Blindness, Lethargy, and White Supremacy by Marcia Mount Shoop


With Black History Month fast approaching, it is fitting to investigate the latest call to get rid of it.

This investigation may seem futile to some feminists/womanists since we know denials of racism are part of life in white supremacy patriarchy. As a feminist theologian, however, I’ve got nothing in my tool kit if I lose my hope for redemption and transformation. The following is my attempt to not give up on the possibility that white supremacy culture can be dismantled.

White patriarchy has all kinds of messengers of its narrative—not just white men of privilege, but anyone who has internalized the muscle twitches of white supremacy. This time, the messenger is Stacey Dash, an African-American actress and contributor to Fox. Ms. Dash chastised Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith for saying they will boycott the Oscar awards because of the all-white list of nominees. She called their protest “ludicrous.” She added that if we want to end segregation, we need to “get rid of BET and Black History Month.” oscars image

Having a person of color deny the existence of systemic racism is a big win for white supremacy patriarchy. A person of color as the carrier of white supremacy culture is a Trojan Horse full of social capital for those in power—enough to fool scores of people into thinking they are justified in their misconceptions about race. Dash’s protest of the protest comforts everyone who is tired of all the “whining” and “anti-white” rhetoric they hear in the #blacklivesmatter movement.

A brief scroll down through #OscarsStillSoWhite encapsulates white supremacy apologetics rhetoric. Actress Charlotte Rampling suggests that Black actors just weren’t good enough to make it. Actor Michael Caine asks Black actors to “be patient.” Others say that since Denzel Washington won two Academy Awards the Oscars can’t be racist. And there are several using the tired old accusation of “reverse racism.”

All the bases of white defensiveness are covered: asserting the inferiority of people of color, the benevolent call to be patient, the case in point of the person of color who “made it,” and the accusation of Black on white “racism.” The tenacity of this defensiveness is remarkable. And it is time for its demise.

Why can’t the race discussion in the United States break through this moral inertia? I believe it is because of the two archenemies of healing and justice: moral lethargy and willful blindness.

No matter how many times white patriarchy’s apologists want to accuse people of color of “reverse racism,” they cannot alter the very nature of racism itself. Racism is only racism when it comes with the power of systems, institutions, cultures, and a societal pay off. Racism is a system of privilege based on race in which there is power to create disadvantage with things like access to power, social capital, and accumulation of resources.

If people of color think too many white people and not enough Black people have access to the social capital of the Academy Awards, that is not racism. That is an observation. There is no payoff to this observation. There is no power imbalance solidified. There is no oppression created. If people of color even just don’t like white people, that is not racism. That may be a racialized bias, but it is not racism.

All biases based on race do not equal racism. Some of those biases are a result of racism. But not all of them are expressions of racism. Racism is, at its core, about power: the power to create and entrench advantage and disadvantage. And many of the subtleties of systemic racism and racialized biases carry with them the power to entrench disadvantage for people of color and advantage for people who are identified as white.

It is moral lethargy and willful blindness that keep so much of American culture from seeing the contours of racism and its resulting racialized disadvantage.

Moral lethargy is failing to listen to the cues of our conscience when racism is pointed out. Defensiveness is the way moral lethargy gets its way. If you push back against the narrative you don’t want to hear with enough denial, then you don’t have to change. Moral inertia is like eating too much sugar—at first, you are hyped up on indignation, and then you slump back into a poorly nourished fog of familiar ethical fatigue.

Willfull blindness takes more effort to maintain itself. It requires a counter narrative to the one we choose not to see. And so, it gets filled up with rights and wrongs, shaming and blaming, and all sorts of other value judgments and norms that are seen as “right,” “good,” and “common sense.” This willful blindness then can actively NOT see racism, because it sees all the ways people of color are, themselves, the problem. And every day, this willful blindness is infused with more reasons not to see what we need to see because of what we think we see all around us.

If it sounds circular, it is because it is.

Willful blindness is a tightly wound system of millions of tiny little choices not to see what is right in front of our eyes because of what we’ve trained our eyes to see.

Racism depends on moral lethargy and willful blindness from all kinds of well-meaning people. These habits are racism’s lifeblood. Overt racism is just the gravy. The everydayness of moral lethargy and willful blindness do the heavy lifting to keep the systems of racism working smoothly.

These should be two maladies that the academy and the church could cure. Both of these institutions claim to be all about giving sight and light and cultivating moral courage and fortitude in human beings. But unfortunately these institutions embody the same habits we so desperately need them to disrupt.

Would that 2016 be a year for consciences to be elevated and eyes to be opened. And maybe it could be the year of white defensiveness’s demise.

Black History Month can’t get here soon enough.

Marcia Mount Shoop is an author, theologian, and minister. Her newest book, released MMS Headshot 2015from Cascade Books in October 2015, is A Body Broken, A Body Betrayed: Race, Memory, and Eucharist in White-Dominant Churches, co-authored with Mary McClintock Fulkerson. Marcia is also the author of Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ (WJKP, 2010) and Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports (Cascade, 2014).  Find out more at www.marciamountshoop.com

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Categories: Feminism, General, institutional racism, Race and Ethnicity, Racism, White Privilege

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15 replies

  1. Well said, Marcia. I particularly like your third and fourth paragraphs from the bottom.. The academy and the church really need to get with it.

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  2. Thank you so much for this post. Your descriptions of moral lethargy and willful blindness make sense, and are very helpful to me for further understanding my current situation (I’m a pagan/liberal who recently moved back to the Missouri Ozarks Bible Belt of my youth after 40 years’ absence). I blog about the issues I’m facing/feeling, and also writing in more depth about them as a memoir-project to share someday with my nieces. From books like “Confederates in the Attic” to “The Righteous Mind” to “Racing to Justice” to “White Man’s Heaven–The Lynching and Expulsion of Blacks in the Southern Ozarks, 1894-1909”, I’m struggling to understand “exclusion and embrace” from inside family roots here going back 200 years. So, again…thank you.

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  3. Thanks for your post Marcia. I live in rural Oregon and the community of people trying to create a more representative democratic society needs to step up to the plate. We have a group of armed supremacist shooters holed up in the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Harney County near Bend. The leaders are in custody but four remain. Prayers for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. I am concerned that the four, leaderless members of the group may try some dramatic, suicidal violence as an ending. Under no conditions should anybody wanting to create change go to Bend. You are simply a target for shooters of questionable sanity and I don’t want you killed. One of the supremacists has already been shot by the police. Any loss of life is tragic. Practice peace, non-violent communication, listening, democracy where you are. Prayers for the protection of federal wildlife workers, government staff who care for the wildlife refuge and law enforcement persons. Prayers that the very legitimate issues about land use in rural areas get more attention and resolution in the spirit of life. Practice democracy and persistence. Thanks for the actions you take to create peace, justice and love on our beloved planet.

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    • Dear Ellen,
      Thank you for your comment. I have been following the situation you are close to in Oregon. I share your prayers for a peaceful solution and a democracy that connects and reflects grass roots concerns. I also agree that violence is not going to create the changes we need in our society. These realities apply to what’s going on in rural Oregon and in urban Chicago and everything in between. And certainly, issues of race surface in this conversation in very important ways. I will add a prayer for honest, non-defensive (and non-violent) conversations about race to what we need to cultivate the “spirit of life” that you mention. Thank you, again, for being in conversation here.
      Peace,
      Marcia

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  4. If I might enter a kind word for Oregon. I too live in Southern Oregon and volunteer at our world reknown Oregon Shakespeare Festival that produces 11-12 plays over a 9 month long season every year. This is world class theatre. And the director announced this week that the 2016 season now has more minority actors than white actors. The room broke into wild applause. This is where it has to start — at the local level. Like all great revolutions, the stirrings from the local pots will fuel the change. We look to other regions to match our accomplishments.

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  5. Marcia, very thoughtful. Moral lethary and willful blindness – insightful.

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  6. Marcia thank you for your beautiful and well articulated message. Thank you for your reminder that racism is not racism unless it comes with power to create and retrench advantage and disadvantage. I have just complete a module on black and Asian theology as part of my ministerial training, which I thought was insightful. A lot of the issues you covered were also covered including the impact colour blindness and consciousness and the issues around white supremacy as the greatest sin! Therefore your assertion on wilful blindness and moral lethargy connected with some of my experiences during that course.

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    • Dear Charity,
      Thank you for reading and commenting. I am glad to know about the training you are receiving as a part of your ministerial preparations. Such discussions and work around white supremacy culture will not only help to form effective and compassionate clergy, but they can help to heal the Church from its own complicity in entrenching white supremacy culture. Thank you, again, for sharing your experiences and for your affirmation of my post. Blessings on your journey.
      Peace,
      Marcia

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