I Am Learning What It Means to Be White

By Susan Burner on July 16, 2018

Editor's note: As part of our year-long discussion about Justice + Unity, we've invited CU personnel to contribute to the conversation and share what the topic means to them personally as they seek to live out the gospel in obedience to Christ. Today's reflection is from Susan Burner, director of campus ministries at Cornerstone University.

I am a white woman. I used to think that was not an important thing to understand. Hearing the phrase "white woman" called to mind stereotypes of Ugg boots and pumpkin spice lattes, neither of which describe me very well. I did not see being white as significant or something I needed to identify closely with. However, as I have been learning about racial reconciliation, I am learning that exploring my own cultural identity—my white identity—is vital to my life as a Christian and a ministry professional.

The book "White Awake: An Honest Look at What It Means to Be White" by Daniel Hill has played a significant role in helping me see the necessity of understanding my cultural identity by challenging my thinking and walking me through some of the resulting emotions. In my journey thus far, I have begun to see the benefits I have being white and the subsequent disadvantages and injustices experienced by people of color. It is from this premise that my reflections on Hill's book and challenge to my white brothers and sisters is based.

Hill prompts: "Describe the first encounter you remember having with race" (p. 47). Upon reading this, my answer was when the first non-white student joined my small elementary school class. As a white person who grew up in predominantly white contexts, whether it be school, church or places of work, I was unaware of how race shaped me. Hill notes, as I have personally described, "not until we have an interruption connected to a person of color or a confrontation with overt racism do we begin to see something outside our cultural norm" (p. 49).

Race has affected each of us since our birth, but for many whites in the United States, an understanding of personal cultural identity is lacking because of the normalization of whiteness. Hill observes from an interaction with a friend that "[w]hen white culture comes in contact with other cultures, it almost always wins" (p. 4). White culture swallows up other cultures, becoming the standard against which all cultures are measured. Hill's seminary professor gave a poignant example of this by noting how the census is defined in proximity to those who are white. Indeed, I have never been asked to identify as a European American, but my brothers and sisters with non-European ancestries must report with a qualifier before the word "American," whether it be Asian, African, Latino/a or Native.

This is just one example of how white culture has been normalized and results in what W.E.B. Du Bois in "The Souls of Black Folk" describes as a "double-consciousness," where people of colors are constantly examining themselves through the eyes of a white society. Hill identifies the questions "Who am I?" and "How do I fit into the world?" being central to understanding cultural identity (p. 27). My answers to these questions as a white person are situated comfortably in a society where whiteness is normalized. Recalling Jesus' exhortation to Nicodemus to come out of his spiritual blindness, Hill challenges white Christians to pursue a transformed consciousness when it comes to cultural identity, moving from blindness to sight. The rest of his book explores the stages of the transformed consciousness, which includes encounter, denial, disorientation, shame, self-righteousness, awakening and active participation.

The stage of shame, in particular, stood out to me. So far, as I have engaged in this journey of transformed consciousness, I have been uncomfortable and deeply troubled learning about what Hill describes as "the building blocks of race—the ideology of white supremacy, the narrative of racial difference, ongoing systemic oppression, etc." (p. 105). At times, this learning process has led to shame as I have had to come to realize the ways I have intrinsically benefited by being white and contributed to systems of oppression. My desire to disassociate from my white identity has often stemmed not only from a normalization of whiteness but also feelings of shame for being white, particularly in interactions with people of color.

Hill counsels white Christians to embrace guilt rather than shame, as it moves us from thinking "I am bad" to "I have seen something that is bad" (p. 105). The appropriate response when we see something bad is to honestly lament with those who have suffered by listening to them and mourning with them. As Christians, it may seem odd to embrace guilt. While Scripture affirms that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1), we must also recognize that guilt can lead to transformation by responding with appropriate confession and lament. In Psalm 51, David confesses his guilt and laments over his sin. Instead of wallowing in condemnation, however, David commits to new behavior with God's help. By understanding our cultural identity, we too can appropriately respond in confession and lament, leading to a transformed consciousness and a partnership with people of color in the pursuit of justice.

To my fellow white Christians, if we can agree that claiming "colorblindness" is not the way to be engaging conversations of race when we are referring to persons of color, can we also agree it means we must not be blind to our own color as white people? The normalization of white culture has allowed us to exclude ourselves from seeing our color and cultural identity. This must no longer be. In "A Many Colored Kingdom: Multicultural Dynamics for Spiritual Formation," Gary A. Parrett says: "The teacher who seeks to apply the gospel to any cultural context must be committed to cultural self-understanding. Without this commitment, the teacher will often be seen as trying to remove splinters from the eyes of others while remaining ignorant of the large amount of lumber hampering his or her own vision" (p.128). It is crucial that as Christians and ministry leaders we seek to understand our cultural identity so that we can be faithful ministers of the gospel. In humility, I would challenge us to begin and faithfully continue to pursue a transformed consciousness.

Categories: Culture, Discipleship, Faculty & Staff