Rejecting Whiteness

There were four of us guys in the van. Driving through a neighborhood of Dayton known for money. Racist money. Don’t read that as a castigation of people who live in the neighborhood. Like most other places where we Americans lay our heads, there is a mix of people. Good people and bad people. Giving people and taking people. Privilege and responsibility. But this neighborhood has a history and scars.

Four of us. Three Black. And me.

“You don’t really want to be caught on the side streets here after dark. You will get pulled over.” I advised. One guy responded: “We need a White person in the car.” A second looked back at me in the rear seat and said, “Not you, Aaron. You Black.”

We all laughed, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that my heart swelled. I felt a not insignificant degree of pride. And why that is the case is complicated.

Cultural appropriation is real. It is damaging. It is insulting. And sometimes, it is literally deadly, like when Whites take the intellectual or creative property of a person of color and monetizes it for their benefit and not for the benefit of the artist. Read about the history of rock and roll. Black artists saw their creations repackaged and made palatable for White America; record companies and managers got rich; artists like Elvis Presley, even though he personally despaired of the inequities, made millions off the creations of Black writers and musicians, many of whom died in penury and obscurity.

I’ve written before (and before and before and before) about issues of race and Whiteness. I feel like anyone who knows me and wants to actually follow my philosophy and theology needs to read my blog. And I think it is fair to say that; I have grown tired of having the same conversations around Whiteness. I am exhausted by White fragility. And that has become clear to some people. As a result, I have been called divisive. Exclusionary. Angry. It pains me to hear this, and believe me I have done everything I reasonably can do to make people who accuse me of this to feel heard and listened to. To me, the problem is that I just won’t say, “We can agree to disagree.” If you want people of color to simply stop talking about their race or experiences and just see everyone else as “the same,” I’m not going to say I’m okay with it. People have the right to their opinions, yes. But your right to your opinion does not mean I have to stop talking about mine because your feelings will get hurt.

I just spent the week with fellow doctoral students at United Theological Seminary. We heard from Rev. Dr. F. Willis Johnson, Pastor Rudy Rasmus, Pastor Roz Picardo, incredible men of color who are bringing the light of Christ into the world in loving, positive, affirming ways. Each of them took time to talk with me or pray with me, to encourage me and ask about what the Lord has laid upon my heart. Yet, I know that each one of them, pulled over at the wrong time by the wrong cop or in the wrong situation, they could die. Sure. Any of us could. But their chances are much, much higher. Seriously. Click on the hyperlinks and check out these men and what they are doing. It is incredible.

I attend an amazing seminary.

I have locs. I wore a zoot suit at my wedding. I’m loud and wear wild clothes and shoes. As I write this, I am listening to Miles Davis. My favorite filmmaker is Spike Lee. James Cone’s God is Black changed my life and my theology. I’m the only one who is not a person of color in my cohort, including the mentor. United’s doctoral studies student body is predominately non-white. I feel completely at home and have never been given the stinkeye. In other contexts, I have been accused of being a wigger. Of wanting to be Black.

And, honestly, I guess that’s kinda true.

I hate the concept of Whiteness. I hate what it represents and what it has done. I hate how it has attempted to homogenize complicated and different European and Scandinavian cultures into some boring amalgamation that is also violent. Destructive. There are very few places left on the earth where this insidious creation has not imprinted itself. It has pervaded my faith tradition. It violates those of others. It necessitates something like Black Pride. Latinx Pride. Native Pride. No culture or group should have to shout and scream that their cultures or lives matter. Whiteness does that. Whiteness causes that. And I want no part of it.

But I can’t just pretend that I’m not “White.” I am. I reject the label, but not the consequences. Not the reality. Not the responsibilities that come with the privilege. And I will use my privilege until I don’t have it anymore.

I use that line a lot. Recently, someone asked me what I meant by it. “Well,” I said. “I see three ways I lose it. One, I end up in prison because of justice work. Two, I die. Three, the culture changes and it no longer exists. And if I can only chose two out of the three that I think will actually happen, I know my decision.”

It’s not that I want to be Black in that I want to change my skin tone. I don’t. I love my parents and my family. I am deeply proud to be my parents’ son, and that includes being fiercely attached to my Irish and Finnish heritages. And the way that I choose to be American is heavily influenced by African-American history, culture, religious practices, intellectual contributions, and entertainment. I don’t want to be color blind. I love African-American culture and attitudes; the fierce ways that love and faith are expressed; how laughter is often loud and raucous, smiles quick to come, individuality encouraged.

But I know I’m not Black. I can shave my beard, cut my hair, cover my tats, and close my mouth. Well, theoretically I can do those things but anyone who knows me will attest that Aaron doesn’t shut up easily. And Aaron is gonna do Aaron.

I’ve got a couple dear friends who are designers. They run a rad shop in YS I will be blogging about at some point in the future, but I’m pitching a T-shirt idea and if you think you might want one, comment and let me know. I think if we can gather enough interest, we might be able to get it done. The shirt will say: “I’m not White.”

The great thing is, almost everybody gets to wear it. POC can obviously wear it, and it might spark some interesting conversation. But the thought of White people wearing a shirt saying “I’m not White” is provocative. It makes a statement. I don’t accept that label. At all. I now check “other” and write in that I identify as Sami, the indigenous people of Finland. While there are no genetic tests that can “prove” this, genealogy and family lore lead me to believe the chances are good enough that saying so is not appropriative. The beard and locs honor my ancestors and the culture that is part of my heritage.

But when it comes to understanding myself as an American and a Christian, rejections of Whiteness are most authentic to me. For me. And while I try not to judge those who embrace Whiteness or see things differently than do I–and I certainly try to show respect–the notion that my speaking about these issues consistently and loudly is somehow divisive will simply not fly. I will not sit down. I will not shut up. I lead with love, but love does not always speak words you want to hear. Love isn’t always about feeling good. Sometimes love is about feeling bad. And I don’t mean that as suggesting persons should feel bad about themselves: I mean that love is sometimes about making us feel the bad that results from our impacting someone else in a negative way.

Racism is real. We have major, important changes to make. We are in the midst of another Civil Rights movement and I plan to play my part, to do what I can when I can with who I can for as long as I can. I will make mistakes. I may not see them, but if they are pointed out I will respond and make changes. I will apologize. I will try to see my error first next time.

But I will not ever stop. Not until I’m dead and gone or racism has given up the ghost.

This week has been amazing. I love my cohort and I feel filled with the Spirit of God. I’m going to enjoy the rest of this day that the Lord hath made by taking a nap while snuggling with a cat. Be well, do good works, and love one another. I’ll try to do the same.


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10 thoughts on “Rejecting Whiteness

  1. Hope this will be further published … as in a book of essays. It is so disheartening to see how much we have stolen from African Americans and how we credit ourselves with so much that is in fact, not ours at all.


      1. I’m leaving Routledge for Wipf&Stock for my book on The Gospel of Mark. I’m hoping to publish my dissertation with a UP or denominational publishing house.

  2. The President, Vice-President & Chief of Campus police told me not to speak to any body about this: My dignity & basic human rights stolen as well.

  3. i have a feeling that if we took the time to debate this, you would be one of the more reasonable and thoughtful opponents id have in this debate. which is why although i wouldnt normally bother, i will say a couple things.

    we need to get away from this idea that colonialism is “white.” its not just racist, its inaccurate. its sloppy history. in the broadest sense, a colonial attitude is something that existed in the middle east, its been practiced in asia by asians against other asians, slavery has existed in most cultures (within single races, but across and within groups of people within the same race.) its really classist first– romans enslaving romans.

    its the idea that people are “subjects” whether in the most immoral sense of “property” or the similarly condescending notion that everyone is part of a regime. its always held together with some kind of circular argument or appeal to authority.

    but it isnt “white.” you can say “ok, statistically, its mostly white people.” look, if we are going to/should get rid of racial profiling… “whiteness” shouldnt even be in our vocabulary.

    i get it, the patriarchy is white here. so what is robert mugabe doing? is that “whiteness?” is he an honorary white leader? no. did he “get that attitude from us?” not in any sense that he had to.

    i dont care for this “cultural appropriation” business either. its people arguing over who invented first what existed thousands of years ago. dreadlocks– celts and africans both had them. there are far more important things to talk about. we got the banjo from africa. ok, so lets honor that cultural heritage, not call it a crime.

    if you take cultural appropriation to its logical conclusion, you will end up with a notion of cultural purity– dangerous and fallacious. if your parents are mixed, you dont have to choose. sooner or later, cultures are going to mingle. and thank goodness! thats cultural *exchange.* i dont know anyone talking about “cultural appropriation” that isnt somehow afraid of exchange.

    your concept of whiteness sounds like the black girl who thought her black doll was the “ugly one” because she had internalized racism. you know what? we dont need that baggage. blame history on the people that contribute to it. im not talking about denying history or shying away from historical facts (nor present circumstances.) im saying that this notion of privilege is a little too much like collective guilt– an extremely racist and backwards concept. i wont build any of my ethics on it.

    and dont feel bad that your black friends count you among them, though. being an outsider accepted as family, being adopted by people that actually care about you– how can that be a bad thing? wasnt moses an orphan? to be loved by people that have no societal “obligation” to love you, is one of the greatest loves of all. the way people make that (and everything that neednt be) so political is just sad. get a hobby! with all due respect.

    1. Thanks for the comments. I think we’re saying some of the same things. I disagree with a few details, but in the end I agree with getting rid of self-hatred.

      Privilege is quite real, but I imagine we won’t get anywhere going back and forth.

      I’m assuming the get a hobby comment is generic and not aimed at me. Someone with two jobs and working on a doctorate certainly has no time for a hobby 😉

      I appreciate your time and reasonableness.

      1. i wouldnt deny that privilege exists. i think if we focus on it too strongly we will add to it rather than get rid of it. keeping your friends close and your enemies closer is a great way to have more enemies.

        oh, the get a hobby comment wasnt intended to be completely harsh or dismissive, or entirely at you. it was sort of friendly, a little tongue in cheek, and entirely rhetorical– if you didnt take it seriously, then you took it the right way. have a great day, and thank you for your thoughtfulness– *that* i mean quite literally and sincerely.

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