Normalization of White Culture

What I'm Learning

 

This is one of a series of posts (intended to be read in the order above) focused on exploring the issue of race and how The Gospel shapes our beliefs and response. Racial reconciliation is a common name for this topic, and although it “is not the gospel or the central focus of it, it is a qualitative application of the gospel in function and practice” (Eric Mason).

Genesis 1:26-27

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

In the previous post, we looked at the imago Dei doctrine which states that all people are created in the image of God. This means we are all like Him in certain ways, and we represent Him to the rest of creation. Because of this, every human being is intrinsically valuable, and it changes the way we see each other. If all humans are created in the image of God, then all humans are supremely valuable. We all have souls, and we’re more than just bodies. Therefore, anytime a person’s inherit value is taken away or degraded, it is a sin against God and an attack on God’s image.

In addition, we saw that one way this takes place is in the form of a racial hierarchy that likely infects the hearts of countless people in our country. If we could truly see the root of it, we’d see that there is a quiet belief that white people are more valuable than African American, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, etc. people. For example, many times we’re surprised by intelligent African Americans because we have an inferior belief about their value and intelligence. In addition, we are worried about Hispanic males “taking jobs” because there is a belief in our hearts that sees them more as a financial threat than people made in God’s image. Further, we assume danger when we see people of certain races because there is an underlying belief that people of color are dangerous and need to be avoided.

In the past, I would never have said that I saw people as lesser than me or that I saw people of other races as not having souls. That would have sounded ridiculous and caused me to push back. However, God revealed the deep attitudes of my heart, and those deep attitudes certainly failed to see people of color as my fellow human beings who are supremely valuable in God’s eyes. Image bearers who are like God in certain ways and represent God to the rest of creation.

It’s important to keep the last post in mind as we transition to this one as this is basically part 2. How is it that so many people can have this underlying racial hierarchy embedded in their hearts? Why is it difficult to see? Why is it that white people, including me, tend to push back so hard against this idea?

Our Influences

Note: Much of what’s written in the rest of this post was taken from Daniel Hill’s book, “White Awake.”

Let’s begin with a reflection exercise. Start by listing the people that fall into the following four groups:

  1. Your best friends
  2. People or mentors you look to for guidance
  3. Preachers/teachers/theologians you rely on for spiritual guidance
  4. Authors of books you’re reading or have read within the last several years

Once you have a list, take note of the cultural backgrounds / ethnicities each person represents. What do you notice?

Not long ago, if I were to have done this same exercise, the people in each of these categories would have been exclusively white. In fact, after becoming a Christian in 2009, over many years I read dozens of books in order to dive deeper into the Christian faith, and every one of them was written by a white author.

I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to be influenced by people who share our ethnicity. The people on my list have had a profound impact on my life, and I’m incredibly grateful. However, it is important to see what culture our views are shaped by because this inevitably filters the way we think.

Further, I believe the cultural influence in my life makes it difficult for me to see blind spots, including the ones we explored in the previous post. If our question right now is, “Can I see?” and the answer to that question is “No”, then it’s important to look at possible things that may be making it hard to see. Our influences can be one of those things.

Normalization of White Culture

One potential barrier to sight is what Daniel Hill calls the normalization of white culture.

“British sociologist Alistair Bonnet conducted extensive research on white culture in both America and Britain, and he noted that there was something unique about white culture, especially when observed in relation to nonwhite cultures: in both countries white culture is the “norm” by which all other cultural identities are evaluated [emphasis added]. White culture is an “unchanging and unproblematic location, a position from which all other identities come to be marked by their difference.” In plain language, he said that when we attempt to categorize culture internally, we almost always treat white culture as “normal.” With white culture serving as the baseline, we then evaluate everyone else’s culture based on the norms [emphasis added] we associate with white culture.” Hill (p. 31)

This reality has a big impact on our daily experience and our ability to see. For people who look like me, white normalization is something we don’t even realize because it’s the culture we’ve naturally internalized. Many people have used the illustration that it’s like trying to tell a fish what water is like. For white people, we don’t even know we’re in water (white normalization) because it’s all we’ve ever known.

Another illustration is to think of right handed vs. left handed people. Right handed culture is normal. Things are set up to be natural for right handers because most people are right handed. Right handers don’t realize it because it’s hard to notice. However, ask a left hander, and they’ll be able to immediately point to areas of life where it’s easy to see that being left handed is not the norm. For example, think about how classroom desks are designed with right handers in mind or the fact that left handed scissors can be hard to find.

Here are a few examples of how white normalization can play out:

  • “Many names are considered ‘normal’ within white culture, and when a name is seen as weird or unusual, it’s usually because the name doesn’t fall within that standard. The same is true when we describe an individual’s personal fashion as ‘weird’ or ‘unusual.’ It’s weird or unusual in comparison to the white default.” (Hill)
  • “Have you ever noticed how every cultural group on the census is defined in proximity to white Americans? You have Native American, African American, Asian American, Latino/a American, and so on. What is not overtly stated is how normalized white American culture is. All of these identities are labeled relative to the location of white culture.” (Hill)
  • What is business attire? What are acceptable hairstyles? What does a Christian worship service look and sound like? In all of these areas, our normal is defined according to white culture.
  • In seminary, “There are core, required classes that are just called theology. But when you go to the electives, you will see that, in the spirit of diversity, we offer an array of additional theology classes: black theology, Latin theology, Asian theology, etc. A question begs to be asked: Why do all of those theology classes have a modifier before them? Where is the category of white theology? I will answer it for you: you won’t find one. The theology passed on to us from white forefathers is considered to be the normal, default standard for theology. It is the assumed cultural norm. Everyone else’s theology is defined in relation to whiteness.” In time I began to see how this was far more than a theoretical exercise. The normalization of white culture dramatically affects cultural identity development, and both white people and people of color feel its effects.” (Hill)

White culture is the “normal” majority culture that we live in, and it heavily influences our perceptions. It also can keep us from seeing embedded racial hierarchies and injustices because we’ve not only been conditioned to see white culture as normal, but, as we saw in post 3, we’ve also been conditioned to see it as superior. Because of this, we tend to evaluate other cultures negatively based on white culture.

“We come to terms with the fact that since the time we were born we have been conditioned to prize whiteness and to associate it with all things good— beauty, intelligence, capacity, etc. We come to terms with the fact that we were steered as young people toward “good” school districts, “good” neighborhoods, “good” universities, and “good” jobs. We didn’t have the eyes to see it then, and we now realize that “good” was the politically safe way to say “white.” This normalization of the goodness of whiteness has led to a lack of diverse experience, and we realize it has shaped us as white people in a very specific and unique way.” (Hill)

This is where the normalization becomes dangerous. If what we’ve been conditioned to think is “good” is white culture, then people who don’t participate in the norms of that culture can be looked down upon, not taken seriously, and/or oppressed. In addition, if the embedded racial hierarchy prominently exists in white culture (which I believe it does), then the result is a quiet, underlying, yet overwhelming belief within the culture that devalues people of color. This certainly leads to injustice and oppression, and this goes against the imago Dei doctrine.

Consider a friend’s perspective:

“What makes right?

Many times our sense of right and wrong is dictated by what we find normal; what we were raised seeing, the heroes we grew up emulating, how we saw the people in our community interact. This defacto righteousness invades our sense of justice. People who don’t fall into our sense of norm, don’t deserve the same outcomes we have. This shows itself in a “If they didn’t…” syndrome; “If they didn’t wear their hair like that…” “If they didn’t respond in that manner…” “ If they would spend more time…” Many times these statements are born out of cultural norms that we take for granted as functional righteousness.

Paul is very clear righteousness only has one source, and by proxy deserved justice only has one source;

“Therefore, since we have been made righteous through his faithfulness combined with our faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have access by faith into this grace in which we stand through him, and we boast in the hope of God’s glory. But not only that! We even take pride in our problems, because we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. While we were still weak, at the right moment, Christ died for ungodly people. It isn’t often that someone will die for a righteous person, though maybe someone might dare to die for a good person. But God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us. So, now that we have been made righteous by his blood, we can be even more certain that we will be saved from God’s wrath through him. If we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son while we were still enemies, now that we have been reconciled, how much more certain is it that we will be saved by his life? And not only that: we even take pride in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, the one through whom we now have a restored relationship with God.” (Romans 5:1-11)

How do we change our grading scale to interact with others based in biblical righteousness rather than cultural righteousness?

1. Separate biblical imperatives from cultural imperatives.
2. Separate pragmatic outcomes from eternal outcomes.
3. Separate measurements of earthly success from measurements of spiritual maturity.”

Are we finding our identity in being white?

So much of what’s been written so far is very offensive, but why? Why is it that white people push back so hard or walk away from these conversations? Why is it that, historically, any time racial injustice is brought up or justice is sought, it’s not without a fight? It may be related to where we place our identity.

As Christians, our true identity is in Christ.

2 Corinthians 5:14-19

For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation [emphasis added]. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.

“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” We no longer find our ultimate identity in anything other than Christ, and this includes our culture. Our diverse cultures are to be recognized and celebrated, but ultimately our true allegiance is to Jesus. However, as humans we often misplace our identity, and it can sometimes be misplaced in our culture and ethnicity. In turn, because our identity is wrapped up in our culture, we tend to evaluate each other’s cultures and implicitly or explicitly find ways to make our own superior. We have to if we are placing so much worth in it. How crushing is it when what we are placing our identity in is being challenged? Therefore, anything that appears to threaten it must be addressed because it’s invading who we identify ourselves to be.

For white people, the idea of a racial hierarchy and white normalization is very offensive, and this may be because it’s intruding on our identity. It’s possible that we’ve inadvertently placed our identities in our cultural norms, and hearing things that seem to point out flaws in this are threatening. We don’t recognize this is happening because we don’t realize how much of our identity and self-worth is found in our culture.

What do we do with this?

The normalization of white culture makes it difficult to see. It’s difficult to see the underlying issues in our heart, difficult to empathize with others who don’t fit the mold of the normalized culture, and difficult to see our personal contribution to racial injustice. We must ask God to show us our true hearts and the issues within them.

When God opens our hearts, and when we begin to notice the difficult things we’ve seen today, we cannot just take note, but we must repent where we have brought disunity to the body of Christ and to those around us.

2 Corinthians 5:17-19

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.

This is incredible news. God is reconciling the world to himself, not counting our trespasses against us. Jesus paid the price, once and for all, to give salvation to anyone who believes in Him. Now, anyone in Christ is a new creation and has been given the ministry of reconciliation. As Christians, we are called to model God’s reconciling love in any situation in life that needs reconciliation, and racial unity certainly needs reconciliation. We have an opportunity right in front of us to greatly glorify God and model His reconciliation mission. He has entrusted to us the message of reconciliation, and we have the privilege of participating in His mission. Now is not the time to sit back. How grateful are we that God didn’t sit back but instead chose to pursue reconciliation with us?

Temptations

There’s at least three temptations that I’ve seen in my own life that may surface in yours as well when approaching the issue of race.

First, we may be tempted to get angry and say this either isn’t true or doesn’t apply to us. If this is you, consider praying and asking God to show you if this really is true. Pray Psalm 139:23-24, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” It’s a scary prayer, no doubt!

Second, we may be tempted to feel guilty and pull away. Maybe we already are or will feel convicted and ashamed. Please, please do not pull away. This is not meant to drive you into shame. Shame leads to withdrawal, and withdrawal doesn’t lead to unity and reconciliation. Instead, we need to courageously engage. Remember that God’s grace is sufficient for you (2 Corinthians 12:9), and He has forgiven you of all past, present, and future sin. All of it!

Push forward knowing that we are forgiven by God and are free to fall in pursuit of His will. Step forward and let God’s grace and forgiveness cover us while we seek to repent and reconcile. Be encouraged and assured knowing that conviction is likely evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work in you. This means you are a legitimate son or daughter of God because He disciplines those whom he loves (Hebrews 12:4-12)!

Third, and similarly, some of us will feel guilty and because of this, momentarily take positive action only to fade back to our original comfort zone. This may be one of the tougher hurts and frustrations for our minority brothers and sisters. Know that this will be difficult. We will be misunderstood and at the same time, we will need correction and rebuke. It’s going to hurt sometimes, but it will lead to glory for God and sanctification for those involved if we keep eagerly and genuinely pursuing unity. Ask for God’s help to persevere and run the race like a marathon instead of a sprint.

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