Tuesday, November 24, 2020

About Us but Not For Us: Phenomenology and the Decentring of Whiteness

2 comments:
by Andrew Tebbutt
This post is part of the series Uprooting Racism.

Somehow, my very efforts to educate myself about systemic racism were symptomatic of systemic racism itself. How?

I had a number of reactions after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis. It was of course horrifying to see a Black man restrained and suffocated in broad daylight, but over time I found myself increasingly disturbed by the subtle naturalization of police violence in certain responses to Floyd’s death. When a New York police officer declared: “I am not Derek Chauvin. [My fellow officers] are not him. He killed someone. We didn’t. We all restrained,” I wondered whether it was really up to us as regular citizens to draw this distinction, whether the tarnished reputation of police is really our problem when Black people are asked to accept a heightened possibility that they will be killed in encounters with police. I thought also about the destruction of property in many of the protests that Floyd’s killing inspired, and I found ironic that a nation, having established itself on the enslavement, displacement, and disenfranchisement of Black and Indigenous people, would now complain that parts of this establishment are being destroyed. These were the issues that stood out to me when I began thinking about how I could contribute to this Ground Motive series, and I was eager to speak out.

Soon, though, I began to notice many of the ways that Black voices had already addressed police violence, the destruction of property, and other issues related to systemic racism. Although I was angered by the violation and marginalization of Black and Indigenous lives, both in Canada and the U.S., I started to wonder whether anything I would say would in the end just be about me and, like Abbi, I began to feel as though I shouldn’t say anything at all. 

But then I realized that, as someone who hopes to make a profession out of teaching philosophy, it was not so easy to let myself off the hook. Perhaps I did not have some brilliant new insight to offer to the conversation about systemic racism; still, my role as an educator made it necessary for me to engage with this aspect of our society and its history, if only by educating myself about the ways that I as a white man can make a difference in the struggle against systemic racism and white supremacy. Emboldened by this line of thinking, I bought books, watched YouTube videos, and had conversations with friends and colleagues about race and racism. I thought about how I would integrate the topic of racism into my winter 2021 ICS course, following bell hooks’ advice that the choice to include Black authors on your syllabus means that you should actually talk about race in your class (rather than simply profit off of the perceived “diversity” of your reading list). As an educator, neither silence nor passivity was an option for me, and if I wasn’t yet prepared to be a spokesperson for anti-racism, I could nevertheless do everything possible to educate myself on the issue.

This, basically, was my mindset when I was stopped in my tracks by some lines from an interview with author and Columbia University professor Saidiya Hartman:

What we see now is a translation of Black suffering into white pedagogy. In this extreme moment, the casual violence that can result in a loss of life—a police officer literally killing a Black man with the weight of his knees on the other’s neck—becomes a flash point for a certain kind of white liberal conscience, like: “Oh my god! We’re living in a racist order! How can I find out more about this?” That question is a symptom of the structure that produces Floyd’s death.

I was familiar with the oft-repeated dictum that it is not the responsibility of Black people to educate white people about systemic racism and the struggles against it. Not only is it my job as a white person to educate myself about these issues (the resources for this self-education already exist in the countless Black voices that have been speaking out for centuries), but Hartman’s words seemed to elevate the burden, and to turn it around. Somehow, my very efforts to educate myself about systemic racism were symptomatic of systemic racism itself. How?

I have provided this brief walk-through of my own thinking over the last few months because I suspect that I am not the only white person to experience an eagerness to make things better while finding it difficult to locate a place for himself in the struggle against racism. And I think this is precisely the point that many persons of colour want us white people to notice—that, as white people, we do not immediately have a place in this struggle. Or, more specifically, one of the central obstacles for people of colour is the fact that our place in the struggle is as yet too much at the centre, given the extent to which whiteness defines the landscape of our social order. Thus, another reason why we as white people don’t need Black people to educate us about racism is that we are already at the centre of it. As white people, we are essentially involved (as beneficiaries) in structures of racism and white supremacy, the destruction of which, however, is not for us. As a white person, one might say, the struggle against racism and white supremacy is about me but not for me, requiring first and foremost the destabilization of my comfortable place at the centre of the social order.

Consequently, the effort to dismantle racism will be disorienting for white people, given how much of the world is “for us” in ways that we typically do not notice. In her essay “A Phenomenology of Whiteness,” feminist theorist Sara Ahmed discusses race and institutional racism using the theme of orientation, and develops an account of whiteness, not as a matter of skin colour or any other such visible trait, but as a function of the mutual shaping of our bodies and the spaces in which they move and act. 

Ahmed begins with the well-established phenomenological insight that our own body is in the first place not the assemblage of head, torso, limbs, etc., that we observe in the bodies of other people, but rather is our point of orientation in the world, our point of contact with the world, which for the most part recedes into the background of whatever action currently occupies and engages us. Of course, I have fingers, and I can turn my attention to them in the same way that a doctor can inspect my body as an object, but my way of living my fingers—for example, in typing this sentence right now—in fact pushes “my fingers” as explicit objects or body parts into the background of my engagement with the world. The lived body, phenomenology shows, is in fact not an object at all, but is rather a kind of mutuality between my activity (as a subject) and the world that supports it.

The problem, Ahmed points out, is that this mutuality does not function in the same way for all bodies. The world we inhabit reflects the history of this mutuality, each of us inheriting a particular world in which to orient ourselves. As Ahmed explains, we can see—or rather, we do not always see, but should—the mutual shaping of body and world at work in the way that white bodies in particular mark the point of orientation for most of our everyday environments and institutional spaces. “Spaces acquire the ‘skin’ of the bodies that inhabit them,” she writes; they “take shape by being oriented around some bodies, more than others.” Ahmed’s point is that our bodies orient us in space—are enabled as the site of our worldly activity—insofar as that space is oriented around our bodies, and that this mutual orientation is in place for some bodies more than others. Here, Ahmed speaks of the “whiteness of space,” the way that white bodies are granted the privilege of receding into the background of the social world, of “sinking” into their environment and going unnoticed in a public space that is set up precisely to support and accommodate them. Not to notice your body, accordingly, is to live in a world in which the mutuality of body and world is comfortably coherent—which is to say, to live in a white (and, typically, “able”-bodied, male, cisgender) world. In such a world, other bodies are destined precisely to be noticed, not to fit in, and thus to be denied the comfort and capacity provided to those bodies whose shape the environment has adopted.

Reading Ahmed’s piece led me to reflect on the “spatial whiteness” of the environments in which I grew up. The fact that as a kid I was hardly ever confronted with the reality of racial difference is evidence, not of the absence of race, but of the thoroughgoing whiteness of the spaces in which I moved. Not that I didn’t encounter people of colour growing up in the Niagara region (I did), but the relevant fact here is the way in which they were noticeable for me—the way in which, if I wasn’t easily able to categorize their otherness (“Oh, she’s a migrant worker”), they appeared out of place (“Oh, I wonder where they’re from—because it surely isn’t here”). 

I mention this personal detail because I think the disorientation of whiteness applies even to those of us who claim—sincerely—not to harbour racist ideas or opinions. For, as Hartman and Ahmed are suggesting, the struggle against systemic racism isn’t primarily about ideas, but rather is about space—that is, the spatial and material context of the world we have in common. We should, of course, be committed to the idea of antiracism, but what these and other voices are saying is that intellectual debates will have no traction if they are not premised on a spatial and material reorientation of our world. Here’s Hartman again:

The possessive investment in whiteness can’t be rectified by learning “how to be more antiracist.” It requires a radical divestment in the project of whiteness and a redistribution of wealth and resources. It requires abolition, the abolition of the carceral world, the abolition of capitalism. What is required is a remaking of the social order, and nothing short of that is going to make a difference.

It is natural to ask here: so what can we do? What I am hearing from many Black voices is that we will overlook the realities of systemic racism and white supremacy if we look too hastily for clear solutions and action steps, treating these realities as issues “over there” that involve Black people only and about which we might simply educate ourselves. The root of the problem, rather, is the way that whiteness forms the point of orientation for our social world, and so the struggle against racism must begin with a rigorous reflection on whiteness, lest we pursue “practical solutions” that serve only to perpetuate spatial and institutional whiteness. As Ahmed writes,

We… need to describe how it is that the world of whiteness coheres as a world… A phenomenology of whiteness helps us to notice institutional habits; it brings what is behind, what does not get seen as the background to social action, to the surface in a certain way. It does not teach us how to change those habits and that is partly the point. In not being promising, in refusing to promise anything, such an approach to whiteness can allow us to keep open the force of the critique. It is by showing how we are stuck, by attending to what is habitual and routine in "the what" of the world, that we can keep open the possibility of habit changes, without using that possibility to displace our attention to the present, and without simply wishing for new tricks.

In this effort to make habitual whiteness more noticeable, I think Ahmed’s caution against “wishing for new tricks” is important at two levels. First, it can help us reject those demands for clear solutions that are nothing other than veiled dismissals of the critique of whiteness—e.g., “Until you give me clear practical solutions, I’m not going to hear you.” The demand that Black voices articulate themselves reasonably, consistently, and with applicable actions steps—is this not actually a refusal to really hear what these voices are saying, a reluctance to be unsettled and disoriented in the ways that an uprooting of racism really requires? We may not be this overtly cynical, but the disingenuous nature—conscious or not—of some demands for clear practical advice has led to a reluctance on the part of persons of colour to translate the struggle against racism and white supremacy into simple ‘how tos.’

At a second level, though, Ahmed’s caution offers a challenge to those of us white people who earnestly want to know how to help, by shifting the conversation away from what “we” as white people can do to change things. Indeed, Ahmed reserves her most piercing criticism for the question: What can white people do? 
“The sheer solipsism of this response must be challenged,” she writes, for the ways that it “re-position[s] the white subject as somewhere other than implicated in the critique.” In other words, the question What can white people do? centres the agency of white bodies as the source of change, rather than as already deeply implicated in the problem of racism. Ahmed is thus asking us to notice how the orientation of this question—“How can I, as a white person, contribute to the resistance, to your struggle”—denies the reality that white people are already at the centre of the struggle, comfortably involved in (if not altogether dependent on) the very structures that the struggle against racism aims to dismantle.

In this way, Ahmed is shifting our attention away from the practical question of resistance, and toward our desire for resistance and for the clear action steps toward achieving it. “What does it mean,” Ahmed asks rhetorically, to “assume that critiques have to leave room for resistance?”

This desire to make room is understandable—if the work of critique does not show that its object can be undone, or promise to undo its object, then what is the point of the critique? But this desire can also become an object for us to investigate. The desire for signs of resistance can also be a form for resistance to hearing about racism. If we want to know how things can be different too quickly, then we might not hear anything at all.

Now, Ahmed is not saying that we should avoid identifying action steps or pursuing real changes. But she is encouraging us first to become aware of the ways that racism, as rooted in the very spaces we inhabit, persists even where there is a genuine desire to eliminate it. Her worry is that if we press for change too quickly—too superficially, too comfortably—we will fail to hear the critique of Black voices in full, and we will simply reassert the centrality of whiteness. 

Don’t get me wrong, I think we should do the work of identifying practical changes that we can make as individuals and as members of communities and institutions. But we should not think of these as “ten clear steps to eradicate racism,” but rather as steps toward the unravelling of the centrality of whiteness. As white people, we must recognize our responsibility, not simply contribute to efforts to resist racism, but to expose ourselves to disorientation and to commit to the divestment of our place in the social order.

In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks makes the point that predominantly white communities can participate in the struggle against racism by reflecting on and studying whiteness, “so that everyone learns that affirmation of multiculturalism, and an unbiased inclusive perspective, can and should be present whether or not people of colour are present.” As an historically—though certainly not exclusively—white community, we at ICS are poised to engage in the dismantling of racism and white supremacy, here and now, by reflecting on whiteness, by making it noticeable in our world and the world at large, and by noticing the damage that it has done and does. At ICS we are set up to reflect on whiteness in our writing, classrooms, and casual conversation, regardless of whether our work deals with race explicitly, and regardless of how new we are to the conversation. For reflections on whiteness, doing a “phenomenology of whiteness” is the first step towards witnessing the true depth and breadth of racism and the stakes of the struggle against it.
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Monday, September 21, 2020

Confession of a Dying Man

9 comments:
This piece is part of a series of new reflections being added to the existing Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.

by Henk Hart

I am embarrassed, ashamed at times, and I feel quite powerless. Many people reach out to me in my end time. Family and friends. People from church or my work community. Children. Strangers sometimes. I am deeply touched by this and the touch is healing. At times I am able to show my appreciation, my gratitude. Yes, I am truly grateful. To all. But I do not always or to everyone make that visible. That’s because I have begun to struggle with mail: email, letters in the mail, cards. Part of my new reality is that responding to mail takes time and energy that I now no longer have. I try. But it doesn’t happen. So I feel ashamed. I know that most people understand. I am grateful for that. But I am still embarrassed. And sad.

For the longest time I have not experienced death and dying as a burden. They are part of living. For many people they are sad, painful, beyond bearing. For me they were not. Bit by bit I gave up parts of what it means to be alive. Food, a hobby, an activity, a bodily function. I have seen death coming and expected it for a long time. Even now that my medical team says it’s coming closer faster I feel that in many ways I am ready and it’s ok. But the last few weeks I have become aware of my unanswered mail as a part of dying for which I am not ready. And I think I know why. It breaks lines of communication, it ends part of what it means to be alive. And to be the offender is sad and shameful to me. Suddenly dying is no longer what it has been so far. 

So I confess: as I am dying, I am part of death’s ruptures in living. Not just for myself. I bring the pains of dying into the lives of others. And I confess: I do it especially to those who reach out to me. I am sorry. 

Though confessing helps living with the shame, it does not stop the dying. Life goes on, also the life of which dying is part. And that life, for me at least, is also full of blessing that surrounds the pain. Shame is not the whole story of my dying. In our electronic world I can share my story with my work community, my confessional community, and my community of family and friends. In that way my world of dying could be life giving to others. That gives me joy.


Friday, September 18, 2020

Something About Gardening? Uprooting Racism at ICS

1 comment:
by Abbi Hofstede
This post is part of the series Uprooting Racism.


While we don't need to feel guilty about the past, we can (and should) feel responsible for how the past manifests itself in the present. 


It is difficult to know where to begin. I want to say something about how uncomfortable I am with writing about this topic, but my discomfort is nothing in the grand scheme of things, especially when I think about the real beast that is systemic racism.

My first reaction to being asked to write for ICS’s blog was to say no, because I am not the one who we need to listen to right now. As a white Canadian woman of Dutch descent I would feel much more comfortable with doing my own personal work on these issues out of the public eye. The reality is, however, that I am among one of the privileged demographics here at ICS. I grew up going to a CRC church. I ate things like boerenkool and hagelslag. I am steeped in a reformed understanding of Christian education, attending Christian schools my whole life. Since I am in a position of privilege, then, it is not enough to do my own personal work while remaining silent on these issues. In this case, silence would imply assent to the status quo, and that is not okay.

I am not the voice we should be listening to, but I am also not willing to make others do the work for me. For that reason, as a white person, I want to take a moment and recognize that this blog post is intended to engage other white people, as we collectively acknowledge the work we need to do (and the fact that people of colour have not had the privilege to be as unaware of these issues as we are). The reality is that ICS doesn’t have many students of colour, and there are no Black students currently attending. While it is imperative we first and foremost pay attention to and amplify Black voices during this time, we also should not force other people to do the heavy lifting for us.

It is only in recent years that I began to see how deeply systemic racism is ingrained in my experiences of Christian educational institutions (as it is, to varying degrees, in all institutions that have historically been predominantly white). When I stop and think about this reality, I am deeply saddened—not only by my own ignorance, but more importantly by the fact that this systemic racism still persists. Thinking back, I was so unaware of what some of my peers were going through. Because of my privilege, I’ll never fully know all that they experienced, and I lament my lack of understanding to this day.

Recently, I was talking to a friend about the difficulties of navigating this topic. She suggested a really helpful metaphor for conceptualizing systemic racism in an institutional context, one that makes a lot of sense to me as I have spent my summer landscaping and gardening. If we view our institution as a garden, we can think of it as something like this:

ICS’s garden has been nurtured on Anishinaabe, Huron-Wendat, Haudenousaunee, and Mississauga of the Credit First Nations land for over 50 years. Some seeds were brought over from the Netherlands and planted in this soil. These seeds have used the nutrients, as well as the water, sun, and other resources from the land in which they were planted in order to sprout and bear fruit. Many varieties of delicious fruits and vegetables have been grown. Unfortunately, many weeds have sprouted too. Some of these were brought in with the original seeds, and others have popped up over the years. Some existed in the soil when ICS first planted its garden, as the soil had been worked before by a country founded on colonialism. Many of these weeds were not pulled and were allowed to go to seed, producing new generations of weeds that threaten to choke out the other plants.


Systemic racism, in all its manifestations, is one of these pervasive weeds. To continue the gardening metaphor, I would like to propose that those of us who are “insiders” in this tradition need to bear the brunt of the work in uprooting these weeds. We cannot leave this solely to those who have been working for generations, those who face this struggle every day, without any choice in the matter. It is also our responsibility to put in the work. At the same time, we may not be able to recognize some things as weeds. Overtly racist occurrences are a rarity and there are many ways in which racism manifests itself that we may not recognize right away. As Dean pointed out in his post, for example, we might need to call into question just exactly who are the voices that we prioritize here in our classes at ICS.

For more examples of how racism manifests itself in many different ways, see the below illustration of a pyramid of white supremacy. This pyramid helps us to see how overt white supremacy builds on these “smaller,” socially acceptable forms of racism and covert white supremacy. While we may recognize the overt things as “bad,” it is sometimes much more difficult to identify the covert forms. This is where we need to listen to Black voices, and the voices of other people of colour, to help us identify those weeds to which we are blind. Then, we—and I’m speaking to white people here—need to put in the work to pull those weeds. As the pyramid illustrates, these covert logics and acts of white supremacy may be buried deep, which means that we might need to dig deep within our own thinking to uncover them.

Source: Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence (2005). Adapted by Ellen Tuzzolo (2016); Mary Julia Cooksey Cordero (2019); The Conscious Kid (2020).

Recently, I participated in an anti-racism workshop put on by SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) Toronto, and to prepare we were asked to read an excerpt about the characteristics of white supremacy culture from Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun (ChangeWork, 2001). Reading this list shook me, if I am being honest. Although at first I didn’t want to admit it (which itself is part of the problem, as we will see), I could immediately see in myself these characteristics of white supremacy culture. Since I have grown up in a culture where whiteness is the norm, this should have been unsurprising. And yet, I was shocked. It was another reminder of how far I as an individual and we as a society have yet to go.

The pyramid can also help illustrate an interesting faultline that often springs up around conversations about race. For some, racism or “being racist” refers only to those things at the top of the pyramid—the overt forms of racism. This can lead to miscommunications in our discussions, with those who hold this view of racism vehemently objecting to admitting their own racism because they view racism as only those things at the top of the pyramid. What the pyramid shows us, however, is that racism takes many different forms. It’s sneaky. It’s embedded in everything from personal attitudes to institutions to government and civil society. This means that you can be racist without intending to be racist—without even knowing it.

Take one example from the pyramid: Eurocentric curriculum. It’s not as if ICS consciously set out to build a Eurocentric curriculum, but it still happened. We come from the Dutch Reformational tradition, so it is natural that a lot of our scholarship is rooted in this area. One of the strengths of this tradition is its deep-seated emphasis on engaging culture and public life. But maybe we need to take a hard look at what culture it is that we are engaging. Too often, the other voices we interact with philosophically are other white voices. How much could our scholarship be enriched if we really made an effort to engage with the voices of people of colour?

During my time at The King’s University, I once heard a professor describe it like this: there is a difference between guilt and responsibility. While we don’t need to feel guilty about the past, we can (and should) feel responsible for how this past manifests itself in the present. As we have seen from recent events, the reality is that racism is alive and well in our society today. ICS has a responsibility to take a hard look at our own practices as a predominantly white institution. Perhaps we need to question why, after 50 years of existence in one of the most multicultural cities in the world, our student body still doesn’t reflect this. And further, have we ever had one Senior member who was not white? These questions just barely begin to scratch the surface, and we evidently have much more digging to do.

ICS stewards a rich tradition of Christian scholarship, one that comes out of the Dutch Reformational tradition. There is nothing intrinsically racist about being committed to a tradition per se (although it is worth noting that Abraham Kuyper, among many others, had some very racist ideas).* However, in stewarding this tradition for the future we must be willing and able to critically engage with those parts of our past that are oppressive. We cannot be so committed to a tradition that we fail to recognize our weaknesses alongside our strengths. In the 90s, ICS was a leader in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights. We have done this kind of thing before. And we need to do it again.

In a recent episode of The Sacred Podcast, Theologian Willie Jennings, in speaking about his new book called After Whiteness (Eerdmans, 2020), points out that when you ask Western educators: “What image comes to mind when you think of the formation of an educated person?” the almost subconscious answer is a white self-sufficient man, one who embodies what he calls “three demonic virtues: possession, control, and mastery.” In any field, according to Jennings, that person is generally considered the archetype. He illustrates that this image is killing us, leading to pain and suffering in our entire education system, as students and teachers are forced to contort themselves and their experiences to fit into this one very specific box. In place of this image, however, Jennings proposes an alternative by which to steer theological (and really all) Western education: that of Jesus and the crowd. By this he means that the educated person is one who, like Jesus, is able to gather people together—even people who normally would not want to be together. In this view, the sign of being fully formed or educated is that you are able to bring people together through what you do, regardless of your field. 

Can we imagine ICS as a place that does this? A place that brings together a diverse cohort of teachers and students who are all committed to learning from one another? Can we uproot barriers to this vision such as Eurocentrism and the prioritizing of white voices so that we can really listen to the voices and insights of people of colour? Can we critically engage our own tradition by listening to scholars who may disagree with us, challenge us, and force us to be and do better? I hope so (otherwise, what are we really doing here?).

ICS has a real opportunity here to consciously embrace this kind of education, and put in the hard work of uprooting the systemic racism in our midst.** As we continue the process of reforming our academic handbooks and policies this fall, I want to challenge us all to have a look at the list I mentioned before and identify the areas of white supremacy culture that exist in our midst. As the authors illustrate near the bottom of the linked article: 

One of the purposes of listing characteristics of white supremacy culture is to point out how organizations which unconsciously use these characteristics as their norms and standards make it difficult, if not impossible, to open the door to other cultural norms and standards. As a result, many of our organizations, while saying we want to be multicultural, really only allow other people and cultures to come in if they adapt or conform to already existing cultural norms. Being able to identify and name the cultural norms and standards you want is a first step to making room for a truly multicultural organization. 

If we want to be a place that brings people together, then, we need to de-centre whiteness to ensure that other voices truly feel welcomed and that we have the ability to hear them.

It seems to me that it is more than time to put the old archetype of white mastery fully and completely to rest, just like a noxious weed needs to be thrown into the trash. This means, among other things, listening to different voices—in our classes and in the broader life of the institution. Nothing about this process will be simple or easy. It is going to involve making mistakes, let’s just acknowledge that. As a white person, I am blind to many of those weeds that are perhaps all the more insidious for just looking like “the way things are.” I am going to need direction and guidance, and I am going to have to do a whole lot more learning from people who are different from me. This blog series is a start, as we will be first lamenting our complicity in these abuses and then looking to how we can grow. In a future post, we hope to have a curated list of resources to help us learn and grow, to help us as we put in the work and begin the process, (so stay tuned!). 

The old ideals have deep roots. But I am ready to grab a shovel and start digging. I hope you will join me.

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* For more on this (as it is a topic that deserves extensive treatment in its own right), a good place to start is this blog post written by Rev. Reginald Smith at http://dojustice.crcna.org/article/does-our-strength-lie-isolation

** It will be important to recognize too that there are some things on this list that ICS has already consciously engaged with, and as a result these areas may not need as much work. There are many things we can (and should) celebrate about the culture of ICS, for example, its participatory governance structure that invites Junior and Senior Members alike into the process of governing the institution. At the same time, the point of this blog series is to draw attention to and lament the areas where we have failed in the past, which is why I have chosen here to focus on these areas.
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Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Surprises in Racism’s Scope? Limits of ICS’s Calling?

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by Henk Hart
This post is part of the series Uprooting Racism.

Now that we are seriously beginning to face up to racism, is it helpful to realize that what we see in racism is a broader phenomenon than discrimination focused on someone’s race? 

I thank Dean for starting off this blog series with a contribution that clearly outlines what some of the key issues are. I thank him also for being as critical as necessary. Necessary for the health of ICS, necessary also for assessing the integrity we need to address the obvious problems. Finally, I thank him for focussing on black racism, which in our time presents itself as the defining face of racism. By writing as he did he introduced us to a blog series on racism as both relevant and significant. Inescapably so. The intensity with which this evil presents itself and the tenacity with which it is being addressed by its victims and their supporters gives us hope that our time can become known as the beginning of the end of universal white supremacy.

I would normally experience this challenge as a divine calling that calls for an energetic response. Unfortunately, my personal circumstances are far from normal. So I limit myself to briefly addressing two issues I think I encountered in Dean’s blog. One concerns the scope of racism. The other is how an institution like ICS may be expected to take on racism as part of its calling.

Today, racism presents its ugliness in North America specifically as black racism. But what of fellow citizens who are Chinese or Indigenous? Indeed, what of the multitude in our multiracial society who experience racism in one form or another but are not black? Will they be forgotten and will that add to the racist pain they experience? Or can “black racism” serve as a temporary indicator of all racism? Or is “black racism” an unavoidable focus for our time, lest the momentum be lost?

Now that we are seriously beginning to face up to racism, is it helpful to realize that what we see in racism is a broader phenomenon than discrimination focused on someone’s race? Are trans people less vulnerable to painful discrimination because the police cannot spot them? Is it easier to be a lesbian than being black? Is racism not a specific manifestation of a deeper problem with a greater scope, namely discrimination focused on a dimension of who a person unavoidably is beyond that person’s ability to change? Is the average white male God’s norm for being human?

I believe these issue are more important than we customarily think. So I take it to be part and parcel of the second issue I wish to raise: is ICS just the kind of institution suitable to investigate in a practically relevant way what racism really is? Could that be as important as studying black authors or appointing black faculty? Dean emphatically challenges ICS by asking about the significance of our work: "not as a byproduct of themes or ideas we study, but directly?" The question is important beyond its rhetorical effects in a blog. Just what does "directly" mean? What does it mean for an institution like ICS?

I do not foresee my continuing participation in this blog. I deeply regret this. Doing so would add to the meaning of the last months of my life. ICS has always meant to me the kind of institution characterized by blogs like Dean’s. So I am grateful that after almost 55 years, the existential engagement with the key issues of our times remains.



 

Monday, August 17, 2020

We Christians, or Our Racist Christian World

3 comments:
by Dean Dettloff
This post is part of the series Uprooting Racism.

[T]he principles governing the rites and customs of the churches in which I grew up did not differ from the principles of other churches, white. The principles were Blindness, Loneliness, and Terror, the first principle necessarily and actively cultivated in order to deny the two others. I would love to believe that the principles were Faith, Hope, and Charity, but this is clearly not so for most Christians, or for what we call the Christian world.

- James Baldwin, “Letter From a Region in My Mind



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We tend to think of our world today as a “secular” one, whatever we might mean by that term. James Baldwin, however, one of the most incisive writers on race in the United States, calls to mind the ways in which Christianity shapes our political and racialized order. Christianity is not, Baldwin suggests, simply a private affair, something one either believes or disbelieves; it has a collective, formative power. Baldwin’s conclusions about that power are difficult to hear, but not for that reason untrue. On the contrary, Baldwin describes a Christian pattern of behavior that continues to shape our world today, and one we have to understand if we want to change it. Let me illustrate the point with a recent example.


On June 1st, protesters and clergy demonstrating as part of the ongoing wave of the Black Lives Matter movement were tear gassed out of St. John’s Church in Washington. The crowd was there peacefully and legally, and with the support of the church. Police nevertheless cleared the protesters with a chemical weapon for a photo opportunity, in which Donald Trump brandished a Bible using the church as a backdrop, holding the text without comment, wielding the Scriptures like a talisman to invoke the moral authority and continuity of the Christian world against the rabble of a movement for racial justice. The fact that other Christians on the side of racial justice were removed for this display is a testament to the ambiguities of Christianity, but their removal also highlights the material power of Christianity as a defender of racist order, in this case exerted by the highest office of the most powerful country on the planet. Trump’s exhibition of the Bible is a striking illustration of Baldwin’s formula, that the Christian world effectively cultivates a willful blindness, used to deny the loneliness and terror that surround us. 


The Christian world. This phrase appears throughout Baldwin’s work in essays, novels, and interviews, always in the context of an indictment. In another essay, Baldwin, says that the feeling of oppression among black people toward America is ignored as “the Christian world has been misled by its own rhetoric and narcoticized by its own power.” The phrase is especially biting in a conversation with Margaret Mead:


“I don’t understand at all what the white man’s religion means to him. I know what the white man’s religion has done to me. And so, I could—can—accuse the white Christian world of being nothing but a tissue of lies, nothing but an excuse for power, as being as removed as anything can possibly be from any sense of worship and, still more, from any sense of love. I cannot understand that religion.”


The precise contours of the Christian world, sometimes qualified as white, are not clearly drawn, at least not in Baldwin’s writing. But as I read the phrase, even as a white Christian, I think I have a sense of what Baldwin means. The Christian world is not only the world I encounter in homilies or church coffee hour, although it entails that. It is not the initial phases of colonial Christendom, built on indigenous genocide and racialized slavery under the sign of the cross, although it clearly descends from that. The Christian world is, rather, a social imaginary that funds the political arrangement in countries like the United States and Canada. These are countries founded by Christians and sustained still today, in some ways explicitly and in many ways subtly, by Christian practices and assumptions, all undergirded by an abiding, historically constitutive, antiblack racism. 


Among thoughtful Christians who know that the biblical God is a God of justice, it is an easy thing to rush to condemn the basest, most obviously evil expressions of Christianity, and to say we Christians are not like those Christians. We Christians, who have read the biblical prophets, who know God cares for the poor, who talk about “the marginalized,” who study the humbling trends of postmodernism or pragmatism or feminism—we Christians know better. That may be the world that some powerful Christians have built, but it is not the Christian world that we want to build, nor is it the world that we think God wants to build. Perhaps we even find ourselves saying “I cannot understand that religion.”


And yet, have we Christians—a group in which I am included—really reckoned with our own contribution to the Christian world that Baldwin accuses?


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I am a product of Christian pedagogy. Soon I will finish a PhD in philosophy at the Institute for Christian Studies, and I have over a decade of post-high school education exclusively at Christian schools. To get to this stage, I have had to learn an immense variety of theories, put in hours of work to understand the minutiae of debates among idiosyncratic philosophical traditions, and spend hours more finding something to say about the people and ideas my education has required me to engage, all in curated Christian spaces, in small Christian worlds within the larger Christian world.


In all of these efforts, however, have I ever had to study—really study—a black author? Did required reading ever make me buy a book by a black person? Institutionally, have I ever been accountable for knowing, representing, and struggling with the text of a black philosopher? Has a grade or a paper or a class presentation ever hinged on demonstrating a close knowledge of a black theorist or the conversations and disagreements among black theorists? Even in those few times I recall when a black author briefly appeared on a syllabus, was I forced to learn from and dialogue with that author with the same focus and rigor demanded of me when discussing Foucault, Kristeva, Rorty, Irigaray, Habermas, or a host of other white theorists? 


If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” I can’t remember; and in my Christian education, I have had no academic pressure to remember.


***


When Baldwin names blindness as a key principle of the Christian world, we might quickly think of obstinate conservatives who live in intentional denial when it comes to the realities of racism in our society. But this reflex is an incredible mechanism for racism’s reproduction, for it diverts our attention and ensures that we are unable to see our own contributions to the production of a racist, Christian world. Instead, if one can take a sober moment in our narcotic state, Baldwin poses a question directed squarely at us: what kind of world is it that we Christians are inheriting and making?


In my own case, if I were to judge solely based on my academic curriculum, from my undergraduate years to the near-end of my Christian education, I inhabit a world almost completely without black people. A classroom and an education are more than assigned texts, to be sure, but the demographics of my colleagues and the pedagogy that takes place in hallways or over meals do not counterbalance or exonerate scores of syllabi. Whatever discussions I have had or heard about a black theorist, like Cornel West, or racial injustice, like the murder of black people by police, have not had a recursive effect on the formal architecture of my education. As W. E. B. Du Bois writes in his essay “The Souls of White Folk,” “How easy, then, by emphasis and omission to make children believe...that every great thought the world ever knew was a white man’s thought…” How easy to do with adults, too.


I know that my philosophy and theology teachers have not gone out of their way to ignore black theorists on their syllabi, and I can say with confidence that my teachers have instilled in me a genuine concern for justice, hospitality, and solidarity. Their teaching led me to begin my own struggles into studying and working to dismantle the racist systems that have shaped me and the world I inhabit. 


But this is precisely what is so troubling about racism—that otherwise intelligent, thoughtful, and responsible people nevertheless exist in and as part of a society that endangers other people’s lives. Racism and white supremacy are not reducible to personal opinions or intentional prejudices, but are structural and political problems with long, winding genealogies. Deeply embedded, these structures continue to shape us and our institutions with or without our conscious participation. So often, it is our unconscious participation that guarantees racism’s staying power, since those of us who think of ourselves as “good,” “kind,” “educated,” “Other-oriented,” or “on the side of justice” can be easily blinded by these self-perceived attributes, trusting that we are on the right path without coming to terms with the fact that the path itself may be part of the problem.


When it comes to our own institution, the Institute for Christian Studies, it might be tempting to assume the root issue of our antiblack racism is a lack of representation, which would be solved by including black theorists on our syllabi. We certainly should include other voices in a way that is meaningful and not tokenizing. The problem of racism, however, of our Christian racism, is deeper. More than recognizing our representation patterns, we have to ask why an institution like ICS, even while it does not have an exclusively white student body, staff, or alumni community, dialogues almost singularly with white thinkers, and why it is unable to consider its racism on its own without the intervention of a massive social movement. 


We have to inquire, in other words, into the whiteness, antiblackness, and racism of our Christian world, by which I mean both the confessionally Christian pedagogical world of ICS specifically and the Christian world in which ICS is situated generally. We have to inquire into the mediations between the wider Christian world Baldwin interrogates and our own niche within it. The Christian world we have built, no matter how many important essays it has produced about hospitality, the Other, relativity, obligation, justice, or many other truly good words, is one that is nevertheless blind to racism—and more, one that therefore reproduces racism. Addressing our racism, to put it another way, would mean not only registering our blindness, but recognizing, as Baldwin does, how this blindness enables loneliness and terror, how it participates in the building of a whole racist world. 


To make the stakes clear, the problems black people face in Canada and the United States are not simply matters of inclusion, and the challenges for white people, like me, are not simply matters of checking our privilege or becoming better listeners; these are matters of literal life and death. Racism is more than bad opinions or failing to meet the best practices of diversity trainings. Racism, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore explains in her book Golden Gulag, is “the state-sanctioned and/or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” 


Considered in this way, we might ask: What is ICS doing or not doing that provides support or cover for a racial regime that produces and abuses foreshortened lifespans? What are we doing to oppose this regime, not as a byproduct of themes or ideas we study, but directly? What precedents are there in our community for addressing structural racism? How and why have we failed to make the struggle against racism an enduring feature of our work for justice? How have the reformational tradition and Dutch Calvinism contributed not only to the racist horrors of apartheid South Africa, but to the racist horrors of Canada and the US? As Angela Davis famously put it, “in a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”


What I have always appreciated about ICS, what drew me to ICS, is its commitment to trenchant criticism of Christianity from within and as part of the Christian community. ICS has been so committed to this criticism that it has historically been a liability, as Senior Members questioned the homophobia, patriarchy, and assimilationist tendencies of Christianity and the Reformed tradition. ICS also carries a spirit of activism, which blurs the boundaries between theory in the ivory tower and work in the trenches and refuses a clean break between ideas and practice. It is a spirit that led the first generations of ICS students to oppose the Vietnam War, led Senior Members to speak out against apartheid, and continues today in our research on refugees in Canada.*


I take it that this spirit is also what motivates this blog series, and it gives me a fragile hope that ICS could, in fact, really engage the reality of antiblack and other forms of racism, internally and externally, with all the inevitable mistakes, failures, and difficult work that will mean. It is that spirit that might also help us to not only call into question, but hasten the end of our racist Christian world, its ideas, habits, and brutalities, and our own contributions to it. Historically and ideologically, Christians have played a unique and outsized role in the construction of a racist society, so much so that black theologian Amaryah Armstrong urges us to see the “history of Christian order as the maintenance of racial order”; as Christians who dare to say the word “justice,” we have a responsibility to dismantle this order—starting with ourselves.