I hate to break promises! Well, perhaps, I’m not breaking my promise. I’m just not able to fulfill it to the degree I had hoped. In the previous post “Race, Gender, and Identity…Oh My,” I promised to reflect next on Willie Jennings, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (Eerdmans, 2020). I re-read the book this morning—It’s only 115 pages long—and I came away a second time with that I-don’t-get-it feeling. In part, it’s that perplexity I want to explore in this essay.
At present, Jennings is an associate professor of theology and Africana studies at Yale University. He also taught at Duke University Divinity School and served as an associate dean while at Duke. His latest book focuses on theological education at seminaries and divinity schools. As someone who has written several books and hundreds of essays, I understand an author’s and a publisher’s desire to select a title that is both descriptive and provocative. Authors want to be read and publishers want to make money. “After Whiteness” is provocative.
Jennings lets us know in the Preface that “whiteness” is not completely synonymous with being white. For Jennings, whiteness is an ideal image of a fully developed human being constructed by Europeans over centuries. This ideal is embodied in the individual white male who has mastered himself and others (especially white females and all non-white people) through scientific reason and technology. He is self-sufficient, analytical, heterosexual, and individualistic, and he objectivizes everything and everyone. According to Jennings, this ideal human being serves as a mold into which Western education—specifically Western theological education—attempts to squeeze everyone. Switching metaphors, the theological school is Procrustean bed in which those who do not naturally fit—women and people of color—are trimmed and shaped according to the ideal pattern. Note the violence in the language. Those for whom whiteness is simply the truth view this educational process as civilizing, uplifting, and empowering.
When I say of Jennings’s book “I don’t get it,” I do not mean that I disagree with him. In fact, I’ve long resisted the ideal he describes as “whiteness,” and I think theological education is long overdue for a radical reformation. I hope to voice my critique of the state of theological education in future essays. What I mean by “I don’t get it” is that Jennings presents his critique and offers his vision as a series of extended metaphors and vignettes. They convey a mood and articulate feelings, but I don’t see a clear vision of the new community of belonging of which Jennings dreams. The book’s subtitle indicates that Jennings’s alternative to whiteness is belonging. From what I read in the book, this community of belonging will be founded on a decision for mutual acceptance of everyone’s identity, their experience, and their stories. What I don’t get is how this book, with its metaphors and stories, offers a critique of “whiteness” (as defined by Jennings) that meets whiteness on its own turf and demonstrates its theological and ethical weaknesses. Perhaps my assessment on this score says as much about me as it does about Jennings. After all, to meet whiteness on its own turf and use its own weapons against it would be to grant it a kind of legitimacy.
I wondered briefly why Jennings used the term “whiteness” in his title only to explain in the Preface that he did not mean “white people.” It’s an eye-catching title, to be sure, and publishers love that sort of thing. But is there more to it? To use the term “whiteness” to describe the Western rational and scientific approach to education, whatever the term’s descriptive truth, seems to me akin to Ibram Kendi’s use of the terms “racism” and “racist” to designate those who decline to support his political policies. That is to say, it tars those who support traditional Western theological education with a term loaded with negative moral implications. Those who support traditional Western theological education, consciously or unconsciously, support whiteness. And surely no one who supports whiteness, with its oblique connection to white supremacy and white privilege, can be a good person.
What I longed to hear but did not was a critique of “whiteness” from a deeply Christian perspective, a stance of profound humility, repentance, faith, hope, and love rooted in the crucified and risen Jesus, empowered by the life-giving Holy Spirit, and directed to the God who is and shall be all in all. I did not see a vision of unity vivid enough, power enough, or profound enough to create Jennings’s desired community of belonging…a vision in which “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). For sure, the unity spoken of by Paul is not that of universal conformity to the ideal of the white male, self-sufficient, isolated, and masterful. Nor is it a unity created by everyone agreeing to accept everyone’s natural and self-chosen identity. It is the unity forged between Jesus Christ and everyone who by giving themselves to Christ are given a new identity as images of Christ who is the Image of God.