On January 22nd of this year, I attended Jamar Tisby’s lecture at Seattle Pacific University based on his book, The Color of Compromise. He began with the story of a speech by White civil rights lawyer Charles Morgan Jr at the Birmingham Young Men’s Business Club in Birmingham, Alabama the day after the murder of four young girls in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. 1 Morgan questioned the men in the room, “Who threw the bomb?” He then continued, “The answer should be, ‘we all did it.’” 2 He argued that the White citizens of Birmingham had created the conditions for the bombing to happen through their silence and complicity in a culture of segregation, intimidation, and hate. His call was for the entirety of the White community to stand up and take their place in creating a different culture, to end the bombings and the violence.
As I heard this message, I nodded my head and felt in my heart that Tisby was correct in starting with this story. I agreed that we all create a culture together, and only together can our society change. Those who are White in America, however, have more power and voice and benefit most when nothing changes. Tisby’s call is for all Americans to join the work to dis-mantle norms and societal structures that are harmful for all of us: White, Brown, Black, other, in-between, out of the norm, first generation, twelfth generation, etc. We as Americans have to do the work in our bodies, as well as our minds, if we are to heal our collective harm, our embodied hurt, and our lingering traumas. I can acknowledge this, yet I still find it difficult to move outside of what Resmaa Menekem has termed, “white-body supremacy.” As he contends in his book, My Grandmother’s Hands:
Social activism is necessary for changing the world in positive ways. But if our collective body is to fully heal from the trauma of white-body supremacy, we must create cultural shifts as well. White-body supremacy is already a part of American culture—in the norms we follow, the assumptions we make, the language we speak, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. This is the case no matter the color of our skin. This means we must create new expressions of culture that call out, reject, and undermine white-body supremacy.
This won’t be quick or easy—but there is no other way.
There is no singular “answer” to the problem of racial inequity in America, there is only the long path of reform, restructuring, and relearning our systems of being the United States of American. For this to happen, however, we have to feel the shift and change in our bones. New laws may be written and enacted, but until the hearts, minds, and bodies of Americans feel that all humans are truly created equal, we will remain ensnared in white-body supremacy.
If this claim about the necessity of bodily feeling and bodily healing is true, then the classrooms of predominately White institutions (PRI), such as The Seattle School, present a challenge. Our students of color have always been attuned to the daily reality of white-body supremacy, but since the deaths of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Michael Brown in 2014, our students of color have become even more hyper-attuned to the news and the realities of living in a non-white body in the United States. As a White professor, my body has not caught up to the level of anxiety and terror that our students feel on a daily basis, but I can create spaces of safety and agency. I can research and read more theologians of color. I can make my reading lists and lectures more diverse and multifaceted. As Jennifer Harvey, author of Dear White Christians, said in a recent Wabash webinar, “Brown and Black Students Matter!,” not only do White professors have an obligation to challenge the status quo around race in America, but we are guilty of “pedagogical negligence” if we do not work to change the dynamics in our classrooms and on our campuses.
If this kind of change is to happen, then I have to acknowledge my own lack of bodily attunement to the terror in my own body. If I am to love and teach well, then I have to learn to love my story and my body more, with brutal honesty. Also, until I can own my own White fragility and desire to be “woke” (which is a word I think no White person should claim), I have to stop and apologize to my students for not having the capacity to know viscerally their daily reality. I understand now that this apology is not just to our students of color but to all of our students. To re-create a more equitable society, we all have to walk the long journey of healing and change together.
An equitable classroom requires more mutuality and agency for every student so that we can work together to teach rather than indoctrinate, to grow our minds together rather than to mimic or repeat what was given to us. With this in mind, I will commit to decentering the white-body supremacy of the theologies in which I have been educated and formed. For this to happen, I need to do as much work on my whiteness as I do to create more diverse syllabi and classroom experiences. I believe our theology will be more robust and life-giving because of this work. Our call is not into self-hate but into a redeeming and liberating love. This is why our school’s mission is to train students toward and for the sake of loving God, neighbor, and self. I commit myself once more to this task.
- Andrew Cohen, “The Speech That Shocked Birmingham the Day After the Church Bombing,” The Atlantic (September 13, 2013), https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/09/the-speech-that-shocked-birmingham-the-day-after-the-church-bombing/279565/.
- For Morgan’s full speech go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7KCP8yZgxW4.