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De-centering Whiteness

Drew Hart (from his blog at Christian Century)

Another post today based on an older blog post from Drew Hart. As I’ve said before, Drew’s voice has been formative for me in processing issues of race. As a fellow MennoNerd, I’ve valued his ability to aid me in connecting issues of race with the Jesus centered faith at the heart of our shared Anabaptist influence. Since I come out of an almost entirely white Evangelical upbringing, and came into Anabaptism primarily through white influences, the voices of people of color were absent from my experience. In a post from early September Drew points speaks directly to people like me (though his post has a much broader target, God used it to speak to where I am). Here is a taste of the part that I identified with, and which drew me in to the point of his post:

The idea that telling white people that they have privilege as the solution to fix our racial woes was short sighted and bound to fall short of the radical creative transformation that Christians articulate when we speak of God’s reign breaking into our world. I actually don’t blame white people for messing up. If I were white, and someone told me I had “white privilege”, I don’t think I would necessarily know what to do with that. For some people, they find themselves in a perpetual state of guilt and shame, but never finding a new mode of being. They are mentally stuck within a state of awareness of their white privilege, without a new path forward.

When I first became aware of the systemic advantages of my skin color (and gender, etc.), I felt guilty and had trouble figuring out how to move forward. I didn’t want to take advantage of my privilege for personal gain, but also had trouble finding ways to use the advantage to move advance people of color. For me, of course, my perspective is that of a white man. What Drew turns to in his post was an eye-opening realization. The true way forward is to get past the white-privilege model to one that de-centers the white experience altogether.

Another critique I’ve heard made by many people is that models like “white privilege” merely re-centralize white people as the focus, and those that have been marginalized, remain so. White feelings, white action, white guilt, white confession, etc., all become the center of discourse and concern. The attention within this model is squarely on white people. Now, just so I am upfront, I think a lot of attention needs to be placed on the social construct of whiteness and how it operates within society, but that is different than centralizing white people in the struggle for racial justice as the central instruments needed for the creation of a new humanity. Whatever the new model is, it must not centralize white people, nor expect them to take the reigns, controlling where we go next.

He then offers three suggestions, which I will quote from very briefly here:

  1. Since Jesus refused to lord over others, but chose to be a servant to all, the Church must follow that lead. White Christians must renounce any desires to dominate and control everything.
  2. Since Jesus’ Kingdom centralized those who have been marginalized and oppressed, the Church must follow that lead. Christians from dominant culture can no longer follow the lead of mainstream and popular Christianity. Instead, they must find Jesus among the least of these, and follow after him. Dominant culture’s portrayal of Jesus will always be domesticated.
  3. Since Jesus was the liberator of the oppressed, the Church must be liberated itself, so that it can be free to love our neighbors through liberative action and nonviolent struggle that reflects the life-giving impulse of God’s people. This liberated community cannot be achieved through our own productivity and hard work. Liberation and Shalom are divine interventions that come through yieldedness to the Spirit, and through the risk of participating in God’s reign.

This has been helpful for me. While I do want to use my privileged place to speak up for the least of these, I don’t want to use my voice to speak over or instead of those on the margins. This is, in fact, part of my purpose behind posts like these is to not try to restate what someone else from the margins of our culture which was built on white supremacy (and still shows so many of the signs of this history) has already said. Here, I am pointing you to Drew’s post, highlighting some of it, and suggesting you go hear his voice. I am simply offering you a humble statement that I have once again found his post helpful, and suggest you might as well! Go read it!

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