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Thinking Out Loud

On the Repentance of Whiteness

by Michael Jinkins | Jul 25, 2017


Michael LoudonEditor’s note: Today’s blog post is guest-written by Michael Loudon (pictured). Michael is a retired professor of English at Eastern Illinois University. He served as acting coordinator of EIU’s African American Studies program from 2006-2008. His research focused on New Zealand writer Patricia Grace; the experience of Pacific Islanders during WW II; South African literature; memoirs from South Sudan; twentieth-century Korean poetry; and the work of poet Kwame Dawes.

I want first to thank President Jinkins and the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary for this opportunity to write for “Thinking Out Loud.” Since retiring from university teaching after thirty years and turning to raising cattle in an effort to revive an old family farm in Southern Indiana, I have been blessed to maintain my divergent interests in cattle and academia by participating in the Black Church Studies Consultations over the last three years at Louisville Seminary. This past spring’s consultation on “Mass Incarceration” awakened me once again to the horrifying reality that white supremacy has managed to extend the enslavement of African peoples long past Abolition in the nineteenth century through Jim Crow and segregation, American apartheid, and well into the twenty-first century through the disparities in our criminal justice system.

Too often we white people are simply oblivious to the ugly underbelly of our own history, which Jim Wallis has written of in America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America. If you’re white, or think of yourself as white, and haven’t noticed the stunning rise in the number of murders by police officers of black “suspects” in the last few years, then perhaps you are sleeping too deeply during the daylight hours.  Seeing Ava DuVernay’s film 13th at the consultation stirred me to comment in the discussion that followed our viewing of it.

After I had spoken, probably at too much length, my wife touched my arm and said that I sounded far too angry. I was, and I am, and that is my sin with which I wrestle, for I do not understand fully why white people and especially white Christians are not also outraged at denying themselves their own full humanity and a much greater participation in the unity of Christ than is too often the case not only in our daily lives, but also even in our Sunday morning worship services. To pursue and to address my ignorance, I have, as the weather breaks and pastures and cows need attention, been reading and re-reading Reverend Michael Eric Dyson’s new book, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America. He reminds me of much that I already know, having taught in Africana Studies for three decades but most persistently driven home by the many hours in conversation with black students in my classes who would stop by my office in the late afternoon to talk—and I am honored to have listened and to have learned from them all those years. As valuable as the scholarship may have been and as much insight as the black voices in literature have offered, those students have been my best teachers.

They have taught me that whiteness is not a condition of my skin at birth but a cultural construction that I can all too easily accept growing up in white America.  White privilege is a “natural” status that makes my lack of color seem “normal.” Consequently, unlike my students, no one follows me in Wal-Mart up one aisle and down the next suspecting that I am there to shoplift whatever I seek. No one yells a racial slur at me as I walk down the street to campus for my early morning classes assuming I have not earned my admission into the university like every other “normal” student. No one assumes I am teaching among my colleagues as a consequence of affirmative action. No fellow student or professor looks at me with a gaze of probable intellectual inferiority, wondering from the first days of class whether or not I will do my reading and submit my homework. No police officer pulls me over because a white person committed a burglary on the other side of town. No police officer ever stops me because I am white behind the steering wheel. No one inflicts these daily stresses and strains on me because I am “normal,” because I enjoy the four hundred years of white privilege born of institutional and individual white supremacy.

So how do we white people wake up? Taking Dyson to heart, we need to repent of our whiteness: we can address our ignorance by realizing we do not have to accept the construction of our privilege. We can study the history of all of us in this country—and it doesn’t mean we need to go to school. We can choose what events we attend, we can choose what books we read, and we can choose what films we watch. We can choose to give a person five minutes in conversation to begin to know that person rather than falling prey to the invisibility of white blindness that fails to see a person precisely because of the visibility of her skin. We can choose to listen to a man because we see him clearly as a fellow human being.

But those gestures are far from enough. We can tear open our own whiteness and expose its lies, we can reject our too often unconscious privilege and we can begin to heal ourselves by addressing our white guilt and the grieving that accompanies it. Doing so permits us to see how easily we construct an awkwardly deceptive innocence that drives us further away from the unity in Christ. We can forgive ourselves, through our repentance, and we can seek the redemption offered not only by Jesus, but also from the many black people who have extended it to us, whether we have noticed or not, through exceptional  tolerance, generosity and compassion across the centuries of the brutality inflicted by white supremacy. We can seek to transform our anger at this pervasive racial injustice into love. We can go to work.

For help, I have turned to Martha Nussbaum’s Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice. She reminds me of the African concept of Ubuntu, the sense that I cannot be fully human without you being fully human. I cannot realize my humanity unless I permit you to realize your own. You cannot see my face until I see yours.

Will you go to work to repent of your whiteness along with me? Will you work through white guilt and denial, rejecting a false innocence that diminishes us all? Will you help me in transforming my anger into love?  

Ava DuVernay, dir. 13th Netflix, 2016.
Michael Eric Dyson, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America (St. Martin’s Press, 2017).
Martha C. Nussbaum, Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice (Oxford University Press, 2016, p. 228).
Jim Wallis, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America (Brazos Press, 2016).

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