100 Years of Racism
Theological Investigations in Church and Culture
Thelathia “Nikki” Young
Several years ago, while engaged in a lengthy research project, I asked questions about the context of families as sites for individual and relational growth, moral development and teaching, and resistance to cultural norms of oppression. I learned from my research participants that families can be those amazing sites, but they can also be contexts wherein the stench of oppression, limitation, erasure, and violence proliferate. It turned out that “family,” commonly understood in contemporary Western contexts as biological units of immediate relation that most often consist of two heterosexual parents and their offspring, has this queer way of existing in simultaneity. It promotes and restricts, creates and destroys, names and ignores personhood, individuality, relationships, and more. Eventually, I came to see family and its effects as both product and producer of other social categories, moral systems, and socio-political norms.
As we discussed these features of family, my research participants introduced an important distinction that has since shaped the ways I think about familial relations, dynamics of power and privilege, as well as families’ connection to capitalist discourse. They suggested that all “relatives,” biologically understood, are not family. Relatives are people with whom we share blood, lineage, cultural heritage, and experience. “Family” are beings with whom we share the bonds of those elements along with love, care, interdependence, and more. Very often relatives are family, but our families are not always made up of relatives.
This distinction between relatives and those that we might call family re-enters my mind as I consider Dr. Will Coleman’s essay. For me, questions about designation, categorization, and relationality emerge within his discussion of theological anthropology and “the ‘economics’ of white supremacy.” First, (how) ought we distinguish between God’s creatures—those whom God has created in God’s image—and God’s children—those whom God has called into co-creation and loving fellowship? Second, in terms of divine order (if that exists), social hierarchy, and sanctified and dignified relationships, what manifests in such a distinction? Lastly, what part does white supremacy play in our interpretations of God’s relation to God’s creatures and divine order within God’s family?
The last question is where Coleman ultimately hangs his hat in the lead essay, and I agree with his unstated yet apparent claim that discussions of race and racism (at least and especially in the United States) need to be oriented toward the beliefs and values that generate and the technologies that foster white supremacy. Here’s why: white supremacy is an ethical norm and moral telos in the context of the United States. By linking whiteness to the capacity for reason, ownership of land, and desert of liberty, early (and ongoing) American moral discourse situated its values and ethical norms in direct relation to the enduring supremacy of an imaginary human ideal represented in a small, elite portion of the population. The U.S. has been invested in the protection of whiteness and its progenitors from the start of its imperial project. In fact, as an originary goal of the American economic and political system, protecting white supremacy was a moral norm and American liberal value. The potential loss of white supremacy (and the socio-political stability it garners) generated (and still generates) an ethical framework of panic, which subsequently justified the politicization of social constructions of race as well as the violence that reinforced those constructions.
Inasmuch as white supremacy is still an ethical norm, we might understand it as an organizing mechanism. It shapes how we create and make meaning of our shared social order as well as the rights, privileges, (assigned) obligations, and burdens associated with that social order. In a theological sense, it provides an a priori perception of (1) the image of God from which humanity gleans its self-understanding, (2) God’s creative action and its most valuable product, and (3) the structure of God’s familial relationship with humanity. Coleman illuminates ways that the organizing frame of white supremacy emerges from interpretations of verses in Genesis and Ephesians, noting that those interpretations have perverted what he understands to be the radical and revolutionary thrust of the texts. While Coleman offers a vibrant and in-depth reading of the texts, marking them as “counter white supremacist narratives,” I find that their connection with hierarchical norms is actually complementary and even symbiotic. It seems to me that a white supremacist moral framework dependent on Christian theology needs a proscriptive articulation of family organization and divine-human relations; likewise, scriptures that advocate any hierarchical relational structure require a similarly structured human organizing scheme and socio-political system in which to manifest.
The complementary and symbiotic relationship between white supremacy and scripture requires us to recall Paul’s method and aim in the epistle. Paul does not actually take the opportunity to revolutionize the family structure, as Coleman suggests. Instead, he does what any conversion leader would do in a community steeped in their own traditions: he appropriates it. The household codes that surround and inform the periscope in Ephesians uphold cultural values while reconfiguring the subject positions within the family framework. Paul’s framing gives them a new way to think about those relations—via their fear in Christ—but maintains the scaffolds of hierarchy and power differentiation. The Ephesians now have a new lens through which to refract the subject positions of slave, master, child, parent, wife, and husband but no new way of ordering them.
Shifting the power of paternity to Christ does not subvert the normative power structure; it reinforces it. Even though Christ becomes the new father, taking away the power from the human head of household in an “ultimate” sense, the head or sovereign is still pater. Left intact is the subject position of leader/ruler/thinker/owner. For me, this remainder marks the difference between Paul’s potential revolution and his actual appropriation. Since he appropriates the Roman familial structure to articulate a refreshed but non-revolutionary power structure for the human experience of relationships, the Ephesians (and subsequently all of us) must deal with the leftover idea that someone—real or imagined—might occupy a social position that renders them closer in proximity to God and thereby more valuable and powerful than any others in their context.
If Paul appropriated the Greco-Roman cultural context to offer a new way of organizing family and community for the Ephesians, then what does that teach us about how we ought to respond to a white supremacist structure as the organizing mechanism for human relations in our context? Is appropriation the answer? It ought not be. There is no way to appropriate white supremacy without affirming it as a viable means of arranging human persons and other beings. Any attempt to do so only re-establishes a myopic particularity as a norm—even a moral good—to be protected at all costs. And we’ve seen how the protections of whiteness as that particularity lead to legally sanctioned violence (1918), rights-based inequality (1968), and systematic incarceration along with fatal police brutality (2018)—all of which are and have been used to protect the sanctity of whiteness and maintain its supremacy. So, instead of using masters’ tools to simply renovate the master’s house, we have to heed Audre Lorde’s admonition and replace those tools with one for a demolition and rebuilding project.
Resisting and revolutionizing oppressive structures requires a variety of approaches, including collective efforts to confront and dismantle organizing schemes like the one discussed above. Additionally, resistance and revolution call for intentional and internalized self-remembering. That is, while the revolution is happening in the streets and pulpits—while we are resisting white supremacy in the military and prison industrial complexes, homeland security projects, and growing income disparities—we also have to return to a fundamental knowledge about ourselves and our relation to our Creator(s). This re-membering, a process of putting ourselves and our relationships back together, is vital and fundamental epistemological work. Even more, remembering that each of us is simultaneously a creature who bears God’s image and members of God’s family is the work of sacred knowledge-building.
Living into the knowledge that we are God’s creatures and family members is also wonderfully radical. It is radical in the sense that it returns us to the root and substance of who we are and how we ought to relate to one another. Paternalism and white supremacy have less power—at least internally—when we know that no other creature’s life is more or less valuable that our own. Even more, knowledge about ourselves in relation to God and God’s creatures gives us a critical lens through which to interrogate and potentially restore relations within God’s family. That critical lens also supports the work in the streets, at the pulpit, at the capitol, and beyond that helps us feel and experience the material impact of equality, equity, and freedom to love ourselves, one another, and God. It is the absence of this love and knowledge that allows for and propels the historical and ongoing atrocities of racism and racial hierarchies.
 AudreLorde, “Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” in Sister Outsider : Essays and Speeches The Crossing Press Feminist Series. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, 1984.