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Facing our investment in domination

The challenge of white cultural dominance

by Jessica Vazquez Torres | Mission Crossroads

Jessica Vazquez Torres, national program director of Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, has more than 20 years’ experience in developing and facilitating antiracism, anti-oppression and cultural competency workshops. (Contributed photo)

The first time I heard Shawnee-Lenape author and Indigenous-rights activist Steven T. Newcomb discuss “The Doctrine of Domination,” something clicked. I was familiar with the papal bull Dum Diversas, which facilitated the Portuguese slave trade from West Africa, but what struck me was his use of the word domination to describe the series of papal bulletins used to justify conquest, genocide, slavery, occupation and war. His articulation reveals the church as an architect, legitimator and apologist for domination.

Years later I saw a cartoon of President William McKinley, laying bare the collusion of Christianity with the dominating empire of the United States. The cartoonist depicts McKinley as a priest crushing the face of a dead Filipino who is still clasping a flag bearing the words Give us liberty.” On the dead man’s hat is written: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The caption quotes the president’s speech at the Conference of Foreign Missions in 1900: Teaching them the truth of the common fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man and showing that if we are not our brothers’ keepers, we can be our brothers’ helpers.” The brutality of U.S. empire is reframed as “helping.”

Civilization & Barbarism: Cartoon Commentary & “The White Man’s Burden” (1898–1902) | The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus (apjjf.org)

In the digital workshops I facilitate, I ask, “How is building houses for people of color living at or below the ‘poverty line’ a misuse of power that upholds systemic racism?” Every week, most of the participants gathered — white and people of color — struggle to understand the depth of U.S. investment in white domination. They struggle with the reality that actions they have come to associate with “justice” and repair of historical wrongs can, in fact, continue to perpetuate racist domination.

The challenge of white cultural dominance is deeply covert and unacknowledged. It is embedded in the ways of life, thinking and being of Unitedstatian Christians of every racial identity. White cultural dominance is more often than not expressed overtly, but in the narratives, woven through missional theologies and in the interpretations of biblical narratives that justify actions of domination.

Consider the last mission trip or event you planned in either an international or domestic context. Did anyone provide the context of the role the U.S. economic, foreign and defense policy likely played in producing and reproducing the needs being addressed by the trip? If domestically, did anyone get invited to discuss the ways policing, lack of economic investment, taxation policy, housing policy, and historical and systematic discrimination created the needs being addressed? Did anyone ask you to consider how your standard of living, your safety, your ways of consuming and your voting choices were contributing factors to the needs being addressed? As my colleague Kelly Hurst reminds workshop participants regularly, “Malice is not required to create harm.”

White cultural dominance is the uncritically held belief that the U.S. and its white citizens possess the right approaches to remedy the problems of the world. It is grounded in theological historiographies that become political doctrines, such as manifest destiny, which asserts the superiority of Europeans and white people, their Western political theories (democracy, individualism and ownership), their economic and development frameworks (capitalism and neoliberalism), and their ideas about safety and security (overpolicing and militarism).

It is easy to look back at the church of the late 1400s or a cartoon from the 1900s and claim that the church today is different. White dominant culture relies on, has been and is still aided by Christianity. Christian theology and missiology emerging from white dominant culture shapes the imagery that conditions and limits how Unitedstatian Christians — both white and people of color — imagine their ways of living and being together, and their ways of responding to the disasters and injustices human beings have created or aided.

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This article is from the Spring 2021 issue of Mission Crossroads magazine, which is printed and mailed free to subscribers’ homes within the U.S. twice a year by Presbyterian World Mission. To subscribe, visit pcusa.org/missioncrossroads.


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