What Does Jesus Have to Do with Whiteness? by Kelly Brown Douglas


Rev.-Dr.-Kelly-Brown-DouglasIt matters that he consistently affirmed, empowered, and befriended those who were the outcast, marginalized, oppressed, and rejected of his day—such as Samaritans and women.

A firestorm has been set off recently concerning the self-assured observations by Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly that Santa Claus is white and so too is Jesus. These comments, which were in defiant response to a Slate article “Santa Claus Should Not Be A White Man Any More,” by Alisha Harris, have been spoofed by late night talk shows and satirized across social media. Scholars and others have also weighed in on the matter. All have pointed out that Santa is not real and that Jesus was not white.  The fact of the matter is that Jesus was a Jew born in ancient Israel and St. Nikolaos upon which the make-believe Santa character was based was from ancient Myra. The fact of the matter is that neither Jesus or St. Nikoloas were white; indeed both were likely to have had swarthy complexions. While it is easy to laugh at Kelly’s comments or to simply dismiss them as curiously misguided and ill-informed, they point to something even more significant that is worthy of  discussion —the meaning of whiteness and its theological implications.  And so, I offer some random thoughts for further reflection.

Whiteness does matter.  When whiteness emerged as a social, cultural, and racial construct in America, even as it had throughout the Western world at least,  it did so as a mark of privilege and power. There was value in whiteness. It became a measure of one’s potential, one’s worthiness, indeed, one’s very humanity. Historically, whiteness—however that was determined—was the ticket to social, political, and economic status. To be non-white was to be considered an inferior being, worthy of being subjugated. To be a non-white body was to be a subjugated or oppressed body.  Essentially, symbolically and practically, whiteness has signified privilege if not oppressive power.  As James Baldwin once observed whiteness has “choked many a human to death.”

It is important to point out that to be born into a culture of whiteness or to be considered racially white, does not mean that one has to claim whiteness or to live into an identity of whiteness. Put simply, all persons whether white or not can choose not to affirm and perpetuate the unjust reality of privileged whiteness. Unfortunately, however, Kelly’s passionate defense of  Santa and Jesus’ whiteness reminds all of us once again  that an insidious and troubling  narrative of “whiteness” continues to persist in America.  Whiteness has meaning.  It is considered by many “treasured property” that must be defended culturally as well as socially and politically. So what does this mean for those of us who are feminist, womanist, and people committed to a world where all bodies are free to experience the fullness of their humanity, even those which do not claim whiteness?

It means that we must recognize the persistence of “whiteness” in our world and society and the implications for “non-white” bodies.  In response to the outcry about her comments, Kelly rather dismissively, if not sarcastically, commented that it goes to show you that race still matters. Race does still matter, as revealed by Kelly’s very defense of whiteness. That it matters means that our theological, ethical, and religious discourse must engage racial matters, especially if we are to disrupt and dismantle the social/political/cultural systems and structures that threaten the well-being and freedom of far too many communities of people.  There is still much work to be done. We do not live in a post-racial society. This matter of race and whiteness must be confronted head-on. We must not run away from it, or avoid the difficult, uncomfortable conversations.  We must name the sin of whiteness and repent of  our complicity in it if indeed we are ever to live into the reality of freedom that our gods promise us.  For inasmuch as race and whiteness  is a social/cultural issue it is as well a theological issue.

And so the question is what does Jesus have to do with whiteness? Not only was Jesus not historically “white” but neither was he existentially white. Given who Christians proclaim Jesus to be, Jesus’ existential whiteness becomes a significant theological matter. For Christians, Jesus is more than just a man –  he is the incarnate revelation of God. He, as “Son of God,” is Christ. It matters, therefore, that Jesus boldly and passionately rejected the conventions and supremacy of social, political, religious and cultural power in his own day. It matters that he consistently affirmed, empowered and befriended those who were the outcast, marginalized, oppressed, and rejected of his day—such as Samaritans and women.  His very human particularities further suggests that one does not have to be defined by one’s biological/social/cultural realities but can in fact live against them as one lives into freedom. Instead of claiming the privilege that was associated with his ethnicity and maleness, Jesus lived against it and identified with those who did not enjoy such privilege. This brings us to the theological significance of whiteness. As long as whiteness remains a marker of subjugating and of othering power, then Jesus cannot be white—for to suggest such a thing would imply the whiteness of God. Yet as long as God stands for justice, freedom and peace, then whiteness is antithetical to God. It is anti-Christ.

Yes, there is a certain insipid silliness when it comes to Megyn Kelly’s comments. Yet, as silly as they are, they are not innocent. It is the tasks of all of us who believe in the freedom, justice and peace of God to recognize the danger of such comments, to interrogate them, call them out so that we can indeed move beyond a world where “whiteness” matters.

Kelly Brown Douglas is Professor and Director of the Religion Program at Goucher College where she has held the Elizabeth Conolly Todd Distinguished Professorship. She was recently awarded The Goucher College Caroline Doebler Bruckerl Award for outstanding faculty achievement. Kelly is a leading voice in the development of a womanist theology, Essence magazine counts Douglas “among this country’s most distinguished religious thinkers, teachers, ministers, and counselors.”  She has published numerous essays and articles in national publications, and her books include The Black ChristSexuality and the Black ChurchWhat’s Faith Got to Do With It?: Black Bodies/Christian Soul.  Black Bodies and the Black Church: A Blues Slant is her most recently released book (Palgrave Macmillan, Fall 2012). Kelly is also a priest in the Episcopal Church and has served as Associate Priest at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. for over 20 years.

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Categories: Body, Christology, General, God-talk, Identity Construction, Jesus, power, Race and Ethnicity

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18 replies

  1. Kelly, it is so sad that a post like this is still needed. But it is. Like you, I cringed when I heard the comedians play the bit with lily white people claiming the Jesus and Santa are white. Good God, can’t they just get over it? Since I live in a very liberal community, I tend to forget that there are huge portions of our country that don’t yet get it. I don’t know if they ever will, and that is so tragic, for everyone. Maybe in a few more generations our society will have morphed into a mocha colored populace.

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  2. I think you were right, Kelly, in your immediate reaction to a mistake someone made, that it was all curiously misguided and silliness. But still it helped you look at some things that are important, as you say, and so you turned it to the good. Well done. Black to me is truly one of the most beautiful of all colors.

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  3. I am discussing angels in my next post and while reading your post thought I might include an image of a black-skinned angel. Easier said than done–I can’t believe what comes up on a search for “black angel” “angel black” or “black-skinned angel”–which goes to prove your point. Angels too are white! And when they aren’t, they become sinister. Why can’t we have a black angel who is just a pretty girl with flowing robes and dark skin! After all we have black madonnas.

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    • give a try to the iconography of the Ethiopian Church—They have Black Angels (and a Black Jesus too) another interesting place would be Chinese (I think Buddhist) paintings—some cave paintings have black “Angels” or what they call winged celestial beings…..

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  4. Sarah, why would black be more beautiful than white or brown or yellow? Why would God or Jesus even be associated with color of any kind? Surely “God” or “Goddess” is a construct of the human mind and as such exists on a non-physical plane?

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    • We are all created equal, but not identical, so preference is our way of uniqueness and creativity.

      As regards divinity, all of Creation, mind, matter and spirit, is the Great Goddess. Carol, our leader, has affirmed the same idea explicitly in her view also. In Zen every ounce of creation is permeated with what is understood as Buddha Nature. To realize that Buddha Nature is not separate from all creation is referred to as the wisdom of enlightenment or prajna. St. Teresa of Avila referred to that which permeates all things as Divine Love, and her vision, I think, derives both from her Christian faith, as well as from her own enlightenment experience, as she describes it in her most profound masterpiece, “The Interior Castle.”

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      • While I am also shocked at TV presenters who do not question preconceived notions of whiteness, I think lamenting the whiteness of Jesus may be as problematic as lamenting the Mezzo-American features of Mayan and Inca deities, or the Indian faces of Hindu gods and goddesses, or the Chinese or Japanese countenances of Buddhist art. Religion tends to grow out of the ground where it is found and racial characteristics are part and parcel thereof. However Christianity and its iconography developed on European soil where it developed its recognizably white features. Jesus was Middle Eastern, but the congregations and donors who were reflected in Christian art and the artists of the Middle Ages and Renaissance gave its iconography a distinctly white face. Maybe it would have been better if deities were depicted in colors: indigo, blue, green, scarlet, ocher, etc. Then they can be undersood symbolically, and hopefully, universally.

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      • I love this vision Majak – now I will always think of the rainbow as the Pantheon of Colors..,Wow

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  5. I suspect that Jesus became white and European when Medieval and Renaissance artists started painting him to look like people who commissioned and viewed their art. Are we what we see?

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  6. Reading your descriptions of the teachings of Jesus brought me closer to Christianity than I have been in a very long time. It is wonderful to be reminded that Jesus was so much NOT what white supremacy and hierarchical institutions have made of him.

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  7. I read your article with relish. Living in South Africa, whiteness (and it’s actions), is defendable in the name of God, as is the case in the larger western world. Jesus would’ve cringed, as God/Goddess must do at people’s claim to superiority based on something as flimsy as the colour of one’s skin. There is a school of thought that Jesus came from Africa, in the region of what is now Ethiopa. I’ve left christianity some time ago, but I recall that one is not supposed to make images of God. Perhaps with the idea that God is ALL people. The wording of your very strong ideas is justified.

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  8. Sarah, glad you like the colors… they have such awesome names… magenta, alizarin crimson, veridian, cobalt, manganese blue, phthalo green, sap green, ultramarine blue…

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  9. What trivial concerns. While Jesus certainly knew the future (other than the end of time), it was Paul that said that we (Christians) are neither slave nor free, etc., etc. It’s too bad that Paul could not see nearly 2,000 years into the future and have included “white, nor black, nor brown, nor yellow, nor Caucasian, nor Asian, etc. But, don’t forget that while Jesus ” consistently affirmed, empowered, and befriended those who were the outcast, marginalized, oppressed, and rejected of his day—such as Samaritans and women” he also supported what we call capitalism, or business for a profit, and the apostles later castigated slackers who expected the community to feed them even though they did nothing to earn it.

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  10. Kelly,

    Thank you for this post. I just wanted you to know I referenced it in my recent post, “The Jesus in Grandmama’s House,” http://www.redboneafropuff.com/2013/12/22/the-jesus-in-grandmamas-house/.

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  11. Reblogged this on Journeyofaphotograph and commented:
    The last few days had me walking into the wall of white supremacy. I think we may have given it a bit of nick this time.

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Trackbacks

  1. Duck, Duck…Goose! The difference between real and fake persecution | #OTB
  2. The Jesus in Grandmama’s House | Mariam I. Williams

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