The intersectional identity of whiteness

Emily Mosher, Guest Writer

The intersectional identity of a white person is a complex intermingling of racial identity tied to colonization, privilege, oppression, and an unbecoming struggle of fragility, fear, humility, and courage. White bodies possess as much complexity in their identity as every other human being: gender, sexuality, religion, economic status, social status, etc. The identity of a white person is far from simple in its struggle between beauty and tragedy, love and hate, yet they are capable of finding unity, redemption, reconciliation, and healing through the saving power of God’s grace. 

No one person can ignore or reject their intersectional identity. The interaction between these different aspects of our identity informs the oneness of our identity; without accepting the reality of diversity within ourselves, we cannot achieve unity with either ourselves or others. If we ignore a certain part of our identities, every other part of that identity will be clouded and not fully realized, as the parts of our identities not only intersect but affect each other. 

To engage with the majority of white people at Westmont, we must dissect the intersectional identity of a white Christian. As white Christians, we must ask ourselves one pertinent question to unify our identities. That is, how does white supremacy inform my identity, and how does it affect others’ identity? Simply put, because the racial aspect of our identity affects every single part of our intersectional identity. We must substitute the word “identity” in the question of “How does white supremacy inform my identity?” with the specific intersections: “How does white supremacy inform my gender/sexuality/religion/social status, etc?” Socially, as a white woman, my opportunities may be limited to a certain extent, but only in subordination to a white man. As Robin DiAngelo in her book “White Fragility” said, “For example, although we are taught that women were granted suffrage in 1920, we ignore the fact that it was white women who received full access or that it was white men who granted it.” Thus, as white women, we must embrace the complex nature of being both oppressor and oppressed, whereas a woman of color may be subject to subordination beneath the overarching umbrella of men, as well as whiteness as a whole (white women, white men, and the system of whiteness all together). 

Economic and social status is affected by whiteness. Whiteness does not necessarily equal richness and financial stability, but it is not separate from our status. The opportunities a white person possesses is shaped by privilege. The “beauty” of the white system is that those who benefit from it often can’t see their privilege, yet they operate inside of it. White people have the privilege of focusing on our individual identity without ever embracing our corporate identity. Our “group” has never been challenged with oppression and subordination. I often hear, “But I am not financially privileged,” or “I worked hard to get where I am.” These replies are valid, yet overlook the privilege that lies in the fact that a white person is never economically challenged because of his or her skin color or ethnic/cultural identity as a person of color would be. 

White supremacy, as defined in DiAngelo’s “White Fragility,” “is the culture we live in, a culture that positions white people and all that is associated with them (whiteness) as ideal. White supremacy is more than the idea that whites are superior to people of color; it is … the definition of whites as the norm or standard for human, and people of color as a deviation from that norm.” In understanding this definition of white supremacy, we must also understand that whiteness affects religion, particularly if you identify as a Christian. Whiteness — white supremacy and colonization to be exact — is conclusively connected to Christianity. Scholar Katherine Gerbner concludes in her book “Christian Slavery” that “Christian” acted as a category of “white” for hundreds of years; the very creation of “whiteness” was “created to legalize and justify inequality.” English slave owners believed their status as Protestants was inseparable from their identity as Europeans. How does this affect how white Christians interact with the world? If we ignore this historical connection to our identity, we ignore a part of ourselves. The historical reflection of white oppressive power under the guise of Christianity has not disappeared today. It is not just our history but our present. One cannot separate the two. Have you noticed the lack of diversity in your church? Martin Luther King Jr. famously says, “We must face the sad fact that at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning when we stand to sing ‘In Christ there is no East or West,’ we stand in the most segregated hour of America.” The global kingdom is often highly underrepresented in church today. We tend to make excuses, such as ‘my church is just in a specific area of the neighborhood,’ or ‘my church wants diversity but it’s hard to achieve, or ‘my church just attracts a certain kind of people.’ In reality, our churches’ lack of diversity is due to a broken system that has infiltrated our theology to make it “white theology” and has infiltrated our worship to make it “white worship” — all to include white people, and exclude people of color. Thus, “every Christian is confronted with the basic responsibility of working courageously for a non-segregated society,” according to Martin Luther King Jr. 

Our racial identity also affects our faith. The Christian connection to white supremacy is not only a matter of the Church, but a matter of our relationship with God. If we ignore the part of our Christian identity that is tied to oppressive power and discrimination, we are not embracing our whole identity. Thus, faith can only be exercised in part, because — whether intentionally or unintentionally — we are hiding a part of ourselves from God. For the perpetuation of a racist system through ignorance, we must confess. When you partake in the table of communion on Sunday, are you truly offering your full self to Him? To deny your identity is to deny an intricate aspect of your whole being. To claim that whiteness is an unnecessary marker of our Christian identity is to ignore what the Bible teaches us. The Gospel makes it perfectly clear that race, gender, and sexuality are intentional markers of our human bodies. God tells us that we are made in His image purposefully. The fullest, most conclusive image we have of God is Jesus — a physical human with skin color, an ethnic identity, a gender, and a sexuality: “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3). If we are to follow Jesus’ example, God calls us to embrace our entire identity in order to realize unity, and only then can we lay down ourselves for His kingdom, as only then can we embrace our identity in Him; only then will we see that justice is not just one interpretation of the Gospel, it is the Gospel. 

To fully participate in community, relationships, and the kingdom of God, we must embrace our whole identity. When we follow Christ, we do not get a pass to ignore our human bodies and live only on the basis of our Christian identity. Our skin colors, ethnicities, cultural backgrounds don’t disappear. We must embrace the intersectionality of our identities in light of the Gospel rather than embrace the Gospel in spite of our intersectional identities. In not embracing our identity, how are we hurting our brothers and sisters of color? DiAngelo again  explains in “White Fragility,” “The key to moving forward is what we do with our discomfort. We can use it as a door out—blame the messenger and disregard the message. Or we can use it as a door in by asking, Why does this unsettle me? What would it mean for me if this were true?” If we ignore a part of our identity, we embrace fragility and fear; if we embrace our whole identity, we embrace humility and courage. We opt into real relationships, real community, and the real kingdom of God. We embrace growth, love, and beauty through recognizing our brokenness. Only then can we foster redemption and reconciliation. 

A white person’s role in the conversation of intersectional identity is not to fix or respond defensively, as we so often assume, but to strip ourselves of superiority, step out in humility, and listen. The “solution” is within ourselves, within each individual person, is to remember ‘imago dei’ in its wholeness. We must strip ourselves of privilege, in proximity to the oppressed and the victims of this system and hear, see, and try to understand, and thus seek reconciliation through love. By continuing to defend ourselves through defensive articles, emails, and comments, we continue to perpetuate the system; we continue to ignore a part of ourselves. Our lives are only partly true, and so is our faith. I often get the question: so what can I do? The answer is to humbly lower our defenses, and embrace our whole identities. Truth often feels like an attack, just as “equality feels like oppression to the oppressor.” If you feel attacked, it is likely because you have yet to embrace your identity. We must educate ourselves, and ask God to open our eyes to the ways we have failed to serve Him with our whole selves. To find peace we must press into that uncomfy feeling that we have somehow done something wrong. Healing can only come from embracing our intersectional identity. To understand racial justice, we must ask ourselves, “What are we not seeing?”