White supremacy culture is the idea (ideology) that white people and the ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions of white people are superior to People of Color and their ideas, thoughts, beliefs and actions. www.dismantlingracism.org
Dr. Tema Okun recently led a session on the culture of white supremacy as a part of the Conflict Conversations series at Duke Divinity School. Dr. Okun helped us consider how white supremacy is a part of the air that we breathe and the water that we swim in. White supremacy is deeply embedded in Western culture and all are affected by it.
In the culture of white supremacy, whiteness is valued, socially supported, and normative. Whiteness is the measuring stick held up against intelligence, beauty, ability, and power. In the question time after her talk, Dr. Okun told a story about the desegregation of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro city schools. In 1966, the new “Chapel Hill High School” was built on the outskirts of town to accommodate the new, desegregated student body.
Students came from the white high school, Chapel Hill High, and the black school, Lincoln High School to the new campus. The Lincoln High School football team had an extraordinary record. Lincoln High’s football team in 1961 won the state championship without a single point being scored against their team the entire year. That team averaged 40 points per game. At the new Chapel Hill High School, Lincoln’s trophies were thrown away.
Public education is but one venue were the culture of white supremacy has been ascendant. The Christian church has capitulated to, propped up, and participated in the lies of white supremacy. In The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, theologian Rev. Dr. Willie James Jennings traces the intertwining of Christian theology with the emerging social construct of “race.”
At dawn on August 8, 1444, Infante Henrique, Prince Henry of Portugal, the Navigator–sat on horseback at the port of Lagos patiently awaiting the disembarkation of cargo that had arrived from Cape Blanco . . . Once the slaves arrived at the field, Prince Henry, following his deepest Christian instincts, ordered a tithe be given to God through the church. Two black boys were given, one to the principal church in Lagos and another to the Franciscan convent on Cape Saint Vincent. (Jennings, The Christian Imagination, pp. 15-16.)
The twinned social constructs of race and white supremacy aided Christians in colonizing European countries (Portugal, Spain, Britain, The Netherlands, France, Belgium) to exploit native African peoples for economic gain. In order to ease conscience and justify oppression, Europeans with white skin became superior to Africans with black or brown skin. It is easier to sell someone legally defined as property rather than a child of God. It is much easier to brand, beat, and shackle someone you consider to be three-fifths human or a beast.
For centuries in the Christian West, we have believed the lie that people with white skin are superior to people with black or brown skin. We continue to believe the overt and covert lies of white supremacy where a certain color of skin is valued more than other colors of skin. The lies are embedded all around us, separating us from one another by denying the full humanity of people of color while inflating the humanity of Anglo & white. Dr. Okun spoke this refrain several times throughout her talk:
I do not say this to shame myself. I do not say this to blame myself. While I breathe the air of white supremacy and swim in its water, I am a good person as we are all good people. This is not about whether we are good or bad. This is about what we do with our conditioning, how we respond to the constant invitation that white supremacy extends to us.
I offer Dr. Okun’s refrain not as a comfort, but, as a challenge to white folk. Particularly to white, Christian folk. I was heartened to read of United Methodist men and women peacefully resisting planned white supremacist rallies in Murfreesboro and Shelbyville, Tennessee. Our own North Carolina Conference, following the leadership of our bishop, Hope Morgan Ward, is confronting racism in vigorous ways. I am a part of a Dismantling Racism team in the Corridor District.
There still is much work to be done. Can we move through the shaming and blaming to more constructive postures of reflection and action? I want to end this blog post with some of Dr. Okun’s ending words. She calls us to turn towards each other rather than away from each other.
I believe this call to wholeness, to an ethos of us-ness, offers the energy and aliveness and possibility of this moment. I believe this call to wholeness is a call to a belonging that refuses the isolation of white supremacy, a belonging that allows us to love each other, be angry and happy and nervous and excited and fearful and joyful with each other sincerely and authentically. I believe this call to wholeness is a call to action, a call to act collaboratively, with accountability to each other that is the measure of authentic belonging.
This will require a courage to speak the truth to each other and to ourselves in a deep belief that we are all literally dying for that truth. This will require an ability to feel with each other rather than for each other. We will make many mistakes along the way and we will be afraid and we will falter. But the alternative, the failure to even try, will, I fear, be fatal.