A white man’s frank and repentant exploration of how racism finds a home in white folks’ souls.
The blinding effect of the spiritual problem of racism
by Jeffrey A. Schooley
The Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the outer world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. —W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folks
Last month, I said on this blog that white people need to look closely at their own privilege and racism. It seemed a simple enough statement, but it didn’t take long for the dissent to roll in.
To be fair, some of these critiques had merit. One person, for instance, was concerned that we, white people, not become so mired in our own guilt and self-infatuation that we inadvertently ignore doing something and really listening to all voices. Others craved a clarification of terms and wanted to distinguish between prejudice (over which certainly white people do not hold a monopoly) and the power to enforce that prejudice.
Negative responses, however, generally fell into one of three categories: “Prejudice is a universal problem, therefore we shouldn’t focus only on white people;” “There isn’t a race problem in America; it must be something else” (I’m graciously assuming these comments refer to a systemic race problem and don’t mean to imply that all white people and all black people live in perfect harmony); and “HARD WORK!” There’s always some guy in the corner shouting about hard work . . . at 3:15 p.m. . . . on a workday . . . as he reads a blog post. #smh
As I wrestled with these responses, I kept coming back to another voice: W.E.B. Dubois, the famous African American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, and writer. The quote above haunted me. If given enough time and an honest enough reading, such a quote ought to make the heart of every Christian melt into a puddle of rage, sorrow, and penitence.
‘If the black soul is known by its double-consciousness—that is, seeing itself through its own eyes as well as through the eyes of another (a white another)—then the white soul is stricken with double-unconsciousness, that is, the inability to see either how white privilege is operating in our lives or how racism is affecting the lives of people of color.’
If this—the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others”—is what systemic racism has done to our black brothers and sisters, then it means the Christian church has an even greater task in helping them re-gain a sense of their God-given identity. The goal of all Christian witness is to turn the hearts of others away from sinful and destructive narratives to the true story of God’s creative, redemptive, and consummating love in their lives. And while this is a necessary and difficult task, it is not my intention to plumb the depths of the black soul here. I have neither experience nor authority to do so and will support my black friends in Christ as they speak on these matters. I will, however, use DuBois’s insight as a jumping off point for this month’s diagnosis of what ails the white soul.
Again, gratefully borrowing from DuBois, I want to explore the “double-unconsciousness” of the white soul. If the black soul is known by its double-consciousness—that is, seeing itself through its own eyes as well as through the eyes of another (a white another)—then the white soul is stricken with double-unconsciousness, that is, the inability to see either how white privilege is operating in our lives or how racism is affecting the lives of people of color. It’s why we honestly can’t sometimes see the plight and pain of our black friends. It’s what causes us to respond defensively and in a cacophonous clamor that all people experience hardship and suffering, that we’ve worked hard and overcome our share of obstacles too, that we don’t participate in overtly racist speech or action, that we’re not the bad people—all of which may be true, but none of which is the matter in question. The problem is we can’t see the issue at hand.
In his earthly ministry, Jesus frequently spoke in parables. The use of parables was meant to force the listener to push beneath the text of the story to its subtext. However, parables just as often obfuscate as illuminate, and so quite often the Jewish peasants who came to hear this seemingly magical holy man left confused and grumpy. Systemic racism is a sort of unholy parable. Simply put, the degree to which one understands systemic racism all boils down to whether one has “eyes to see and ears to hear.”
White privilege is difficult to define, not because—as its detractors may contend—it doesn’t exists, but rather because of its expansive existence across multiple spheres of life. Generally speaking, white privilege is the esteeming of white skin, white culture, and white experience over and against the skin, culture, and experiences of non-whites. These privileges are so normal for us that we who are white often just assume they true for all other people.
Once the story of white privilege is denied, another narrative is needed to make sense of the world for white souls. And in my experience, the tastiest of such narratives is that of “hard work.” At the core of white privilege is the admission that one’s social, cultural, and economic standing is not only (or even primarily) the result of one’s gifts, talents, ambition, and work ethic, but rather the result of a favorably-rigged system. Truly many white people have worked hard and faced any number of obstacles. White privilege doesn’t deny that fact; it just says we got help.
The second half of white double-unconsciousness extends logically from the first. Since we can’t perceive the machinations of white privilege and have instead clung to the false belief that all of us are, indeed, playing on an equal field, then we conclude that the failure of African Americans as a group to thrive in our culture’s most valued arenas—economics, education, business, law, etc.—must be a result of their own individual and personal failures of character. The blinding effect of double-unconsciousness extends from denying the existence of white privilege to denying the existence of racism. The most remarkable of these instances have, as of late, occurred around confrontations of black citizens with white officers of the state.
‘Simply put, the degree to which one understands systemic racism all boils down to whether one has eyes to see and ears to hear.’
An almost automatic backlash occurs whenever a white police officer harms a black person. A need to incriminate the black person—that is, to demonstrate a (fatal) flaw in their character—takes over the white soul.
Even in instances where misconduct can be determined and judged beyond a shadow of a doubt (and of course facts have been unclear in a number of situations), the white soul quickly clamors to proclaim an aberration of the norm. Simply put, in order to preserve the faulty narrative of the denial of racism, the white soul will scapegoat a white police officer. It will claim that the white officer acted maliciously, but not instinctually; acted sinfully, not systematically.
Yet, beleaguered as it is by this blindness, the white soul has no reason to despair. It is for such a soul that Jesus Christ lived, died, rose, and reigns. And Jesus Christ is in the transformation business. He is busy at work transforming the world into the Kingdom. When Jesus told his original audience they needed eyes to see and ears to hear, he wasn’t also saying out of the side of his mouth, “And you’re screwed if you can’t!” No, he was instead inviting the listeners into a relationship that would empower them to understand—to see and hear—anew.
In addition to this redemptive work, however, we would be wise to add another virtue: benefit of the doubt. This should cause the white soul to pause and resist the instinct to discredit any and all black voices that challenge the narratives we’ve spun. The benefit of the doubt encourages us to at least try to listen to voices whose experiences seem so foreign to us and to, also, assume their validity and all of their implications. (It also incidentally should restrain us from immediately attacking someone when they say or do something that doesn’t seem quite right; we should assume that they’re doing their best and use this as a teaching moment.)
Such is the reason I began this column with that quote from DuBois. I am hoping that you might have read it and learned something new. However, in case you were in such a mood or disposition that you immediately began to fight against it, make an argument against it, seek “reasonable” grounds on which to reject it—that is, you practiced vigorously your double-unconsciousness—allow me to end the column in the same way as I began and encourage you to seek transformation through granting the benefit of the doubt.
“The Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the outer world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folks).
Jeffrey A. Schooley is a teaching elder at Center Presbyterian Church in McMurray, Pennsylvania. He is also a PhD in Theology candidate at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Biking, Netflix, reading, teaching, and spending time with his wife and dog round out the rest of his life. He can be reached at ThinkLikeChristians@gmail.com.