Whiteness Rooted in Place

Join a discussion this evening (Wednesday, February 16) at 7pm on Zoom of the Christian Century’s interview with Yale theologian Willie James Jennings about “Whiteness Rooted in Place.”

To join the meeting, follow this link:

Meeting ID: 872 5072 6410
Passcode: 556510

The link to the entire article in the magazine is here or you may read it in a Word document here. Below is an excerpt, Jennings’ answer to the first question, which we will focus on tonight:

You say that race was formed within Christian thought. What does it have to do with theology?

The modern vision of race would not be possible without Christianity. This is a complicated statement, but I want people to think about this.

Inside the modern racial consciousness there is a Christian architecture, and also there is a racial architecture inside of modern Christian existence. There are three things we have to put on the table in order to understand how deeply race is tied to Chris­tianity. The first brings us back to the very heart of Christianity, the very heart of the story that makes Christian life intelligible.

That story is simply this: through a particular people called Israel, God brought the redemption of the world. That people’s story becomes the means through which we understand who God is and what God has done. Christianity is inside Israel’s story. At a certain point in time, the people who began to believe that story were more than just the people of Israel, more than just Jews. And at some point in time, those new believers, the gentiles, got tired of being told that they were strangers brought into someone else’s story—that this was not their story. They began—very early and very clearly—to push Israel out from its own story. They narrated their Christian existence as if Israel were not crucial to it.

The fact that Christians came to identify themselves as the chosen people is already a profound distortion of the story. But this is where they are when we come to the colonial moment. They believe that they are at the very center of what God wants to do in the world. This belief is in everything they do and say: the way they read the Bible, the way they form their theology, the way they teach, the way they carry out their Christian lives.

As they begin to realize their power, they also realize the power to shape the perceptions of themselves and others. That is, they begin to understand that not only do they have the power to transform the landscape and the built environment, but they also have the power to force people into a different perception of the world and of themselves.

This is what we came to call European: the power to transform the land and the perception of the people. A racial vision started to emerge. It floated around in many places with many differences in body type, skin color, and so forth. It didn’t come out of nowhere. But now, inside this matrix, it starts to harden. It starts to become a way of perception, not simply of a conjecture. This is where Whiteness begins.

So unless you know that this is a Christian operation, you cannot grasp the absolute power of race to define existence right now, even when people move beyond that Christian matrix and say they don’t confess it or agree with it. They are still inside it. That’s my definition of Whiteness: it is a way of perceiving the world and organizing and ordering the world by the perception of one’s distorted place within it. But it is also more than a perception: Whiteness includes the power to place that perception on other people and to sustain it.