WRITTEN BY emmaxfieldsteele
With the graciousness and generosity of the creator of this blog, I have had plenty of time to think about the question she posed to me: “how does your whiteness separate you from God?” It is a big question. It is built upon the premise that whiteness does separate me from God. And it is a difficult question for me to grapple with, because “whiteness” is self-normalizing for those of us who benefit and suffer from it. The moment I try to grasp it, it fades back into the background of “normal.” To write about something so deeply ingrained is to stare at the very thing I have been taught does not exist. The chameleon hiding in plain view, until it blinks.
Years ago, I saw a documentary about a middle-aged, white, protestant man who agreed to a cross-cultural experiment: he would live with a Muslim family for a period of time, attend worship with them, and effectively shadow them through their everyday lives. There were many heart-warming conversations with the kind host family, and eventually—predictably—Muslims became more human to him and the “us/them” dynamic faded some. But the scene I remember most vividly was the first time he entered the mosque to meet his host family. He walked into the middle of the broad, open space and stood there, confidently waiting. He seemed to be totally at ease, even casual and comfortable, in the worship space of an unfamiliar religion. He seemed to “own” the space.
As a woman, I’m sensitive to the ways that so many white men I encounter occupy space. So often, they move as if they have been assured of an absolute right to exist, to take up space—any space.
In my white feminist upbringing, my parents worked hard to foster my self-confidence. I was taught to believe that I could do anything, go anywhere, be anyone. White male privileges implicitly functioned as the ideal. I would not be held back by gender. I deserved all good things. My parents, I know, never connected any of this with whiteness. They were advocating for me and telling me what they thought the world would not—that I had inherent value.
But even this was a product of whiteness—my inherited privilege. For me, the anti-racist task of recognizing my whiteness is like teasing out a parasite that claims to be whatever it attaches itself to. I cannot do it fully or well without help or tender, loving care.
Whiteness tells me that my genetic inheritance, rather than my createdness, gives me a right to be, to take up space, to possess. Whiteness claims to be my ticket and my deed of trust—it proclaims my inherent right to be.
The Christian task of recognizing what separates me from God requires opening myself up to a process of redemption. I believe that God’s creation is an on-going process, and that God is not done creating me or any of us.
Amanda’s question is a deeply pastoral one, because it requires that I stare into that “empty” space where I find that whiteness has claimed to be the source of my inherent human worth. That fallacy is the parasite.
As a Christian, I believe in the inherent worth of all humanity and of all creation. Inherent—meaning permanent, essential, and unearned. Whiteness claims that I have worth because I am white. Christianity claims I have worth because God created me.
As a little girl I had some grandiose dreams of bringing peace to distant places where wars were being fought. I longed to be a missionary and to help people who were in need (none of them, in my imagination, were white). These dreams may have been early signs of a call to ministry, but I believe they were also evidence that I had soaked up the rhetoric of white supremacy. Like the man striding into the mosque, I believed early on that I had a right to go anywhere, be anything. And, as long as I pitied those who did not have my privilege, I could enjoy its benefits without guilt.
When I am aware of my whiteness—see it for what it is, standing apart from its surroundings, then I move through the world with more humility. I am aware of others’ right to take up space, to set norms that I may or may not agree with. I am aware that my inherent worth is no greater or less than that of anyone else. I am God’s beloved child—no more, and no less. I am released into a more complex world of boundaries and differences. I play a smaller role. The moments when I find the grace to be aware of my whiteness, I find myself in genuine relationships, participating rather than dominating, surrounded by other beloved children of God—I find myself closer to God. When I succumb to the rhetoric of whiteness, I find myself alone.
Whiteness claims to be the source of my worth and my ticket to belonging. The truth is that my worth and belonging have nothing to do with my race. I have inherent value because I am God’s beloved child. In recognizing that, I find myself in a very large and complicated family—just one of many siblings. And there I find God.
The author is an Episcopal priest in Sylva, NC.