As I scroll through my Facebook feed, I can’t help notice how many people are outraged at football players today. President Trump suggested that those who kneel during the national anthem ought to lose their jobs. Beyond being an endorsement of censorship from the man who is charged with protecting our constitutional free speech rights, it is also just more evidence that Ta-Nehisi Coates got it right that Trump is defined by his whiteness.
I’ve been thinking about this assertion of whiteness quite a bit lately. I can find myself, if I’m not careful, slipping back into a sort of passive ignorance about how my white skin has shaped my culture and worldview. I can believe that whiteness is the absence of cultural specificity. It is easy. I live in a society that has functioned with the white experience as the de facto “norm” and therefore, the invisible presence that is always with us. Being white means never having to look at being white. It means the white experience is the normal experience and the baseline against which others can be compared and condemned. Without the experience of whiteness being primary, I don’t see how anyone could assert that standing for the national anthem is more important than protesting injustices against people of color. Only whiteness makes that make sense.
This reminds me of a story about the Israelites wandering through the desert. This is part of the great exodus, after they have left Egypt with Moses but before they have landed in Canaan. As they wander through the desert, they begin to be bitten by poisonous serpents and these bites are killing them. The solution given to Moses for this problem is the building of a big snake which they hoist up over their heads. Then, when the Israelites are bitten, if they look upon the big serpent, they are healed. If they don’t or won’t look up, they die.
I think whiteness is the snake upon which too many of us are unwilling to look. Of course, this means death for those of us who won’t look squarely at the fact that white supremacy does shape society. Perhaps even more importantly, our refusal to look up also allows violent systems to perpetuate which leave our brothers and sisters of color in danger. Our sin leads to their deaths and that is what football players are protesting. They are asking America to look at its sin.
Whiteness shapes America and it especially shapes the experience of those of us who refuse to look at it. Unexamined whiteness leads to unexamined white supremacy and that is the poisonous snake that nips at our heels. White supremacy even shapes the good ones of us who believe in equality and justice for all. Ignoring it isn’t working.
For white people like me, if we are unwilling to consider that the way we see things might be conditioned by white privilege, then we will almost certainly believe that the way we see things is the Truth. God’s Truth. That is dangerous because when we think we have the truth, we become believers in our own righteousness. We can become ignorers of the pleas from our brothers and sisters of color who need us to hear them and believe them. This isn’t about helping or saving someone else, it is about saving our own souls. This is our sin. It is our problem.
I’m working on seeing my whiteness. I’m working on acknowledging the ways in which it has shaped me. I’ll be honest and say I’m very much in process. It is so much easier not to and I’m given all sorts of permission to not do this work. But there are people I love who need me to pay attention. I need me to pay attention. I’m thankful that football– this social class crossing, political party crossing activity– is the thing that has gotten people talking. Now, let’s hope a few more people will glance up at the big poisonous snake at the heart of the American experience so that we can all make it across this desert together and alive.