The Tyranny of Obliviousness by Marcia Mount Shoop

Marcia headshotThe Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Michigan voter-determined ban on Affirmative Action in college admissions decisions is just the latest example of how white obliviousness suppresses America’s collective capacity to heal from the wounds of racism.

This obliviousness (a dynamic well described in Mary McClintock Fulkerson’s Places of Redemption) often manifests itself with pronounced potency among those who understand themselves as the well-informed stewards of fairness in our society. The Court’s decision in the Michigan case is a bewildering example of the self-perpetuating nature of obliviousness. When the ethos of a society is fed regularly with the pabulum of color-blindness, and when the affliction of racism is addressed most prevalently with the placebo of fairness then the conditions are ripe for obliviousness around race to flourish. This obliviousness becomes tyrannous when it is backed up and propped up by the sources of power in our society sanctioned as arbiters of justice—justice that is sought after because it is color-blind and fair. I am dizzy from the circularity of it all. 

The self-perpetuating currents of ambivalence around the legacy of slavery in this country are a formidable and oppressive force. This force tells us again and again that this collective ambivalence is acceptable, even laudable in a society that is democratic and fair. And this ambivalence is born of privilege, which forms and feeds a shared lethargy about the hard work of racial healing. The oppressive power of obliviousness is maintained by its subtlety as well as by its capacity to be camouflaged as keeper of the values America holds most dear.

When faced with extreme racism, there is a clear path in our country for a reaction of outrage. Witness the most recent media frenzy around the racist sentiments of NBA owner, Donald Sterling. 

There have been widespread reactions of disgust and disapproval. And there has been an institutional backdrop of support for a swift and decisive condemnation of such sentiments—from the President of the United States to the Commissioner of the NBA to the voices of social media. Clearly the attitudes attributed to Sterling are neither acceptable nor tolerated in American society today.

At the same time, these clear and audible reactions against such extreme expressions of racism can further obscure the more difficult task we have if we truly aspire to being an anti-racist society. When we react against extreme racism we can feel confirmed in our belief that we are not racist. And we can relax once again into the tyrannous power of obliviousness.

This obliviousness is a mark of white culture, although it is in the air everyone breathes. Everybody takes in at least some of its mollifying oxygen whether we want to or not. But it is whiteness in particular that has set the norms, it is whiteness that has obscured its own racially-determined set of values, it is whiteness that can so gently and easily don its invisibility cloak. And it is white people who can most easily choose whether we’d like to opt in or opt out of the “race discussion” in every institution in American society.  istock hand mirror

The Supreme Courts decision is a “get out of jail free card” for white America—if the voters decide we don’t want to take race into account in the decisions we make about access and opportunity then the Supreme Court is telling us we have the power to opt out of that discussion. Here we see the tyranny of obliviousness cast its spell. It is so easy for white culture to embrace practices and policies that maintain our unconscious resistance to the fact that racial justice requires white people to deal with our own “stuff.” In other words, if we are to truly engage in liberative, justice-creating work around race, obliviousness is the thing white culture must free ourselves from first.

How do privileged, educated, often progressive people embrace the necessity of surfacing biases and blind spots? The answer is complicated, but probably includes some kind of moment of truth—some kind of confrontation with evidence of the detrimental effects of obliviousness.

Lest we as feminists run the risk of maintaining our own obliviousness to our obliviousness, we can model the liberating work of unmasking the tyranny of obliviousness by starting with ourselves. The invitation to “decolonize” Western feminisms reverberates with liberating possibilities.  Does Western feminism have the capacity to avoid the reproduction of patriarchy when we push against it in global contexts? I can’t help but hear the echoes of the subtle cadence of unconscious privilege in how easy it is to fall into the very patterns we seek to transform. The invitation issued to Western feminism is about the capacity of feminisms to resonate and liberate across cultures and global contexts. This capacity requires located awareness for Western feminism around privilege. The invitation amplified by the Supreme Court’s decision deals with how American institutions can and cannot (and should and should not) take racial identity into account.   Both invitations are about power and both are about the obliviousness that often comes with manifestations of privilege.

How do we overthrow the tyranny of obliviousness? It starts with a gut check that admits the truth: what we don’t know actually hurts us all.

Marcia Mount Shoop is a theologian and Presbyterian minister who lives in West Lafayette, Indiana. Her book Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ frames much of her work in churches and beyond. She received her PhD in Religious Studies from Emory University and her MDiv from Vanderbilt Divinity School. At Marcia blogs on everything from feminism to family to football. Her new book, Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports, will be released in August (2014) with Cascade Books.







8 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Obliviousness by Marcia Mount Shoop”

  1. Marcia, I can only answer your question from personal experience, as a white person living in Ethiopia (under Imperial rule), South Africa and in daily life here in the UK. The lighter skin bias is deeply ingrained in all cultures. In both Ethiopia and South Africa, Africans with lighter skins were ALWAYS seen as better educated and more beautiful/handsome. Skin lightening creams sold like gold dust in South Africa, often with disastrous results (scarring) for many women.

    Here in the UK, I observed deep divisions between Asian and African communities and it’s apparent that professionals (business, political, teachers, sometimes even medical) frequently have very low expectations of people with very dark skin. It’s fear, along with an inbuilt bias to see pale/white skins as somehow ‘better.’ Where you have poverty mixed with it, it truly is survival of the fittest :(

    My first opportunity to challenge my own biases was at work, when I had a Caribbean boss for a while. She was well educated, lively and a pleasure to work for. It was very sad to see that one of the directors felt challenged by her colour, and she successfully sued for race discrimination: as recent as 2003. Since that time, I’ve gone out of my way to make good friends with people of different nationalities, which has been wonderful. My faith reaches out to the possibilities inherent in each person, regardless of gender or skin colour. We are all equal, and embracing diversity lifts all of us. BUT, it requires focus and courage and stepping out of comfort zone beliefs.


    1. Dear Annette,
      Thank you for sharing some of your experience. Your effort to build relationships across some of the boundaries you described is, indeed, one important way for people of any kind of privilege to start to expand understandings and trouble assumptions. And, while we may be able to clearly see the offense of someone being treated poorly because of their skin color, I wonder if whites are able to be as easily offended by the privileges they/we enjoy because of our skin color. Exploring privilege, as I am sure you know, is connected but also distinct from exploring oppression. And it is a practice that we in America have surely not engaged in with the due diligence it deserves.
      Thank you again for expanding the conversation into your contexts.


  2. I like this post a lot. However, I think you blur some important distinctions. It is not white progressives appointed by progressive democratic presidents who made this decision. Opposition to affirmative action does not come from all whites, but from conservative Republican whites and on the Supreme Court from a black man appointed by a Republican white president. Yes white progressives and white feminists have our blind spots too–and they may be legion–, but they are not the same ones that brought about this decision, nor are white progressives or white feminists trying to take voting rights protections away. It may be that white people as a group are not as outraged as we should be at the taking away of voting rights and decisions against affirmative action, but that is not the same as not knowing that affirmative action and voting rights protections are still needed in “the land of the free.”

    How to make our voices heard when elections are increasingly being compromised and bought is another question. Thanks for making yours heard!!! And hopefully galvanizing action!


    1. Dear Carol,

      Thank you for your reply and for sharing your thoughts. While I can certainly understand your passion around the issues you raise, I think I am describing a more stealth expression of racism and privilege than one we can simply pin on the conservative white Republicans. Such political sensitivities are important, and I agree that many white people are not as galvanized around these issues as we should be. My question gets underneath these political/partisan phenomena and asks some difficult questions of whites and white culture: so what is at stake for you in looking at your own privilege? why is it easier to think of race in terms of a problem for people of color than something that includes white people? why is it difficult for white people to understand ourselves as racialized? why is fighting for civil rights a no brainer for most progressive whites while interrogating the ways we have benefited from racism is often a non-starter when it comes to public discourse and policy making?

      Elections are one thing–and they are important. But transforming cultures is another. White culture doesn’t know itself when it looks in the mirror. This is what I am referring to when I use the word obliviousness–it is born of no malicious intent, but it is formed and fed by a givenness that keeps racist systems humming along even as they are camouflaged as systems of justice and fairness.

      The interesting data around the Michigan Affirmative Action decision that I have heard have to do with the voters who approved the ban in the first place. And exit polls apparently indicate that it was not just conservative Republicans who voted for the ban–but the winning margin included progressively minded whites and also some people of color. The fact that our highest court upholds the constitutionality of elections deciding whether racism and slavery have left deficits in its wake for black individuals and communities or not is a systemic expression of white privilege–we can say when we think it is a problem and when we don’t. We can opt in or opt out of the discussion as we see fit. The Supreme Court props up these particularly white ways of dealing with race. I do not see that as partisan politics, but as a sobering expression of white privilege.

      Thank you again for your comments. They certainly help to move the conversation to an even richer place.



  3. Thanks for your response. I don’t disagree with your general point. However, I think it is important not to group people into large groups without distinctions. Some white people, you may be one of them, are able to see that white people have benefited from racism. To lump all of white people into one group I don’t think helps move the story forward. White people, for example, Quakers, moved from holding slaves to opposing slavery. In that case, great moral progress was made. I wonder if the “Christian discourse” that all are sinners, no matter if one is a murderer and the other only felt a twinge of jealousy from time to time, is behind this kind of blanket discussion. I don’t think it is helpful. I think we need to be specific about what different sorts of responsibility different white people have in this situation. The ones who claimed to be progressive and yet voted against affirmative action are to be held responsible for not seeing the truths of racism. Those who voted against the measure are in a different category, they say the truth at least in this matter, though probably not in all matters. It may be a difference between a call to repentance and the work of forming coalitions. Or not. Anyway.


  4. Dear Carol,

    I appreciate this continued dialogue and your willingness to continue to share your perspective.

    While I understand your concern that there be space for particularity, I am not sure I am clear on what is at stake for you. I have done anti-racism work for decades. And I spent the better part of that fashioning myself as a “good white person.” I routinely introduced myself with stories of how my family had been involved in civil rights work for generations. I spent a fair amount of energy trying to distinguish myself from other white people who didn’t get it or who were racist.

    It has been an intense personal journey that has included moments that have brought me to my knees–mostly when I started to realize how deeply formed I am by white culture and white privilege. That is not about culpability, that is a fact of the racial identity that I was born with. In the anti-racism work I do I encounter many people who feel a lot of secret shame and who want to make sure they are somehow differentiated from those who are culpable for racism. Making the dynamics of whiteness visible helps to reframe the conversation–away from who is guilty and who is not, toward a critical awareness of systems and culture and unconscious privilege. It is not that all white people are bad people, but it is that all white people benefit from racism–whether we want to or not. Culpability is not the issue–awareness and transformation is.

    For me this has manifested itself in many different ways, but it continues to be a process of awakening that still at times brings me to my knees sometimes. There is no way to extract myself from that process. There are ways to shift my orientation, however, away from defensiveness toward openness to the healing possibilities that come from difficult truth telling.

    I hear your rejection of the blanket use of “we are all sinners” as part of your resistance to this conversation. I agree with your problem with the use of sin in so much of Reformed theology. In fact, my book, Let the Bones Dance, is about just that–an interrogation of the hegemony of sin, guilt, forgiveness atonement theology in Mainline Protestantism. My book is an effort to construct an incarnational theology that makes space for embodied experience that gives us more theologically rich material about what it means to human than sin does. You and I are on the same page there! And, interestingly enough, the second half of my book includes a discussion about the way race has and has not been addressed in these same theological traditions.

    For me none of this is really answered by repentance, but instead is an invitation to healing and redemption. I hope we can continue to be in conversation. Thank you again for taking the time to share your perspective.



    1. I profoundly respect your calling, Marcia. I think that for each of us who choose a different, and less travelled path, it is a bold sign of hope and a beginning of healing. Our brains much prefer to lump people into stereotypes (forgive my words, but ‘lump’ is so descriptive!) that any individual who chooses to speak and act from equality and respect for others, can have a real impact.

      Perhaps, in the fullness of time, neuroscience will show us how to live with difference and much more respect. Individuals, families, businesses, politicians, religious leaders – all need to re-assess why they view ‘different’ people so negatively. It’s a long journey to truth and reconciliation, so all the more reason to begin (or continue) now!


    2. I am all for speaking about structures of oppression, structural privilege, unconsciousness, and the like. I don’t think there is anyone who is “innocent.”

      However, for example, I do not think it is helpful to say all men are sexist, given that there are men who are actively sexist and some who are actively feminist and anti-sexist.


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