The Moral Injury at the Heart of Whiteness

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.

3 thoughts on “The Moral Injury at the Heart of Whiteness

  1. Donald B. Johnson

    As a believer, I strive to assess all people by the content of their character (their choices) and not the color of the skin and other things that they had no control over. I am a history buff, so I well know the horrible things that were believed and done by people that saw themselves as believers and I try to learn from them to not act like that. I am a man, so I know there are some experiences of being a woman that I have not had and can never have. My recent ancestors were from Northern Europe (white) and I know there are others with an ancestral history very different from mine.

    I can also see that this area is currently a social minefield. I have seen others get blasted on social media. What is one to do? I am greatly perplexed.

    1. timgombis

      I think that perhaps the biggest first step is to read as much as one can about the history of the U.S. and do so from writers highlighting the character of gender and race as central. Women and people of color were prevented from voting, from having a voice. In the constitution, Black people were legally 3/5 human. Read history, but also read the experiences of Black and Brown people, and women in our day. Learn to develop the eyes to see the thousand small cuts they experience every day as a result of living in our country, in this world. And learn to listen, to really listen, so that you may have the opportunity to lighten the load on women and people of color by just being a listening ear.

  2. Alan Schwartz

    Thank you, Tim! I have been reading a great deal about slavery and Jim Crow and even present-day incarceration rates of African Americans. It breaks my heart, and I am glad to see you were addressing it in the way you are. My feelings are very similar to yours. There is tremendous ignorance about the suffering caused by slavery and Jim Crow not only in American society but also the Christian church throughout our history. There’s also tremendous ignorance about the accomplishments, often heroic, of African Americans who have contributed so much to the moral, spiritual come intellectual and material progress of our society.

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