On Race #1: Beyond the Dome of Whiteness
In the first of his new series for our blog, Azariah France-Williams reflects on whiteness, and learning to see beyond the dome of white privilege
I am often pinned by the white gaze. I am held as an object of enquiry, not empathy. Do you know the film The Truman Show? For the uninitiated, Truman Burbank has been living his life as an unsuspecting subject of a popular T.V reality show. From birth hidden cameras have monitored his every move. What Truman thinks of as the beautiful town of Seahaven is actually a huge constructed dome. A film set staffed with actors, all except for Truman, who is a prisoner in his own life, or rather his ‘owned’ life. Everyone has a script designed to keep Truman happy with his lot and unaspiring to travel beyond the borders. There is a director who is the unseen mastermind influencing all the moving parts.
What is whiteness? It is the pervasive panorama around which no one can see or climb. A complete dome under which a person of colour lives and moves and has their being. As a black man in a white world I have lived beneath the whiteness dome dissatisfied but docile, mystified, caught in a spell, and unaware of the obscured exits. However there is a tiny voice beyond the film set drawing my attention, and I must follow, it might just be Jesus.
In John 9 there is a man who is born blind the disciples ask ‘who sinned him or his parents?.’ The stigma of negative blackness courses back through generations my own family tree which includes west African slaves and white British rapists. Whose fault is my blackness? Whose decision was it to so tarnish the black version of humanity so effectively, systematically and comprehensively that the black human is globally reviled, restricted, and removed? The disciples saw the man, without seeing themselves, and how their own tradition and conditioning had shaped their response to his nature. We don’t believe the world we see, we see the world we believe. Sometimes the eyes on me, look through me. Other times I am simply not seen.
Jesus healed the man born blind by spitting into dirt making a paste rubbing it on his eyes. It reminds me of the playful God gleefully moulding clay in the story of humanities first day, there is a new beginning, beginning. Jesus sends the man to go and wash in a local pool. The man presumably has a guide take him to the pool. What must that initial moment of vision have felt like? The first person the man sees is himself, for the first time. I wonder what is was like to compare his actual image with the version of himself others depicted? The moment of revelation, is immediately challenged as those around him seek to plunge him back into the darkness of the pool, and undo the miracle. Firstly his neighbours question if he is in fact himself.
‘Is it really he who was blind?’ They begin to talk about him, without him, amongst themselves, they are visible to him, he is invisible to them. He is a curiosity, a puzzle to be solved, maybe he is a conman, an imposter. He has had his identity stolen since birth, and they accuse him of being the thief. He has to butt in saying:
‘I am the man.’
His joy is met with skepticism. As I have been learning to see, I am met with skepticism.
‘Is there really racism? Really? Can you prove it’
The feeling is, let us be the judges of that. But once you know the film set, is a film set you begin to go off script. You begin to strain to hear the still small voice coming from beyond the dome, if such a thing were possible. It is tough however to feel the burden of representation. The man’s neighbours were saying he was the wrong guy. He remained an outsider but now at least he could see the source of the voices in his head.
The man is then taken to the authorities who need to offer legitimacy to grant him access into the community. Whereas the first group say he is not the person he thinks he is, but rather he is the person they think him to be, the authorities approach is to challenge the timing. Their bugbear is that it is the Sabbath, healing is all well and good, but on the Sabbath? As I have been beginning to ask my questions and seek a truth to set all free, I get the sense it is an inconvenient time for the church to be looking at this, ‘come back on Tuesday week at 11am.’
The authorities then play the card of doubting his experience. They did not believe that he was blind and had received his sight.
As I dig deeper people point out t’s never been that bad for you has it? You haven’t suffered, you’re just attention seeking, and come on now it’s the Sabbath!’
The authorities begin to talk about him, without him, again he is rendered invisible, and a problem. He is outside the huddle sticking his hand up saying I can hear you, and now I can see you too. hashtag worst reception of a miracle ever! His parents are brought into this now, and they are afraid they will be cut off if they side with their own son and are seen to be supporters of Jesus. The authorities cannot dare countenance Jesus as Messiah. Anyone who did so was kicked out of the club losing all the benefits. There is a cost to seeing, not just for the healed but for the whole community. The healed one finds a voice and questions the criteria and the basis upon which the community is formed, who decides who is in, and who is out. Whiteness co-opts Jesus and disguises him to appear like itself. It pours scorn over a Jesus who repeatedly and furiously shreds and sheds the costumes imposed on him. Jesus operates beyond its authority, beyond the dome, is off script, calling the actors to act. I have been told ‘do not bite the hand that feeds.’ But I haven’t time to bite the hand, or eat the food, I need my teeth to gnaw through the leash the other hand is holding.
Azariah-France Williams is an Associate Priest based in Teddington, South-West London and a visiting scholar at Sarum College, Salisbury. His book, which focuses on black leadership in white historic churches, will be published by SCM Press next year.