Self-examination is a difficult experience. It requires a humble disposition to see the beautiful marks and the flaws which distract from that beauty. Even more so, national self-examination demands its citizens to reflect on where they have been, where they are, and what is their destination. As with all organized groups there is a culture. There are a set of values, beliefs, languages, and customs which mark inclusion and participation. In our country, I want to humbly assert whiteness is the dominant culture asserting freedom demands participation in this cultural experience.
What is whiteness?
Whiteness is a cultural experience. It is a belief, at least in America, in which it is the standard of measure by which all other cultural expressions and human experiences are judged. I think for most of us, we walk in American life unaware of its presence, yet whiteness casts it shadow over our daily lives.
What was whiteness in the past?
The major American institutions-political, economic, social, and religious-are informed by this cultural dynamic. The nation celebrates men such as George Washington, John Adams, and Patrick Henry who were courageous and sacrificial British citizens choosing to establish a new world separate from British tyranny. The establishment of this new nation carried a strange irony as a new tyranny was enacted upon the lives of an existing people to continue the expansion of this new experiment of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” What else is to be expected as cultures clash to maintain identity, maintain resources, and simply exist?
To the victor obviously goes the spoils. The descendants with a Caucasian flavor created and justified a specific perspective of culture which would influence all of American life. I don’t necessarily fault them for establishing this baseline for how to conduct politics, execute a particular laissez faire capitalistic system, and the religious dominance of Protestantism. In the grand scheme of providence whiteness prevailed in America. Admittedly, it is in this cultural context of whiteness I am subject to develop this very writing and it has informed my learning.
What is whiteness? Is it a way of speech? We are to speak the “Queen’s English!” Is whiteness the accumulation of colonial actions spread throughout the world manipulating, conquering, and redefining persons of colors as backwards and animalistic? Borrowing from the thoughts of Black intellectual James Baldwin, maybe you can only understand yourself by forming a doctrine announcing my skin is cursed, my hair is nappy, and my lips are huge. Are we to understand whiteness as embodied in a group of persons who can only understand themselves in the context of creating “others?”
What is whiteness in the present?
Depending on who you ask many would have you believe whiteness finds a home with its colonial impulses and intense desire to justify racial disparity and inequity within the election of President Trump and conservative agenda. Yet can we not consider whiteness with its colonial power and racial paternalism finds homes on the Left side of American streets as well? Whiteness in the present pulls itself up to the dinner table not only with Conservative Whites but also in coffee shops participating in conversations between “woke” Millenials and lecturing in college institutions.
For example, as a seminary graduate, I received no exposure to theologians who were persons of color. My exposure was limited to those European males coming out of Germany, England, Geneva, and the North East America. White males who possessed a specific view of God, redemptive history, and how human beings were to treat one another. It was not until I completed my master’s thesis on Black Church leadership I discovered theologians such as Lemuel Haynes, James Cone, Howard Thurman, and Willie Jennings. I had to move out of a segment of Protestant Christianity which was narrowly defined by Whiteness and yet held itself as the standard for Christianity. There were more voices from different cultures which sought to express faith in an infinite God and life.
Even today with the many voices rising from persons of color, I ask myself if White brothers and sisters perceive a loss of place and personal identity. Persons of color are seeking to assert their value and presence within this American experiment. A reclamation which calls to account past sins and present situations. What is the response? Charlottesville torches. Confederate rallies. What is more antithetical to freedom than the promotion of an ideology embodied in the Confederacy. Fifty-four White supremacist indicted right here in Arkansas. An ideology which has no power yet still finds a few adherents and flies over some Southern states even today. An ideology which should remain buried in the past but remembered in our present and future reflections.
What are we to make of these White voices in the sound of other voices? Are the voices of these fringe elements calling persons of color to remain in compliance to the cultural realities of Whiteness? It is possible White brothers and sisters are realizing the period of such a dominant cultural influence is now experiencing its swan song.
I find myself treading on a very thin line. How does one express his or her significance as a human being ad then a person of color within a culture which explicitly and more so implicitly diminishes his or her humanity without diminishing the humanity of those who identify with the dominant culture of whiteness. In other words, I love my brothers and sisters who are aware or unaware of their whiteness.
What does the future hold for White brothers and sisters in America?
Well it depends on self-identification. Identity is key to personal experience. We are an amalgamation of a various values, beliefs, customs, and relationships which are critical to how we understand ourselves in this human experience.
We are human beings and we have made significant progress from the past colonial powers which supported slavery and maintained the systems of Jim and Jane Crow, and Segregation. We are human beings who chose to march collectively in Washington D.C. to hear about a dream and braved Edmund Pettus to secure the right to vote. We are human beings who have come along way overseeing the funeral of Jim and Jane Crow to where we are today.
I want to offer three encouragements for my White brothers and sisters.
The first encouragement I want to offer is tied up in the title of this essay, “White Brothers and Sisters.” We are a common humanity. We are family by origination of the dirt. The word human has its origins from the Latin “humus” meaning soil. If we would look beyond our skin color, languages, and national origins we would feel in our hand shakes and hugs, the soil. The earth unites men and women from a variety of ethnicities and we would be encouraged to remember as such.
My second encouragement is built on the words of Frederick Douglass. In 1865 Mr. Douglass speaking to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society offered his observations regarding the future of freedmen.
“What shall we do with the Negro?” I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! I am not for tying or fastening them on the tree in any way, except by nature’s plan, and if they will not stay there, let them fall. And if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone!”
White brothers and sisters, leave persons of color alone! You have helped with the “War on Poverty” and statistically the situation of Blacks has diminished over the last fifty years. You have helped with the “War on Drugs” and persons of color populate more jail cells than dorm rooms of college campus. You have helped with affirmative action and are we now saying my intelligence is not enough? All I ask is you give us a chance at full freedom and not the paternalism which echoes the dead institutions of slavery, Jim Crow, and Jane Crow. Leave us alone like the Asians. Leave us alone like the Jews. Leave us alone. I want to encourage you to see power and creativity lift persons of color to an atmosphere which is as high as we desire to exist.
This leads to my final encouragement and conclusion. America prides itself as the bastion of freedom. President Ronald Regan stated, “Freedom is one of the deepest and noblest aspirations of the human spirit.” In another place he stated, “If we lose freedom here, there is no place to escape to. This is the last stand on earth.” My White brothers and sisters who are my family by location of the soil and the reality we are made in God’s image. Use your freedom as a means to uplift others because of our shared humanity and not out of a sense of past sins or present guilt. Yours is the opportunity to demonstrate color truly is not the defining character in which a person of color can live free, to pursue life, and happiness. What is the future for you? Your future is tied to my future and the future of Latino-Americans, Asian-American, Native Americans, and all others. It will require some honest reflection which should produce actions which affirm human bodies and human life.
So I close with James Baldwin who observed about America,
“any honest examination of the national life proves how far we are from the standard of
human freedom with which we began. The recovery of this standard demands of
everyone who loves this country a hard look at himself, for the greatest achievements must begin somewhere, and they always begin with the person. If we are not capable of
this examination, we may yet become one of the most distinguished and monumental
failures in the history of nations.”
My brothers and sisters I would encourage you to conduct some self-reflection because this country depends on this activity.