This is the second article in a two-part series. Read part one here.
I usually avoid using the word “racism,” even if modified by the adjective “white.” This phrase obscures our situation, because it treats racism as one thing and whiteness as another, as though there is generic racism, which can simply be attributed to white or other people. This is assumed whenever someone speaks of “reverse racism” or “reverse discrimination.” It is assumed that genuine role reversal is possible. But this is a mistaken assumption.
It is not that non-white people are incapable of racial hatred, or that it is morally excusable. I do not deny that some white people have been mistreated because of their whiteness. I do not deny that those experiences were hurtful and unjust. What I do deny is the equivalence of those experiences to the black (and generally non-white) experience. The generic term “racism” is misleading, first of all, because it subtly suggests this equivalence that I am denying.
The notion of equivalence obscures the truth our situation for at least two reasons. One, it locates racism in the attitudes of individuals rather than in society—a move I tried to problematize in my last post. Two, it treats the problem as an attitude about the other. That is, white racism is white hatred for black or brown people, or black racism is hatred of white people. But in reality, white hatred for black people is not synonymous with, but the result of white supremacy.
White supremacy is not at first an attitude about blackness, but about whiteness. Upon consideration of the phrase itself, this fact is fairly obvious. White supremacy is primarily about the supremacy of whiteness, and only secondarily about the inferiority of non-whiteness, with blackness at the bottom of the white social ladder. Here it may help to think of Luther’s description of sin as the “incurvature” of the soul, its being turned in on itself. White supremacy is social incurvature; white attitudes and behaviors towards non-white people flow from white illusions about whiteness.
I want to elaborate four points. (I) Whiteness assumes supremacy by identifying whiteness with universality and normativity; (II) presumed supremacy is inherent in the very social construct of whiteness, meaning that there is no such thing as whiteness without white supremacy; (III) the social construct “race” developed around whiteness, meaning that every other racial category is meaningful only in relation to whiteness, and so white supremacy—the idea of race itself already assumes white supremacy, and therefore racial equality depends on exploding the category of race altogether; finally (IV) whiteness has infected our conception of supremacy (universality and normativity), and this has far-reaching implications for how we conceive of God, do theology, and ultimately announce and embody the gospel.
Universality and Normativity
Whiteness is a social creation. And like every created thing, it was created for particular purposes. It is no accident that the rise of specifically racial categories (in contrast to discourse about tribe, nationality, or ethnicity) coincided with the rise of the African slave trade and European exploration.
Race was not observed in nature, but imposed onto nature by a particular form of observation. This sort of observation was an attempt to transcend the limitations of particularity, to discover a position from nowhere, to achieve objectivity and freedom from bias. This is why Cornel West argues that modern racism—white supremacy—emerges from key elements of the Enlightenment, including the dominance of scientific inquiry and the recovery of classical aesthetic ideals.
So the category of race was at once the discovery of particularity in some, and the disavowal of the discoverer’s own particularity. White was universal, and all others were particulars. Whiteness has presumed this from the beginning. Whiteness presumes to be generic, standard, regular. It presumes to be the original from which others have strayed. And this notion of white regularity gives rise to white regulation. Because whiteness assumes itself to be standard, it sees its (unacknowledged) particularity as universally standardizing; it assumes that that which is good and right, healthy, and civilized will conform to it. This is why people are “non-white,” and white people are never called “non-black.”
Whiteness is the measuring stick. Modern, enlightened societies—such as the United States—conceive of their group identity in this way; white supremacy is inherent in the very meaning of the social space of these societies. Therefore everyone whose world of meaning is such a social space is already a white supremacist: a black boy already knows he is non-white, and therefore inferior, and a white boy has the privilege of thinking his race has nothing at all to do with his identity. And please note, this white boy needn’t ever have overtly negative thoughts or attitudes about black people; he nevertheless remains a white supremacist. And so does the black boy, for that matter.
So when a white person complains about reverse-racism, or insists that he or she is not a racist, this person is simply missing the point. Even if we take for granted that a white person is hated by a black person because of his or her whiteness, that in no way reverses the white supremacy of the social world. Likewise, when a white person denies being a racist because he does not dislike or mistreat non-white people, he simply fails to see the automatic power, privilege, and presumed supremacy he has in a white society.
There Is No Whiteness Without White Supremacy
The unavoidable conclusion is that whiteness emerged as a category of supremacy, and therefore there is really no meaningful way of disentangling the former from the latter. Whiteness, by definition, is the presumption of universality and normativity. That white society now is obsessed with multiculturalism does not falsify this. Whiteness welcomes all sorts of particularity; what it cannot handle is its own. It is happy to be the fixed point around which others move.
This is surely James Cone’s point when he says that white people must leave behind their whiteness and experience conversion. Whiteness has built into itself the sin of pride, and therefore the only appropriate response is repentance.
There is No Race Without White Supremacy
Ultimately, if we take what I just said seriously, the other thing that is unavoidable is that race itself assumes white supremacy. Whiteness, non-whiteness, and white supremacy are different facets of the same social evil.
This is a huge problem. The common attempts to leave race behind, whether by claiming “color-blindness” or by asserting that race is not real because it is a biological fiction, do not solve the problem, because they do not confront the fact that our entire world of meaning has been wrapped up in notions of white normativity for literally centuries. Getting past race must be an ultimate goal, but the way towards that goal is surely not denying that these categories really are still meaningful to us.
I think this is what is being worked out by black theology. The assertion of blackness will finally disassemble the concept of race itself, including blackness. It must be seen as an ironic gesture, one that is penultimate.
Whiteness Has Infected Supremacy: Turning to the Theological
Finally, whiteness has corrupted our conceptions of universality and normativity. By loading the concept of whiteness with supremacy, our society has also modified the concept of the supreme with whiteness. Until we learn to divest ourselves of whiteness and its presumed supremacy, we will always (perhaps inadvertently) assert white supremacy in our moral judgments, our universal discourse, and ultimately our theology. God is universal and normative, and if these qualities are assumed to be inherent in concepts of whiteness, then the whiteness of God is necessarily assumed.
This is just one reason why no theologian is exempted from having to deal with white supremacy. Theologians are people before they are theologians, and if their social world is this one, then they are as white supremacist as the rest of us. And their theology is not unaffected.
Matthew Burdette is pursuing a PhD in Theology from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. This article originally appeared on Interlocuters: A Theological Dialogue.