Co-authored by Dr. Neil Shenvi and Dr. Pat Sawyer
I. Introduction and positives
II. Connection to critical theory
III. Should we use the word ‘whiteness’ to mean ‘white supremacy’?
IV. Is racial identity good or bad?
V. How central is ethnic identity for a Christian?
VI. Are all whites ‘white supremacists’ by default?
Connection to critical theory
To understand Uwan’s talk, it’s important to understand the ideology of critical theory. Critical theory is based on several basic premises, of which we’ll highlight just two:
- The world is divided into oppressed and oppressors along axes of race, class, gender, physical ability, age, etc… Your individual identity is inseparable from your membership in these demographic groups.
- Oppressor groups subjugate oppressed groups through the exercise of hegemonic power, that is, by imposing their ideology, norms, values on culture.
Critical theory is the dominant paradigm in fields such as critical pedagogy, gender studies, queer studies, critical race theory, and whiteness studies, and is becoming increasingly influential among evangelicals.
Let’s begin by addressing those who may be skeptical that Uwan’s talk is rooted in critical theory by making a brief digression into three of the four authors she recommended to her audience: Robin DiAngelo, David Roediger, and Noel Ignatiev.
Robin DiAngelo’s website describes her as “critical race and social justice educator.” Her original paper on ‘white fragility’ was published in the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy. She’s probably the most well-known critical theorist in the U.S. today.
Historian Nell Irvin Painter (the fourth author recommended by Uwan) describes Roediger and Ignatiev in the following way: “Critical white studies began with David R. Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness: The Making of the American Working class in 1992 and Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White in 1995” – Painter, The History of White People, p. 388.
Similarly, Roediger’s article “Accounting for the wages of whiteness: U.S. Marxism and the Critical History of Race” states: “[this] article argues … that the major works launching the critical historical study of whiteness, especially those of Theodore Allen, Alexander Saxton, and Noel Ignatiev, represented generations of specifically Marxist thought about race… The Wages of Whiteness shared these Marxist origins, and joined others in the emerging field in being decisively influenced by Black radical scholars” – Hund, Krikler, Roediger, Wages of Whiteness and Racist Symbolic Capital, p. 9.
In making the observation that Uwan’s talk was rooted in critical theory, we’re not trying to ‘poison the well.’ We’re absolutely not making the argument: “Uwan recommends works of critical theory in her talk. Critical theory is bad. Therefore, Uwan’s talk is bad.” Rather, we’re driving home this connection to critical theory for two reasons.
First, people will often insist that critical theory is a bogeyman invented by conservatives to avoid hard conversations about racism and justice. They’ll say that no evangelicals are actually influenced by critical theory. We’re trying to show that this claim is false. Critical theory is indeed influencing evangelical thought.
Second, knowing the context for Uwan’s writing and speaking helps us to understand exactly what she is saying. Critical theory redefines familiar terms in very technical and unusual ways. You may disagree strongly with how some terms like ‘racism’ and ‘white supremacy’ are defined by critical theory; we certainly do. But if you have at least some knowledge of critical theory, you will be better equipped to understand what is being said.
Finally, we’ll be focusing only on statements that Uwan made explicitly in her talk, or on follow-up statements she made on social media, on podcasts, and in articles. We will not deal with every specific statement we find problematic. We also have concerns about the implications of some of her statements and the ideology behind some of her statements, but we want to limit this discussion to only certain explicit statements, which is why we’ll quote her extensively.
We will frame our critique around four basic questions raised by Uwan’s talk and will consider each of them in turn, starting with the question: “Should we use the word ‘whiteness’ to mean ‘white supremacy’?”