Birthday musings on a possible dissertation proposal

Today is my birthday, and I’ve had an exceptional morning of fun with my husband and kids, playing music, and getting a little bit of work done. I wrote in my journal about possible chapters for my dissertation, so I’m going to flesh out what my ideas are:

Problem and Purpose or Aim:

The two basic assumptions behind my project are that 1) racism continues to be a great source of pain and injustice in United States society (as well as elsewhere in the world, but my focus will be in the U.S.), and 2) preachers are not currently effective in preaching against it.  Of course these two claims would need to be supported, and many people will have objections to these basic assumptions, objections themselves which are indicative of the greater problem I hope to address with this dissertation: we do not know how to talk about racism. Many factors go into this problem, such as the different understandings of what constitutes “racism,” the different ways “race” is understood as operating today, different perspectives on the validity of certain concepts such as “white privilege” and “reverse racism,” the debate over whether class or race must take the forefront in such discussions.

Scholarship labeled “anti-racist” comes from a variety of different fields, but across the different fields there are several consistent themes which we will tease out in the introduction. Part of the problem with the discussion, however, is that is does not seem to connect with the experiences of many white people who do not see themselves as “privileged” by their whiteness and who instead believe in the possibility (indeed the prevalence) of “reverse-racism.” Anti-racist discourse, however, firmly asserts that there is no such thing as reverse racism, based on the definition of racism as being racial prejudice plus power to institutionalize such prejudice. If racism really is a white problem, who are the “whites” who are guilty of perpetuating it? Anti-racist discourse says: all whites. Well-meaning as well as overt racists. This broad indictment comes as a result of the social analysis of racism as institutionalized across U.S. society, so that white people benefit from racism whether they are aware of it or not. Cultural artifacts points to the idealization of whiteness, media presentations continue to lift up predominantly white heroes and people of color as stereotypes, persons of color only fill certain “token” positions of power within various organizations, and real estate and school segregation continue to present gross inequalities between the living and educational experiences of whites and people of color. Statistics revealing the income and net worth of persons surveyed in the most recent U.S. Census show a continuing disparity between the wealth of whites compared to that of people of color.

But disparity in wealth is not the only concern. Access to health care and life expectancy rates vary between races as well, as do the daily stressors of various aspects of racial discrimination against persons of color that happen on a regular basis. Psychologists have coined the term “microaggression” for the microinjury, microinsult and microassaults that occur in everyday interactions between people of color and whites, interactions that demean, belittle, or express condescension towards persons of color. Experiences such as these which happen regularly add to a decreased sense of self-satisfaction and happiness, and a greater likelihood of stress-induced illnesses and diseases.

Apart from the effects of racism on people of color, racism enacts serious consequences on whites as well, one of them being the estrangement of whites from their fellow human beings, preventing authentic relationships from forming, and foreclosing on the chance to experience the presence of God through the face and voice of another.

But here I am, beginning to try and convince whites why we should be talking about racism. The first tactic demonstrated above include appealing to white’s sense of fairness or justice by highlighting the continuing inequalities. A tactic in use throughout the period of abolitionism is to draw upon the narratives of persons who experience grave injustice and to demonstrate their shared humanity, calling upon the listener to respond to that sense of shared humanity by reacting against injustice. The second tactic draws attention to whites specifically by pointing out what they are lacking by neglecting to engage the topic of racism. This second tactic tries to avoid the paternalism of just looking at the plight of persons of color, instead showing how racism disfgures and injures whites, trying to draw upon whites’ own self-interests as a way of inciting them to act against racism.

Another tactic has been that of testimony, of anti-racist white activists who have shared their stories of how they came to see their participation in a racist society, and what they have started to do about it. This form of testimony can take a number of different forms, from a relatively relativistic perspective (“this is what I see, and this is what I have done, and I encourage you to do what you can however you best see fit to do it”) to a much more demanding confrontational style (“this is the way it is, and we are all guilty as whites, and if you don’t see it this way you will continue to be guilty and perpetuate white supremacy.”).

Even the term “racism” has morphed in the process of the struggle against racism. While it previously was used to describe the most blatant and vulgar expressions of hate based on racial differences, such as the violence perpetuated by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists, it has come to stand for a much more diffuse devaluation of cultural differences. That is, drawing upon the moral disgust many people feel towards the word “racism,” anti-racists have shown how even subtle gestures of disrespect convey the same sense of white supremacy as these more atrocious acts convey blatantly. In the same way that Jesus challenged the morality of his day when asked about adultery, charging his listeners to view having hatred in their hearts as tantamount to murder, so do anti-racists challenge the subtleties of disrespect and devaluation as being potential carriers of the more extreme hate seen in lynchings.

My last sentence compared the work of anti-racists with the tactics of Jesus, a comparison not unintentional. I highlight the comparison because I want to locate the work of anti-racism in its broader religious context. Many of the non-profit organizations that work specifically with churches or schools or corporations began initially out of the work of Christian anti-racist activists who saw their activism as rooted in their Christian faith and ministry. Also, in the Civil Rights Movement, there were many activists who rallied together out of a sense of calling, drawing from the resources of the Christian tradition.

At the same time, of course, Christianity has not been univocally supportive of the anti-racist movement, and other scholars have depicted how the Christian imagination became disfigured in the colonialization process, changing its doctrines to conform to the needed justification of enslaving fellow humans. Throughout the history of the abolition movement, ministers were fighting against slavery while other ministers were fighting for its continued legitimacy. While fortunately, today the question of slavery is not contested among the vast majority of Christians in the United States (although I must acknowledge that there are some exceptions among fringe extremists), the question of whether racism remains a problem today is a highly contested and controversial topic. Some white preachers will attribute racism to extremists but argue that the real problem is too much stress on “political correctness.” This is true not only in white churches, but also in black churches, where some conservative black pastors argue that their parishioners need to take more responsibility for their life circumstances rather than attributing their unhappiness to the continuation of racism.

Thus, I return to my initial assumptions: racism is still a problem and that preachers are not effectively preaching against it. Because these are my working assumptions, I will not spend a great deal of time arguing for why racism is still a problem nor that preachers are not effectively preaching against it. Instead, what I aim to do is help untangle the factors which make racism difficult for us to talk about, as well as to offer some critique of the predominant anti-racist discourse as being unhelpful in countering some of these obstacles. That is, I will critique the wide-spread use of terms such as “white power,” “white privilege,” and “whiteness” as they are used derogatorily and as catch-all terms for what anti-racism is against, instead arguing for a more nuanced approach to working against racism that does not reinscribe essentialized categories one group particular heterogenous group. This will be the focus of my first chapter on “the phenomenology of whiteness” which lifts up the difficulties of using this particular anti-racist discourse among a diverse group of persons who are in the anti-racist discourse lumped together as “white.” Moving on from here, in my second chapter I will draw from feminist philosophy to look at the intersections of oppression and the difficulty in challenging one form of oppression without acknowledging the multiplicity of identity locations each person inhabits as well as the various faces of oppression. I will take a serious look at the issue of class and how calls for redistributive justice must also be incorporated in a robust challenge to injustice. The second half of this work will draw from theological and psychological resources to address specifically the challenge of racism facing the church. That is, I will look at what our theology mandates for us in terms of calling us to confession, reconciliation, and redemption, as well as what it means for us to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. The chapter on pastoral sensitivity has to do with the psychological resources we have for constructing sermons that handle the complexities of this subject for listeners, the guilt and anger that many persons feel whether they recognize their complicity or feel unjustly targeted by racism.

“Wade in the Water, wade in the water, children. Wade in the water. God’s gonna trouble the water.”

To enter the water of talking about racism, we are immanently talking about a religious experience of confrontation. “God’s gonna trouble the water…” These lyrics from this spiritual originally sung by enslaved Africans on American soil testifies to a trust in God that encourages us to immerse ourselves in “murky” waters such as discussions rife with contestation and conflict, riddled with guilt and anger. Why even approach such a topic when it makes us uncomfortable or angry? As a preacher, the reason I am drawn to this discussion is the conviction that in this murkiness, in this confusing flooding of emotion and identities, is where God will meet us to “trouble the water,” to bring healing to us and to our churches, to bring us to renewed baptismal identities of who we are called to be in a world riddled by sin.

Of course, as a white person I do not claim to have the answers to this great problem. I am a person of faith who believes that God meets us in moments of revelation, and I am a scholar who enjoys rigorous analysis of problems, hoping that a clearer analysis can lead us to possible encounters with the divine who alone can lead us to the truth and reconciliation which we seek.


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