5.4 | whiteness is the problem
V | CRITICAL RACE THEORY
Where did racism begin? CRT teaches that the concept of race was created by white people in Europe for the express purpose of oppressing non-white people. Critical scholars tell us that the origin of the concept of race began in Europe around the 16th century.(1)
This is difficult to believe. In fact, a casual glance at pre-European history shows us that the concept of race is prevalent throughout the ancient world, long before the modern definition of “white people” and certainly before the 16th century. Homer talks about skin color in both The Iliad and The Odyssey. In Herodotus’ Histories, the Athenians tell the Spartans that they will never betray them because they are like siblings – they have a common religion and the same way of life. In modern times, these things are considered key components of ethnicity and identity. Plutarch discusses ethnicity, race and gender in his Parallel Lives. Ancient art from all over the world shows interest in and engagement with the diverse range of human experience. The Bible itself speaks of race, whether that’s Moses’ wife Zipporah – who was Ethiopian - or that in Christ there are “neither Jews nor Greeks” (Galatians 3:28).
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As far as we can know, there has never been a time in world history where race, ethnicity and all kinds of social strata have not been discussed. Humans and the human experience have always been varied and unique. The exploration of the uniqueness of individual and group experience – racial or otherwise – didn’t begin in the 16th century. It has been a part of human experience since the beginning of time. History, biology and even Scripture show us that race is a purely social construct. CRT actually has that right. But who shoulders the blame for the construct of race? White people? Every human being ever? Somewhere in between?
One of the focuses of CRT is to problematize. A “problematic” is something that is potentially upholding, producing, reproducing, justifying, or legitimating any form of systemic dominance or oppression, such as racism, sexism, misogyny, ableism/disablism, fatphobia, homophobia, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, transphobia, or the inequitable status quo. Identifying a problematic is done through critical methods including highly interpretive and subjective ones that look for problematics where there may not be any. This is known as “problematizing” – finding ways the system is imperfect and making noise about them (1, 2).
In CT, truth is subjective. If a person is in an oppressed group and they define something as a problematic, then their definition must be taken as truth. They, as a member of an oppressed group get to define what is or isn’t oppression. There is no objective truth. It's the word of the oppressor against the oppressed. When the oppressor says that something isn’t oppressive, they’re trying to maintain their dominance by lying or they are unaware of the oppression they partake in, consciously or subconsciously. In Critical Theory, if an oppressed group self-identifies something as a problematic, it is the truth. How can we know it's true? Because it makes a person in an oppressed group feeloppressed. Facts, contexts and intentions are trivial compared to the feelings of those who see themselves as oppressed.
Calling something a problematic is a way to say that something is oppressive without using the word “oppression.”
CT tells us that we need to identify things as problematic and fix the problem by practicing DEI. Although CRT is a theory on race, it’s framework is not limited to race. Therefore, practicing DEI is something we must do when confronting anything problematic, or oppressive. CRT is the toolbox, DEI are the tools.
In 2019, Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens published a report, “The Cat Is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books.” In their words:
“[This study reveals] how racism spans across the entire Seuss collection, while debunking myths about how books like Horton Hears a Who! and The Sneetches can be used to promote tolerance, anti-bias, or anti-racism. Findings from this study promote awareness of the racist narratives and images in Dr. Seuss’ children’s books and implications to the formation and reinforcement of racial biases in children...Notably, every character of color is male. Males of color are only presented in subservient, exotified, or dehumanized roles...This also remains true in their relation to White characters. Most startling is the complete invisibility and absence of women and girls of color across Seuss’ entire children’s book collection.”
This report, and feedback attached to it, led Dr. Seuss Enterprises to stop publishing six books identified by the authors. The company stated that they “listened and took feedback from our audiences including teachers, academics and specialists in the field as part of our review process. We then worked with a panel of experts, including educators, to review our catalog of titles.” (1)
Many school districts, as well as the National Education Association, have distanced themselves in recent years from Dr. Seuss and his works. Dr. Seuss was once praised for the positive value in his writing, including environmentalism and tolerance. His writing is now considered to have problematic, oppressive, and discriminatory undertones. Dr. Seuss Enterprises went on to state that they are “committed to listening and learning and will continue to review our entire portfolio.” They have elected to continue publishing The Cat in the Hat despite some of that book’s problematics. And Dr. Seuss isn’t the only author to face criticism. In the UK, Babar the Elephant has come to represent colonialism and has been removed from certain libraries. Curious George and Little House on the Prairiehave also been identified as problematic.
This isn’t about the merits of Dr. Seuss or any other author. My intention is to paint a picture of how problematizing works. Dr. Seuss has been called an “unconscious racist,” as if he didn’t even know himself that he was racist. How is this possible? Whiteness. He’s white, so of course he is a racist according to Critical Theory. You’ll see in this chapter how in CRT all white people are considered racist. Remember the definition of Critical Race Theory according to UCLA? “The individual [oppressor] need not exist to note that institutional [oppression] is pervasive in the dominant culture.” We can take this to mean that even if Dr. Seuss wasn’t a racist, or was himself an antiracist, his books can still be oppressive and problematic. Because he is white, he operates with internalized dominance and is oppressive subconsciously.
Let’s revisit cheese fries and salad one last time. To problematize as a cheese fry person is to make clear all the ways that “nutrition” is oppressive and reform what nutrition means so that we don’t feel oppressed when we eat cheese fries. Calories are problematic, so we shouldn’t use those or mention those. Everyone has a different metabolic rate, and establishing an arbitrary number of calories to eat is oppressive to those who need more than 2,000 calories in a day. Simple carbs and saturated fats aren’t bad. Those are just scary words people use to describe the same thing. A carb is a carb. A fat is a fat. We must remove things that cheese fry people see as problematic. Salad is coming off the menu forever. This is how CRT works.
why white people are so problematic
The most frequently identified problematic group is white people. CRT identifies several things attached to “whiteness,” but a few I want to mention specifically.
The first is whiteness.
The organization Educate Not Indoctrinate defines whiteness as “a socially created ‘racial’ group who historically and currently receive the benefits of racism in the United States. The category includes all the different ethnic groups of European origin, regardless of differences in their histories, ethnicities, or cultures.” (2)
In How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi says this:
Some White people do not identify as White for the same reason they identify as not-racist: to avoid reckoning with the ways that Whiteness—even as a construction and mirage—has informed their notions of America and identity and offered them privilege, the primary one being the privilege of being inherently normal, standard, and legal. It is a racial crime to be yourself if you are not White in America. It is a racial crime to look like yourself or empower yourself if you are not White. (Kendi 2019, 38)
For CRT, whiteness represents more than just the color of skin a person has. It represents a socially constructed system of power that is selfish and only interested in creating and maintaining privilege and dominance across all of society. Whiteness is the foundation of oppression in the Western world.
According to this view, white people are guilty of whiteness from birth. But whiteness isn’t solely limited to white people. People of color can also subscribe to, support, maintain, or legitimize whiteness by adopting “white supremacist” attitudes and “white” ways of doing things. Such people are frequently accused of white supremacy, internalized racism, acting white, white adjacency, being a race traitor or seeking white approval. As a result of the deceit of whiteness, both people of color and white people especially are expected to commit to the “lifelong process” of antiracism and become an “ally” to those who belong to groups oppressed by whiteness.
The second is white privilege.
Peggy McIntosh popularized this term in her article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” She says she had “come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.”
White privilege is considered to be the unearned and unquestioned set of advantages and benefits that white people possess based solely on their skin color. Generally, white people who experience white privilege do so without being conscious of it.
The third is white supremacy.
“When we use the term White supremacy, we are not referring to extreme hate groups or 'bad racists.’ We use the term to capture the all-encompassing dimensions of White privilege, dominance, and assumed superiority in mainstream society” (Sensoy and DiAngelo 2017, 143).
When most of us hear “white supremacy,” we think of the KKK or neo-Nazis. Sensoy and DiAngelo state specifically that they do not mean this “lay usage” of the term. White supremacy means any belief, behavior, or system that supports, promotes, or enhances white privilege. All white people, as well as anyone who chooses to disagree with CT, critical justice and CRT, are considered white supremacists.
The fourth is white complicity.
White complicity is the idea that all white people, regardless of their intentions, are complicit in racism and white supremacy and thus bear some responsibility for it.
The fifth is white equilibrium.
“White equilibrium is a cocoon of racial comfort, centrality, superiority, entitlement, racial apathy, and obliviousness, all rooted in an identity of being good people free of racism. Challenging this cocoon throws off our racial balance. Because being racially off balance is so rare, we have not had to build the capacity to sustain the discomfort. Thus, whites find these challenges unbearable and want them to stop.” (DiAngelo, 2019, 112)
White privilege has rendered the “racial stress” that white people can endure very narrow. Therefore, white people are often upset when critical justice, CRT or antiracism concepts are applied to them. CT asserts that any frustration white people have is not because the concepts are wrong or unjust but because white people cannot imagine a world without white privilege. As a result, white equilibrium is something that white people work together to maintain for themselves as an identity group.
The sixth is white fragility.
Robin DiAngelo describes white fragility in her book of the same name:
“The state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves [in white people]. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium. Racial stress results from an interruption to what is racially familiar.” (DiAngelo 2019, 103)
White fragility is both the inability and the unwillingness of white people to talk about race. This inability is due to pressure by a combination of whiteness, white supremacy, white complicity, white privilege and white equilibrium. White fragility manifests when white people, after being accused of racism, exhibit negative emotional reactions or disengage. Instead, what white people should do is both agree with and adopt the CT worldview and CRT framework. At least, this is according to critical theorists.
Why are we going to so much effort with these definitions? Because CRT identifies white people and whiteness as the primary cause of oppression. Ibram X. Kendi calls racism the “original sin.” CRT tells us that white people haven’t just created some isolated systems of oppression. White people have created the entire system, and the entire system is oppressive. White people created society as we know it, and they also created racism, sexism and every other ism and form of oppression.
Can we really generalize and stereotype this much? Do all people of one skin color really have an agenda for worldwide dominance that has played out for hundreds, even thousands, of years? If white people created the concept of race, are we solving the problem by continuing to define them – or anyone else – based on their “race”? If white people created the problem when they stratified society across groups, should we continue to do the same thing? Is the color of someone’s skin really the proof of their complicity in evil? Do we believe that the skin color of a person is proof of the content of their character? Are white people truly incapable of righteous racial action? By the same token, do we believe that people of color or people who are oppressed are incapable of unrighteous actions? Does the color of someone’s skin prevent them from being party to evil? CRT would vehemently say yes to all these questions. Would you?
The idea of whiteness is not the main issue I’m getting at. Whiteness is representative of a larger issue in CRT: the issue of communal guilt. CRT asserts that groups share guilt regardless of individual actions. So by being white, a person is complicit, regardless of their actions, because all white people are guilty. Many Christians will support this idea through the biblical concept of generational sin. Scripture has many references to children being punished for the “sins of their fathers.” There is often heated disagreement on this topic, even within the Church.
In most passages that mention generational punishment, it is clearly a specific punishment, to a specific people, for a specific sin. The people of Israel decided to worship other gods, and God promised to punish them generationally for their violation of the first commandment (Exodus 20:5; 34:7; Numbers 14:18; Deuteronomy 5:9; Judges 3:7-15; 1 Samuel 12:10-11; Exodus 20:6). In recent times, this concept has been extended to the idea of oppression and racism. Latasha Morrison, in her book Be the Bridge, states, “The church will not be a leading example in racial healing until we feel the weight of communal guilt and shame and then allow it to push us into the truth” (Morrison 2019, 77-78).
Communal guilt may be real, just as it was real in Scripture. Again, however, we find ourselves at a crossroads. CRT proposes reparations of all kinds, as well as communal shame and public self-flagellation for the oppressor. Kingdom tells us that we can be a new creation in Christ. If we are a new creation, we cannot be subject to generational punishments. In fact, Romans 14 tells us that we will all give an account of our own personal sins. Not the sins of others. Yes, our individual wickedness may be magnified by a group we belong to. But when we decide to let Jesus give us a new heart, we can stop being wicked. Paul defies the concept of communal guilt in 2 Corinthians 5:10: “For we must all stand before Christ to be judged. We will each receive whatever we deserve for the good or evil we have done in this earthly body.” In the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 24:16 says, “Parents must not be put to death for the sins of their children, nor children for the sins of their parents. Those deserving to die must be put to death for their own crimes.” The assertion that communal guilt is biblical is shaky at best. Without question, the New Testament focuses on personal forgiveness of personal sin through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. To assert communal guilt, we may also have to assert communal salvation, which would require us to abandon the Gospel of Jesus.
The Kingdom says the problem is in each individual’s heart, regardless of their skin color. White people aren’t the only evil walking this planet. All people are evil. The only solution to that is each one of us having a personal experience with Jesus. The experience is one of grace, mercy and forgiveness. After this experience, we are equipped to live a better life, make better decisions and act less wickedly. We will still make mistakes, but we can independently seek forgiveness and grace for each sin we commit.
CRT says that oppressed groups and their members are virtuous and oppressor groups and their members aren’t. There’s nothing to do for the oppressor except lament, apologize and atone through a consequence to be determined by those you have oppressed.
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