Kilner, Dignity and Destiny, 21-29.

[4] To read a quick summary of these findings, visit our “Logos Questions” resource on “What’s So Unique About Being Human,” http://logos.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/resources/logos-questions/.

[5] This is not to say that such identifiers are not empowering and helpful. However, they are necessitated due to systems of oppression.

 

Photo by Blaz Erzetic on Unsplash