What is “white trauma” and why does it need to be acknowledged?
I’m borrowing the work of Mark Charles … who is a Navajo theologian and practitioner. He, too gets that question. I’ll try to make the disclaimer that white trauma is nothing compared to the trauma of people who have actually been abused or beaten or suffered as a direct result of this. One of the things Mark Charles does (as a theologian and historian) is he systematically takes White people through the basically indisputable facts that have led to the creation of our country. It’s all about the Doctrine of Discovery and the papal bull that basically told White European Christians that anything they discovered, they were allowed to take that land, and if the people wouldn’t become Christian they were allowed to kill them. He then kind of builds on that with slavery…
He finds that what happened to White people is very similar to what happened to him. When he was a teenager, he was driving a car with this brother in the passenger seat and he got into an automobile accident. His brother got killed in the car accident, which is just a horribly sad and tragic story. He would say, clearly the one who was most traumatized is the one who got killed. There’s no comparison in terms of the trauma from that. But he talks about how for many, many years he was less of a human being because of the trauma he experienced in that, too. He just couldn’t recover from how traumatizing what he had done was to his brother. That’s a different kind of trauma of when you are involved in the actual miscarriage of justice. So he thinks that this is one of the things that shut White people down.
Once the light bulb begins to turn on in the ways that we’re complicit with the over-the-top violence that has happened to so many different groups of people … that’s kind of what leads some to denial. There’s so much grief that arises that it’s its own form of trauma, that they participated in it not really even being fully conscious (of it). That conscience just starts to begin to arise, that it’s its own kind of traumatic effect on us and therefore leads into temptation to go into denial.
If you could give one word of advice to White Christians who do not think they need to be awakened to any racial or cultural realities, what would it be?
Two verses (that) essentially say the same thing in different ways. One, 2 Corinthians 5, is a very key passage for me where it talks about the ministry of reconciliation. It says, first, that we’re reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. But then I think it’s a really important verse (because) Paul says on behalf of Jesus that Jesus makes his appeal to the world through the ministry of reconciliation. I know so many White Christians who are very, rightly so, concerned with evangelism and bearing witness to Christ. So I think that’s a pretty haunting verse to think that the way Jesus makes his appeal to the world is through reconciliation. I mean, the church in America is as divided as ever, so I don’t know how anybody could claim we are experiencing reconciliation, however you would define that.
Even at a simpler level, then, in 1 Corinthians 12, when the apostle Paul says when one part of the body suffers we all suffer and when one part of the body hurts we all hurt, I think to turn a deaf ear to suffering within our community would just be a sense of anti-community. I think it just goes against the heart of God. So for anybody who wants to be following Jesus and stay attuned to the pain in the Body of Christ, I don’t know how his pain wouldn’t lead you to a more deeper engagement with the history of race.
Do you think there is anything missing from discussions about race and racism?
That’s one reason why I went with the title I did of White Awake. I think we minimize the role of seeing clearly. Not that there are many who are really engaged with this anyway, but when we do become engaged the kind of initial questions are always: “What do I do? What do I do? How do I change things?” I think there’s a flawed assumption in there that just because I got a little glimmer now of what’s wrong I can suddenly participate in a solution. I think that to really embrace the fact that this goes deep and I really need to see a different reality that’s happening is really core to the transformation process. Negatively, I think we underestimate how important seeing is. Positively—it doesn’t feel productive, but that is a kind of work to do, that is a kind of productivity to pursue where I become the kind of person who can see differently than I do right now. It’s also a very biblical motif of blindness and sight used so regularly throughout the New Testament.
I think that’s oftentimes what’s missing in the discourse, the acknowledgment that one of the results of being privileged is that we don’t see the world as it is and that there’s a lot of work involved with learning to see correctly.
Where are you now on your personal journey?
I think all of the things I lay out there that have been a part of my journey continue to be part of my journey. I still hope that those around me (still) consider me a student, one who’s trying to understand better; one who’s trying to see better; one who’s trying to live in solidarity, I feel extremely blessed even within our church settings. Our staff and elders are comprised of some of the most gifted thinkers that I know around race and justice. I can’t think of a staff meeting that goes by where someone doesn’t say something or even challenges me where I go, “Man, I just never saw that before, but that makes so much sense.” I’m just constantly lamenting that there’s so much I still don’t see, and simultaneously utterly thankful that there are folks who believe in me to walk alongside of me as I’m on that journey. I’m certainly not trying to showcase myself as some kind of an expert. I’m still very much on a steep learning curve and I’m exceedingly thankful to have folks in my life who are walking with me.
This is a very heavy subject. Where is the hope in all of this? Where do you point people who feel burdened or discouraged by race work and related discussions?
From a theological perspective, one of the driving forces for us is that not only do we believe Christ is the focal point of this, but the way that Christ identifies himself with freedom, with truth, with those being central components of who he is: “I’m the way, the truth and the light.” He says in John 8 (verse 36) “whoever the Son sets free is free indeed.” …
When we talk about this stuff, in kind of mixed settings here, talk about this valuation of humankind along this racial spectrum, it really brings up… Sometimes (with) people of color in our congregation what happens is it brings up old wounds or re-traumatizes them. It is very heavy. It’s not only heavy in its own way for White folks who are just discovering some of this, but it’s obviously really heavy for others.
We’re trying to walk this gentle path of believing that even though it’s painful to name the lie, that we don’t get to walk into that other side of the resurrection without naming and confronting that demon that says human value can somehow be measured based on racial background. Our hope in Jesus is that by exposing this lie and bringing light into the darkness, that there is a freedom, that there’s truth on the other side, there’s a deeper sense of knowledge of who we are in Christ where we can walk with (our) shoulders back and heads held high because we know who we are in Christ.
I think there’s a temptation … to do an end- around and try to get to that point without actually going through the heavy process of exposing the lies that prohibit us from living into that fullness of life. Just trusting that Jesus is really truth and light and that lies are something that aren’t just problematic, they’re reflective of the evil, the devil and the world. The mission of Jesus is to expose and defeat those (lies) and when we name those (lies) and when we name the truth … there’s resurrection life on the other side—that’s the hope.
Is there anything we did not touch on that you would like to mention?
Another big theme that I’m really trying to develop in the book is that, and this is particularly applicable to White Christians, probably White Evangelicals more than anything, but I’m trying to listen to the parts that White Christians already agree with and then try to help them find some common ground. One of the things almost every White Christian I know strongly believes in is that identity in Christ should be the foundation that we build our lives upon, that should be the end goal that everything moves us towards, is living out this identity in Christ more than any other, which I agree with. …
A connection point that I’m trying to help White Christians make is that one of the chief, if not the chief barrier to living in our identity as children of God, as people whose identity is rooted in Christ, is the system of race. There’s such a big role the system of race has played in forming our current sense of identity that without doing some critical self-analysis and self-reflection, Holy Spirit-led reflection to see the ways in which our current sense of identity has been formed by this racial system, we’re not able to fully live into the very thing we say we want to live into as being children of God. That’s another dimension of this conversation that (is) important to me as well.