During the 40 days of Lent, the season leading up to Easter, many Christians traditionally forswear some vice or temptation. Some people might give up coffee, sugar, or alcohol. Catholics may fast entirely on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and avoid meat on every Friday of Lent. This year, the First United Church of Oak Park reframed this practice, stating that they are “fasting from whiteness”. For them, this means “abstaining from performing hymns composed or written by white musicians,” instead focusing on those composed by musicians of color. To explain this fast, the church’s pastor, John Edgerton, said, “The work of antiracism in this country, the work of taking white perspectives out of the center and allowing other perspectives to have space – that work must come from the majority culture, from the white culture.”
“Fasting from whiteness” – especially as an initiative from a predominantly white church in a predominantly white suburb – could be seen as virtue-signaling or false wokeness. But I tend to take people at their word, and as I have some experiences attending services at this church, I believe that their intentions are genuine.
My greater concern is that the parish’s commitment generated a predictable backlash on national conservative media as well as considerable conversation within Oak Park itself. Nationally and locally, some people:
- Claimed that the church’s message of “fasting from whiteness” divides people by race when we should be bringing people together by emphasizing our common humanity.
- Protested that their white ancestors weren’t in the United States during the time of slavery, or at least didn’t own slaves, and they resented the implication that they bore responsibility for racism because of their heritage.
- Rejected the term “whiteness” as a “a social construct”, “not real”, and “counterproductive”.
I certainly understand these reactions. I have thought and even stated versions of all of them when confronted with my own privileges and limitations as a white man living in the United States. As I started learning about racism and slavery, I used to by thankful that my own ancestors settled in Wisconsin after immigrating to the US because I felt that meant they didn’t bear as much responsibility for racism in this country. I looked at white Southerners as the main propagators of racial damage. I didn’t think about – didn’t actually realize – that when my German great-great-grandfather settled in south-central Wisconsin just after 1850, there were still communities of Indigenous people living in the area who would have lived on and used the land where he settled until he took that land for himself. My own family’s middle-class existence comes from taking possession of that land and from a collection of other privileges we have experienced in this country. I now understand better that each of us white people has some set of those privileges in our past, even if only the privilege that our ancestors were not owned by other people just 5 generations ago.
As I have engaged in antiracism work and come to understand my own family’s complicity in American racism, I have gone through periods of feeling shame about being white. Conservative commentators often condemn antiracism work as being designed to evoke shame in white people, claiming that this shame puts us in a subservient position or inverts the racial hierarchy, thus somehow oppressing white people. What they don’t understand is that shame is not the goal of antiracist work for white people but a stage that we must move through. Shame is a reasonable and initially necessary reaction, but ultimately unproductive.
Instead, understanding whiteness, our ancestors’ complicity in oppression, and our ongoing benefit from structural racism should spur our own consciousness and work. We must recognize our whiteness and reckon with it. We should try to understand how the benefits we gain flow directly from our ancestors’ freedom when others were enslaved, through the land our families may have gained when others were denied land or stripped of it, through the benefits our ancestors gained from social programs like the New Deal when others were denied them, through the college degrees our families may have been able to afford based on the wealth accumulated from these past benefits. We must realize that although not all white people gained access to these benefits equally, on average we gained them disproportionately to people of other races.
Whiteness is a social construct that has become a social reality that is freighted with negative meaning. If that bothers us white people, and it should, it is up to us to create a different narrative. We can contribute to an alternate narrative about whiteness: an antiracist whiteness. Antiracist whiteness is the story of John Brown, of Mickey Schwerner, of William Lloyd Garrison. Antiracist whiteness is the history of white co-conspirators who supported the Black freedom struggle from slavery through Jim Crow through the civil rights movement through today. Antiracist whiteness is white people working alongside Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color toward our collective liberation.
So if you are a white person uncomfortable with a mention of whiteness, I’d ask you to sit with that discomfort. Where does it come from? Is it because others think they know something about you based on your race? Or is it that, at a deep level, you too often act in ways that correspond with what people mean by whiteness? If so, let’s think together about how we can live into and co-create an alternate tradition of what whiteness is and could be. Let’s take action as our antiracist white forebears did: let us speak out, stand up, and act out alongside people of color in support of a society where all people of every race are protected, respected, and valued.
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