Carol Troupe, co-editor (with Anthony Reddie) of Deconstructing Whiteness, Empire and Mission, considers why the church needs to talk about whiteness.
In the Autumn of 2020, I was appointed to do some research on the London Missionary Society mission magazine archives at SOAS, University of London. Reading through and reflecting on material that spoke about the people from whom I am descended in the Caribbean, as well as other communities across the world where the LMS mission project took hold, provided a kind of response to the question posed above. Never, as I read, did I feel as if anyone writing there had ever asked themselves questions about the appropriateness of their presence in those places, ever doubted the value or correctness of what they were doing and saying, or that they saw those they spoke and wrote about and engaged with as peers and equals (despite claims of brotherhood) rather than as receptacles for whatever they were there to offer.
In these pages, black life was perceived, critiqued and presented through the mission lens as deficient, deviant and in need of correction, until of course it was transformed by the ‘word of God’ (or the missionary’s interpretation of it) into what that mission lens deemed acceptable, which usually turned out to be some version of ‘become more like us’.
This attitude cannot be dismissed as something confined to history. None of what I was reading was unfamiliar to me. I had grown up aware of the many ways in which not being white as I went about living my life could play out. It was never just about the possibility of being called ugly names, or told to go back to where I came from. It was also about being measured against whiteness as the ‘norm’ and the expectations and assumptions about me and my actions that might come with that.
As someone who grew up attending church, I observed how that can be a place where issues of ‘race’, class, and power bubble under the surface of many interactions and where much is unspoken. Even where issues of ‘race’ are addressed, they seem to often be reduced to some kind of kum ba yah ‘let’s just get along because we are all the same and God loves us’ rather than honestly interrogating issues of power and who holds it, why things are always done the way they are, whose knowledge, skills or opinions are valued, who is trusted with particular roles or positions, even what theological ideas and biblical interpretations are passed on and perpetuated without question.
When we talk about being ‘the same’ in an attempt to engender unity, we are actually implying that there is actually something intrinsically wrong with ‘difference’, attempting to suppress and erase it rather than encouraging open and honest community. Issues of power are not addressed, silence is taken as acceptance and agreement rather than a symptom of the fact that, despite what is claimed, church is not necessarily a safe and equitable space for everyone.
So, why Whiteness? I suppose, in this particular instance, I would say it is about critical self-reflection and self-interrogation for those who are white, and a revisiting of history through a critical lens for those of global majority heritage, as well as a recognition and questioning of, and honest discussion about the ways in which whiteness has power that isn’t always seen or spoken. I should say at this point, that our interest lies not simply in a diversity and inclusion that is at risk of perpetuating the status quo, but rather one that is committed to issues of social justice, where underlying structures of power that perpetuate the empire mentality and oppress, dismiss, undermine and exclude already marginalized people have to be unearthed, challenged and dismantled.
Having read all the chapters and spoken to some of the authors from Deconstructing Whiteness, it seems to be that even some of those who were well aware of issues of racism and exclusion happening ‘out there’ had a lack of awareness of their own participation and presence in it afforded by the fact of their whiteness Some experienced what could be called a more recent process of conscientization, whether it was, for example, realising that issues of ‘race’, diversity and inclusion were not specialist areas only for ‘contextual’ and liberationist theologians to consider, but were also pertinent to theological exploration that has always assumed a neutral or universal status, or becoming aware that the proportionately low numbers of black students in theology departments was not simply down to a lack of interest in the subject, but were connected to structures and systems that were in place and never questioned. For others the process of conscientization has been occurring over several years but still benefited from critical reflection, for example, on the ways in which they have actually approached and written about ‘race’ and inclusion in the past, or on their own role within situations of hurt and exclusion – acknowledging that even as well-meaning white people they needed to step aside and could not consider themselves or act as ‘neutral’ facilitators of what needed to be black safe spaces, where the previously silenced could have the opportunity to speak truthfully or empower themselves.
Deconstructing Whiteness, Empire and Mission has contributions from ministers, theologians, professional academics, working scholars, and missiologists all looking at issues of ‘race’, power, empire, mission and history from their various perspectives. Approaches are varied and range from analytical research through exploration of mission history on to more personal or practice reflection-based pieces. Rather than being prescriptive, I would say we are trying to challenge, but also to encourage readers to recognise some of the issues, to be open to hear and to understand, to reflect on their own experience, thought and practice, and ultimately to act in order to bring about more just systems and environments within the church, the theological academy and society as a whole.
Carol Troupe is a Research Assistant at The Queen's Foundation, Birmingham.