William, Whiteness, and I

This is an article I wrote to submit to The Mennonite. It did not get published. I figured I’d go ahead and post it here.

William Stringfellow did not consider himself a Mennonite. However it is well known he had many Anabaptist sympathies. He deserves a place in the collective history of Mennonites and Anabaptists. For those unfamiliar with Stringfellow, he was a white lawyer who moved to Harlem, New York in the 1960s as an advocate for minorities. Almost all of his written work is simultaneously autobiographical and theological. In other words, it is incarnational. In the tradition of Stringfellow, I hope to offer a simultaneously autobiographical and theological reflection on my own whiteness and how I must mentally and spiritually work with it.

I grew up in a small town in rural Ohio amidst a largely white population. Don’t get me wrong, there were a few non-white families…but they could be counted with fingers on one hand. Imaginably, I did not have much exposure to the rest of the world during my first 18 years of life. Thankfully, through the process of studying Church history, I discovered the empathy and inclusiveness of Anabaptists. I participated in an Urban Ministry program in Philadelphia during my freshman year of undergraduate studies. I learned, and am learning, a lot about the world, other people, and my own whiteness. In the learning process, the most important thing I must remember, and not be ashamed of, is: I don’t know as much as I think I do—a lesson which is part of the foundation for working with my whiteness.

There is nothing inherently wrong with being white. My whiteness does not make me less human or precious. Just as being a minority does not make someone less human or precious. We are all human. We are all caught up in a complex, interdependent world with problems and issues that extend deeper than our own individuality. In the words of Walter Wink, “we are not individuals but interbeings.” The color of my skin is not the issue. The problem is a sickness in the collective psyche of a largely white culture—lackluster empathy infused with a surge of apathy. Simply put: I will never be able to love my minority brothers and sisters if I think less of myself because of my whiteness.

One of the best ways to stave apathy is keeping attune to the experiences of my minority sisters and brothers. I ought to be open to conversation with them, and seek to be a person they can trust to converse about racial issues. I should learn to listen. William Stringfellow, in his book Count It All Joy, describes the sacredness of listening to another:

“Listening is a rare happening among human beings.  You cannot listen to the word another is speaking if you are preoccupied with your appearance or impressing the other, or if you are trying to decide what you are going to say when the other stops talking, or if you are debating about whether the word being spoken is true or relevant or agreeable…Listening, in other words, is a primitive act of love, in which a person gives self to another’s word, making self accessible and vulnerable to that word.”

In other words, listening to my sisters and brothers puts them before myself. I am duty-bound to seek comprehension of their experiences to the best of my ability. At the same time, I need to realize they are under no obligation to answer my questions, to agree to the difficult work of moving toward unity, or to trust me. I must make myself vulnerable, and face the possibility of being rejected by the other, who may have been hurt too many times by their own other.

I must not fear failure. As Stringfellow wrote, “biblical spirituality means powerlessness, living without embellishment or pretense, free to be faithful in the gospel, and free from anxiety about effectiveness or similar illusions of success.” Intercultural dialogue, communication, and community are difficult. They take a lot of energy. There are no guarantees they will work out well, or in the ways one expects. The hope is to succeed, but the underlying motivation is to keep trying even if failure rears its ugly head. The overall point is to love and unite with my brothers and sisters. If I don’t succeed the first time, the second, or the third, I must get up—after much reflection, wisdom seeking, and prayer.

Not fearing failure, I must also realize that there is a large possibility I could be wrong in my understanding of how to reconcile with my brothers and sisters. I ought to hold my tenets loosely so that I do not make them more important than the people I am trying to love. I should allow my brothers and sisters to guide me into their versions of reconciliation, so that I do not force my own ideals onto them. I must verbalize this desire explicitly and implicitly, so that others may know I value their thoughts, and so that I can be held accountable to this standard. If I enter into intercultural communication with the assumption (either conscious or unconscious) that I am always right about everything, communication will never truly happen.

If I do fail or become arrogant, the proper response is repentance via seeking reconciliation and forgiveness. I must not do this for the sake of my brothers and sisters but for myself. My brothers and sisters have no obligation to offer me forgiveness or seek to reconcile with me even after only a single offense. As Stringfellow wrote, “acceptance of another person is acceptance of the other as he is, without entailing any demands that he change in any empirical way.” I cannot force reconciliation on anyone. Dare I never think, though, that means I do not have an obligation and responsibility to attempt reconciliation. To think such a thing would be blasphemy.

Most importantly, I need to thrive on the fact that I have inherent value as a human being. To quote Stringfellow a final time,

“Now you can love. Love yourself. That is the rudiment of all other loves. Love yourself: that means your final acceptance of and active participation in God’s love of you. Love yourself. If you love yourself you will become and be one who can love another. Love yourself and then your love of others will be neither suicidal nor destructive, neither jealous nor possessive, but then your love of yourself will enable, embody, enrich, and elucidate your love of others, and your other loves will do the same to your self-love. And when you love others–tell them so–celebrate it–not only by some words but by your life toward them and toward the whole of the world. Your specific love of another is verified and supported in your love of all others and all things, even those that which seem to be unlovable, which seem unworthy to be loved. Let that be the manner of your witness to the One who loves all though none are worthy, not even one.”

If I cannot love myself by coming to terms with my own imperfections and complicity, I will never be able to fully love another. If I cannot move past white guilt, I will seek reconciliation for the wrong reason: making myself feel better. If I cannot see how valuable I am regardless of whether I ‘succeed’ or ‘fail,’ I will sink further into self-loathing when I believe I have failed. If I cannot find worth outside of my voice being heard, then fighting against racism may become more about being trendy (it’s rather trendy with us ‘social justice warriors!’) than about truly seeking the best for my minority brothers and sisters.

In summation, I have inherent value as a human being, and my response must be centered on repentance. There is a high probability of failure, implicit bias, and apathy. I must keep in mind that I am repenting not of my whiteness or skin color, but of those characteristics which do not adequately incarnate Christ in the world. I ought to remember that I am repenting of 1) apathy toward fellow people and 2) complicity to unjust systems. I have to recall that I am to work individually and collectively against this demon we know as racism—I am not in this alone. Ultimately, Christ is victorious. Christ’s victory permits me to love myself, and therefore to love others.

Some may think these convictions and this pursuit is extreme and placing too much responsibility on myself. Some may think that this is being overly sensitive to the needs and desires of minorities. In fact, I have heard such comments before. I disagree with that sentiment because minorities must accommodate to a primarily white culture every waking minute. The least we can do is seek to accommodate the predominant culture to others’. If we truly seek to love God, and therefore love our brothers and sisters, we should want to engage in intercultural dialogue, communication, and community—even if it is difficult and daunting.


Author: Jacob

Stumbling after Christ.

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