A white man’s frank and repentant exploration of how racism finds a home in white folks’ souls.
How confusion about my whiteness leads to confusion about blackness
by Jeffrey A. Schooley
Origin stories are an essential component to any worldview. From an origin story comes clarity not only about the past, but also about the present. And so any conversation about racism and diversity in the church needs to take seriously the origin stories we tell—either explicitly or implicitly.
Yet the white soul is confused about the origin story of its whiteness. It does not understand what it means to be white, most of all in what it means theologically to be white. And as the white soul is confused by its whiteness, it is also confused about blackness too. And so in this double confusion, the white soul clamors to define the latter so that it might have some clarity on the former. Thus the white soul has to construct an origin story for the black soul before it can understand itself (since it’s using blackness as its foil, as everything whiteness is not). Take, for instance, Phillis Wheatley’s recounting of white theology from her poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America”:
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d and join th’angelic train.
In this verse, Wheatley notes two, interconnected theological views on “sable” skin. First, it is a result of Satan’s direct influence (“a diabolic die”). Second, it is the result of Cain slaying Abel. Readers will recall that Cain was terrified of his exilic punishment because he knew he’d be vulnerable and easily hurt or killed. As a form of grace, God marks him to keep others away (“black as Cain”). Many theologians of a different time have opined that this marking was black skin (Genesis 3:14–15).
Wheatley helps me to see that one way the white soul has sought to understand its whiteness is through seeing the black soul as a by-product of God’s curse. And since origin stories are meant to provide present security through its recounting of the past, we can see how comforting this story might be to the white soul . . . if not damning to the black soul.
“But that’s a misrepresentation of Scripture,” you might cry out. And, yes, it is. So we keep pining after an origin story to help us make sense of whiteness and blackness. And when we do, we often times find ourselves slipping out of creational waters and into primordial ooze.
‘In seeing race as the product of God’s design, the white soul is forced to recognize its own incompleteness.’
This “ooze” is “Darwinian”—that is, the origin story presented to us by evolutionary theory. While not as poetic, this theory comforts us because it is robustly egalitarian. A good articulation of this origin story is given to us by none other than that bastion of Evangelical scorn, Bill Nye (a.k.a. “The Science Guy”) who provides a biological point of view on racial tension in America. Nye’s conclusion? “The color of our ancestors’ skin and ultimately my skin and your skin is a consequence of ultraviolet light, of latitude and climate. Despite our recent sad conflicts here in the U.S., there really is no such thing as race. We are one species—each of us much, much more alike than different.”
The egalitarian origin story presented here is, indeed, comforting insofar as it rejects whiteness as normative and blackness as sinful. But it fails us on two levels: First, it is clearly not a scriptural view. Second, it smuggles in a nasty streak of atheism into the conversation.
It ought to be the first of these failures that concerns us the most, because it implies that the difference in our races is not a product of God’s wonderful and beautiful handiwork, but rather are natural effects of environmental exposure. Such a position must then lean on another story—the story of social construction—to make sense of racial tensions.
The story of social construction says that everyone is the exact same—down deep—but we use arbitrary aspects (like race) to distribute power to some (in this example, the white soul) while denying power to others (black souls). In other words, we “construct” meaning out of skin pigmentation and “create” racial classes. Clearly, this does happen. When blackness was constructed to denote barbarism, for instance, it wasn’t because Africans and African Americans lacked intelligence, culture, or ethics; it was because it made it easier to justify enslaving them . . . and, more recently, shooting them at the hands of police.
But while we can clearly see this happening, there is nothing in evolutionary theory or social construction that tells us why this is a bad thing. They are, in other words, origin stories without a morality.
Without the presence of God in this story’s midst, we have no good basis for why the exercising of power by one group over another group is a bad thing.
So I still have no good origin story to help me understand my whiteness and my brothers’ and sisters’ blackness. It seems, therefore, that only one option remains: race (independent of the privileges, supremacies, and social categories we have endowed it with) is a gift from God that is meant to glorify God.
In seeing race as the product of God’s design, the white soul is forced to recognize its own incompleteness. God was not, apparently, contented with just one race. He knew, in His infinite, glorious wisdom, that one race could not bring Him the glory He was due. He recognized that to authentically say that humanity was created in His image, then it had to be poly-racial. This means that God is black and God is white, God is brown and God is olive. God is all the racial complexions we encounter. And therefore no one race ever gets to see itself as bearing the full image of God in and of itself. And no single race can ever glorify God, as He is due, in and of itself. Seeing race beyond biological processes and social constructions forces us into a humble position. And, quite rightly, the greatest worship comes from a prostrated soul.
The spiritual discipline necessary to confront the racist white soul this month is the discipline of orthodoxy. So often in conversations of every ethical stripe (including, of course, conversations around cultural racism), the Christian is inclined toward orthopraxis—that is, right practices. But good doctrine is its own sort of medicine, and no white soul looking to heal from the harm caused by racism can go without it. We must explore the theological grounds for racial diversity and a robust creational orthodoxy seems the likeliest of places. And if, in the process of pursuing this orthodoxy, we find that we are humbled, then we might take holy satisfaction in knowing that the oft-bitter medicine of orthodoxy is doing its work.
Finally, the white soul and black soul, alike, have an origin story that can both humble and comfort. And that’s a good origin story.
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.