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?
Question: Should we use the word ‘whiteness’ to mean ‘white supremacy’?
The main controversy stirred by Uwan’s talk centered on her use of the word ‘whiteness.’ Her advocates insisted that her usage was legitimate while her detractors insisted that it was obviously racist. Even those who supported Uwan recognized the importance of this question. Pastor Dwight McKissic wrote: “if ‘whiteness’ referred to the Caucasian race, her statement was.. racist, divisive, evil, wicked & wrong. I [too] denounce it. If ‘whiteness’ as used in her statement, referred to tthe spirit that drove Charlottesville, Ayranism, Hitler, slavery, Jim Crow, ebony glass ceilings, in general, White Supremacy, then, there’s a great body of historical facts, to back her claim.” – Tweet thread posted at 8:04am on April 7.
Some philosophically-inclined readers might be tempted to dismiss this objection as trivial, since we’re technically free to define words however we want, provided that we’re consistent. For example, if we explicitly define the word ‘dog’ to mean ‘a large, red apple,’ readers should be able to understand our argument whether or not our semantics are a bit unusual.
However, this argument ignores the rhetorical effect of redefining words. Both progressives and conservatives co-opt morally-charged terms to ensure buy-in. Think about how words like ‘equality’, ‘unpatriotic’, ‘tolerance’, ‘unAmerican’, ‘democracy’, ‘bigot’, and ‘freedom’, have been re-defined to engineer support. For this reason, we cannot simply ignore the way in which words are commonly used. Communication depends on shared definitions and if we use familiar terminology in atypical ways, it will lead to confusion, at best. At worst, we’ll have manipulated the audience’s consent with rhetoric rather than with reason.
In the case of the term ‘whiteness’, there’s no question that the colloquial definition that is found in dictionaries is morally neutral: it refers to ‘the state of being white’ or ‘the fact of belonging to a human group with light-colored skin.’ In contrast, to critical theorists, ‘whiteness’ is a highly pejorative term. Its definition is complex, but it generally refers to something like “a racial caste system which exalts white people above all other people.” Because Uwan defined ‘whiteness’ as a “power structure,” it is clear that she was using the critical theorists’ definition, not the colloquial one. But should we adopt this definition? No, for at least two reasons.
First, in her April 9 interview on the Pass the Mic podcast, Uwan affirmed that “whiteness” and “white supremacy” can be used “interchangeably” (21:28-21:43). If that’s the case, then there’s no need to use the term ‘whiteness’ at all. The audience was offended by the statement “whiteness is wicked” because they were, understandably, adopting the colloquial, morally-neutral definition of whiteness. If Uwan had simply said “white supremacy is wicked,” it is likely that no offense would have been taken since the historical, traditional definition of ‘white supremacy’ refers to white nationalists and neo-Nazis who we can say with confidence were not in attendance at the conference. (Uwan’s definition of ‘white supremacy’ is a critical point, which we’ll return to in the final section of this article.)
Second, it seems that we can run a parallel argument with the term ‘blackness.’ We could correctly appeal to history to show that the concept of ‘blackness’ was intentionally developed to demean, devalue, and marginalize Black people. But imagine that we then made statements like “blackness is unbiblical” or “blacks need to divest from blackness”? If Blacks were confused or offended by these statements, it would hardly be reasonable to accuse them of fragility. They are simply interpreting the word according to the canons of standard English.
Because one of the goals of language is accurate communication, it is our responsibility to choose words that communicate our message as clearly as possible. In this case, if Uwan had wanted to communicate the idea that the racial caste system that developed in the U.S. was wicked, she should have used the phrase ‘white supremacy,’ which already has the negative connotations she intended to convey.
No. Given the problems enumerated above, we shouldn’t use ‘whiteness’ in this way. If antiracists want to refer to the system of white supremacy that -they maintain- developed in the United States, they should use the phase “white supremacy” or “white racial superiority” or the “racial caste system.”
Previous: Part II – Connection to critical theory
Next: Part IV – Is racial identity good or bad?