The COVID-19 pandemic offers an opportunity to explore how religion and whiteness are interconnected. Where is religion in a president refusing to wear masks in public? What of whiteness in a governor suing one of its state’s own cities to prevent mask mandates?
These current events, and their asymmetrical racialized consequences, offer a view of whiteness’s historical and phenomenological role as one of religious ‘prophylaxis,’ a living theodicy, a rejection of our responsibility to one another across lines of social distance that gives way to a sanctioning of and justification for social atrocities past, present, and future.
This talk explored whiteness revealed as spirit possession in moments when the efficacy of this prophylaxis is challenged, and also showed how whiteness is working to transform the occasion of pandemic response into a perverse opportunity.
Christopher M. Driscoll is assistant professor of religion studies at Lehigh University. Driscoll is a scholar of race, religion, and culture, and historical and contemporary white U.S. and European religious, philosophical, and theological thought and traditions, hip hop culture, and existentialisms/humanisms. His books include White Lies: Race and Uncertainty in the Twilight of American Religion, Method as Identity: Manufacturing Distance in the Academic Study of Religion, and Kendrick Lamar and the Making of Black Meaning.
My name is Charles Stang and I'm the Director of the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. Welcome to the center's annual Greeley Lecture for Peace and Social Justice, given this year by Christopher Driscoll of Lehigh University entitled Spirits of Whiteness in the Age of COVID-19.
It's only appropriate that Christopher is speaking about COVID, since the pandemic forced us to reschedule his lecture from last April until today. So I'm grateful to you Chris, for your commitment and your flexibility. We have only an hour together, so I'm going to keep my remarks brief in hopes that there will be time for Q&A. Please note that the chat function is enabled so that only we can send messages to you all. If you'd like to pose a question to our speaker, please do so with Q&A function at the bottom of your Zoom screen. And if time permits, we'll take questions from that queue.
This is the fourth year in which we have devoted the annual Greeley Lecture to the center's programming thread on race, religion, and nationalism. Several years ago, Kelly Brown Douglas, Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School, helped us inaugurate this series with a lecture entitled Claiming God's Peace When Whiteness Stands Its Ground. We've seen recently just how much whiteness is prepared to stand its ground, but also the many brave souls who stood theirs and are marching forward.
This series is a response to the fact that across the world today we witness an alarming rise in old nationalisms, each of which deploys, openly or secretly, the rhetoric of race and racial hierarchy, and of religion and religious hierarchy. We see this happening across the world. Europe, and the Middle East, and India. And of course most acutely, right here in the United States, where white Christian nationalism now has a strong foothold in branches of our federal government.
This series at the center seeks to critically examine this, at home and abroad, locally and globally. We want to ask such questions as to what degree this religion fuel this racialized nationalism? In the American context, for example, how does Christianity support white nationalism? To what degree is white nationalism a sort of religion itself, with its own myths, rituals, and ways of life? And to what degree are different racialized nationalisms affiliating with each other to form international networks?
A number of prominent black intellectuals have spoken in this series. As I said, Kelly Brown Douglas, and Harvard's own Cornell Brooks. In October we'll have the honor of hosting Fred Moten. But in recognition that the confluence of race, religion, and nationalism in this country is very much a white problem, by which I mean that it is something maintained by white people at the expense of the lives and liberties of people of color, it's important that we also hear white scholars speak critically to this whiteness.
Last week we had Jeff Sharlet in conversation with Laura Kirby on her book Saving History, which deals with white evangelical Christians' myths about the founding of this nation. And this week we are privileged to hear from Christopher Driscoll, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Lehigh University.
Christopher is a scholar of race, religion, and culture in both the modern and contemporary American and European contexts. He came to my attention because my colleague Todne Thomas suggested that I look at his 2015 book White Lies, Race and Uncertainty in the Twilight of American Religion. I'm glad I did, because he has emerged as a leading young white scholar diagnosing and denouncing the dangerous braid of race, religion, and nationalism in our country.
His other books include Method as Identity, co-authored with Monica Miller, and an edited volume on Kendrick Lamar and the making of Black meaning. So please consider joining us for future events in this series, including Fred Moten on Wednesday, October 14, and a panel discussion of an edited volume entitled The Religion of White Rage on Monday, November 2. If you'd like to join our mailing list, you can do it do so through our website, or whenever you sign up, whenever you register for one of our events. So now though, please join me in welcoming Christopher Driscoll to the center.
Good afternoon. Thank you all for being here. And Charlie, thank you so much for those kind words. It's an honor and a privilege to be here with all of you. I want to begin though first with a huge thanks to Erielle Ruth Goldberg and everyone involved in the planning and logistics for today. As Charlie had mentioned, this is a rescheduled event. As I mean-- that kind of thing has become our new normal, and that's OK, it's no big deal.
I initially thought to rework the material that I was going to talk about more substantively, more substantially than I ended up doing, so bear with me as the current abstract is a little bit different than what it is that I will present. But nevertheless, I really am humbled to be here, and I look forward to all the feedback.
That also, this is kind of an aside, but tomorrow is my sister Reverend Kelly Driscoll Cruz's fortieth birthday, so if we were all in the same room I'd ask that we clap for her or something. But if you guys could all just send well wishes and positive energy her way, I would appreciate it. Happy birthday, Kelly. So with that, I will get started.
Historically, the people we come to call white have exploited pandemics as opportunities for our own social advance, and shown little regard for people of color who may also be impacted by them. For instance, a number of demographic studies posit that at the turn of the 16th century, the world population was approximately 400 million, of whom 80 million inhabited the Americas. By the middle of this century, out of these 80 million there remained only 10, with most of those deaths coming from pandemic.
Sheer contact with whites became Black and brown death. Cultural apocalypse ensued. In later centuries, white folks like Jeffrey Amherst did in fact call for distributing smallpox blankets to Native Americans, and others would at times go on to use disease as a form of biological warfare. And during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, violence against Black folks by white folks intensified as Black folks were widely blamed for the spread of the virus, even though it was white folks who were the hardest hit demographic.
In 2020, the veritable failure of the US federal government and many state governments to enact adequate policies and protocols for responding to COVID-19 has been disparately felt by different communities. A recent Scientific American article framed some of these consequences in parallel with the demonstrations against white supremacy and police brutality that occurred in the wake of George Floyd's murder.
It says American citizens who share George Floyd's skin color are perishing from COVID-19 at shockingly inordinate numbers. Data show that Black Americans face excess COVID-19 death as a result of disparate access to testing, high levels of underlying health conditions, greater occupational exposure, and lower rates of medical insurance coverage. Black bodies, it continues, have been wounded and strained by decades of discriminatory housing policies, mass incarceration, malnutrition, and trauma. These are the injustices that make them unable to speak-- to breathe.
Today I will not speak too much directly to the nuances of the novel coronavirus pandemic, rather in what follows the pandemic plays foil to the persistent whiteness pandemic about which I'm better equipped to speak. As I'm treating it in this talk, COVID-19 is Fortinbras to a decadent, dysfunctional Denmark. Co-dependent, narcissistic Hamlet then, is whiteness, driven to the brink of insanity at the sheer recognition of having to compete in a world of consequences.
Increasingly, and for good reason, both in and out of the academy, more people than ever are talking about whiteness, positing whiteness as a normative and dominant racial identity that has and continues to exact harm on Black and indigenous persons of color, specifically this plays out in terms of more white folks than ever before are seemingly willing, and at times even demanding, to learn to live without whiteness.
At the same time, increasing numbers of white Americans and Europeans are vocal about preserving and defending a way of life that they feel is under assault, normalizing the celebratory signification of white supremacy through discursive appeal to American or German identity, as two examples of many.
This critical mass includes many extreme voices, even those willing to enact violence on behalf of protecting the white race. So a dialectic is at work, in a sense, presenting a paradox for us. Two powerful, relatively recent, public facing writings help the historicize this paradox. Historian Nell Urban Painter's 2015 New York Times piece, What is Whiteness, published mere days after Dylann Roof murdered nine people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, describes what she calls the inadequacy of white identity, framing it as an essential problem.
Painter notes that everyone loves to talk about Blackness, a fascinating thing. But bring up whiteness, and fewer people want to talk about it. Whiteness is on a toggle switch between bland nothingness and racist hatred, with we whites falling somewhere along that continuum. We lack more meaningful senses of white identity, Painter suggests, and whiteness continues to be defined, as before, primarily by what it isn't, Blackness.
From this, she calls for us to eliminate the binary definition of whiteness, the toggle between nothingness and awfulness, which she says is essential for a new racial vision that ethical people can share across the color line. Two years later, Ta-Nehisi Coates penned The First White President for The Atlantic, which reads in part, with one immediate exception Trump's predecessors made their way to high office through the passive power of whiteness.
These men became soldiers, statesmen, and scholars, held court in Paris, presided at Princeton, advanced into the wilderness, and then into the White House. Their individual triumphs made this exclusive party seem above America's founding sins, and it was forgotten that the former was in fact bound to the latter, that all their victories had transpired on clear [AUDIO OUT]. No such elegant detachment can be attributed to Donald Trump, a president who more than any other has made the awful inheritance explicit.
Referring to this passive power of whiteness, Coates is describing the ironic visibility Trump provides to whiteness. Trump is then a perverse manifestation of Painter's challenge to eliminate the binary. He is the synthesis of nothingness and awfulness. In Coates' phrasing, whereas Trump's forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its Eldritch energies.
In the language offered by historian of religions Charles Long, Trump signifies an opaque whiteness. He is, as many of us likely fear, perhaps the bellwether of the end of the possibility for the American democratic experiment to ever be fully realized. How else-- how else are we to historicize the increasingly flagrant neo-fascist and paranoid stylings of he and so many of his supporters?
No matter who wins the election, let us please circle back to this moment when so many of us are feeling what so many others of us have always felt, that full participation in the United States, to say nothing of our collective need to respond to the ongoing ecological crisis, teeters on the good intentions and the magical thinking of a single white man.
So in my talk today, I invite you to think with me about how we got to this moment. Technically speaking, what I'm going to offer is a diachronic portrait of the mechanism enabling the movement of whiteness across time and space. This movement, always taking place in various moments of cultural contact, I want to consider in terms of apotheosis and apophasis. I'll say more about that.
This analytic, I hope, contributes to efforts to sight, S-I-G-H-T, and site, S-I-T-E, whiteness in religious studies and theological discourses, which is what I hope ultimately this talk encourages some of you, regardless of your intellectual interests or research focus, to do more of.
Whiteness expresses itself in history as a kind of cultural affiliation and social identification by way of negation. By this, I mean it's not functionally positive as an embrace of one's tribal or totemic identity, a la the work of Emile Durkheim or functionalists. Rather, it's a way of identifying a tribe or confederation through a denial of one's tribe, and a perpetual deferral of responsibility for that denial.
Often what is denied is cultural continuity and heritage, as in hey, they're not me. I'm just an individual. They're not me. As well as a denial of ownership of those consequences of that continuity and heritage, as in slavery, that was a long time ago. That wasn't me. But this denial is more extensive than these examples, amounting ultimately to, and here's, I guess, my thesis for this talk, the denial of difference. Not the fear of difference or the hatred of difference, but the denial of difference.
By talk of denial, I'm building on the work of James Perkinson, who is building on the interventions posed by theologians such as James Cone, and the scholar who makes perhaps the largest impact on this particular line of my research, Dr. Long, who I just quoted, who we unfortunately lost back in March of this year.
Like Perkinson, I fashion my work as an extended series of responses to the Black theological and African-American religious studies traditions Cone and Long worked to create. Not to nitpick, but Coates' blaming Trump's white ineptitude for the increasing visibility of whiteness isn't the entire story. The visibility has much more to do with Black intellectual excellence embodied in the study of religion, in Cone and Long, as well as Katie Cannon, among many more.
Their works respond to what Long once termed the transparency of white Western scholarship. In juxtaposition to this transparent white theology, Long characterizes Black theology, and to an extent, all of what we'll come to call contextual theologies as theologies opaque, representing the primordial meaning of color, enabling a confrontation with transparency. In seeking spaces free of alterity and oppression, these discourses would by implication free all human beings, even the oppressors, for it is their consciousness and acts of oppression that constitute their unfreedom and inhumanity, Long says.
And so transparency and opacity outline for Long what he calls a total hermeneutical situation. That is the thing that so many people of color see so easily is that once the same thing, and here I do mean well intentioned white folks, simply don't see. It's a hermeneutical challenge situation.
I want to suggest that the discourse of negative theology might have something to contribute to our understandings of this situation. So late 20th century thinkers like Jack Derrida and Elliot Wolfso, Catherine Keller and others have articulated the via negativa approach to theology as fruitful for deconstruction. And postcolonial scholars such as HDS's own theologian Myra Rivera have thought about the interwoven themes of both negative theology and contextual theology, or theologies. Specifically, as her work tries to dismantle the widely assumed ontological distinction between the divine other and the social other.
Initially I planned to talk about instances of 16th century colonial contact, and the impact of these encounters on the making of religion and race. Examples were to include Hernan Cortes's commission of Franciscans to engage in what might be called interreligious dialogue with the Aztec, and other instances of the explicit use of the discourse of religion in the making of racial whiteness.
To my mind, Rivera's notion of the beyond helps to describe the ontology at work in these spaces of contact. She writes that an apparent structural relation exists between imagining our relation to the human other, and to God as wholly other. God can be perceived as an extreme instance of interhuman difference.
Contact encounters to this extent take on a transcendent character, involving movement beyond the sameness of ethnic, regional, and ontological familiarity. In Long's language, it's at this point of contact that these social actors were signified, their bodies given new meanings based on the storehouse of cultural meanings each community has at its disposal in any given moment.
This structural relation is visible in 16th century history, but potentially it's also visible in the tumultuous living history we are all experiencing of late in real time. So instead of crawling backwards through history today, I want to explore two contemporary contact encounters, but do so with the same theoretical apparatus developed in the larger project. So I'll shift to that apparatus now.
In the beyond space of contact, notions of apotheosis and apophasis outline the parameters of whiteness. The forceful insertion of white people into non-white spaces produces a presence in the form of a God complex, or what I'm calling an apotheosis. That is, the manifestation of gods and spirits on the body of a human person.
Apotheosis as an analytic is meant to emphasize that for white folks, contact transmuted transcendence from a verb to a noun. It becomes static. Often, it would even occur that a kind of psychological transference would take place wherein some indigenous community members would mystify the arrival of white men with the arrival of mythical spirits.
Famous debates, in fact, have unfolded as we tried to make sense of whether indigenous Hawaiians actually believed Captain Cook the return god Lono, or if Quetzalcoatl had returned in the form of her Hernan Cortes. And as late as 2017, the AP was running stories about the Vanu tribe of the South Pacific worshiping Prince Phillip as a God. Prince Phillip.
These old tropes die hard. In fact, one of Long's students and another HDS faculty member, David Carrasco, has a wonderfully provocative essay on this very issue, emphasizing that while these associations likely did, at times, happen for the indigenous communities, such associations were means of emphasizing kinship across an ontological distance through the grammar of what we will come to call religion.
The Spaniards, on the other hand, use the associations to undergird presumed moral differences within a shared ontology. That's an isomorphic relationship. In the overidentification of non-white myths with Western notions of religion then, white folks, then as much as now, alienate ourselves from the possibility of experiencing the transcendence Rivera suggests is available in such moments.
By apophasis, I mean the deferral of ownership of that divinity or spirit, whatever the claimed appropriation, which is to say, the denial of cultural specificity. Equally at work in these moments of contact is a nearly wholesale rejection of the cultural specificity that indigenous folks were applying to the white people.
When marked as white or as Christian or as pirates, or often even as ghosts, that shows up in the archives a lot, the refrain from white Christians back to the indigenous of the world was usually some version of an appeal to homogeneity. That is no, no, no, no, no, we're just like you. We're just like you. Our cultural artifacts, they're not ours, but they're all of ours. That's their discursive and rhetorical rejoinder.
Negative theology, Rivera describes, works out of an intense awareness that language and symbols cannot possibly grasp God. God exceeds all representation. This structural negation I want to suggest is at work in these contact encounters. We have an apotheosis of Captain Cook in an apophasis of whiteness, simultaneously.
The thing that does not empirically exist, a white God or whiteness as God, becomes visible through the creative application of myth. And the thing that does, in fact, empirically exist, that is cultural continuity, is rendered imaginary and is denied. Historian of religions David Chidester has described similar sensibilities shaping the very scholarship that would become religious studies in his study of cultural contact in southern Africa.
He suggests that by developing a universal discourse about otherness, imperial comparative religion established a discursive regime of sameness that served the interests of global control over primitives at home and abroad. Both apotheosis, this God complex, and apophasis, the denial of it, worked together here as a technology of encounter, sustaining what Rivera calls hypercertainty supported by claims to absolute knowledge, totalizing systems that foreclose the openness, excess, and irreducability that transcendence implies.
Perkinson suggests that so fundamental was this mode of relating in the making of new world Europeans that whiteness today functions as a kind of silent prophylaxis, policing the borders between its more privileged life worlds and the social conditions it identifies as Black and dangerous. Some of us then experienced whiteness as a kind of disbelief in death, and others of us, those counted as history's others, experience whiteness as death.
It is, Perkinson remarks, a veritable incarnation of denial, consciousness without a body. Its body is the Blackness it metabolizes as its own white flesh. Tzevetan Todorov's analysis of Hernan Cortes distills these abstract characterizations into two kinds of behaviors. And these behaviors, I want to suggest, still offer the most useful frame for understanding whiteness during contact encounters even today. Consider this my effort to have us talking about and thinking about the white game, the sleight of hand tactic that is whiteness.
So this is what Todorov says. The first is that an interest in the other comes at the cost of a certain empathy towards the other. Cortes in this way ensures himself an understanding of the other's language and a knowledge of the other's political organization, and from that manages to pass himself off as Quetzalcotl returned to earth. You can't take on the character or qualities of a mythical figure of someone else's tradition without knowing that tradition.
In this relating to the other, the preconditions are set for understanding oneself as elevated above the other. The second phase, described by Todorov, involves assimilating the culture of the Indians to his own world, including clothes and food, out of a desire to convert the Indians to Christianity. The Franciscans, for instance, are want to appropriate indigenous practices and mores, expressing qualities of simultaneous adaptation and absorption.
What is denied, Todorov recognizes, and here's the crux where all of these thinkers ideas are kind of colliding, is the existence of a human substance truly other, something capable of being not merely an imperfect state of oneself. This notion of an imperfect state of oneself is a wonderful way of understanding how white people have imagined the idea of the divine historically, as well as how that idea has functioned teleologically in the social world for them and everyone else impacted by us.
Apophatic theology then, offers a mirror image of this relationship that would then bring forth into view this white God complex. Essentially, for Todorov, the most fundamental building blocks of whiteness are the notions of Christian egalitarianism and the Aristotelian great chain of being. This is whiteness, and it creates a complicated, dangerous situation.
In the best of the cases, Todorov continues, the Spanish authors speak well of the Indians, but with very few exceptions, they do not speak to the Indians. One consequence of this behavior for white folks historically is that in severing the mythic ties between indigenous peoples and their myths, and by turning them into the foundations for our apotheosis, we've placed our own capacity to embrace our own humanity into the hands of the other. It's a dangerous dynamic in thinking about systems and social systems.
I say all of this to pose a question of historical continuity. What of this dynamic remains operative, and what might happen when this apophatic mode of relating to the other is questioned or undermined. In what follows, I want to shift from this existential and historical and focus on the contemporary and the concrete, giving mention to two distinct kinds of contact encounters, expressing what I have here thematically called spirits of whiteness. And I want to do so by sharing of video, so let me wrap my head around how to do that.
George Floyd Avenue. They've renamed it.
Is that better?
Yep that works, thank you.
(SINGING) Honesty, light in the darkness, break out, shining new year, God.
In the name of Jesus.
People all over America are standing up. If you know anyone who is in need of prayer, please step up.
Anyone who needs prayer, just lift your hand up.
Look how beautiful this is.
Some of you who want to be baptized, it's going to happen over there. Give God the praise for those coming in, getting baptized tonight.
Come on. Holy Spirit's moving.
God's on the move. Praise God.
Let me say hi. Let me say hi to everyone.
Hey everybody. God is moving. Yes he is. Yes, hallelujah.
And what we're going to do is for the trauma and the injustice--
For the trauma and the injustice--
That has been done.
All races coming together. Wow. Asian, and Black, white, Indian, Latin American. Everyone's coming together. Watch this. Look at these tears.
So on the weekend of June 13 of this year, the dominionist Christian missionary volunteer worship leader of Bethel Church in Redding, California, Sean Feucht hosted what he called a hope rally in Minneapolis, Minnesota, at the exact location where George Floyd had been killed by Minneapolis police.
In the previous weeks, the site had become something of a shrine to Floyd and other victims of police violence, and a meeting place for Black Lives Matter protesters. When news of Feucht's rally hit Twitter, one tweet noted the irony that Bethel and Sean don't even support Black Lives Matter, adding that this is how little they respect boundaries and consent. They are the center of the universe, and we all must bow.
Other comments noted the pernicious of Feucht's Christian worship music drowning out the voices of protesters and other invited speakers, while many additional comments emphasized that Feucht was neither invited to the city nor encouraged to stick around. As you saw in the video, the occasion included an altar call, the moment of a Christian worship service where participants are invited to receive salvation in Jesus Christ.
The day also, as you witnessed, included literal baptisms. And to be sure, from what the video shows, it does seem to be a diverse group of worshippers. Yet there's something absolutely jarring in seeing a young Black woman baptized while wearing a shirt that reads George Floyd changed the world.
Equally troubling is hearing the person with the camera celebrate, essentially fetishizing difference. By fetishizing, I mean he's taking the meaning out of difference and giving it, in this case, a meaning of sameness. And in an almost pornotropic fashion, he's celebrating the tears of participants. The rest of the video that I didn't show you is quite literally him going from one ethnicity to another to another, all of them crying, with him saying it each time, look at how beautiful those tears are.
Feucht and his crew were turning the tragedy into an expression of God's grace, accluding the cultural specificities at work for an appeal to homogeneity. Essentially, he was there to wash Black folks white in Christ. And here is where Durkheim perhaps shows back up, in that this whitewashing comes in the form of emotional effervescence. He may as well be taking direction from 16th century Franciscans and their engagement with the Aztec.
Structurally, we're looking at the same thing. When the rally ended, Feucht tweeted simply that he had no words for what God is doing tonight in Minneapolis. Across the month of June, Feucht had made it very clear that while quote, the statement Black Lives Matter is true, the movement is a fraud, end quote. In response he was confronted with rising tides, and here is something is kind of organic, there's a zeitgeist of some sort, because lots and lots of white Christians were angry about this kind of behavior for seemingly the first time ever, as far as the size of the blowback was.
They were mad about his dominionism. And if you haven't heard of this term, you'll want to look this up when you have a moment. He's not an evangelical. He's a dominionist. But he's framing his perspective as a normative evangelical perspective. In response, Feucht drew a proverbial line in the sand of white American Christian faith stating, quote, cancel culture is not kingdom culture, following this with tweets that included talk of spiritual warfare.
His defensiveness matched with his audacity to even enter into the public discourse surrounding the movement for Black life brings to mind a statement essayist Lillian Smith made a long time ago about it from her memoir of growing up white in the repressive south. She said their religion was too narcissistic to be concerned with anything but a man's body and a man's soul, like the child in love with his own image and the invalid in love with his own disease, these men of God were in love with sin, which had come from such depths within that they believed they had created it themselves.
By early July, Feucht found himself the leader of white Christians offended at California governor Gavin Newsom's mandate against choir rehearsals and performances. Remember, we're in this pandemic. Fortinbras marches ever onward. Newsom's practical guidance to keep all California safe elicited a kind of narcissistic injury to Feucht and clearly many, many other almost exclusively white Christians.
In response, he created an online video and petition called let us worship where he states, quote, how insane is it that for the last several weeks tens of thousands of people have been gathering outdoors in cities all across California, and they've been screaming and chanting and protesting, then now the church wants to gather just like we've been doing for thousands of years to simply worship God, and they bring the hammer down against us, end quote.
In Feucht's actions across this past summer, I want to suggest we have a distillation of the making of American Christianity as white. The statistically verifiable situations of Black Americans facing police brutality, public executions, and disparate pandemic consequences is transmuted into a feeling of persecution amongst white Christians. There must be something wrong with you, so let me save you, in other words.
And not for nothing, from a historical standpoint that is the definition of soteriology. The concern over salvation is repackaged by Feucht in a bait and switch as a restoration then ultimately of white religious freedom. The language of unity in Christ and the rhetoric of religious freedom serves as the twin means of the spiritual denial of difference.
So for the sake of time, I'm going to share just a brief section of this next example.
That face! No, I'm real. By your very blind ignorance, you don't have your ability to even come up with your own fucking ideas.
I will leave when I finish. You've not established authority to tell me to leave. You got get a manager. You want to talk, you find management, that I can no longer--
You have to leave. Please leave the store.
Are you exercising your right as private company to take away my rights?
You can refuse service? Are you refusing my service?
Why aren't you saying we refuse your service?
Sir, you do not need to yell.
No, I choose to yell, and you cannot stop me.
Return to your service of Satan and your ignorant belief that you're right.
Calm down, calm down. You're being recorded.
Just like you.
OK ladies, but we're not using violence.
This is my community--
We're not using violence.
You guys, oh really? You guys are just staying. Piss off.
You can't do that. You can't do that, or you will be restrained.
Get the fuck out of here. Get the fuck out of here. All of you, get the fuck out of here. Get the fuck out of here.
Get your hands off me. You're the worst.
(SINGING) Hey, hey, hey.
The children are not the answer--
[SINGING IN UNISON]
All right. Sorry for speeding through that, but for the sake of time, I wanted to cut it short. So I want to briefly discuss this very real phenomenon, popularized of late on social media, loosely framed in terms of the tropes of a white woman named Karen, and increasingly, for equity's sake, a white man named Kevin.
If we tried to date this phenomenon, we might go back to Michael Richards, the actor who played Kramer on Seinfeld. In 2006 he had an onstage outburst in what can only be described as a racialized narcissistic fit, a race rage, as it were. Richards and the two people in the brief video clip all seem to be experiencing symptoms found in clinical descriptions of narcissistic harm.
Now I'm not willing to die on this hill just yet, but let's merely consider as a thought experiment if the frame of narcissism is useful. If not, I'm perfectly happy to stick with the more obvious demonic possession. So following anthropologist John Jackson Junior, these events aren't necessarily new, but our capacity to document them continues to improve thanks to technology. Without the tape, he says, it can be denied and dismissed.
My question is, is Richards and the broader Karen phenomenon indicative of what happens when white folks can no longer deny difference? Building on Jackson's work, religious studies scholar Monica Miller suggests that the lack of appreciation for assumed and perceived notions of difference become ideological stumbling blocks in the project of radical envisioning.
For white people whose worlds have been built around such denials, these moments may prove more than mere stumbling blocks. Take the white man in Walmart wearing Texas Longhorn apparel. He references religion as well as the Constitution in demanding that the most [AUDIO OUT] Walmart employees respect his personal space, but he even says explicitly, I don't think you guys got to see it, but he says that he's not going to respect theirs. And he proceeds to scream at, threaten, ridicule, and deny the workers' capacity to determine his location in space and time. And presumably, all of this is triggered over the mandate that he wear a mask.
Now in the case of the white woman who assaults native political activists who are in Southern California protesting the border wall, a spirit is similarly on display in her violent behavior. And not to be flippant here, but I mean, there's a character, or a quality of expression reminiscent of The Exorcist. I mean, she seems possessed.
And so like the man before her, she applies the vocabulary of religion to the activists. She caricatures and then ridicules, even mocking what she reads as the group's religious activity, even asking them quote, what are you praying to? Are you even praying to a fucking God? You guys didn't see that part either, my apologies.
In this regard, she may as well be reading from the script of the voyages of Arizono, because that's exactly what white folks did in 16th century contact encounters. Quite literally, she does the same comparative exercise that is the constitutive foundation of white religion in America as theorized by Long. She's deeply irreverent, and in this moment of heightened sensory perception, this moment of sheer rage, her brain and the man in Walmart and countless other Karens and Kevins turned to the stuff of religion to orient themselves in a moment of madness. Isn't that peculiar?
So what's at work in all of these moments when white folks are seemingly coming unhinged in the face of otherness? Whether that's calling cops on birdwatchers and birthday partyers, or pulling guns out and threatening people who may or may not have bumped you in line, or lashing out at store workers merely following corporate rules, to say nothing of police brutality and executions. What is it about the basic request that you give attention to my health needs, in this case in the form of a mask, where that would create such a rupture in you psychically that we see explosions of this sort take place?
Granted, I'm focusing on these specific instances because they are both extreme and caught on camera, but were we to all be in the same room, I could ask you to raise your hands if you've seen a white person during the pandemic have a rant about mask mandates or other preventative measures, and nearly all of us will be raising our hands.
Now white folks aren't the only ones not wearing masks, and we're not the only ones wearing them improperly. But we seem to be the only ones having these sorts of explosions. I'm sure there are exceptions. Nevertheless, this is our task to try and make sense of. Now, some of you-- this will be-- I'll wrap it up here. Some of you might be getting nervous and wanting to quickly diagnose these folks as potentially literally mentally ill. Maybe. If we need to label all of these folks mentally ill, so be it.
These suggestions might ring to some as bordering on ableism, but make no mistake, I'm deadly serious in this comparison. It isn't analogical. If the idea of God can be characterized as a universal neurosis, as Freud suggests, and this is one of the few places where I think he's onto something, and if whiteness works in and through the maintenance of a God complex that's simultaneously denied, then the results of its absence could very well express through neurosis, sociopathy, and psychopathy.
But I'm just as happy to meet myth with myth, and here's my concluding point. Folks in the study of religion have long explored spirit possession and spirit mounting as it concerns Black and indigenous people of color. Like Painter notes, Blackness is eminently fascinating. But how many of us are applying the tools of religious studies or theology to the data of this white narcissistic rage, or this white demonic spirit possession?
I don't care what we call it, so long as more of us start calling it something. Maybe I'm wrong about the narcissism piece, but we won't know one way or another until we start taking white people seriously as our data. That's the major takeaway, I hope, here for everyone. We have got to start rendering our data white.
Yes, in many respects scholars have studied white people all along, but those studies have almost always been transparent. That is, the framing of the data has not been in terms of that whiteness. So if you hear me say anything today, this is the last thing I'll say and then I'll shut up, it's that this shift in framing needs to happen, and not merely for the sake of contextualizing oneself within one's project.
That is a vital aspect of any project, but in the sense here of allowing the intervention of whiteness as an analytic frame to take hold of our minds and impact our hypotheses and interpretations of data. To the extent that we don't do that, whiteness will run the risk of remaining in this perpetual state of denial, serving as this hidden existential bomb that merely reinforces the hyper-certainties offered by purportedly objective scholarship. So with that, I will stop talking and I look forward to any questions or comments or feedback.
Wow, thank you Christopher. That is a lot to chew on. I've got questions that came in before you spoke, and then there's a few here, but I'm going to take the prerogative to ask you one of my own, which is the question of clarification. It strikes me that if you ask most people what they think about what whiteness or white supremacy insists on, they'd say that it insists on the difference between whites and nonwhites, right? But you've invited us to think about the operation of the denial of difference is actually just as important to the logic of whiteness, or maybe even more.
Is the denial of difference a mask for the insistence on difference? Is it a mask for a kind of assimilation of those who are different? And how then do you apply that to the recent-- I'm thinking of Ta-Nehisi Coates' argument, that Trump has made explicit what was implicit, or revealed what was formerly hidden.
Yeah, thank you for the question. So I think a lot of this has to do with assimilation, absolutely, and a lot of this can be thrust onto the shoulders of the notion of Christian egalitarianism. So one book that has been really transformative and helpful for me is Terence Keel's book that shows the connections between Christian sensibilities and the making of liberal scientific modalities and enlightenment thought, et cetera, et cetera.
And I think that there's something that needs to be said and addressed with respect to the folks for whom constitute the majority in any given one of these contact cases. And so in my work, I have spent most of the time focusing more on normative whiteness, and I'm thinking about this in terms of demographics, as opposed to explicit expressions of racial hatred.
They absolutely exist, without question, and they're related, but I think they're related in so far as those fringe more explicitly violent expressions of religion, I would certainly agree with the themes that the center is running with as far as the series goes, those things are historically meant to batten down the hatches, to reinforce this capacity to assimilate and assimilate smoothly under the veneer of Christianity.
So increasingly, I'm of the mind that there is no distinguishing whiteness from Christianity. Now if that forces me to have to deal with certain complications in terms of who claims ownership over Christianity, so be it. But I mean, Christianity is the major mechanism ensuring that these communities experience untold amounts of violence, whether we're talking about the 16th century or whether we're talking about now, with someone like Sean Feucht who's essentially using the notion of healing, the notion of reconciliation to essentially justify the effects of history.
So all of that to say whilst we are sold the idea that whiteness or that white supremacy operates according to antipathy towards the other, I think we need to take much more seriously the way that the overwhelming majority of white folks in the West, they're not thinking in these terms that the discourses have proffered we're thinking of them. And we've got to take seriously that as part of this hermeneutical challenge, this hermeneutical situation.
So how do we do that? Well, this apophatic impulse is my way of trying to address that. How is it we could be so centrally located in terms of white privilege and the effects of whiteness externalized onto non-white populations, and how is it that we're so involved in it, and yet somehow so quite genuinely color blind to it. And so that needs an answer, and for me that answer plays out in terms of this Christian egalitarianism.
And historically there's a big distinction to be made between good intentions and how history unfolds. So I'm not even suggesting that Sean Feucht is up to no good. I'm not saying he's even acting perniciously. Now he might be, but I don't know one way or the other. I can't tap into his interiority. But what I can do is look at how history has unfolded, and the resemblance of what's happening there and what has been happening in all of these contact encounters is scary to me.
All right, let' me take up another question. I would take up your invitation to think about whiteness and Christianity as if not identical, so maybe co-extensive or something like that. I'm quite gripped by this idea of thinking of whiteness as a religion itself, and it's one of the reasons why I was attracted to the next event in this series, which is the book that your friends from Rice, Biko Gray and Stephen Findley and the third woman I have not yet met, they edited. White rage is a religion in particular.
I'm thing about that in light of those clips you showed us at the end, where white rage is on full display, and taking up this invitation to think of them as, you were saying, look, we have religious ways, all kinds of ways, to talk about something like this. But we don't like to talk about it with white people. We talk about it in far flung places, and we have anthropologists study it. We've got it happening right here.
But if whiteness is a religion, this isn't a demon possession, this is the possession of the spirit. This is more Pentecostal than the demonic. So I wonder if you can think with me about that.
I mean, that's really important, and I think a fair point as well. And I guess the way I think of it is-- so in my first book I call whiteness a god idol, which is a kind of convoluted way of being attentive to the way that we can't really always escape theology in the way that we want to.
And what I mean by that is gods believe in us, whether or not we believe in them. So in the same way that we have to be attentive to hegemonic Christian values, the same is going to hold true in terms of race, the same is going to hold true in terms of gender, with respect to masculinity and hyper masculinity and patriarchy, and so how is it we can begin to respond to those things?
And I think hermeneutics, for me, has always really ended up my kind of home base, because I think so many of these issues are really hermeneutical in nature. We're living, thanks to this Christian egalitarian sensibility, we're living largely under the auspices of us sharing in this world.
But I think what's going to be more helpful in the long term is coming to realize that we've been living in different worlds. I mean that in a literal way, but it would have to also be in a theological sense or in a kind of ontological sense. We're working with different value systems. We're thinking about the relationship of ourselves to other selves in different terms, and yet we've been sold this liberal notion that we're all working with the same set of options in a way that-- I mean there's good reason why we've ended up in this space, because 19th century white men were racist as hell, in a really old school kind of way, and so we've overcorrected to the extent that we have trouble giving ontological weight to social difference.
And this plays out even in the academy to the extent that even in departments of religion, we can't help but somehow instrumentalize Black women or Hispanic women or LGBT scholars, in so far as we perceive our need to populate a field of difference in the way that would offset the ontological sameness that so many folks are working with. And until we kind of destabilize that, then really we're going to be a lot closer to the camera man, who is fetishizing the tears of all of these folks, rather than destabilizing that overall system of meaning and construction. So yeah, I guess that's--
Will you permit one last question? This is from the Q&A, it's a combination of a couple of questions, and it has to do with whiteness, not surprisingly. More specifically, if whiteness is a category whose history can be shown, very pliable category put to very different uses, should people designated white stop referring to themselves as white, or is that too easy a way out of the way in which even if you choose not to describe yourself as you are still part of it, and reaping the benefits of it, implicated in its horrors, and how might that then also resonate into whether and how people can call themselves of color, if that is some sort of intent, the dialectical other of whiteness?
That's a fantastic question that I spend lots of time thinking about, in fact. I have an opinion on the matter, and then I have a kind of professional answer. And the professional answer is that white folks, we are now in this situation of moral particularity. What I mean by that is we have existed in this in a social situation where we have only ever allowed ourselves to live in and through others.
So in so far as we know that we need to turn to our own pile of cultural resources, the only thing we have to turn to are bad things. I mean that axiomatically. There's not anything preservable of whiteness, period. I mean, that's my opinion on the matter. But that puts us in an existential bind. It means we either celebrate this pernicious form of whiteness, or we appropriate.
That's a complicated issue that would require a kind of a broader scale more democratically oriented set of perspectives in order to adjudicate the right and the wrong, the this and the that from that issue. But that's just where I'll leave the answer, is that white folks now find themselves in this existential paradox. Robin Wegman has written on this. Jennifer Harvey, in the study of religion, has probably written what I think is the best treatment of this, the paradox of white moral particularity.
That is, we know enough now to know that we can't be who we been, but we also know that we can't be the other. So who will we be, and how will we respond to that challenge is one that I think, in the study of religion, whether that's religious studies or theology, I think we as fields, as discourses, have a lot to offer those topics. But we've really just now started the engines running in terms of applying what we know to those issues, to those problems. So that's what I'll say of that.
OK, well I'm mindful of the time, and we're already a few minutes over. I'm always sad because there are some very good and very insightful questions in the queue, and what we will do those of you who asked those questions, we'll share those with Christopher after the lecture, and perhaps he can follow up with you.
I'd be happy to, always.
So I don't want those just to disappear. So Christopher, thank you again so much for this very challenging and engaging talk, and thank you all for joining us for this. And again, please join our mailing list to find out about future events in this series and in other series, and the next most relevant one is at Fred Moten in mid October. I'm going to attend that.
So am I. All right. Christopher, thanks again. Be well, everyone.