Wednesday, April 27, 2011

White Like Me

As I dig into the reading for the second of my upcoming doctoral classes, I find myself doing so with a tiny bit of trepidation.  The course I'll be taking is on Leadership and Diversity, and to be frank, I'm a tick concerned.  Not with the relevance or importance of diversity within the church.  Not at all.  Congregations that are monocultures tend to be drab and authoritarian, and poor reflections of Christ's command to really love those who aren't you.  I'm both tolerant of and can enjoy difference, in both form, organizational culture and theology, so long as that difference doesn't include fundamental violations of the Great Commandment.  That tends to trouble me.

What makes me a bit leery is my fear that this course will make me...once again...feel like a conservative.  I'm not, of course.  Open and inclusive?  Yup.  Affirming of women?  Eco-friendly?  Uh huh.  But there are strains of academic leftism that leave me gnashing my teeth.  Things can get so monomanaically focused on race and gender that the central message of the Gospel...and of theology itself...seems to fade away into nothing.  This bugs me, for some reason.

So diving into this class, I hit the book that I could tell would annoy me the most first.  Just to get it out the way, if you will.  The book is White Like Me, by antiracism activist Tim Wise.  As a Honkey-American, I could just smell how difficult it would be to read, and I wasn't mistaken.

The entire book is a screed against white privilege, by which Wise means the inherent advantage that individuals of European background have in the United States.  It's not an imaginary thing, of course.  Being "white" often means being materially advantaged, particularly in the American South.  It also means that you pretty much never need to work against the specter of racism in day-to-day life.  There is no such thing as Driving While White, for instance.    We are not yet a truly post-racial culture.

But for all of the ways in which race needs to be challenged as a way in which we value one another, I found Wise's critique off.

His tendency to see race as primarily black and white was understandable given his life in New Orleans...but that is no longer the reality of race in America.  Racial dynamics in this country now include growing Latino and Asian communities, as well as communities of African, Afro-Caribbean, and Middle Eastern immigrants.  He sorta kinda gets at the multivalent character of ethnicity in 21st century America, but only sorta kinda.  It feels dated.

Wise also seems so focused on race that he's oblivious to class.  "Privilege" in our culture is often mediated by race, but it is also profoundly mediated by socioeconomic status.  While my WASPiness has certainly conferred advantage, what's more significant is that 1) I come from a stable extended family unit, 2) both of my parents have graduate degrees, 3) both parents were engaged and interested in my education and upbringing, and 4) money was never a significant worry for my family when I was growing up.  For all of our proclamations about social mobility, class divisions are self-perpetuating, creating cultures that reinforce status and privilege.  There is often a magnifying interplay between ethnicity and socioeconomics...but Wise just doesn't seem to get it, or glosses over it.

But my biggest struggle reading Wise is that he comes across as profoundly graceless.  Maybe it was that the last book I read was Martin Luther King, Jr.'s reflections on the bus boycott in Montgomery.  Dr. King's measured, intelligent, gracious, and faith-centered tone was nowhere to be found in White Like Me.  Wise is all leftist truculence, snarky, personal, and bitter.  He's all rage, all the time.  The world is full of idiots, none of whom see how racist they all are.  Conservatives and moderates and liberals who don't share his rage are all equally useless.

As, frankly, are the ethical teachings of Christianity.  In one of the few sections where he overtly mentions faith, he describes a fight he's picked with some Christians over the depiction of Jesus as white.  When they try to say that color doesn't matter, he lays into them...and then lays into their assertion that faith leads people to try to transcend race.   "I mean, the Golden Rule has been around for like, forever, and hasn't done much of anything to get rid of racism," he snarks.

Having just read...from the source...how profoundly Dr. King's Christian faith and the faith of the African Americans in the Civil Rights Movement influenced their actions, and how that very ethic was the foundation of King's understanding of what he did, it's clear that Wise doesn't have a clue what he's talking about when it comes to Jesus and race.

It's good to have him out of the way, then.  The other books look considerably more relevant.

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