It seems today that conversations about race are persistently punctuated by the word “whiteness,” but what does this term even refer to? Willie Jennings, professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies at Yale and Baptist minister, recently delivered a lecture with Theos, a British think tank, on the topic of “whiteness” where he described the ways in which Christianity has been negatively influenced by Western presuppositions.
The overarching subject of Jennings lecture was education, which itself is a heavily philosophically laden concept. It’s no accident Plato’s Republic is first a discussion of moral education and then a discussion of what morality even is. In this sense, to ask “what should education be?” is asking “what kind of people do we want the educated to become?” which leads scholars of education to necessarily also be philosophers of the human person.
In this context, the “dreaming that takes place in the inside of western education is profoundly troubled – haunted by the racial condition of the western world.” As Jennings said, “that haunting comes to rest for us in and through… an overarching image of formation, what one looks like when one acts like when one is educated and that image is of a white self-sufficient man who embodies three dismal virtues: possession, control and mastery.” According to the Yale scholar, what we need instead is to reorient our idea of dreaming towards “the idea of belonging” instead of the “white self-sufficient masculinist intellectual form.”
But the Baptist intellectual clarified that “to speak of whiteness is to speak of a historical process of identity reconstruction. Whiteness, my friends, is not phenotype, it is not first appearance or biology or culture and certainly not a part of God’s creation. Whiteness is a way of seeing the world, and a way of being in the world at the same time… when we say a ‘white self-sufficient man’ we’re not talking about a particular person or a person of the past or the present but an invitation offered to everyone, male or female or non-binary person of every ethnicity class or social status or nationality.”
Jennings then goes on to describe “whiteness” as essentially synonymous with the world of commerce, colonialism, capitalism and liberalism that emerged from Europe and spread across the world. The idea of an esteemed person “the West” produced developed on the plantations of the antebellum South, where slave-owners imagined an infinite expansion of their holdings into future generations. The logic of markets and trade, of possession, mastery and control reshaped the world into what it is today.
The scholar of race and theology is frustrating because, while it would be wrong to completely disregard his words, he relies so much on contradictory cliches and bromides that predominate in modern progressivism. The area where his criticisms are at least somewhat fair is that Western culture really is very individualistic. Numerous contemporary Christian intellectuals on the right have lamented this fact and publicly argued about what is to be done. There is something to be said for the way market forces work like the skilled hands of a sculptor, reshaping our moral language to glorify and validate those who are productive according to a materialist standard and denigrating everyone else.
Others, like philosopher/economist Deirdre McCloskey, have described this sense of morality as the “bourgeois virtues”, yet Jennings insists on referring to it as “whiteness.” In response to a question about the necessity of using such an antagonistic term, Jennings described it as a necessary “diagnostic tool” without which we cannot get to the root of the problem. But is that really true?
This is where discussions around topics like “critical race theory” get extraordinarily dicey because nobody can agree which terms properly fit. Jennings says that people of any race or gender can embody the “white self-sufficient masculinist” ideal. You can be a woman from Korea or Nigeria, or perhaps a Latin-American lesbian, but if your value structure fits with individualistic capitalism then you have internalized “whiteness.” Clearly, people from diverse backgrounds that integrate into the global capitalist system must culturally adapt in some ways, but is it fair to characterize all of these people as white?
The historiography Jennings used to buttress his use of “whiteness” also was lacking. The story he tells of the world has two actors, oppressive Europeans (whose own history he disregards until the beginning of modernity) and oppressed indigenous peoples. Yet, when he says “indigenous” he seemed to be referring to specifically North American Native Americans, whose value structure he posits as an antidote to “whiteness.” What of the hundreds of other indigenous peoples from China, Mesopotamia or India with pre-capitalist culture? The problem for Jennings is that these do not fit so easily into his simplified historical narrative, so they must be overlooked.