White or Wrong? image

White or Wrong?

Should people self-identify as "white"? In normal conversation? In the church, or other specifically Christian contexts? On a census form or diversity survey? It might seem that the answer is yes to all of the above, and that even asking the question is the height of politically correct silliness. But I think there are at least seven reasons for taking seriously the possibility that the answer is no. (I say this despite knowing that in all kinds of contexts, the contemporary world being what it is, it will probably still be needed sometimes. Every time I am asked for my "gender" I want to cross it out and write "sex", but I tick the male box anyway.) Here are the ones that occur to me:

The obvious problem. My skin is not white. Not even close. All of my great-grandparents were British, but if you saw a car painted the same colour as me, there is no way you would ever refer to it as white. If you put my skin on a colour palette, it would be somewhere between peach and beige, depending on the season. So the word “white” is a strange one to describe me, as you will know if you have ever tried to explain it to a small child.

The historical problem. Nobody in the ancient world was white. Nobody in the medieval world was white. The term only started being used four hundred years ago, at just about the same time as European people started colonising other parts of the world and developing arguments to explain that this was OK. That makes the word anachronistic when used of the past, and genealogically suspicious when used of the present.

The gradual problem. If you walked across Eurasia from Portugal to Korea, you would notice that there is no point at which people suddenly look different. Languages can change instantaneously, and so do nationalities (another recent invention), but the same is not true of skin colour, size of nose, shape of eyes, and so on. “Race”, in that sense, is a social construct, and one that does not reflect the fluid and complex realities of the real world.

The Mediterranean problem. This one is forcefully expressed (complete with genetic graphs) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Northern Europeans (“butter people”), eager to champion their classical and Judeo-Christian heritage, classified Greeks, Romans, and Eastern Mediterraneans (“olive oil people”) as fellow whites, often to the point of claiming (and painting) Jesus himself as a white man. But genetically speaking, Mediterraneans are quite different from an Anglo- like me; a Roman is closer to a Maghrebi than to a British person. When applied to the Mediterranean, the concept of “whiteness” looks incredibly self-serving: “The Northern Euros have always had problems with Meds; they want some of the cultural prestige and ancestry, but never the skin hue.”

The purity problem. The colour white symbolises purity in all kinds of cultures (see below), and this has insinuated its way into racial classifications today. Consider: if someone with a black father and white mother is “black,” whereas to be “white” requires two “white” parents, then “whiteness” is not fundamentally about genealogy, or even appearance, but purity (the logic being that you can only be classified as “white” if both of your parents were as well). Given that the term still appears on census forms and diversity surveys, I find that somewhat insidious.

The theological problem. It may be because I’m talking about Revelation a lot this term, but it has struck me again recently how powerful the symbolism of “white” is in Scripture: white hair, white robes, a white stone, a white horse, a white cloud, a white throne. Symbolically speaking, the great multitude from every tribe and language and nation is clothed in white, not because it is one colour—let alone because it is the superior colour—but because it is the beautiful result of all the colours coming together. (You wonder if the meaning of white in the Bible was one reason Northern Europeans were so keen to designate it as the colour of their skin, even when it manifestly isn’t.) Nobody in the Bible uses skin colour as a way of classifying people, so we should think carefully before assuming that we should.

The ambiguity problem. As recent discussions about “whiteness” continue to show, the term can be used to refer to skin colour, or to racially supremacist power structures, or to both (sometimes in the same article, book or conversation). This, if the previous six points were not enough, is another reason to give serious consideration to the way we use the term.


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