Whiteness is not a numbers game

These two quotes by Dr. King must be read close together, or otherwise, they're likely to be distorted:

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
—Martin Luther King Jr., "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution"

Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.
—Martin Luther King Jr., "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"

Justice is not inevitable. I suppose from a Christian worldview, it is ultimately inevitable because we believe that Jesus' victory over death and suffering will one day be made true in all places for all people. But that victory is not one that Jesus simply imposes onto creation. It is a cooperative work, divine and human energies mingling together to shape Earth into a place where "justice can make its home" (2 Peter 3:13).

Therefore, what I mean by "justice is not inevitable" is that it does not happen without human cooperation and labor. Yes, God is always desiring and wooing the cosmos towards shalom—wholeness—for everyone, everywhere. But God doesn't always get what She wants, does She? There are forces—people and Powers[1]—working against the Divine will.

One of those Powers is Whiteness. Whiteness is "a social construction that has created a racial hierarchy that has shaped all the social, cultural, educational, political, and economic institutions of society. Whiteness is linked to domination and is a form of race privilege invisible to white people who are not conscious of its power" (source).

Confronting Whiteness is not the same as saying, "Every white person is evil." Everyone, including those racialized as white, is a beloved image of God. And also, Whiteness is a deforming system that deserves exorcism. If you feel defensive, that's understandable—it's part of Whiteness as well. As Caroline J. Sumlin says,

Whiteness must never be questioned. It must not be touched. It is superior. It is supreme. A society that was built on the foundations of brutal oppression with the justification of manifest destiny must never be questioned. We are taught early on to never question that status quo, the authority, or the rules, even when we see the terror it's causing. Since our society's rules have always been to protect Whiteness, challenging the rules = challenging Whiteness. Thus, defensiveness becomes a key trait of white supremacy.

Whiteness—alongside the Powers of Colonialism, Capitalism, Patriarchy, and so many more—has shaped nearly every aspect of our society and culture. Including the Church. And, to be specific, our church, The Table Church.

We spent two weeks hearing sermons from and to the margins: two Black, Queer Women who directed their sermons specifically at members of The Table Church who aren't part of the dominant culture but have been marginalized in one way or another, particularly by race. These were very much sermons not for "the American default," that is to say, white people. But as white folks, we had the privilege to eavesdrop.

Now, I had this brief moment of dissonance listening to Pastor Tonetta's sermon when she named that The Table Church has been majority-white and largely shaped by white-church values and ideals. I looked around the room and noticed that there were fewer white-passing folks than not. Which, let's be clear, I think is worth celebrating. Sociologists of religion define a "multiracial" or "multicultural" church as no one racial group comprising 80 percent or more of the people. I believe we've far surpassed that weakass definition. Thank God.

On the other hand, I kept myself from celebrating too prematurely. Whiteness is not a numbers game. It takes only a small number of people dedicated to the principles of Whiteness to create massive marginalization and pain for everyone else. The number of Black human beings treated as property in the American South was far greater than the number of white men buying and selling those human beings. Yet, slavery persisted.

Two things are simultaneously true.

One, let's pretend that The Table was a rural, midwestern church in a county that was 99% white and a congregation to match. That bizarro-version of The Table would still need to confront the forces of Whiteness, even if it had no chance of ever becoming a multiracial church. Whiteness is harmful even to white people and is a Power always worth exorcising.

Two, let's say that in the next few years, this Table Church, the one currently in Washington, DC., actually becomes majority-BIPOC, including the congregation, staff, and leadership. Even then, it would still need to confront the forces of Whiteness because of its history, founding, and context. Changing the demographic statistics in a survey is not enough reason to wave a giant "Mission Accomplished" banner.[2] It requires assessing every value, relationship, and activity and asking, "How has Whiteness caused harm here?"

As with all discipleship work, healing from Whiteness takes longer, is more challenging, and is slower than one might initially suspect. And it is most definitely not work that only those in racially-marginalized communities have to do; it is also work that those who are in racially-marginalizing communities must do as well. That's me. If you're white, that's you too.

So, expect this topic to be around for a while. We're still in the work, and in many ways, I feel like we're just getting started. Let's continue to join God in bending the moral arc of—if not the universe, then at least—this church towards justice.

  1. The Powers are the invisible but real forces that influence our world. Walter Wink states, "Every Power tends to have a visible pole, an outer form—be it a church, a nation, an economy—and an invisible pole, an inner spirit or driving force that animates, legitimates, and regulates its physical manifestation in the world. Neither pole is the cause of the other. Both come into existence together and cease to exist together." ↩︎

  2. I can't believe that this reference is 20 years old and that there are people in this congregation too young to remember it. 😮 ↩︎

Anthony Parrott

Anthony Parrott

Washington, DC