Can't Have One without the Other

The Black Lives Matter Move-ment has brought the question
white privilege to the forefront of white America's consciousness.

For most, it has been profoundly disturbing, blowing up cherished family narratives. Thinking about white privilege challenges the mythologies of US history that support the white nationalist ideology: the assumption that this country was made by and for white Europeans, while other peoples have only bit parts in our history.

The people are in the midst of intense ideological struggle, and it has implications for how every person thinks of themselves and their family and their community and their country. And so we see all these reactionary movements stirring: the intimidating gun movement, the defense of the confederacy, church-burnings, the pro-police funding campaigns which reward killer-cops, the anti-Latinx anti-immigration campaigns, even the scapegoating of foreign countries as the source of economic problems in the USA, the Trump campaign, the shrinking of the GOP to its most reactionary core.

These are all signs of how troubled the waters of white America's consciousness are. Revolution and Counter-revolution. Upsurge and Backlash. Rebellion and Repression. You can't have one without the other.

Because theology and ideology are so close, religious leaders have to be crystal clear. To see life through the lens of whiteness is idolatry; most would agree with that. But it is not clear to most that the assumptions of whiteness shape what white people think of everything else. The America that white people revere is not the same America that people of color know, and so therefore, it is not the real America. The Bible that has been read through the lens of whiteness is a distorted Bible. The Christianity practiced by white people has already lost touch with the gospel. The Unitarian Universalism of today is a pale and bleached version of what liberal religion is really. And the same could be said of music, art, yoga, and food.  To use the language of salvation, you will not be saved by your faithfulness to the forms of whiteness; you can become a citizen of Heaven's republic only by turning away from them.

The country has been here before, but the future has not happened yet. Reconstruction was defeated and Jim Crow won. The liberating movements of the 60's were turned back in the backlash of the 70's. Will this time be different?

It seems as though the movement has gotten much smarter, much more self-aware, much more steely in its resolve. It seems as though the popular and political expressions of reaction have become more childish and amateurish. Comparing the present Republican field to Nixon and Reagan brings to mind that adage that history repeats tragedy as farce.

It is a time for courage.


  1. Joel Miller11:57 AM

    I'm having a strong reaction to this installment of thelivelytraditon. My heritage has significant Appalachian roots -- White culture. I think we damage our ministries if we limit "Whiteness" to that parasitic aspiration to be Upper Class and the requisite need of any Upper Class to create enemies and a culture of exploitation.

    I cherish my White UU heritage and my White Appalachian heritage. They have a distinct culture -- food, music, poetry, and justice. I can't disown where I come from, and one gift of Black culture to me has been to learn how much Black folk distrust people who attempt to live as if it were some kind of "year zero."

    We have to be in right relationship with our heritage as well as with our beloved people. It's time that Black lives mattered. But without the integrity of knowing where we come from, we leave ourselves bereft of who we are, and are left only with the parasitic aspirations of class warfare.

  2. Friend Joel,

    The question that I would raise is what role "whiteness" plays in your Appalachian heritage. My reading (mostly Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fisher) is that Appalachian culture grows from the Northern English, Scottish and Irish border people who were displaced through Enclosure to the US colonies. Because they were later than other British immigrants, they settled in the western regions of the colonies. Its a distinct culture. Is it "White". Yes, the people are pale. But it is only "white" in relationship to native Americans and African Americans -- as a social and political distinction which we are trying to overcome. The eschewal of "whiteness" does not mean eschewing your culture, but recognizing its uniqueness. "Whiteness" is a construct imposed on it by the particular systems of racial oppression in the USA.

    I have the same situation. I am from German Baptist settlers in Pennsylvania. They had a very distinct culture, rural pacifist, colonies, basically more assimilated cousins to the Mennonites and Amish. In America, they discovered that they were "white" because they were not native and not black. "Whiteness" was imposed on them.

    Giving up the lens of whiteness means to stop focusing on the commonality that these immigrant cultures shared with other Europeans as over and against the native people and the African Americans. That's not really the important thing about the culture of our immigrant forebears.

  3. I'm of Irish Catholic / French Canadian stock. My culture is very different from that of Appalachian Scotch-Irish folk. I see no added value in defining both in terms of "whiteness", and negative value in taking pride in "whiteness". There was a time when my Irish forebears didn't quite qualify as "white" in this country, and it's well to remember that.

  4. Joel Miller8:25 PM

    I'm thinking, friends, that the meaning of "White" is not uniform throughout U.S. culture. If, by White, we mean only "not Black" and the privilege that comes with Whiteness in a Racist system, then I've started a comment-thread we really didn't need.

    But I think that there's danger ahead in demonizing the term "White" since I think many "White" people use the term in a much wider way than "not-Black", including as a kind of umbrella word for their identity. Should we launch a long and complicated campaign to convince not-Black folks that "White" refers only to their non-blackness? I'm skeptical about the usefulness of that.

    I am compelled to support BlackLivesMatter. I'm saving people's lives that way. And to support it, I have to learn about racism (ew, but necessary). Nothing doubtful for me about ending racism and about Black lives mattering.

  5. What do you think "white" means, or ever has meant, in this country other than "non-black"? I think the history on that is pretty darn clear. And we will not begin to lift the curse of racism until that stops being an identity. It's the identity of what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls "dreamers" in his new book "Between the World and Me", which I urgently recommend if you haven't read it yet.

  6. I'm sorry, because I know your heart is in the right place and this isn't the discussion you wanted to have, but I think the adoption of "whiteness" as an identity is, and always has been, nothing other than an assertion of privilege. It has always functioned as a justification for dominating and exploiting anyone whom it was convenient to define as not-"white", but always and above all people of African descent. It's the ideology that Ta-Nehisi Coates has christened "the Dream". (If you haven't yet read Between the World and Me, I urgently recommend it.) In my considered opinion it's precisely "white identity" that must be dismantled if we are ever to lift the curse of racism in this country. There is simply no health in it.

  7. Joel Miller9:16 AM

    No need to apologize, Steve. I'm grateful for the conversation.

    It may be true that "Whiteness" is nothing more than an assertion of privilege. But a lot of the White people I work with every day don't know that and have an understanding that their identity is White. This is why I'm doubtful that using the term "White" as a perfect synonym for racism is going to help Black lives matter.

    I believe identifying racism is a moral obligation for everyone. It's way past time for Black lives to matter. Identifying that White privilege that even the poorest "White" folks enjoy is necessary, for example. But conflating the identity of those poor White folks as inherently evil (out of our need for a purity of theory?) seems to me doomed to failure. And a perverse kind of way to self-sabotage the work of non-Black folks in making Black Lives Matter.

  8. Apologies for the duplicate posts. It's not that I think we should start right off by whacking people over the head with "whiteness is bad", but I do think over time the idea of taking one's primary identity from being "white" needs to be perhaps gradually, but steadily, dismantled. This is something that Coates really helped me to understand.

  9. I'm always the one to enter these conversations 2-3 days after the last comment, but here I go anyway. I see a connection between what Tom is talking about and what Joel is in terms of the reaction that often accompanies a focus on racial justice. When progressive politics addresses issues of racism I think that the response from the right often is, not just to appeal to racial animus, but also to suggest that liberals don't care about the plight of struggling whites. My sense is that the reason that Obama's "guns and religion" comment got so much play is that it fed into this perception of progressive condescension toward blue collar/rural culture.

    Reading Rick Perlstein's books about the rise of the right in the '60s and '70s it strikes me that one of the consistent themes of that movement was that it claimed that the left was indifferent to concerns about crime and, more generally, the frustrations of working class whites in a global economy. That claim was incredibly cynical given the fact that most recipients of social insurance programs championed by the left are white, but nonetheless it was effective.

    That said, I don't think that there is zero basis for the sense among working class americans that their concerns aren't as central to the progressive movement as in times past. I remember reading Tom Friedman in the NY Times argue against the auto rescue on the grounds that America traditionally doesn't interfere with the workings of the free market in international trade (apparently, he hadn't heard of the entire 19th century of American economic history replete with tariff battles). On a smaller scale, the locavore movements seems to support local farms to the exclusion of other forms of local economic activity such as regional manufacturers.

    In any case, to come back to the beginning, I don't know how to avoid the backlash that Tom describes to activism for racial justice but I do think that consciously combining that activisum with broad-based economic justice is a start.


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