culture

The White Supremacy Within Us

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The atrocity in Charlottesville is heartbreaking. Torch-wielding, swastika-bearing and Nazi-quoting protestors marched the streets. One person died. Many were injured. And countless are left mourning.

Many of us want to assume that the tragedy in Charlottesville was led by people on the fringes of American society. And, thankfully, Christians have broadly denounced overt racism. Yet the first denunciation must not be about what those on the outside have done. Rather, we should heed the Apostle Peter’s alarming words:

For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it first begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:17)

Has the church genuinely judged white supremacy in her midst? See, it is easy to judge the sins outside of us, and it’s much harder to judge the sins within us. It is easy to look at the angry faces of the alt-right and denounce the movement. It is much harder to look at the people in the pews — and to look at our own hearts — and denounce what you couldn’t possibly believe is there.

But it is, and it’s prevalent.

My Confession

Allow me to confess: I am guilty of being a white supremacist, and I’m black. I am often guilty of uplifting the white culture and race as superior to the black race and culture, even though I’m black. There are two reasons for my confession. First, I want to display the posture of my heart on this sensitive subject. I am not writing about this subject in the abstract; there is existential grit of white supremacy attached to my heart. Second, since I am guilty of this sin, I am sympathetic towards anyone who is guilty of the same.

So, I am not speaking from an “Ivory Tower” (or “Ebony Tower”) as if I were free this evil. And I recognize that if African Americans were given the same historical circumstances as whites, we probably would have thought of our race as superior, too. A skin color does not make you more or less susceptible to certain sins; this claim is in line with the biblical narrative of human nature.

In the biblical narrative of human nature, racism is an old problem. At the root of the racial issue is our common connection to our primordial father, Adam. Specifically, we all have the same inescapable inheritance — our self-destructive sin nature. We hunger for power, and we have a universal desire to be God. So it is with the sin of white supremacy. If anyone is guilty of this sin, I am. My guilt is also shared by the evangelical church in America.

No one can confess sin that they are ignorant of having.

White Supremacy’s Prevalence in the Church

The fingerprints of white supremacy are all over modern American culture. Too often, the church in America has resembled the culture more than its Savior. As a result, the sin of white supremacy is in her heart, too. It is a heartbreaking truth, but truth nonetheless.

What can we do? The first step in genuine repentance is confession. But, no one can confess sin that they are ignorant of having. In a series of articles I will explore how white supremacy still lives in the American church. In this post, I hope to initiate the beginning of confession, leading to a holistic repentance. My approach will be to try to arouse “white consciousness” and also “black consciousness.”

Both of these terms — white consciousness and black consciousness — can be loosely defined as a race’s perception of themselves in relation to different people groups. But here is the problem: We are typically unaware of our racial consciousness. In the book Was Blind, But Now I See: White Race Consciousness and the Law, the author calls this lack of consciousness the transparency phenomenon, defined as:

The tendency of whites [or blacks] not to think about whiteness [or blackness], or about norms, behaviors, experiences, or perspectives that are white [or black] specific. (Flagg, 1998, p.1)

Although this phenomenon occurs unconsciously, it naturally leads to a specific race imposing a racial norm on a different people group. For our purposes, an ignorance of white consciousness can lead to whites imposing a white norm on other races — in America, specifically the black race. What follows then is the prevalent and undetected disease of white supremacy.

Of course, the term white supremacy has become a buzzword, lacking a proper definition. Therefore, we need a precise definition of what white supremacy is.

What is White Supremacy?

White supremacy isn’t what you think it is. In our vernacular, the term white supremacy has been routinely confused with and used synonymously with the term racism. The two terms are related, but they are not the same. So, what is white supremacy? George M. Fredrickson, a renowned historian of race at Stanford University, defined the term in this way:

White supremacy refers to attitudes, ideologies, and policies associated with the rise of blatant forms of European dominance over ‘nonwhite’ populations.

Fredrickson hangs the definition of white supremacy on three prongs — attitudes, ideologies and policies —  because this differs from pure racism. Pure racism is a belief in one race’s biological superiority in contradistinction to another race’s obvious biological inferiority. But most instances of white supremacy occur unconsciously and thus result in subconscious attitudes, ideas and policies that diminish minority groups — all while never overtly suggesting a biological inferiority.

With this clear definition of white supremacy, you can see that this term is not limited to white people alone, but blacks and other ethnicities too. You can also see that white supremacy can (and usually does) go undetected, as it has in most aspects of American culture. Even so, white supremacy is at least as prevalent if not more so in evangelical culture than in the prevailing culture around us. Furthermore, it is clearly undetected by the vast majority of the church, blacks and whites alike.

We have undetected white supremacy. It’s hindering our mission.

The Hidden Figure in Hidden Figures

The movie Hidden Figures is based on a true story during the beginning years of the Unite States space program. During this period of history, intense racial tension and segregation permeated our society. In the midst of this atmosphere three brilliant African-American women played a crucial role in the birth and growth of NASA. One of these women, Katherine Johnson, was a mathematician for NASA and aided in the success of the orbital mission of John Glenn. Johnson helped push the United States forward in the infamous “space race” with the Soviet Union.

Throughout the movie, Johnson is the only black female in an office comprised of whites and her colleagues repeatedly made her aware of her minority status. Though this office was not segregated, she was segregated. Her co-workers placed a separate coffee pot at the coffee station labeled “Blacks.” She was also not allowed to use the bathroom in the same building as her co-workers because of her skin color. In one scene, following a lengthy walk to a building with a bathroom designated for blacks, Johnson returned to her office drenched from a downpour of rain. Her supervisor saw her dripping wet and reprimanded her in front of her fellow employees for what he described as her long breaks and lack of reliability.

Supervisor: Where the h— have you been. It’s not my imagination. Now where the h— do you go everyday?

Katherine: To the bathroom, sir?

The supervisor thinks of her answer as stupid. He dismisses the comments and demands a better answer, to which she replies with this moving speech:

Katherine: There are no colored bathrooms in this building, or any building outside the West Campus, which is half a mile away. Did you know that? I have to walk to Timbuktu just to relieve myself! And I can’t use one of the handy bikes. Picture that, Mr. Harrison. My uniform, skirt below the knees and my heels. And simple necklace pearls. Well, I don’t own pearls. Lord knows you don’t pay the colored enough to afford pearls! And I work like a dog day and night, living on coffee from a pot none of you want to touch! So, excuse me if I have to go to the restroom a few times a day.

Caught by surprise, the supervisor walks over to the coffee pot and rips off the label that says “black.” Then, he takes the entire office to the restroom that is labeled “Colored Ladies Room” and dismantles it. Walking off with the sign in his hand, he turns around and says, “No more colored restrooms, No more white restrooms. Here at NASA we all pee the same color.”

Here is the most intriguing part of this scene: The supervisor was focused on a bigger, transcendent goal — reaching outer space — yet he was clueless to the racism and white supremacy that was in the heart of his office daily. Something he thought was only happening on the outside of his NASA office, was happening inside, and it was hindering the completion of the mission. Additionally, he only realized the issue when he addressed the one he thought was the problem, and to his surprise it wasn’t what he assumed the problem to be. In fact, it wasn’t anything he would have thought of himself. It took him hearing the truth from someone different than himself. Only then could this supervisor see the grave sin in their midst and address it. And only then could they move forward with the mission.

In this illustration, the hidden figure of white supremacy was going undetected, and it hindered the mission. I believe the church in America reflects this scene. We too have undetected white supremacy. It’s hindering our mission. There has yet to be a moment where we intentionally and boldly dismantle the emblems of white supremacy that remain.

Conclusion

As startling as it may seem, white supremacy is too often a reality for the church in America. We are not aware of our white consciousness and it leads to white supremacy. Thankfully, more churches are emphasizing racial reconciliation and diversity, but that doesn’t mean white supremacy is gone. In fact, if we try forcing racial reconciliation and diversity, while thinking white supremacy is absent, we’re in danger of cultural assimilation rather than true reconciliation and diversity. However, though American society may never be cured from this sin, I am confident that the church will. Why? First, we are the people of God, and we shall “confess our sins and be cleansed of all unrighteousness,” as Apostle John states:

If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:6-10)

Second, if we are the people of God, we shall one day prove our confession has cleansed us from the unrighteousness of white supremacy because this vision will have come to past:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands,  and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ (Revelation 7:9-10)

Amen. Come Lord Jesus. But until then let us actively wait confessing our sins, being cleansed of unrighteousness and being sanctified in the truth.

This is the first in a multi-part series that explores white supremacy.

Image credit: Vinicius Amano / Unsplash.com

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Lemanuel Williams

Lemanuel Williams is the Director of Operations of at Peacemakers and a pastoral intern at Redeemer Church in Rocky Mount, NC. He is a Hunt Scholar working to finish his M.Div. at Southeastern Seminary.

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