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.”
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 from 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