When I go to visit peasants in southern Columbia, they don’t want me to give up my car. They want me to help them.
-- Noam Chomsky*
I studied with a theology professor who said that in order to be saved I must “destroy” my “white identity.” That identity, he said – which includes my liberal theology – is a sign of my affluent privilege, and it alienates me from those whom God loves. I thought about this for a couple of years, and then realized I could not do what my professor wanted. My white identity, such as it is, cannot be destroyed. Not even in death. When I die, I will be a dead white straight man. The question will then be, what did I die and live for. To what use did I put my straightness, my manhood, and my white identity?
I take my professor’s premise more seriously than he does. His premise is that cultures, including ethics, aesthetics and theology, are “socially located.” My liberal religion, engendered by Enlightenment and aspiring toward universal law, is located in privilege. Liberals are affluent – or have at least the expensive tastes of the genteelly poor. They fuss about their solidarities with the oppressed, but they do not own liberation. The universal moral law has left them in a position where they do not need it. Liberation is not a universal, the professor would say; it is a project of those who need it – the very particular necessity of removing this boot from this neck. So don’t talk to me about your personhood if it’s not your neck under the boot, because if it’s not your neck then it is your boot.
So religions are socially located, he says. The liberal church is located in one place, while the black church is located in another. God does not float dispassionately among locations. The Spirit has descended, has chosen a place – in the church of the oppressed. God is black. My white identity must be destroyed and I, to be saved, must become black.
But that is exactly what I cannot do with my identity – because, as the professor says, it is socially located. No display of slumming can change identity. No person who chooses to align with black Americans is black, because the essence of oppression is that it is not chosen. When my identity is destroyed I shall not be black but dead, and my powers for good or ill will have vanished.
As long as I have breath, my virtues as well as my sins shall be those of my social location. If I give my life today for racial justice, as the Rev. James Reeb did at Selma, I shall become that white guy who came to the struggle and gave his life at a certain time and place, and the effect of my sacrifice will be the effect of a white man’s sacrifice. Not only my powers to oppress but my powers to liberate as well are the powers of a particular person in this place. I shall help my oppressed brother not by pretending to be someone else but by doing what this person, at this time and place in history, can do. If I am privileged then I have powers that others do not have, and my duty is not to give those powers away but to use them for good. The Little Rock Nine exposed Arkansas’s contempt for law, but Dwight Eisenhower and the 101st Airborne enforced the law. Dr. King enacted justice, but Lyndon Johnson made it legal.
So my identity cannot be destroyed to suit my professor’s soteriology. When he says so he contradicts his own premise. The real question, for a person like me, is not how to off myself but how to put myself to use – how to own my white liberal identity, its besetting virtues as well as its besetting sins, assets as well as deficits, opportunities as well as cul-de-sacs.
In my church we are ignorant of Christian Liberation Theology, and our weekend inventories of social location and racial justice lack the scriptural terror of a semester in the liberationist’s classroom. But we talk about privilege – white privilege. We white folks learn there are things that come to us because we are white. I have other unjust inheritances as well. Some things have come to because I am first-born. Some because I am male. Some because I am tall. Some things have not been taken from me because I am not gay.
It takes an external discipline to acknowledge these gifts, because with all these privileges my life doesn’t seem like a succession of triumphs. I do not leap from peak to peak, choosing which heads to crush each morning before breakfast. It isn’t easy to keep oneself and one’s family in the middle class by means of work that doesn’t kill you. If I hadn’t been white we might have been destroyed, but most days that doesn’t feel like a cause for celebration. I have to remember how many can’t get to the middle class because the ladders have been pulled up.
When I die, I hope to become a kind, just and humble dead white man.
*“Questions for Noam Chomsky: The Professional Provocateur,” New York Times Magazine (Nov. 2, 2003)