In Zora Neale Hurston’s 1928 essay, “How It Feels to Be Colored Like Me,” she writes about her lived experience as a black woman in the South. She talks about her racial awakening, describing it as “the day I become colored.” She uses many metaphors to talk about race, including calling herself a “brown paper bag” alongside other bags “white, red and yellow” and refers to God as “the Great Stuffer of Bags.” In a famous line in this essay she states: “I do not always feel colored…I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”
In the wake of the terrorist attack on Emanuel AME church in Charleston, SC, the cultural and political conversation surrounding the Confederate flag that followed, and the #BlackLivesMatter protest movement in general, the “sharp white background” of America has been on the minds of many justice-minded people, Christian and secular alike. Social scientists have been talking about “whiteness” as a construct for years, but when white woman Rachel A. Dolezal was now infamously revealed to have spent years passing as a black activist and academic, the question of what it means to be white became a mainstream hot topic. The New York Times even ran an article in the Sunday Review titled “What is Whiteness?” Suddenly, it seems, the marginalized voices that have long been decrying the invisible pervasiveness of whiteness in America are being heard.
Years ago when I first took Peggy McIntosh’s famous white privilege inventory, I realized that my first memory of ever thinking about race was an awareness of the way others were different from me. I can safely assume that many other white people could say the same. I didn’t see myself as being different- and this is one of the first ways I realized that my whiteness was actually extremely relevant to my life. My whiteness was the opposite of a burden- it was a lightening, an advantage that enabled my assumption that I was the norm from which others diverged.
What’s been interesting to me lately is that so many of the recent reflections and meditations about whiteness are coming from actual white people. Read Jeffrey A. Schooley’s blog Souls of White Folks in Presbyterian Today to see one great example. This isn’t to say that I feel that the perspective of white people in discussions about race needs any highlighting- quite the contrary in fact, when the marginalization of the voices and perspectives of people of color remains a staple in academia, mainstream media, and the Church. But I do see the fact that white people are talking about whiteness- and that the white Church is talking about its whiteness and its Western-ness- as encouraging for all of us who yearn for racial justice.
This is because when we as white people acknowledge our own whiteness, we are drawing attention to the sharp white background that people of color must operate within every minute of every day. This is an act that is primarily helpful to other white people. After all, people of color don’t need to be reminded of their race. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie points out in her brilliant book, Americanah, for people of color in America, “[T]he minute you step outside, race matters.” But for us white people, who are socialized into seeing ourselves as race-less and as the “default” for everything from the protagonist in every form of media to the color of “flesh” or “nude” band-aids and make-up and bras, our whiteness has given us countless advantages within a system thats entire existence depends on the invisibility of these privileges: white supremacy. For white folks, race is simply “something that happens to other people.” Understanding this fundamental difference in experience and perspective is essential for white people who want to be anti-racist allies and who desire racial justice.
Any white person living in the United States will develop opinions about race simply by swimming in the water of our culture. But mainstream sources—schools, textbooks, media—don’t provide us with the multiple perspectives we need. – Dr. Robin Diangelo “White America’s racial illiteracy: Why our national conversation is poisoned from the start“
White people are unable to talk about whiteness because, to start, we really don’t know how to talk about race. Racial illiteracy is present not only in our education system, as Dr. Diangelo points out, but in our churches. And remedying this is an urgent need. As justice-minded Christians, if we want to work towards racial justice, we must find a way to eliminate racial illiteracy. I’ve been a Presbyterian all my life, and it’s only in recent years that I’ve ever heard race even mentioned in church. I suspect many of my fellow white progressives have experienced something similar. I believe now is a crucial moment for the white Church to acknowledge our racial illiteracy and take steps towards becoming an intersectional church.
You see, it’s at church that I learned about the power of redemptive love. It’s at church that I learned about inclusion and radical hospitality. Through the often difficult and problematic history of the church, I learned about oppression and enslavement. It was church folks who encouraged my feminism when it was just a tiny, fiery seed in my heart. It’s at church where I learned that justice and mission were at the heart of all theology. And it must be in church that we make overt and concrete steps to make our justice and peace efforts intersectional.
When I talk about intersectionality, I am talking about expanding our understanding of oppression to account for the way multiple identities shape the experiences and perspectives of marginalized people. Critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989. In a nutshell, it is “a framework that must be applied to all social justice work, a frame that recognizes the multiple aspects of identity that enrich our lives and experiences and that compound and complicate oppressions and marginalizations.”
For the white Church, we need only look to the work of many of our racial ethnic churches and leaders for a vision of an intersectional church. They are the ground zero in the fight towards intersectional justice, in addressing the multiple loci of oppression which shape the experience of those of color, those who are not able bodied, those who fall outside the gender binary, those whose immigration status sets them apart. Our racial illiteracy can be improved by conversations and dialogue with these churches. We white Christians must call out the ways that our whiteness influences and shapes our perspective of justice, and identify the ways we have been silent.
For example, when we talk about domestic violence in church, we must also address the fact that women and children of color are disproportionately affected by gendered violence. When we talk about the atrocities of rape and other forms of sexual violence, we must also acknowledge that women of color, particularly Native women, and bisexual women are at a far higher risk. When we talk about the experiences of teenagers and young people in church, we must also look at the way the school-to-prison pipeline is affecting communities of color. We can critique our own churches, from our local congregations to our wider ruling bodies, by considering the types of representation that exist in the leadership, beyond gender representation. And we should start considering the ways our mission work and service can embrace the tenets of anti-racism and begin to adapt our practices to reflect an awareness of the connection between race and poverty.
White anti-racist allies must continue speaking to our own congregations and communities about whiteness and begin the conversations that will open up our justice and peace work to an intersectional critique. We must improve our racial literacy, and not just to be “PC” (as many who criticize anti-racism might say), but because God, “the Great Stuffer of Bags” has asked us to love one another and to love one another we must recognize all that God has carefully stuffed our bags with! To do this we cannot erase any part of a person’s identity; instead, we must fully and wholly embrace each individual and all the ways their identities are shaped by systems of domination, in Christ’s name. On our journey towards anti-oppression, intersectionality is crucial in order to become a fully inclusive church, participating in God’s mission and cosmic vision for the redemption of the world.