by Elizabeth Behrens, Intensive Educator
I haven’t watched the video of the murder of Tyre Nichols, and I won’t. Multifaceted calculus went into this choice. But in the end, one of the most important arguments against doing so was the need to engage in multiracial solidarity without needing to witness Black pain. For many, if not most, white people to begin to engage in the work of racial justice and solidarity there must be a catalyzing moment. A moment when the blindfold falls away and we are jarred out of our complicity and into awareness of what has been hidden from us, and what we had chosen to turn away from. White growth often happens on the backs – and lives – of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. Part of changing that for me, is to not engage in the consumption of the ongoing dehumanization.
I heard the words of Tyre’s mother, how horrific the video was to watch, how much she was hurting. I connected with her as a mother; I can’t imagine the pain of hearing your baby call out for you with his last breaths, begging to be able to return to the comfort and safety of a mother’s arms. As I did, and as I knew Be the Bridge would put out a public response, I clung to hope.
This time, right? This time surely my fellow white people would hear those words, see those images, and be aware of how deeply painful this all is. This time we would realize and recognize not all places and spaces are for us to engage in debate. This time, even if some disagreed with how it was spoken of, we would find appropriate times and places to get our questions answered and simply mourn with a hurting community. This time we could move past our anxiety or pushback and not make this, of all things, about us.
Each and every time I think this, I’m wrong. I refuse with every fiber of my being to give up hope that I won’t be, but I can’t stake my well-being on it because deep down, I know I’m wrong about us.
Why I Know I’m Wrong
White supremacy has taken and taken and taken from the Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color in the world in ways of which we can barely begin to fathom the extent. But we also gave away a piece ourselves to buy into that ideology. The cost of admission into a racial hierarchy for those at the top is a piece of our very humanity. With that piece goes our capacity for deep wells of empathy (1), our ability to let go of a sense of entitlement to places we want to occupy (even online comment sections), and our connection to the rest of the body of Christ and the pain and brokenness they are experiencing.
You cannot deny the fullness of the imago Dei in others and not have it harm your soul. If this were not so, you would not see white people in comment sections laying down walls of text to fight with someone who is mourning. You wouldn’t see us deciding that a memorial space is a place to argue about word choice and demand to be personally tutored in racial literacy (even as many knew they would ignore and reject any response they received that did not affirm their personal rightness and apologize for the wrongness of the post). If we had not internalized a sense of entitlement that comes with existing our whole lives in a society that has always placed the well-being, needs, and wants of white people as primary, we would not engage in this behavior.
There’s a name for this. It’s called whiteness. Now this word sometimes makes people angry, upset, or off-put. But I’m not going to stop using it because it accurately describes what is happening here. Internalizing whiteness, as white people, leads us to act on the outgrowth of white supremacy. When we have allowed for the normalization of white supremacy to the point that we are engaging in the behavior we saw in the wake of Tyre’s death and attempts to mourn the loss, we are embodying whiteness.
Because there is such a visceral response to the word “whiteness” there are often requests for us to use alternative language. I find it imperative to refuse to do so. I don’t do so lightly though, as I think meeting people where they are is important to growth as humans. I won’t change the language though, because in doing so I may make someone more willing to listen for a short while, but I have reinforced the primacy of their comfort and learning. In this I will have bolstered the very thing that needs to be called out. It says that top priority is again given to white people, their learning, their comfort, their willingness to engage. Do we want white people to learn and engage, of course. Do we want to do so in a way that reproduces the current hierarchy? Not a chance.
Whiteness is indeed divisive. But it is not the use of the word that divides. Rather, it is the history that led to the need for a term to explain the underlying ideology that produced the division we are now shining a light on. Don’t blame the light for illuminating the division that already existed. It is not bridge-building to work in the dark, tiptoeing around caverns, rather than believing that Scripture teaches us: the truth will set us free.
The divisive ideology of whiteness convinced people of European descent that they were more pure, beautiful, honest, trustworthy, intelligent, and hard-working than other ethnic groups. It then told them they could lump all of the God-given diversity of the world into a few narrow categories, then stereotype those groups to reinforce their place at the top. The western church, after helping to birth it, came alongside this ideology and gave it theological and spiritual buttressing, so its adherents could not just believe they were the best, but God made it that way. Doing so led to the slaughter of millions, the desecration of land, the plundering of resources, and the creation of systems and structures to uphold this fallacy.
It funneled people from those subordinated racial groups into these created institutions to participate in the upholding of racial hierarchy – aiding in the capture of humans for enslavement, foreman on plantations, and roles in law enforcement. Those who choose to participate in this system are not innocent of their engagement, and should be called to account and held responsible for their participation. But, we cannot forget they are holding up a system that was created explicitly for the protection of whiteness. And if we do not call that out, we have a handful of people of color being held accountable while the system rages on, producing their replacements.
A Way Forward
We can choose differently. We can choose, as white people, to be traitors to whiteness. We can choose to not come for those calling out the system of whiteness. We can choose to not engage in lobbing scripture around to bolster our claims as though that hasn’t been done since the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. They decided to take the story of the Exodus, making themselves God’s chosen people and the Native inhabitants akin to the Canaanites and therefore open to obliteration.
Join us in understanding that whiteness does indeed ALWAYS harm. It was invented for that explicit purpose. If that makes you uncomfortable, if you don’t like it, fantastic. We don’t either. And you can join us and those who have come before us who refuse to be defined by this evil ideology.
Redefine what it means to live in your God-given skin tone. You are fearfully and wonderfully made, and you were created to be an integral part of the multi-ethnic, multicultural body of Christ. But in order to be a healthy, fruitful part of that kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, you’re going to have to shed the ideology and practice of whiteness.