Channeling My (Inner) White Shame

Last week, I had the privilege of participating in the Human Rights Campaign Summer Institute for Theologians and Religious Scholars at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, which was co-sponsored by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation.

As the week began to unfold, one word came to the forefront of our discourse and reflection: intersectionality.  Tough questions were posed and tentatively answered.  Indeed, no one can ever claim to have the final word on what it means to be human.  Human beings are dynamic, not static.  And power dynamics shape and occlude our understanding of what constitutes that which is normatively human, having the intentional effect of rendering most bodies outside this constructed, hegemonic schema to be incoherent and invisible.  And this is a moral dilemma that ethics must respond to and strive to dismantle.  As long as the problem remains unresolved, relationships will remain fractured.  And critical and creative reflection on how we are to live and love in right relation to what is good is one invaluable contribution that ethics can make to our morally complex world.

Tough questions emerged that were thoughtfully pondered.  Tough questions such as: How does one’s experiential/embodied understanding of race impact one’s experiential/embodied understanding of sexuality and vice versa?  How does class, ability, gender, etc. inform one’s understanding of the intersectionality of race and sexuality?  As I continued to reflect on these tough questions with my new friends, I began to notice an unprecedented feeling of shame emerge.

For the first time in my life, I felt the shame of being white.  In the past, I have been cognizant of the privilege of being white, but the shame of having access to that privilege – and accruing benefits from that privilege – never came to the forefront of my moral imagination.  For the first time in my life, I felt a visceral shame — that my own whiteness implicates me in the injustices that have been waged against countless persons (for countless generations) who are “other” to white in our world.  I was feeling more than slightly overwhelmed by my white shame when an illuminating conversation at lunch with Laurel Schneider and Patrick Cheng helped me to recognize that my white shame can, in fact, be channeled in a productive way.

For many years, I thought that productive way was to be a voice for the voiceless, to speak out on behalf of those who struggle, to empower those on the margins to claim their right to full flourishing in the human community.  But an insight from Laurel Schneider helped me to see that I transgress my role as an ethicist when I strive to be a voice for the voiceless.  To quote Rev. Pamela L. Werntz in her recent sermon: “It’s not about what you say, it’s about how you listen.”  I believe that my vocation as both a scholar and an activist is to listen.  And in so doing, to challenge, subvert, and ultimately dismantle the power dynamics that render those voices on the margins unheard.  This I am fully capable of doing, as difficult and taxing of an enterprise as it may be.

My role as an ethicist is to use my unique social location as a point of departure for doing ethics and for living for justice.  I can use my whiteness and maleness to speak to what it means to be white and male, to whites, males, and to white males.  And the good news is that I can still be animated by the work of my womanist sisters, who breathe a vision of justice into the universe that is informed by the intersectionality of race, sexuality, class, and gender.

I do not need to “give” my womanist sisters a voice – or anyone else, for that matter; they have always had a voice.  But I can speak to the ways in which unchallenged conceptions of whiteness, maleness, and white-maleness, function against the important witness(es) of womanist ethics.  My own work in ethics can draw directly from the insight of womanist perspectives, but why stop there?  My work – my scholarly and activist voice – can be informed by an abundance of a great many other marginalized perspectives, so long as I vow never to speak on behalf of these communities.  After all is said and done, it is not my job to give voices, but to work with all the voices.  And to work with all the voices in solidarity.  Together, we amplify the noise.  La lucha sigue. 

+ CMJ

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