This is an excerpt from Chanequa Walker-Barnes’s book, I Bring the Voices of My People, pp. 128-31.
At the heart of whiteness, then, is a great moral injury. The justification and maintenance of a slave economy required the construction and defense of an elaborate cultural system. Literally everything—laws, religious beliefs and practices, educational systems—had to be carefully organized in order to maintain a brutal and utterly unnatural system. This included the careful cultivation of the White psyche so that White people could accept the brutality with which they were surrounded and in which they participated on a regular basis. In other words, to accept what was going on around them, White people had to be formed in a very particular way, that is, they had to be enculturated into whiteness. This enculturation did not end post-Civil War; rather, it continued in some capacity through the dismantling of legalized segregation and racial discrimination in the 1960s and 1970s. With the rise of color-blind racial ideology, many people stopped using overtly racial language, but the culture into which they were assimilated remained the same in every other way. After all, at no point in the history of this country have White people on a societal level asked the questions, “Who have we become? How do we need to transform ourselves and our culture?”
A few authors have attempted to name the impact of racism upon the collective identity and personality of White people. Wendell Berry, for example, states:
If white people have suffered less obviously from racism than black people, they have nevertheless suffered greatly; the cost has been greater perhaps than we can yet know. If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound into himself. As the master, or as a member of the dominant race, he has felt little compulsion to acknowledge it or speak of it; the more painful it has grown the more deeply he has hidden it within himself. But the wound is there, and it is a profound disorder, as great a damage in his mind as it is in his society.
Berry shares that while he has long known that both sides of his family were slaveholders and he has felt a sense of personal connection to this historical scandal, it has taken considerable time and effort “to finally realize that in owning slaves my ancestors assumed limitations and implicated themselves in troubles that have lived on to afflict me.”
In White Awake, Pastor Daniel Hill uses the language of sickness to characterize the condition of white America:
Once you realize you’re sick, you stop trying to act healthy. And you go on a search for the cure. When you discover that the cure was already searching for you, an explosion of gratitude makes sense. That’s why I so regularly and comfortably repent for the sins of white Christians—both for mine and for the sins of my community. It isn’t because I think I’m better than everybody else or that I’m trying to prove that some bad white Christians out there need to be chastised. No, I repent all the time because I believe I’m surrounded by the sickness of racism. I see the sickness in the ideology of white supremacy and have no doubt that it has infected me. I see the sickness in the narrative of racial difference and have no doubt it has infected me. I see the sickness of systemic racism and have no doubt that I contribute to it in ways I’m not aware of. I am surrounded by sickness, and I am sick. I am in need of the great Physician. It’s the only hope I have to be healthy.
Taking responsibility for the way in which White culture and White racial identity have been formed and distorted ought to be the primary work of White Christians who claim to desire racial reconciliation and racial justice. Instead, the prevailing strategies of White Christians have been to diminish the horrors of slavery, to ignore the involvement of the church and its leaders, to demonize and distance themselves from their White slaveholding ancestors, or to resist being labeled “White” altogether.