Reflections on Whiteness

A couple weeks ago I dropped by the John Whitmer Historical Association’s annual meeting on “Race, Gender, Ethnicity, and the Restoration”; I was impressed to see Community of Christ scholars beginning to really think seriously about issues of race within the church. Then today I received an email newsletter from the Community of Christ’s young adult network with the theme of race and nationality, linking to this blog posting Mariana Coradeli Medeiros-Shelton, a translator for the church. These two things have inspired me to write a few reflections on race in the Community of Christ.

The Community of Christ membership is overwhelmingly white, and as William Russell argued in 1979, has tended to follow mainstream North American thinking on race rather than be on the cutting prophetic edge.  This ambivalence is displayed in Joseph Smith III’s instruction to the church in 1878 that the church should “ordain priests…of every race”, but nonetheless “Be not hasty in ordaining men of the Negro race….”

Similarly, during the Civil Rights Movement, the editor of the Saint’s Herald, (the church’s magazine, not this blog), urged members not to participate in civil disobedience and instructed blacks in the segregated South to “obey the local laws” even if the “feel they are the victims of discriminative laws.” When William Russell wrote a pro-Civil Rights editorial in the Herald, the church leadership responded by dimissively saying the “internal racial problems in our church have been very minor.” This was despite an earlier article by the African-American pastor William T. Blue, Sr. decrying the existence of segregated RLDS congregations in the south. For more on the church’s history of attitudes on race, click here to read a college paper I wrote on the topic for my Civil Rights history class.

It strikes me that the Community of Christ could benefit from a spending some time reflecting on its ‘whiteness’ — defined by one scholar as the phenomenon of “how white skin preference has operated systematically, structurally, and sometimes unconsciously as a dominant force in American—and indeed in global—society and culture.” What does whiteness mean in the Community of Christ? I would like to open a discussion of what this means by inviting readers to reflect in the comment section on how race has manifested itself in their lives and in the church.

Rather than speak for anyone else, and to get the ball rolling, I thought I would begin by writing here a reflection of my own.  It is adapted from a response to a question I had to give on in a job application form recently. I thought it would be appropriate for this setting too:

Growing up a white kid in a primarily non-white neighborhood and schools, I noticed that my friends, close to me as a small boy, become more mistrustful and uneasy around me as we grew up and realized our ethnic differences. It was a hard finding out I was white and part of the group identified as the oppressor. Nonetheless, given my wide exposure to a diverse mélange of peoples as a child, I largely considered myself immune from racism and when I went to the overwhelmingly white church college, Graceland University, in the US, I felt a sense of superiority over my Midwestern classmates who had had very little interaction with other cultures.

However, this self-righteousness was shattered when I went on a WorldService Corps volunteer assignment in Kenya during one of my college summer breaks.  For the first time, I really recognize my whiteness and what it meant in terms of power and privilege. I realized that I had never had to question my worth as a human being, whereas too often cultural and religious imagery elevates whiteness and denigrates blackness. For instance, at the Community of Christ congregation in Nairobi I attended one Sunday, the Sunday School children were quizzing the adults with trivia questions such as “Who killed Goliath?” and so on.  A little boy stepped forward and asked the congregation “I am black as charcoal, who am I?” The congregation shouted out various answers such as “A child of God” but all their answers were met with a shake of the head.  Finally they gave up and asked the child what the answer was.  He replied, “Satan.” I was suddenly struck by the fact that had never had to face anyone telling me that my skin color associated me with something sinful and dirty. I did not know what it was like to be nagged by constant messages that something irreversible about myself was deeply and profoundly wrong.

At the same time, travelling around a society that still plagued by feelings of racial inadequacy and a legacy of colonial elevations of whiteness, I was disturbed to find myself secretly enjoying the trappings of white privilege. I had never been treated with such pomp and circumstance, given more credence than my 19 years deserved or considered to be so important with so little effort of mine own. A couple of months into my term, I broke down with the realization of how, below all the layers of tolerance and acceptance that I tried to project, there was a closet racist. Embedded deep in my subconsciousness was a person who took advantage of the power, status and resources that my white skin offered, and enjoyed it. This was a horrifying realization for me, one that shook me to the very psychological core of who I thought I was.  As I have spent more time on the African continent over the years since, I have come to realize just how ingrained the colonial mythology is in my mind. It can be very difficult to rid oneself of the imagery rooted in tales of Livingstone and Stanley, Hemingway hunting big game and Robert Redford and Meryl Streep waltzing on the savannah. (Click here for more of my reflections on whiteness in Africa)

Acutely aware of the cultural and experiential gulf that separated me from my Kenyan friends and colleagues, toward the end of that summer I began to despair that I would ever be able to bridge that gap and bring healing to the incredibly complicated and deep-seated racial systems that divided us. However, I got a small glimpse of what the answer might entail one day while we were meeting with Community of Christ members in their homes in the Western part of Kenya. Entering the compound of one family, fenced off by dried rushes, we passed a large middle aged man chopping firewood.  As we approached, I called out “Amousi!” to him in greeting and then followed my colleagues, ducking into the low doorway of a nearby hut.  I had only just gotten myself comfortable in the rough wooden chair, when suddenly the man with the ax appeared in the doorway, his huge frame blocking the sunlight that had lit the room.  He began talking excitedly, with great emotion.  I started feeling afraid.  I could not understand his language and I do not generally feel comfortable around huge overexcited men carrying axes. And then the translator began to explain what he was saying.  The man said that the last time a white man had come to his village was when he was a small child under the British colonial regime – a regime, incidentally, in which my great- great- great- uncle, as the Anglican Bishop for East Africa, had played a role.  White schoolteachers had come to the village and forced him to go to school, beating him severely with a stick and prohibiting him from speaking his mother tongue.  However, he said that this time, the white man (me) had come bearing no weapon, only a wave, had shouted at him only in greeting, and had used his mother tongue.  Visibly moved, he wanted to thank me. I was shocked and humbled.  All I had done was said hello.  And yet this simple, everyday act had recognized him as a human being, who deserved the respect and dignity of a greeting.  Without even trying, without any thought or effort on my part, my presence had channeled a small element of healing to one life bruised by the injustice of imperialism.  Somehow, no credit to me, I had atoned in a very small way for the great sins of my colonial forebears.  Some mystery, even divine grace, had appeared in a deeply broken situation and created a moment of healing.

And yet I still have the nagging feeling that these small moments of grace are not quite enough to create systemic change with the church. I wonder whether we are open enough to allow them to speak to us, whether we are willing enough to live in the discomfort and psychological dissonance that a recognition of one’s privilege provokes. I do not really know the best way forward. I invite you all to share your thoughts.

-Matthew Bolton

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29 comments on “Reflections on Whiteness

  1. […] hear about a more interesting conference instead, there was also a JWHA conference, covered here, here, here, and here. There was also the Exmormon Foundation conference, which included the premiere of […]

  2. Doug Gregory says:

    I am 6’3″ tall, and do not know what it is like to be a 5’6″ adult male. I do not know what it is like to be wealthy, or gay, or from New Jersey, or a peasant, or bald, or an elite scholar.

    There are many things in life that create some sense of perceived (or real) power or superiority or fear or dominion. Even as the Japanese thought of early European visitors as unclean trash, every element of human tribalism views itself as superior in some sense, because it validates themselves.

    How we as a faith community seeking peace explore this much broader issue (obviously, it is not just about race) is indeed an intriguing question, and I appreciate your approach so far. Please broaden it out, though, because the conventional focus is the oppression of the white European over everyone else, and this discounts mankind’s tendancy towards this behavior no matter where they live, or what it is that makes them distinct.

    By the way, the book “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared Diamond goes a long ways towards gaining understanding of this issue, and I strongly commend it as one foundational aspect to this broad issue.

  3. Doug – I appreciate your thoughts, but we are not overwhelmingly 6’3″ or overwhelmingly from New Jersey. While we can find different groups that may feel superior or may benefit from a better understanding of other groups – to equate tensions between bald and non-bald to those between black and white, seems to miss the point a bit.

    Your sentence structure may have me misreading it – please explain “the conventional focus is the oppression of the white European over everyone else” – because I struggle to see where white Europeans are oppressed in any manner.

    • Doug Gregory says:

      Oppression requires power over another, and the use of that power to attain or maintain a dominant position (one 6’3″ person might assume dominance over a shorter person because of a difference in height, whereas another person of that height might work to mitigate the perception of dominance). All of the media attention to cures for baldness send a constant message that being non-bald is better than being bald, suggesting superiority / inferiority.

      If one reads Diamond’s book, it becomes even more clear that every race, culture, etc. has been dominant over another at one time, and has been subordinate to another at one time. We are developing a consciousness of this at a time following when the European peoples established dominance over large portions of the world population, leading many to equate being white and European-background with “evil” dominance. Darius and Ghengis Khan and hundreds of other non-white rulers and empires created cultural superiority – elements of which continue to exist – but to little acknowledgement by popular media (we rarely hear about the racist and judgemental views of non-white or non-Christian peoples).

      Think about how the eastern Europeans have been oppressed, about the Bosnians, the Armenians, the Irish, Poles, Scots, Germans, etc. I tire of the idealogically-driven politicization of race and the desire to demonize white Christians. We have plenty in “our” past that requires forgiveness, but “we” are not the sole practitioners of racism or superiority-based judgementalism.

      I do appreciate Matt’s article, and believe that 99.999% of God’s children have things to work on in this area, including me. Let’s all get to work on it instead of having to deal with the constant drumbeat of making white Christians the bogeyman for every evil thing in the world, an idea which acts as if non-whites and non-Christians are blameless or without a tainted past.

  4. Doug – we may have read different articles. I didn’t see anything in Matt’s take on white Christians being evil or bogeymen at all. I certainly didn’t see any reference to historical blame of anyone Instead, I saw a challenge to avoid letting the dominance of our numbers in the church drive the culture of the church.

    There are more whites in the church than other races – we should understand the affect this has on the culture of the church and work to avoid it. That’s not oppression, evil, bogeyman, blaming, or anything else.

    • Doug Gregory says:

      You are correct, BTC. I was looking at a broader context than what Matt shared, and just reminding us to consider his excellent observations in that broader perspective.

  5. FireTag says:

    Matt:

    Your post (and the supporting essay) are very good. I think we can even generalize your focus on our following the “priestly” rather than the “prophetic” in almost every issue (environmentalism, human sexuality, war and peace, economic policy, etc.).

    We remain driven by the attitudes of the establishment, elite Western culture. So if our elites call themselves “prophetic”, so will we. But our attitudes still correlate with the attitudes of the elites.

    The “catch 22” is that you can only tell a prophet when his/her teachings preceed the development of the attitudes among the elites.

  6. James E Elliott says:

    Lyndon Johnson used his height to intimidate others. Pictures of him talking to shorter people show him towering over them while standing very close. I guess we all tend to use whatever advantage we think we have to attain our ends.

  7. Todd Elkins says:

    Sadly we have moved backwards regarding outreaching to African-Americans in the Kansas City area in the past 15 years.

    When you consider that 30% of the metro area is African-American and the Community of Christ has no presence in the Black community.

    When Joe Serig was apostle some very good efforts were going on. It has not been continued by his successors and we see the results.

  8. Doug Gregory says:

    I have heard similar remarks from individuals in the KC area who still do reach out to the black community. It is very sad, and if true, it would seem to be wrong. Right in our own back yard…

  9. FireTag says:

    I ran across a blog page referencing LDS church history on Joseph Smith’s position on abolition that started me thinking about how one knows the prophetic until after the fact.

    Joseph clearly took an appeasing position toward slavery in the South in this paper, and clearly put the church’s expansion ahead of any position that might promote violence, even in the face of what we now regard as obvious injustice. He justified that position with appeals to both OT and NT scriptures, leaving the end of that injustice to God’s own time, if not actually seeing the injustice as God-ordained.

    Yet, we also know from things like the Civil War Prophecy, that Joseph expected violence to come over the issue as a sign of growing world wide violence leading to the second coming.

    How do we in the 21st Century evaluate his actions? If we judge his pacifism immoral then in not advocating that the Federal government compel the end of slavery then because it would have required violence, does that make us hypocritical in our own attitudes toward the use of force to end injustice today in places from Darfur to Tibet?

    On the otherhand, if we regard pacificm as an overriding principle and peacemaking as requiring us to be neutral between, say, the Iranian democracy protesters and the Iranian government, are we willing to defend Joseph’s actions then?

    What about the pacfism that existed before WW2? That also looks different before the fact from after the fact? And political disputes over foreign wars in 2009 look an awfully lot like echoes of political disputes about VietNam in 1969.

    What about putting the objective of maintaining harmony within the diverse cultures of the church ahead of resolving painful issues of rights for sexual minorities? Which side is the prophetic side here, the disturbers or the harmonizers?

    I think it does give us pause when we think how history may regard the morality of choices we make today. If the choices turn out right, you get remembered as a prophet; if not, history’s judgement can be harsh.

  10. I don’t think peacemaking requires anyone to be neutral and I don’t think violence solves any problem.

    • FireTag says:

      But does non-violence solve EVERY problem? And in those cases where it doesn’t, what do you do? How do you decide?

      I can see the morality of going to the cross as the epitamy of Christ’s example’ and I have tremendous trouble seeing Christ being violent toward anyone. However, I have EQUAL trouble seeing Christ send others to the cross in His stead.

      In fact, I haven’t even found a persuasive argument that God is inherently non-violent. His creation is certainly a violent place and was so long before humanity’s arrival on the scene.

      • I don’t claim non-violence solves ANY problem. The point of non-violence is to not be violent. If there are consequences, one of them will not be that you harm others.

        I also don’t claim God is inherently non-violent. The God in your BoM and Bible certainly seems extremely violent indeed.

        Christ doesn’t send others to the cross anymore than God “leads” us into temptation. The Gospel of Christ is that we should love others – not make strategic decisions as to when we can harm others.

        In my opinion.

  11. Doug Gregory says:

    Judging yesterday by today’s standards is always tricky business, too often done by those with an agenda to push. While we like to consider ourselves to be elevated beings, mankind is closer to the dog-eat-dog realities of the natural world than we care to admit. When God’s kingdom does become a reality in our presence, it may say more about God’s patience than about our performance.

  12. FireTag says:

    BTC:

    Your reply assumes a moral stance that one is not responsible for the consequences of all of one’s moral choices. It says that I am responsible for the consequences of my actions, but not for the consequences of my inactions.

    Asimov stated it well decades ago when he explored the development of moral reasoning in his Foundation and Robot stories: The first law is “Thou shalt not harm any human being, nor through inaction allow any human being to come to harm.”

    The second clause is as morally important as the first, IMO, and it is the tension between those two potentially conflicting clauses that triggers the necessity for deeper moral reasoning. If the purpose of non-violence is simply to be non-violent, there are cases where non-violence may be terribly selfish, and not loving at all.

    As to the violence of God, forget the Bible or any other scripture. The universe is a violent place. It, and all life in it, were created in violence. Is the nature of God so different from the nature of His own creation? Or do we simply attribute the things we like to God, but attribute everything else to “natural law” to avoid the moral choices required of us to determine what loving involves in real life?

    • I assume nothing of the sort. To the contrary, I expressly stated that there are consequences to non-violence. I’m not sure where you read that I said the opposite, or that one would not be responsible for their choices.

      However, there is a considerable difference between “inaction” and “nonviolence.” In you Asimov example, if we consider “harming another” to be physical (ie. violence) then the two are not conflicting at all. For the first part, one need only not commit a violent act; for the second part, one need do everything within one’s power to prevent violent acts, short of violence.

      To ask me to do violence in order to prevent violence, then you are asking me to choose between the physical harm of two people, which is not a choice I feel Jesus asks me to make.

      • Doug Gregory says:

        Then we get back to the question of relativism, in that a small amount of physical violence (lets say, killing the leaders of the Hutu gangs) could eliminate a great amount of violence. Is that not in some way justified? The standard question of the late 20th century being if you were alone in a room with Hitler, Stalin, or Mao, and you had a gun, would you use it, knowing you might prevent the deaths of 10’s of millions of people?

        I am not a violent person, but I think I would put my soul on the line to save those lives.

  13. DG – I would not bregrudge you your choice. Like all temptations, I hope that I could be strong enough to make a different choice. Fortunately, in almost every one of the “standard” hypotheticals, they are almost always impossible scenarios that we will never have to face. In reality, the choice to be non-violent is much simpler.

    As I say to my daughters all the time – you cannot control what other people choose to do, only what you choose to do.

    • FireTag says:

      BTC:

      By calling it a “temptation”, you certainly do appear to be calling the choice to do violence an immoral act in all cases and the choice to do non-violence a moral act in all cases.

      By equating non-violence to love, and violence to non-love, moral life does become simple, but my reading of the last one hundred years is that it is a moral strategy of questionable universality. What we chose to do with Hitler throughout the West was appease him. It wasn’t hypothetical at all. It happened.

      • You seem to be suggesting that the 2 options are violence or appeasement. This is just not the case.

        As I’ve said – I believe the 2 options are violence or non-violence, and violence (you are correct in interperting) is an immoral thing. Therefore – one should choose non-violence. However, non-violence in itself is not an act, it is the absence of a bad choice (IMO). Appeasement (as you describe it) may have been a bad choice as well – but there are always other ways to respond non-violently.

  14. Some of my prior post seemed to make statements as if they are statements of fact, rather than opinion. I do not litter my posts with (IMOs) so please understand when I say things like “one should choose” or “violence is immoral” that I am offering my opinion, which is not necessarily right and I don’t necessarily fault or accuse anyone of being “wrong” just because they have a perfectly legitimate alternative opinion.

  15. FireTag says:

    BTC:

    There are always many options. I am also well aware of another quote from the Foundation series: “Violence is the last resort of the incompetent.”

    But if I am to accept the notion of non-violence as the mainstream form of Christianity in issues such as war and peace (to return to the issue of Joseph Smith’s and subsequent RLDS leaders’ attitudes toward racial injustice) in ending slavery, then I must accept the notion that violence is never the best remaining choice.

    I see no evidence that Jesus ever taught this. I base that not on my great scholarship, but my simple observation that neither Christian realism nor just war theory could have survived as Christian schools of thought were there unambiguous situations in Jesus’ life in which the three theories taught DIFFERENT behaviors and Jesus chose non-violence over the theory that predicted differently.

    Indeed, you seem to note many cases in the Bible and Book of Mormon that seem to argue the opposing view, and there are similar Sections in the D&C. You’ve made clear that in your opinion those interpretations should not be considered, but to me your argument seems circular: Jesus was a pacifist, so those scriptures can’t be scriptural, so therefore Jesus must be a pacifist.

    • I do see evidence that Jesus taught non-violence, but I suppose that can be a matter of opinion. I don’t see the survival of certain Christian thought to uphold any “rightness” of that thought. There are schools of Christian thought that say the Bible is literal history and that gays are sinful – that doesn’t mean there is no evidence to the contrary of those positions.

      And while there are clearly many instances of the Bible or BoM or D&C promoting violence – I do draw a distinction between these books “in general” and Jesus in particular. Jesus said to love your neighbor – so other parts of the Bible that espouse violence, I would say, yes, is not sound advice. I don’t know why that would be circular.

      And moreover, my understanding of Jesus’ teachings of love are not limited to the Bible or any book, but are metaphorical in many instances to my own personal revelation about the nature of God and man. The biblical Jesus is just my chosen medium for inspiration.

      I’ve given you my opinion – how about giving me yours so that I can try to knock it down, rather than me just defending my ideas? ;)

      • FireTag says:

        So this is the mirror image of our discussions about the Book of Mormon on my blog, where our deepest weighting of the evidence comes from personal experiences, which we then test and modify against additional sources of evidence? :D

        I respect the sincerity of the pacifist position and the integrity of those who hold it, especially when people are holding that position when they believe their own welfare and safety is what is under attack. (Within the Restoration, F. Henry Edwards’ willingness to accept execution rather than fight in WWI is an archtype of such personal integrity.) But I do conclude, for myself, that Christian realism (with a healthy levening of prophetic insight to bias my “calculations” of the likely consequences of my choices) is a better fit both to my personal sense of the Spirit, my personality type, my academic skill set, my family history, etc.

        I certainly believe that Jesus must be the Scriptural standard. But I don’t think it’s possible to distinguish between Christian realism, just war, and pacifism as most consistent with Jesus’ teaching until you look at those teachings OUTSIDE the framework that applied under Roman dominance of a Jewish and then Christian community in captivity. Under the situation that existed then, all three theories suggest Jesus’ actions would be the same in regard to the use of violence.

        But of course, I’m the crazy guy who thinks we make ALL choices somewhere or other in spacetime and that every human spirit is tied to and formed by the collective choices of all of our physical copies, so what do I know.

        By the way, don’t stop your own blog. You have important things to keep saying that we need to hear.

  16. Personally, I don’t believe in the concept of “Just war”. That is another of those fallacies that men have dreamed up. Self defense, perhaps….but “just war”…baloney!

    That’s what diplomacy is all about.

  17. I have a white Midwestern father who married a woman from Thailand. I was raised in my father’s culture and know his side of the family, but not my mom’s side of the family or her culture. So, I pretty much grew up thinking I was white, even though some members of the church made racist comments and ostrasized my brother and me.

    Honestly, I don’t see what the church’s appeal would be to someone who wasn’t white or Midwestern. Our religious philosophy means we draw from the same pool of people as the Quakers, maybe the Methodists, and perhaps even the Unitarian-Universalists. All of them are bigger and more famous than we are.

    When I hear that our church is big in Haiti, I’m amused. What is it about our church that appeals to Haitians? Maybe that we aren’t some voudou/santeria/Catholic cult?

    Honestly, I wish there was more diversity among church members. But I always took the “whiteness” as a given. Its a reflection of our Midwestern roots.

    • Doug Gregory says:

      The message of the church is bigger than you or I. It was Ghandi who famously shared that if not for the Christians, he would become a follow or Christ. That doesn’t make Christianity bad. We follow the vision, not the visionary.

  18. TH says:

    The first part of this post reminds me a lot of what is happening now with the gay issue. (Ordain men of every color but be careful about ordaining non-whites gives a mixed message, for example). It seems as if the message is all are created equal but some are more equal than others, and challenge the status quo, unless it rocks the boat. Thought provoking.

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