After these things I looked, and here was an enormous crowd that no one could count, made up of persons from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb dressed in long white robes, and with palm branches in their hands. They were shouting out in a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God, to the one seated on the throne, and to the Lamb! (Revelation 7:9–10, NET)
I’m going to try to do something here that white people try to avoid: think, and think out loud, about what it means to be white. I’ll get at why that can uncomfortable for us later on, but first, Why am I doing this?
I’m writing this because I’ve come to the conclusion, based on how John identifies the Great Multitude of the redeemed, that I’m going to be white in Heaven. Not that I’ll have the phenotypical features of a Northern European in the sweet by and by; I don’t know what kind(s) of skin, eyes, hair, etc. I, or anyone else, will have in Heaven. No, I mean that in Heaven the redeemed are able to be identified as being “from” (Revelation 7:9) various groups formed by their world-historical circumstances. And one of those categories—at least, for many of us living in the modern world, as I’ll explain—is race.
In other words, what I’ve heard God saying to me here is that if, in Heaven, he were to take away my “white-ness”, he’d be taking away part of what it means for me to be David Hamstra. Just as much as if he took away Luther’s “German-ness”, Luther wouldn’t be Luther; or if he took away “Aramean-ness”, Jacob wouldn’t be Jacob (Deuteronomy 26:5); or if he took away “Jewish-ness”, the man from Galilee wouldn’t be Jesus.
So if being white here means I’m going to be white in Heaven, the question isn’t whether or not I should be thinking of myself as a white person. The real question is, “What does it mean for me to be white?” And, especially, “How am I to be white together with those who are not?”
To get at the answers to those questions, I’m going to bring in two authors and their two books as conversation partners. Let me introduce Linda and Tim.
Linda Martín Alcoff is a philosopher. She’s of Panamanian and white American descent. Raised partly in rural Panama and with poor whites in Florida, she joined campus radicals during the American Civil Rights struggle, which involved exposing herself to life-threatening danger. Her book is The Future of Whiteness. I’ll be drawing on Linda to talk about how identity works in general and how it has played out in the history of white people in particular.
Timothy J. Lensmire, for our purposes, is an ethnographer. He conducted a series of interviews with his white friends and associates in his home town in the rural northern Midwest about how they view racial and ethnic minority groups in the United States. His book is White Folks: Race and Identity in Rural America. By critically reflecting on his own past, and that of his interviewees, Tim weaves a story about how coming into contact with other peoples changed his own and his subjects’ whiteness in both conventional and unexpected ways.
(Note: This isn’t a book review. I’m using these books as sources, not critiquing the author’s views where I disagree with them. I’m also not attempting to summarize the books by touching on their major themes or arguments. They are worth reading in their own right for other insights the authors have on this topic.)
But before going into what it means to be white, let’s figure out what it means to “be” anything in this way. Linda offers some philosophical guidance on what it is to have this kind of un-chosen group identity.
First, identities are not the material stuff of human existence. This can be illustrated by the difference between being a male and being a man. One could say that any male with functioning genitalia can procreate, but it takes a man to raise his children to be responsible adults.
Second, identities are socially constructed. They vary across cultures. They have a story; they change over time. The habits and attitudes that make a man in America are similar to but different than those of Angola. And what we consider manly in America of 2018 is similar to, but different than, what was considered manly in 1958, or 1758. (Powdered wigs, anyone?)
Third, the fact that identities are not material and are socially constructed does not mean they are arbitrary or infinitely malleable. They are governed by cultural rules about attitudes and habits that developed as ways to help people make sense of their material circumstances by being or becoming a certain kind of person. To the degree that those rules continue to provide an explanation for what it means to be that kind of person in those circumstances, the identity expressed by those rules will be stable. So returning to our example, whatever else masculine identity might come to involve, as long as humans sexually reproduce, attitudes and habits on the part of those males that have reproduced that support family life are likely to continue to be a part of what it means to be a man, because they offer a powerful explanation for how we are to bring in the next generation.
That’s all to say that being white is not fundamentally about possessing a certain set of physical characteristics. It means having inherited or been adopted into a partial but satisfactory explanation for how you arrived at your place in the world and a set of cultural rules about the habits and attitudes that make sense of how to live in light of that explanation.
Finally, Tim’s interviews suggest that identity requires some kind of Other(s) or counterpart(s), a variation (or variations) on the same kind of being as we are without whom there would be no reason to be identified as part of a group in the first place. There could be no such thing as a landlubber until the first sailor put out to sea. Whatever men are, they are not boys, or women. And whatever white people are, we are not—and we lack an elegant vocabulary for this—black, a person of color, or something else?
The Story of White Identity
There was a time when nobody thought of themselves as white. As recently as just over 100 years ago, when my great-great grandparents arrived in North Dakota, they thought of themselves primarily as Germans and Ukrainians. And, the story goes, my German great-grandparents were not too impressed that a Ukrainian boy (my grandfather) had taken a special interest in their daughter (my grandmother). But by the time I was old enough to learn about such things, those ethnic prejudices were long in the past. My grandfather was then an American, the kind who loved Western wear and proudly flew the US flag over his farm (typically, but not exclusively, white habits).
So in my family’s history, white identity is something that was learned within living memory. Whiteness explained what you were in the New World, a place where the ethnonational rivalries of the Old didn’t have to matter anymore. And, as Linda points out, many European immigrants to these shores were forced out of their societies or otherwise had to leave under less than ideal circumstances. For these immigrants-of-necessity, whiteness afforded a way of quickly shedding identities tied to shameful events of the past while simultaneously identifying with the American promise of a new start in life.
As the category of “white” in America expanded to include more and more ethnic groups (from Irish, to Italians, to Jews, to “white-Hispanics,” etc.), it’s power to explain trans-ethnic, and even trans-national affiliation not only increased, but was exported around the modern world. That’s because the set of physical features racial categories map onto can be more or less fuzzy at the margins, changing as populations intersect or diverge across history. But the ability of whiteness to assimilate has, from the beginning, bumped up against its limit, its Other: the so-called “person of color”, whose phenotypical features cannot be plausibly associated with European ancestry so as to be physically indexed to white identity.
That is because the idea of a white person was invented by European elites who, following the Age of Discovery, realized that the divided, warring ethnicities crammed onto the lands north and west of the Caucasus mountains had more in common than they themselves understood. But, as Linda reminds us, the idea that these groups were all white people was part of more than just an Enlightenment quest for a rational, pan-national, European brotherhood. It also positioned these newly christened “white” people at the vanguard of history, on a disciplining mission to civilize the world according to the dictates of reason.
It doesn’t take a cynical view of the intentions of those who formulated this vision of white supremacy to see how supremely susceptible it was to the depravity of the selfish human heart. Helping the locals put their resources to their best use (as if white people had the best understanding of what “best” means) easily became colonial wealth extraction. Enslaving non-Christian blacks until such time as they should convert (as if that were a biblical way to evangelize) became keeping both them and their children as chattel slaves in perpetuity, because of the “curse of Ham,” once too many had converted.
And that’s where being white is complicated. On the one hand, the vanguard vision retains its ability to elicit pride among white people for their affiliation with a group that ushered in an era of unprecedented prosperity, integration, and liberty for the peoples of the world—a project over which white people continue to preside to some extent. On the other, whiteness can equally be a source of deep shame for the abuse, exploitation, and degradation to which white people have subjected and continue to subject peoples of color—much of which was and continues to be justified as necessary to live in a modern world.
So we don’t like to think or talk about ourselves as being white, because a deep part of what it explains about us is morally conflicted. When it comes to the role of whiteness in the modern world, we don’t know whether to respond to our white identity with pride or shame. Not that being white is like being a Nazi, because, as Linda reminds us, being white explains a lot about me that isn’t inextricably linked to attitudes and habits of oppression. If it were otherwise, white people could end the inner conflict by simply renouncing our whiteness or sublimating it into a newly constructed identity.
But neither is it exactly like being a Rotarian, because being white explains how we came to enjoy certain advantages in the modern world as direct or indirect results of white consensus decisions to exploit people of color because they were non-white. So we cannot speak to issues of race as white people without exposing ourselves to moral vulnerability according to our own standards of right and wrong (derived from Christian religiosity and Enlightenment rationality). And so, returning now to Tim’s ethnography, we white Americans have responded to that sense of vulnerability in what I think of as a typically white way: by creating a new set of civilizing rules that manage the moral conflict of our identity so that we can get on with the rest of our lives.
The biggest rule is, “Don’t mention race except to denounce racism.” Because, if you don’t bring up race, you cannot be accused of being a racist. And being a racist means you are uncivilized and should, therefore, be denied the benefits of the modern world. These rules have locked white people into a competition in which status is earned by appearing to be anti-racist. Failure to do so gives society reason to deprive you of employment and business opportunities, political office, friendships, and other venues of power and influence.
Of course, this does not mean race goes unmentioned. Where white people are willing to be vulnerable with each other (such as during the weekly men’s poker game hosted by the interviewee who lays out this dynamic for Tim) white people feel free to speak about people of color as such, and in the most bigoted of terms. But in this space, there can be no challenging of such perceptions, because to do so would introduce the anti-racist status competition of civilized life and destroy the trust that allows white people to voice the vulnerable side of their identity. In Tim’s telling, many white people are stuck between “high spaces,” where white racial attitudes and habits are strictly controlled but white people can’t talk about race, and “low spaces,” where white racial attitudes and habits are uncontrolled, but where they can talk about race.
How to Be White
So the problem of being white, as I’ve developed it with the help of Linda and Tim, is one of being morally conflicted with no venue in which to resolve that conflict. The story of whiteness lays bare the sources of that conflict in the white desire to transcend the racial categories we created and usher in a new, post-racial era via civilizing disciplines that enforce “colorblind” attitudes and habits. We are gambling with our consciences on a repeat of the same move that only partially succeeded at uniting the Europeans; only this time it’s for all humanity.
But that homogenizing Babel project cannot succeed. Partly because it’s imposed from the top down via rules that suppress the conversation necessary for the explanatory power that comes from bottom-up identity formation to emerge. And partly because we need an Other to define ourselves.
So, if resolving the conflict of white identity in the twenty-first century does not, or rather cannot, mean sublimating it to an all-consuming anti-racist project, how are we supposed to be white? What I took away from reading Linda on that question can be summarized thus: Being white isn’t so special. Part of the solution to our moral problem is that we need to get over ourselves.
White people are not, and have never been, the vanguard of history. Jesus is the vanguard of history. That means we can afford to let go of power and control in government and civil society, including in the church. That also means that we’re not at the vanguard of an anti-racist civilizing project. God isn’t waiting for his white people to be purified of all racism, as if only then could he finally save the world.
What is required of us white people is the same thing that was required of the Jews who followed The Way of Jesus when it was time for the fullness of the Gentiles to come into the Assembly. It started by giving up control of the food distribution to six Greek-speaking Jews and a Greek proselyte (Acts 6:5). We’ve become accustomed to a world and a church-run “for us, by us,” to borrow a phrase, such that most of the time we don’t even have to think of ourselves as being white. But white people who can’t take their place beside, not before or below, all the other groups of people who have inhabited this world will find they are not suited to the worship of humanity’s Creator around the throne of Heaven.
That does not imply that there are not better or worse ways of being in the world before God. However, the fact that whiteness is just one of them means that it is not the standard by which the rest are to be judged. It also means that it does not have a privileged relationship to that standard. Whiteness is just one way, among many, by which God has led people to make sense of their circumstances in ways that open them to a knowledge of himself (Acts 17:26). To make it more or less than that is an idolatrous denial of God’s uniqueness as the supreme agency in human history.
How to Be White with Others
If that is the case then how are we to go about being white with the Others. Linda points to examples of white uplift movements—movements seeking justice for poor whites—that also coordinated with movements to promote justice for black Americans during the US Civil Rights era. In other words, white identity and white concerns are not inherently bound up with the oppression of people of color. In fact, they can be very much the opposite.
But what makes the difference? Here’s where I think Tim’s ethnography clarifies two ways people form their identity in distinction to the Other. Tim asked his white interview subjects to recall the first time they met a black person. For those who met black people as children, the reaction of the white adults around them was crucial. All the adults recalled a childish desire to form relationships with the black people they encountered. For those who were encouraged in this impulse by their adult authority figures, their initial encounter with black people was associated with feelings of joy, wonder, and contentment. They came to view racial difference as a potential source of personal acceptance, and, as adults, had a less morally compromised relationship with race and racism as a result.
The other group had experienced the same impulse toward connection, but picked up subtle or overt signals from adults they respected that this was a transgression of boundaries, a transgression for which they felt shame. Out of a strong childish desire to please the adults in their life, they began to be racially discriminating in their associations. As adults, although often not wanting to be racist, they more often viewed people of color as sources of fear and as scapegoats.
From these identity forming experiences, in which Tim’s interviewees came to understand themselves as white, they inherited one of two very different ways of being white with Others. In one, to be white is the way to be human, a way which is threatened by corrupting associations with those who are human in distinctly deficient ways. In the other, to be white is a way to be human, a way that is affirmed by validating encounters with those who are human in distinctly different ways. We white people cannot choose which way of being white was passed down to us, but we can choose which way we will pass on to our children.
A Cross-shaped Way of Being White
I suspect that the choice to embrace or to exclude will hinge on a willingness to make amends where amends are due. In my own life, I expect to maintain a measure of prudent self-protection between myself and those who have proven willing and capable of harming me, intentionally or inadvertently, until such time as amends are made. I can’t expect it to be otherwise for people of color, individually or as a group, when it comes to their relationships with me as a white person. For, the benefits of group identity go along with the burdens of group accountability.
Again, that doesn’t mean putting white people back into the driver’s seat of history. It simply means we don’t get special treatment when it comes to any contemporary or historical wrongs to the extent that we are implicated in them. It means we don’t assume we have the best take on what’s best for race relations personally, politically, socially, or in the church. And it means we will need to listen to the concerns of those with other racial and ethnic identities—concerns that come from ways of making sense of circumstances rather different than ours—to the same degree that we expect other groups to listen to concerns that come out of having a white identity.
I take this personally to be the racial side of what it means to hide myself behind the cross. Hiding self behind the cross doesn’t mean that my identities are annihilated by Christian conversion. It means that they are held relative to the self-sacrificing love of Christ, so that I now devote them to the purpose of laying my life down for others. I want to commit to God, for his service, those white habits and attitudes that enable me to love others in a cross-shaped way. As for those that get in the way of that love, I want them to stay hidden behind Jesus’s sacrifice.
I give you a new commandment—to love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples—if you have love for one another (John 13:34–35).
I’ve written previously about race, social justice, and Jubilee: “The Sabbath More Fully.”