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: Are all whites ‘white supremacists’ by default?
The main defense of Uwan’s language was that she was not calling all white people wicked. Instead, she was only accusing ‘whiteness’ of being wicked. If she had been saying that all white people are wicked (outside of what we know to be true of everyone in terms of total depravity), then even Uwan’s supporters would hopefully agree that her comments would have been appallingly racist.
However, we would like to suggest that this defense only pushes the problem back one step. If Uwan was only condemning ‘whiteness’ but not ‘white people’, the next question to ask is: does she think that all white people are invested in the wickedness of ‘whiteness’ by default?
Uwan didn’t answer this question explicitly, but it is answered in Robin DiAngelo’s book, which Uwan recommended at the end of her interview. DiAngelo writes: “because I was socialized as white in a racism-based society, I have a racist worldview, deep racial bias, racist patterns, and investments in the racist system that elevated me.” (p. 149) DiAngelo absolutely believes that all white people are socialized into the system of whiteness and therefore are participants in an evil system. Consequently, if a member of the audience had read DiAgenlo’s work, it would have been reasonable for them to assume that when Uwan said: “whiteness is wicked” she was indeed talking about a system that all white people in the audience are complicit in and need to repent of.
At this point, it’s possible to object that Uwan may disagree with DiAngelo. Even DiAngelo insists that the white person’s participation in whiteness is not their fault and not something they can control. So perhaps Uwan takes a similar approach, agreeing that all white people naturally participate in the wickedness of whiteness while still arguing that they are not personally morally culpable.
However, aside from being nonsensical (how does one participate in wickedness without being morally culpable?), this response doesn’t take into account Uwan’s reaction on social media and in later interviews, which didn’t get nearly as much attention as her initial interview. After the talk was taken down and an apology from Sparrow was uploaded, Uwan posted the following Tweets:
April 5, 10:42 AM: “This is not an apology. This is a terrible PR clean up job and a terrible one at that. I went into that racist space and did what I was supposed to do, tell the truth as a fully embodied BLACK woman. Instead of being thanked for truth I shared in grace and love…”
April 5, 1044:AM: “Rachel Joy, Director of Sparrow has chosen to withhold my pictures and video in violation of my contract. I had to hire an attorney to get what is mine. Release my photos and video to me, immediately. She nor her racist organization are sorry for their mistreatment”
In these two Tweets, Uwan explicitly calls the Sparrow Conference a “racist space” and a “racist organization.” She’s not just speaking of Rachel Joy, the director of the conference; the entire space and the entire organization are called ‘racist.’ Those are extremely serious charges to bring against brothers and sisters in Christ.
A few days later, on April 9, Uwan did an interview on the Pass the Mic podcast with Jemar Tisby and Tyler Burns. She was asked about the purpose of ministry and she responds by talking about the Sparrow conference and her other ministry in “white spaces” (21:54). She continues: “I’m going in with a mission on two ends: to affirm black people and to speak the truth about racism to white people. And give them a way of change or transformation, repentance from racism through the power of the gospel” (22:15). A few minutes later, in answer to the same question, she continues: “Me entering into a white racist space is an act of love because, and this work is very dangerous. I’m putting my life on the line every time I do that. This is not a game… My life is actually on the line when I go in. I take that risk.” (23:42)
Uwan’s recommendation of DiAngelo, her Tweets, and her subsequent interview have to inform how we interpret her comments at the conference. We submit that there is an exact ideological consistency between Uwan’s claims in her interview and her subsequent Tweets and comments after it. We also submit that her views in the main on this issue are false and unbiblical. Her comments are inexplicable unless she really believes that the majority of her white sisters in Christ are invested in whiteness and are racist and that she is “putting her life on the line” when she speaks to them (a statement she repeated twice).
Recall, that she is not just making that statement about white people in general, or about white Christians in general, but about white Christians who are spending their weekend at a racial reconciliation conference. Even taking the most charitable reading of all these statements, it seems impossible to avoid the conclusion that Uwan was indeed making a general statement about all white people. She is not merely condemning ‘whiteness’ as an abstract category. She is condemning ‘whiteness’ as a system of wickedness, idolatry, and evil in which all white people participate and of which all white people need to repent.
Uwan’s claim that the Sparrow conference and its organizers are racist is either true or false. If it’s true, then the people at the conference and all white people need to step up and repent publicly for their racism. If it’s false, then Uwan’s claim is slanderous and is -itself- sinful and racist. These are the only two options.
The many prominent pastors who have publicly supported Uwan in the past and who voiced their support for her in the aftermath of the conference need to wrestle with these Tweets and her comments on Pass the Mic. If these pastors agree with her, if they agree that the Sparrow Conference is a racist space and that Rachel Joy and the other organizers run a racist organization and that Uwan is in physical danger when she speaks to white Christians, then these pastors need to say so explicitly. If not, then they need to repudiate these claims explicitly.
Once again, we are forced to consider whether critical theory is or is not compatible with Christianity. Either we think all whites are natural racists who are socialized into white supremacy and who need to repent of their racism, or we don’t. No matter how much we want to preserve the unity of the church, we must address these issues.
No. The antiracist definition of racism and white supremacy is rooted in the ideology of critical theory and, hence, is incompatible with a biblical understanding of sin. Both definitions must be rejected, along with the concomitant claim that all whites are racist and implicated in white supremacy.
While Uwan made several good and important points in her talk, it contained several serious problems. We offer this critique in the spirit of brotherly love and concern, and urge Christians on either “side” of this issue to reflect carefully and biblically about the issues we’ve raised. We pray that God would bring his church to complete unity, casting down idols of race, and bringing about his vision for a people gathered together in worship around the throne of the Savior who loves us and gave himself for us.
Dr. Neil Shenvi received his PhD from UC – Berkeley in theoretical chemistry and his A.B. from Princeton. He has also completed postdoctoral research at Yale and Duke. He currently lives in North Carolina, where he homeschools his four children. His Twitter handle is: @NeilShenvi
Dr. Pat Sawyer has a PhD in Education and Cultural Studies from UNC-Greensboro, an M.A. in Communication Studies from UNC-Greensboro, and a B.A. in Psychology from UNC-Chapel Hill. He currently teaches at UNC-Greensboro. His Twitter handle is: @RealPatSawyer