THE GREAT WHITE ASSUMPTION
The school bell rang. A steady stream of Filipino students flooded the elementary school yard and flowed to the entrance where parents and grandparents were waiting to walk home. And in the middle of this daily exodus were two white dots—me and Jake, my older brother. Many of our friends had never seen a white kid. I hadn’t either (I’ll explain in a minute). So their curiosity compelled them to poke our pale skin and pull our blonde hair.
I loved it.
Jake hated it.
Both of us got used to it.
I’M WHITE, WHO KNEW?
During my family’s two years in the Philippines I found out I was white. In fact, in the Philippines I was formally introduced to the big ideas of race and culture. Up until that point I hadn’t met any white people; I just called they “people". You see, since I was born in a small town three hours to the left of Chicago race was not much of a conversation. Everyone was basically the same—not just white but the same kind of white. (You know what I mean … don’t you?) Since my family and I moved to the Philippines before I turned six, I wasn’t afforded much of an opportunity, nor perhaps had matured to a level to engage with such graduated themes of ethnicity and social constructs.
Well, that’s exactly what I want to talk about. The very fact I didn’t have to consider the color of my skin before my sixth birthday is of significant note. The very fact my introduction to my whiteness happened in another country is of note. The very fact that conversations on race can be reserved for later years is of note. So, let’s talk about what I’ll just call the great white assumption.
I am white. My pigmentation is a result of my family’s origins in Germany, Scotland, and more than likely a few other European countries. However like many white people my understanding, let alone my personal identification with those nationalities is trivial at best. In other words, I don’t think about my race and nationality as any particular brand of European. I think of myself as American. And as an American my more immediate and relevant cultural identification has to do with states, not countries. When I think about what it is to me, I think of a blend of California, Illinois, Mississippi, and a dash of Michigan (by marriage). That is to say when I think about culture it has very little to do with the color of my skin, the country my ancestors called “home”, or even a whole country. Culture to me is a contextualized family narrative bound by about five generations and four states.
All of this has led me and many other fellow white people to presume we are absent of a unique culture. After all, we feel void of a national context before July 4, 1776. Our sense of cultural neutrality has led to a self-concept of neutrality. In other words most of us white folks don’t think we are white or do white things or have white friends or shop at white stores or eat white food or live in white neighborhoods or wear white clothes or go to white schools or belong to white churches or say white things; rather like me at five years old we just think we are people who do human things—perhaps only distinguished by our states. This is the heart of our assumption. We just think we’re “normal"—not white—and free of culture presupposition and behaviors.
A DENIABLE (YET UNDENIABLE) FORCE
Recently I heard Andy Crouch—a great thinker and writer on the subject of culture—say that culture can be like a tailwind on a bike ride. When you’re going with the wind you feel nothing. However when you are going against the wind, it slows you down without equivocation. Are you with me?
Shots keep ringing. A steady stream of unarmed black men being wounded or killed are flooding cable news outlets and social media steams. And in the middle of the lament and cries for justice there are many white dots. I have felt caught up within the flow of this defining moment in our country’s history. In response to such news and the subsequent themes of social conversion I have sense a natural defensiveness well up within me. And I have a suspicion I'm not the only white person that feel this way. Our collective ethnically absent response has been “why do they keep making everything about race?” (Whoever “they” might be.) We just see people we suppose are bad (who mostly all happen to be black) probably doing something bad and probably hanging with the wrong crowd (other black people) and getting shot by police officers (who mostly happen to be white). Then in our own defense, when faced with pushback we often say we’re just being colorblind (as if not seeing color is a universally accepted virtue), rather than a result of failing to consider our own ethnic identity beyond the Civil War.
Still with me?
The Apostle Paul wrote a letter to a collection of churches in the first century city of Ephesus. Among many things local congregations were wrestling through at the time, Paul focuses on clarifying the doctrine of corporate reconciliation between new multiethnic members. In particular the second chapter emphasizes the work of the gospel to bring natural ethnic enemies—Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews)—together and making them family. Paul writes, “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Ephesians 2:14-16).* In this short except Paul acknowledges the contention race historically carved in the hearts of Jews and Gentiles. However the good news laced within his words is that the hostility has been swallowed up by the peace of Christ. Jesus does this great work of peace by making one new man out of the two. In other words a new identity can be shared by any and every nationality. And this new culture is superior to every ethnic classification because it has been forged by the gospel. In particular circumcision is no longer the primary marker of being “the people of God,” rather God’s people will now be marked by Christ and a circumcision of the heart (Romans 2:29).
HARMONIZING ETHNIC CULTURE AND GOSPEL CULTURE
Many times this passage (and others) is used by Christians when considering the theme of racial reconciliation. And I believe it is very good to do so. A new man or people who is known and loved and informed by something deeper than ethnicity is born again in Christ and therefore joined together with other brothers and sisters of every tribe, tongue, and nation. This is good news that all humanity can be one in Christ!
From this theological conviction however many white Christians wrongly use this gospel logic to encourage, if not demand minority people to lay aside their racial and ethnic conversations and plights altogether for the sake of this new deeper identity. The problem is most white Christians have failed to admit their own ethnic identity along the way. Korie L. Edwards in her profoundly helpful book, The Elusive Dream writes, “It is a lack of racial consciousness. Whites are unaware that their race has consequences for their lives. They perceive themselves as cultureless and racial minority groups as possessing distinctive cultural practices. Consequently, it is difficult for whites to explain what it means to be white.”* Therefore the great white assumption leads to a failure to admit our own cultural presumptions and habits. So whether directly or indirectly many minority brothers and sisters hear this interpretation of Paul’s words as white Christian calling all believers to a spiritual culture baptized in, defined by, and syncretized with white culture. It is a joy to move our ethnic culture to a secondary position when we become “one new man” in Christ. Yet if we have failed to admit we even have an ethnic culture when we become Christians our culture can easily remain primary or the wrongly assumed norm. In other words, we white Christians have not done what we are demanding every other race do when they come to Jesus.
Case and point is the Black Lives Matter movement. The white response was to retort, “All Lives Matter”. Much of the white American church responded favorable to this seemingly “one new man” slogan. After all, all lives matter right? Yes, of course they do. And that is precisely why the BLM movement started. Because even though all lives matter, black lives were (and continue) being treated as if they did not matter the same. What’s more, many if not most white churches in America have yet to address this movement or any form of racial injustice at all from their pulpits. You see, when we have failed to admit we have a culture or race or ethic identity beyond our own short history as a nation, then every time someone who doesn’t look like us brings it up we think they are being un-American; or within the context of the Church, un-Christian. They haven’t moved their race to a secondary position. This is precisely why Paul wrote these words in Ephesians and precisely why race is a gospel issue before it is anything else.
WHEN WE CONSIDER RACE
The good news is that we can become one in Christ. Every tribe, every tongue, every nation, every people group, from every country and ethnic heritage can become family through the work of Jesus. Jesus champions our collective cause by nailing the sin and shame of humanity on the cross. In doing so he killed the hostility that divided us. That means before we can fully enjoy the peace found in our new identity in Christ, we must admit, lament, repent of, and deal with the distinctiveness that drove us away from God and apart from each other in the first place.
For most races and ethnicities this hostility is obvious. Therefore at a very young age minority people groups are forced to consider their ethic story and the cultural lens by which they see the world and are seen by the world. They are going against the wind. So what must we—those who have the luxury of waiting until after our fifth birthdays to acknowledge our race and culture—do in order to appropriately acknowledge that the wind is at our backs? What would it look like to surrender our defensiveness and listen? What could become of our cities if we withheld judgment of others long enough to see (as much as we could) from their vantage point? What if we listened long enough to actually hear their whole story? Well, this is the road I think God has had me on since I moved to Chicago three years ago. And now I simply want to invite you on this journey. After all, it is a journey I am far from completing.
So … are you still with me?
Further Reading on the Good News and Race ...
- Edwards, Korie L, "The Elusive Dream" (Oxford University Press, 2008)*
- Emerson, Michael O., "Divided By Faith" (Oxford University Press, 2001)
- DeYmaz, Mark, "Building a Healthy Multiethnic Church" (Jossey-Baas, 2007)
- Loritts, Bryan, "Right Color, Wrong Culture" (Moody Publishers, 2014)
- Various, "Letters to a Birmingham Jail" (Moody Publishers, 2014)
- Hill, Daniel, “White Awake” (InterVarsity Press, 2017)