I recently read derogatory comments a prominent political leader made about non-white immigrants swarming into our towns and cities and ruining our way of life. It was not Donald Trump, but Benjamin Franklin. And the threatening masses were not Latinos from south of the border, but immigrants from Germany—my ancestors.
“Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc.” – what follows is an excerpt from the 1751 original by Benjamin Franklin
[W]hy should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.
Which leads me to add one Remark: That the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased. And while we are, as I may call it, Scouring our Planet, by clearing America of Woods, and so making this Side of our Globe reflect a brighter Light to the Eyes of Inhabitants in Mars or Venus, why should we in the Sight of Superior Beings, darken its People? why increase the Sons of Africa, by Planting them in America, where we have so fair an Opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys, of increasing the lovely White and Red? But perhaps I am partial to the Complexion of my Country, for such Kind of Partiality is natural to Mankind.
I have always been labeled as white—by myself and others. Yet not according to Ben Franklin. My ancestors are the exact people he sees as a threat to whites. They came from Germany and swarmed into Franklin’s beloved Pennsylvania. My father is a 6th generation German-American. And even after five generations in Pennsylvania they still spoke German. My grandfather did not learn English until he went to school. According to Franklin I am not white, but a swarthy German—a threat to the ways of whiteness.
It is common place to observe that most of those who complain about immigrants today are part of ethnic groups that once were slandered and scorned in similar ways. Franklin’s comments reinforce that important observation. Important, but not new for me. What was new for me was the realization that there was a time when some people would not have seen me as white.
I thought of whiteness as a biological trait—a given, about DNA, not based on subjective perceptions. But Franklin labels as non-white a whole host of people that I would have thought of as clearly, biologically, white. We could get into shades of paleness, and say Franklin is talking about people whose skin is REALLY pale. I do happen to be a bit darker skinned than my two brothers, perhaps I got more of the swarthy German blood and they got a bit more of my mother’s Irish, English and Dutch blood. But if it had been Irish, instead of Germans, swarming into Pennsylvania would Franklin have said anything different? If he can label the Swedes swarthy, he would have found a way to call the Irish non-white as well.
What is whiteness for Franklin? Although he links it to a physical trait, skin color, it clearly is first and foremost about culture, language--a way of life that is deemed superior to others. Franklin’s whiteness is not a biological given, it is subjective and constructed. Realizing something is constructed, not a given, creates space for evaluation. (I remember distinctly the new space I felt to evaluate the dispensationalism I had grown up with when I found it had been developed in the 19th century. I had assumed it was the way people had always read the Bible.) Franklin’s comments point to whiteness not being what I thought it was and invite taking a step back and asking: what is whiteness?
Prejudice, discrimination, one people group feeling superior and oppressing another has gone on for millennia. But categorizing people by race—skin color and physical features--is relatively new. Willie Jennings, in his book The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, locates the origins of racial categorization in the African slave trade. There were no black people in Africa until they were ripped away from their land and tribe, which had given them identity, and were mixed together with people of other tribes on a boat. Before, Akan or Yoruba, now black. Using primary sources from the colonial period Jennings chronicles in great depth how whiteness developed as Europeans sought ways to legitimize enslavement, subjugation, or destruction of native peoples in Africa and the Americas. As Franklin displays, whites were considered superior. Others’ racial categorizations of whiteness, however, were much broader than Franklin’s. For instance the Spanish and Portuguese, very “swarthy” and definitely not white according to Franklin, led the way in developing whiteness, and very much put themselves in that category.
In some ways the category “white” was fuzzy and clearly not first and foremost about skin color. For instance on slave ships all slaves were black and all crew members, of whatever shade, were considered white. In other ways the categorization sought precision and exactness. Different people group’s status, intellect, and ability were linked to where they landed on the light-dark spectrum. The Spanish had intricate charts categorizing people depending on how much Spanish, African or indigenous blood they had—16 different categories!
We see in these examples the same thing observed in Franklin. In one sense it is all about skin color, but in another sense skin color is a convenient vehicle that is flexed and stretched. Jennings displays that whiteness was developed as a way to interpret, organize and narrate the world, and, crucially, to legitimize certain peoples’ perspectives as the central facilitating reality in the world. It was about so much more than skin color. In her recent thesis Noemi Vega captures, concisely, some of the breadth and depth that Jennings’s words point to.
Racial formation began with a forceful social imagination that saw the world through a white human ideal. This ideal would be used to re-create and reinterpret human bodies and their worth along a racial scale for economic profit, becoming a hegemonic orientation of reality. Whiteness is the power to sustain the social imagination that promotes white bodies. It is hegemonic in usurping identity rooted in connectedness to land and one another and promoting an individualized identity formed apart from geography, history, or common memory. Whiteness didn’t just privilege white bodies, it also shaped societal and economic structures such as the racist immigration laws in the early twentieth century . . . Whiteness further institutionalized racism through Jim Crow laws and continued to flourish even after emancipation. Whiteness impacted the way people lived, by replacing the communal lifestyle of indigenous peoples with an entrepreneurial, capitalistic one focused on material profit.
The above paragraphs begins to answer the question: what is whiteness? The question, however, calls for much more exploration, and reflection on how to respond, than I can do in one blog. I will offer an invitation and a few short observations.
In the last three years I worked with three students who used Willie Jennings’s book in their thesis. I read Jennings's book myself, and used it as a text in my Contemporary Theology course. I have learned from and been challenged by Jennings and each of the three theses. Although having use of Jennings in common, each thesis asks different questions and uses his work in distinct ways. I recommend them highly and invite you to read them.
A great place to start is his short article in the Spring 2015 Divinity, the Duke Divinity School magazine—pages 5-9, “Overcoming Racial Faith.”
Explore in his book, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race in great depth what is summarized in the above article
A short article that focuses on land and place in relation to this theme, including comments by Jennings on ways for churches to respond: “Possessed by the Land: An Interview with Deanna Zantingh and Willie James Jennings.”
Videos of presentations by Willie Jennings: “Race, Faith, and Community” and “Disrupting Image: Overcoming the White Aesthetic Regime”
Jennings has written a theological commentary on Acts, just released. I have not read it, but look forward to doing so.
Students who used Jennings’s book in their theses – they are available electronically from the Fresno Pacific University library via these links.
- Nathan Hunt, “On Earth as it is in Heaven: Place, Shalom, and the Creation of the World,” 2016
- Ivan Paz, “The Myth of Ontological Human Sinfulness: How the Notion that Humans are Inherently Sinful Contributes to the Institutional Scapegoating of the Urban Poor,” 2015.
- Noemi Vega, “Entre Nos: Covenant Epistemology and a Theology of Immanuel for Racial Healing Among Us,” 2017.
I long ago recognized the reality of white privilege—that many doors open easier for me than for people of color. Through reading Nathan’s thesis I recognized that whiteness is much more than just perks and privileges that I have as an individual. Reading Noemi and Willie built on and expanded that awareness. Important as it is to work at that micro level of individual opportunity and privilege we must go further than that. Let these authors point the way.
It is hard for me as a white person to see whiteness. It is the way things are, normal—a given. If you are white, I invite you to let these authors help you see the water you swim in. They provide a helpful mix of perspectives: an African-American, Euro-American, Mexican/Salvadoran-American, and Mexican-American.
As the subtitle to Jennings’s book implies, theology is not a separate entity that we bring into this conversation. Theology has been woven into whiteness and racial thinking since the first days of slavery and the first days of the conquest of the Americas. One response to that is to observe that if theology contributed to the weaving of that tapestry it can also contribute to weaving a new tapestry. But, we cannot use the same threads. Before we start weaving anew we must recognize how theology was distorted through its use in the tapestry of whiteness and race. In different ways each of the authors help us see distortions and point to alternatives.
Place – so much more I could say here, but I just will call attention to the fact that all four authors give attention to place. Something that whiteness has downplayed in theology and life.
Much of Jennings work is history, yet it is a book rooted in and centered on Jesus. That sings forth on the first page and the last section. Jennings is not pitting black theology against other theology, nor just calling for equality. He dares to believe and hope that through Jesus we can experience intimacy--something beyond racial equality. Let us not, however, simply celebrate that Willie Jennings, like us, sees Jesus as the answer and move on. We must take very seriously the hundreds of pages of work he did digging deep into the history of whiteness and the theology woven into that history. If we simply state Jesus is the answer and ignore the way whiteness has influenced us and our view of Jesus, we will not experience the intimacy that Jennings points to. That is because, as Nathan Hunt has observed, whiteness as principality and power, including the supremacy and hierarchy it establishes, forms character that is diametrically opposed to the identity and character provided by Jesus through the Spirit. (Compare, for instance the words of Benjamin Franklin with the actions of Jesus or words of Paul.) The intimacy Jennings points to requires transformation of character. As explored in a part of this website, character change is not quick or easy.
Let us dare to look honestly at how whiteness and race have shaped us (whether white or people of color); let us dare to look honestly at ways that common conceptions of Jesus have been clothed in garments of whiteness, and let us risk, at the micro and macro level, allowing the Spirit of Jesus to guide us in imagining and living in new paradigms. Let these authors guide you in first steps. May the result be greater intimacy in Jesus.
 Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven, CN: Yale, 2010), 180.
 Jennings, 80.
 Willie James Jennings, “Overcoming Racial Faith,” Divinity: Duke University, 14, no. 2 (April 2015): 9
 Noemi Vega Quiñones, “Entre Nos: Covenant Epistemology and a Theology of Immanuel for Racial Healing Among Us” (MA thesis, Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, 2017), 15-16.