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?
We encourage all readers to watch the video of Uwan’s talk or read the transcript before reading this article, which roughly follows Neil’s interview with Seth and Nirva Ready on the Freemind podcast.
A few weeks ago, Ekemini Uwan gave an interview with Elizabeth Woodson at the Sparrow Women’s Conference, which exists to “catalyze the next generation of reconcilers” and considers topics like the “racial divide in our city/nation and social/justice issues that affect our culture.” The main topic of the talk was the nature of ‘whiteness.’ Uwan defined ‘whiteness’ as a “power structure” and said that it is “rooted in plunder, in theft, in slavery, in enslavement of Africans, [and] genocide of Native Americans.” She continued: “whiteness is wicked. It is wicked. It’s rooted in violence, it’s rooted in theft, it’s rooted in plunder, it’s rooted in power, in privilege.”
During the talk, several members of the audience walked out. Afterwards, the talk was not published on social media and was taken down from YouTube with a note of apology from the conference organizers “for not handling such a complex subject with more care and therefore putting everyone involved in a such a difficult place.”
Unsurprisingly, these events met with strong reactions. Uwan was outraged and many prominent Christian leaders voiced support for her and for her talk. The story was published in secular outlets like Yahoo News! and has created quite a stir on social media. In this article, we’ll discuss not only the interview, but also the sources being used, and the responses generated.
As always, we’ll start with some important positives.
First, Uwan was right to note that our modern conception of race is a social construct, not a biblical category. While the Bible recognizes categories like sex, ethnicity, family of origin, and religion, the idea and concept of race is a modern development that came to prominence in the 17th century.
Modern biology also affirms that race –as it has been defined historically and legally- is a fiction. While phenotypical variations in skin color, eye color, and other factors can be associated with particular geographical populations, the various ‘races’ identified by 18th and 19th century scientists do not exist. According to the Bible and biology, there is only one race: the human race.
Second, Uwan was correct in claiming that the construction of race was not accidental. Instead, it was a purposeful attempt to justify slavery and to concentrate power within the hands of people of European origin. The U.S. did indeed develop a kind of racial caste system, which placed ‘whites’ at the top and ‘blacks’ at the bottom. When immigrant groups first arrived, they were originally identified by their ethnicities (Irish, Polish, Italian, etc…) and only slowly became incorporated into the ‘white’ racial category.
Third, the racial history of the U.S. is ugly and needs to be exposed. Some people will insist that we’re now a post-racial society and that dredging up the past is pointless. We think that sentiment is incorrect for two reasons.
First, many of these events occurred within living memory. For instance, in his book Woke Church, Eric Mason tells his father’s account of being wrongly accused by police for a crime he didn’t commit, being dragged out of his house, and being beaten so badly that his mother couldn’t recognize him. He writes: “These and other experiences colored how I was raised to deal with whites, whether Christian or not. Just as my father’s experiences impacted my perceptions about race, so my perceptions will mark those of my three sons… This is how it works. One generation’s pain and fears are passed on to the next… It doesn’t mean that we must repeat the sins of racism and bigotry of the past, but it does mean that they impact us in some way” (Woke Church, p. 77).” We should hear Mason clearly on this point and put ourselves in his shoes, particularly if our experiences differ from his. If we don’t understand the past and present of racism in the U.S., we won’t understand where many of our black brothers and sisters in Christ are coming from.
Second, it’s undeniable that the legacy of institutional racism is still present today. The residue and effects of Jim Crow, although waning, still linger, and not just in individual minds and actions but also at a societal level, where they are harder to see. These pernicious influences are hidden but no less harmful. If you’re skeptical about this point, please contact us and we will provide you with a range of empirical data to support this claim.
Is critique allowed?
Before we shift into a critique of Uwan’s talk, we need to ask whether criticism is even permissible. Unfortunately, even gentle, charitable critiques can be summarily dismissed as “racist” and “privileged” without engagement, effectively silencing dissent. Yet we believe that God calls us to the pursuit of truth, which is best done in an environment of open exchange and dialogue.
Similarly, discussions about race and social justice are often highly charged and polarized. Everyone seems to want to support “their team” without making any concessions to “the other team.” But as Christians, “our team” is the Church, the body of Christ. Not Paul or Cephas or Apollos. Will we, as Christians, submit to Scripture and truth? Will we listen to criticism? Or will we dismiss it out of hand? Conversely, when we give criticism, will we give it constructively and patiently, appealing to reason and to Scripture? Or will we just engage in name-calling and ad hominem attacks? We might add that if this is your typical mode of engagement, and your words are often laced with venom and vitriol, you need to revisit 2 Peter 1:3-10, particularly verses 9 and 10.
We offer the critique that follows in a spirit of commitment to the unity of the church and to the truth. Christians need to be committed to both: unity that is rooted in truth, and truth that seeks unity on the basis of the gospel.