Teaching While White - A guest post by Collin Cornell

"The greatest impediment to racial justice [is] well-meaning White people who would rather maintain injustice than risk the decentering of our Whiteness and White comfort." [1]

This language of "centering" black lives and "decentering" whiteness is provocative. It works by a spatial metaphor: Our way of life as white people enshrines one governing concern (maintaining white power), but that concern stands in urgent need of replacement. The picture reminds me of Gideon: There was an altar to Ba'al and an Asherah pole on the high place of his hometown – idols and abominations to the Deuteronomistic writer, but beloved to Gideon’s fellow villagers. But Yahweh commanded Gideon to cut them down, and to replace them with an altar to Yahweh (Judg 6).

By contrast, the language of many a seminary syllabus assigned this fall will configure curricular concerns and black lives quite differently. The latter will be "included." Perhaps a reading by a scholar of color will be brought alongside readings by more mainstream authors. Or perhaps the pressing issues of the day will be addressed in less formal classroom venues: a Q&A, an excursus, office hours. Truly sympathetic professors may even dedicate special lectures to the crisis of black life in America and the movement to protect it. But the spatial metaphor that describes these efforts is one of addition: There are other preoccupations that remain in place, and the struggle for black humanity supplements them. Biblically, it calls to mind Naaman the Syrian. Healed by Elisha of his skin disease, he confessed the truth of Israel's God. But he also demurred: When he returned home to Syria, he must of course additionally maintain the worship of his ancestral deity, alongside his newfound devotion to Yahweh. "May the Lord forgive your servant for this one thing" (2 Kgs 5:18, CEB).

For white educators like myself, "including" the movement for black life in our practice of teaching is not enough; "centering" it is necessary.

I teach Old Testament. I am not a sociologist or an expert in black theology (or theology at all). In view of my relative ignorance, someone could rightly caution me to hold off on writing about so a complex and volatile subject as "educating while white" in an era of racial emergency. Someone else could rightly warn that the internet is already brimming with white male bloviation; hardly the need for more.

And yet at the same time, I will be teaching this fall, and in more semesters thereafter. The task of teaching will not wait for me to exhaust the relevant literatures: I must carry on as an amateur to critical race theory and all the rest. I also teach a definite discipline; I do not have the freedom -- nor do I think it necessary anyway -- to swap out the classic texts of my area for Michelle Alexander or Franz Fanon. And lastly, the internet is indeed surfeited, as most media, with the white male voice. But with few exceptions, this white male voice does not call for a rejection of white business as usual. This kind of confrontation is typically delegated (by inaction and default) to people of color, who must shoulder the brunt of anti-racist education. It is my hope that, rather than discrediting me, my qualities as an amateur, a beholden textualist, and an insider to whiteness may in fact reach readers of like position -- who might otherwise remain outside the signal radius of such a plea.

So why, theologically, make such strong claims for the primacy of blackness in doing education? And how can one even "center black lives and black issues," if, as is the case for many of us, the texts stay the same?

For me, the two questions run together, in a way that may not apply to instructors of English or German lit, but which may find analogies in other wings of the theological academy. The questions implicate one another because the texts we teach open onto the present American crisis. More to the point, down deep at their roots, they stake out God's hatred for white supremacy and they witness to God's solidarity with blackness. By centering blackness now, I am only hewing to the texts' true north.

The above statement is, of course, a credendum, as well as a program for interpretation. There is no way of demonstrating that the Old Testament "takes sides," as it were, in the serial American collisions of white power and black resistance. And there can be no room for shortcuts and slipshod liberationist readings; the Old Testament is difficult, violent, and Israel-centric, hardly an egalitarian or post-racial manifesto. There is, for me at least, only at bottom a trust: that the Old Testament (and its God), for all of its cultural and theological remove, is not a stranger to American bloodshed, and also not an impartial onlooker. A trust, and also an insistence, on the partisanship and particularity of Israel’s God.[2]

This means my onus as an instructor is not to connect all the dots or to sell one particular theological articulation of God's involvement with initiatives for black freedom. Rather, I must uphold this main truth, and then teach the texts, "centering blackness" by raising up ad hoc themes and episodes that echo out to the present: God's loyalty to a single people, God's sorrow over violence and exploitation, God's rage against the unjust and powerful, God's ability to make a way out of no way, God's promise of victory to an embattled and disenfranchised people. By consistently making the current black struggle my paratext, I can suggest a primordial convergence between these texts and this, our context – on which basis students cleverer and more informed than me can mobilize particular interpretations.

Yes, it is essential to "include" writings by scholars of color and to supplement normal classroom functions with extra occasions to address black lives and black issues. But it not enough: rather, we must reenvision our approach to the same texts, from the bottom up, so that God’s own commitment to protecting, saving, and dignifying black lives becomes evident.

[1] http://changefromwithin.org/2015/08/09/interrupting-bernie-exposing-the-white-supremacy-of-the-american-left/

[2] After all, per the Talmud, “the world was created for the sake of Israel” (and not the other way ‘round, as in so much “missional” literature). See also Paul the apostle’s account that God only opened the covenant to Gentiles to make Israel jealous (Rom 11).

[Ed. note: Collin Cornell writes the always interesting blog Kaleidobible, as well as semi-regular guest posts here at DET.]



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