Naming White Supremacy
Recently one of my nieces told her mother in no uncertain terms that she was quite sure that God was white, like her. Her mom (who is the best mother I know), was mortified, pulled the car over to chat with her daughter about why she might think this thing (spoiler: she saw a picture in a book and abstract thinking is tough for a 5 year old). But honestly, my thought when I heard that story was that I was so impressed that my beautiful and brilliant niece was thinking about what color God was at all. Her parents have talked to her about these things, and she is trying really, really hard to understand what they mean. I can promise that when I was 5 I was not wondering if God was white – I just assumed he was.
I grew up in churches that were extremely white. I feel like I am only barely now at 34 beginning to unspool what that meant. I know it was more than being surrounded by white people, although I certainly was. The only people of color I remember attending any church I went to when I was young were a scattering of adopted children whose experiences I cannot begin to comprehend. But it was more than that. It was the values, the beliefs. The idea that Jesus longed for us all to live in an affluent suburb with our appropriate nuclear families, with the middle class values that came with this country God had gifted us. Not just middle class, but WHITE middle class, the word no one ever said that was always there.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how we thought about race when I was growing up, or the ways we avoided thinking about it. Everything we accepted and everything we didn’t. I didn’t know anyone who was OVERTLY racist in the way I thought of it at the time. I would have been horrified to hear someone use a racial slur. But I’ll tell you that at some point when I was in high school my friends were talking about what would happen if they were to bring home a boyfriend who was not white. They had different guesses as to what their parents would do. I remember very clearly that I was troubled. I was pretty sure my parents wouldn’t care? They had certainly never said anything to indicate they would be bothered. And yet, no one in my family ever had. And I never did feel like I could be certain. But I knew that asking them would upset them. ASKING them would be the same as asking if they were racist.
There are a lot of known “conflicts” in white church. Things that people who grow up there are just aware of. Some people think that women shouldn’t be allowed to be pastors. Or be in leadership at all. Isn’t that funny? Some people interpret the Bible to believe that men and women just aren’t equal as humans, but they get upset if you say it like that. More of a “different roles” situation. And, for the most part, Christians accept this. There is a sort-of shrugging and things are said like “well, everyone interprets things differently.” (Of course, if you interpret things to mean that LGBTQ people might not be sinning, then you are a heretic but let’s not quibble over details.)
There’s another one that almost everyone knows, although how much you ran into it directly probably depended on your church. It’s a conflict over music. It takes a bunch of different forms. Are drums okay in worship (or modern music at all)? How does God feel about rock music? Is dancing evil? It seems silly, and in a lot of ways it is. People fight about all kinds of nonsense. But there’s something about this one that deserves to be pointed out – it’s crazy racist.
Again, you may or may not know this depending on how much actual contact you had with it. But the general assertion with the vast majority of these theories is that there is something about the beat that is dangerous. It’s basically a magical theory, although they dress it up with “science” that is about as reliable as phrenology (and similar as far as outcomes!). You see, it turns out that certain rhythms mess with your body, your biorhythms, your heart, whatever it may be. When these dangerous rhythms are allowed to do this, you are more easily manipulated, Satan can enter you, demons can influence you, you are farther from God. Part of the reasoning used for this is that these same rhythms, drums, etc., have been used by tribes in all kinds of parts of the world, particularly in shamanic rituals, which are obviously satanic…
Anyone seeing the problem here?
Drums, rhythm, all of these things are tied to black people (or to other minorities, Native Americans are another common target), whereas the heavenly, godly music is tied to white people. Of course God gave us music, but unfortunately he only gave the pale people the righteous stuff.
To be clear, I never believed this growing up. Neither did anyone in my family. We went to a pretty basic evangelical church, nothing too crazy by many people’s standards. And yet my brothers watched a video in church when they were in junior high called Hell’s Bells that was about this exact theory. I certainly don’t remember a time when I wasn’t AWARE that this was a thing, even if I never believed it. And that is part of what is most telling to me. My parents think things like that are silly, they don’t tend towards concerns about the demonic – that isn’t really their vice. They weren’t super concerned that any of the 80’s cartoons were Satanic either. But if someone believed that, there was no consequence for it. They had just “interpreted something a different way.” Sure, it was kind-of silly. But it wasn’t damaging. There was nothing inherently problematic about it. And why should there be? My parents might not believe that drums could destroy your soul, but they certainly believed that tribal cultures had been “savage” and “godless” and that we had saved them. This theory was a harmless misinterpretation of the truth.
What I see more clearly as an adult is how powerful the system was. There was only so much that we were allowed to say and a great deal more we were not, and none of that was random. It was not random that we did not say the word “white” but we said “black”. It was not random which interpretations were within the margins of error and which were dangerous. We made a god in our own image, and He was White. He cared about all of the values we cared about, and all of the things that made up the construct of whiteness that we weren’t even allowed to name. I think my niece has more of this figured out at 5 than I have at 34. I hope that is a sign of what’s coming.
These same types of blind spots can play out with regards to gender and sexuality, and I’m going to try to write about them another time. But I’m starting with race for a reason. The White Evangelical American church has loudly and virulently set itself in opposition to things like abortion and the LGBTQ movement. But what they are not saying is more powerful than what they are. Race is connected to a story they are telling themselves. A story about how God gave them this country, how they are Chosen and loved, how they are Good. It is awkward to say that God gave you a country that you claimed by committing genocide (even if there is more than one Old Testament example of God doing exactly that). It doesn’t fit the narrative. Just like it doesn’t fit to say that you built that country on the backs of slaves, that the belief in the love of God simply did not translate to people who did not look like you. It is no accident, the things we say and the things we don’t. It is also no accident that 80% of white evangelicals voted for Trump this last election, and it is closely related. Though many of them may have said it was about abortion, the fact that they were able to close their eyes to the race and gender implications of a Donald Trump presidency says plenty about the path they’ve chosen.
Naming things makes them real. Silencing them makes them splinter and warp. I’m not sure there’s a way forward for the American evangelical church. I’m not sure it is redeemable, in whatever current way I think of that word (I’m not going to lie, I have a hard time moving past that 80% and what it represents). But I think that people are. It is not too late to name what is true. In Madeleine L’Engle’s second Wrinkle in Time book (quick plug: everyone go see the movie) – A Wind in the Door – Meg is asked to name people. The act of Naming is a powerful act, one that shows love, one that proves you truly Know someone. It can hurt, the way love can, but it is important. It’s time to name. Those of us white kids who were raised in this, whether we still believe it or not, it matters that we name the water we swam in and the impact it had on us. We learned lessons about ourselves, about who we are in the world, about who deserved what. It’s time to Name those things, it’s time to Know them, to Know ourselves. We were a part of perpetuating a white supremacist system, and even if we had no choice about being born into it, we have a choice with what we do now. So take a risk. Risk awkwardness, risk fucking up, risk looking foolish. When someone says the fucked up thing to you, ask them what they mean, make them say it. For those of us not as fortunate as my niece to start learning vocabulary at 5, we’ve got some catching up to do. That’s okay. Learning is a lifelong process for all of us. We just need to be brave and get going.