Word Study: Whiteness

by | Dec 8, 2020

Editor’s note—part of what makes conversations about race such as “whiteness” so difficult is that we seem to talk past each other. This series explores ways important words are used and provides biblical categories for the ideas behind them. Our goal is not to police language but to provide greater clarity.

If you have been paying attention to conversations about race and racism, you have likely encountered the term “whiteness” used in a number of different ways. It can mean the condition of being born white. It can connote white privilege (a term we will examine in the next installment). It is also used as a synonym for white supremacy.

You can see how this gets confusing in a hurry. If an author intends it as a synonym for white supremacy but the only category the reader has is bare ethnicity, the reader is left feeling that he or she is irreparably racist as a condition of birth. That misunderstanding is a conversation-stopper. Clarity is a central aim for United? We Pray and something we are always striving toward (2 Corinthians 1:13).

My goal is not to advocate for or condemn any of these uses of the word. Context matters so much for meaning and intent. Any of these meanings can be helpful or harmful depending on usage. Here are a few ways you may encounter the word “whiteness” used:

“I have trouble being in white spaces.”

“Things in our church will not change until some Christians come to terms with their whiteness.”

“Whiteness gave us the wide racial divides we see in American churches.”

Those are three very different sentences. The first speaks to the experience of being a minority when so many of the people around are ethnically white. Nothing else may be fairly inferred. The speaker has not implied that there is anything wrong with being white, or even that the white people in the space have done anything wrong. He or she is just stating that it can be hard to be one of only a few minorities in a setting like a church.

The second sentence speaks more to the conditions of society. White people have a different experience than minorities. White Christians may wish to be colorblind, but the conditions of history and our tumultuous present will not allow it. Laws privileging white people over minorities were officially on the books until very recently. Many negative effects linger. White Christians cannot pretend that history started with our generation or that we or our minority friends are unaffected by centuries of codified racism. Until we recognize that things have not been or are not now as they should be, we cannot meaningfully relate to our minority brothers and sisters.

The third sentence speaks to the evil intent which created the society I just described. The US Constitution described people under servitude as 3/5ths a person. At the time this may have included some white-skinned indentured servants, but history shows that, for centuries, being black in America was to be legally considered sub-human. Christians were not immune to this type of thinking. Prominent American theologians such as Robert Dabney taught that there is an ontological difference between black people and white people and that it is the right of whites to subjugate blacks. In this way, whiteness is used, perhaps provocatively, as a synonym for white supremacy. Does it mean that all white people are white supremacists? No. Does it mean that the historical stratification which privileges whites requires the idea of white supremacy? Yes. Our history is not so disconnected from hate as we would like.

These are just three ways the term whiteness is used in conversations about race. There are other ways it may be used, but these are a few of which to make you aware. I hope these examples will help my white brothers and sisters be less defensive when they hear the term, as slowness to take offense is a Scriptural obligation (James 1:19). Let’s not automatically assume the worst, but seek to understand and love our brothers and sisters as Jesus would have us (1 Corinthians 13:7).


Prayer Requests:

  1. Pray that God’s people would be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to take offense.
  2. Pray against misunderstanding. Satan would love to cloud difficult conversations about race with confusion. Pray that would not happen.
  3. Pray that understanding would lead to greater unity for God’s people.

 

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Author

  • Austin Suter

    Austin is the executive director and editor for U?WP. He is a husband, father and seminary student at RTS Charlotte. Austin is a member at Iron City Church in Birmingham, AL. @amsuter

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