[Below is an excerpt from Dr. Michael S. Hogue's essay, The Matrix of Whiteness, published in the special #BlackLivesMatter issue of Currents in Theology and Mission, January 2022.]
Why must it be declared that #BlackLivesMatter? In what ways have Black lives not mattered? Does saying #BlackLivesMatter mean that other lives, specifically white lives, or police lives, don’t matter? What does the discomfort and outright resistance of many white people to the declaration that #BlackLivesMatter say about the white psyche or soul? What does it reveal about white racial self-understanding and social and historical consciousness? These and other questions illuminate the subversive and interrogative functions of #BlackLivesMatter: one of the things the BLM declaration is meant to do, it seems, is to provoke soul-searching, critical, and transformative questions.
In my own extended white family, such questions have shown up in some specific ways.
For example, my wife and I are involved in a grassroots reparations initiative through our church. Some members of our extended family cannot and will not understand why we are doing this. They have said to us that since our families were not enslavers, we do not owe racial reparations. But this way of thinking about reparations (and racial justice more generally) is a failure of moral conscience, historical understanding, and Christian faith. For us, financial reparations are obligatory because for many generations our families have benefited from white affirmative action programs that have preferentially benefited us and systematically disadvantaged Black people. As white people we have accrued educational, economic, employment, financial, housing, and healthcare advantages through policies that have structurally disadvantaged Black people. Though our families never owned and enslaved Black people, we have inherited much of what is good in our lives through systems and institutions historically premised on the principle that white lives matter more than Black lives. The blessings in our lives are not due to grace or merit—they are the unearned but intended outcomes of life in a world that has been designed to favor white people like us. In other words, even though we are hard workers, we have not earned everything that we have. We have sometimes struggled financially and have suffered illness and accident, but none of our struggles have ever been due to the color of our skin. Because white racial advantage is historically predicated upon Black racial exploitation, and because we are living off the capital gains of such exploitation, we believe it is a matter of moral conscience, a duty of justice, and an obligation of our Christian faith to return some of our unearned white racial inheritance.
We realize there are many approaches to reparations, but one way we do this as a family is by participating in a church group that builds relationships with and distributes funds to various local programs organized and led by Black people. Much of our extended family, however, refuses to acknowledge the importance of, let alone the need for, any of this. I have come to believe this refusal is because the effort to understand (let alone enact) reparations calls into question the ideas and values that fundamentally organize the way they understand the world and their place within it. To understand (and enact) reparations would thus entail a conversion.
The ideas and values I’m talking about here are neither biblical nor Christian, although many white Christians in the United States are ultimately oriented by them and think of them as entailed by their Christian faith. Rather than coming from the gospels or epistles or any other part of the Bible, though, these ideas and values are rooted in a racial mythology—the white myth of meritocratic individualism, or the matrix of whiteness. According to this myth: 1) we all live on an “even playing field” (regardless of gender, sexuality, class, race, or nationality), 2) people get what they work for, and therefore 3) people deserve whatever they have (for good and ill). There is no awareness of the embedding of individual lives in histories, institutions, and social systems in this mythology. However, it provides many white people with a sense of dignity and worth, it affirms the basic rightness of the social status quo, and it relieves them of the burden of social responsibilities beyond a limited sense of interpersonal morality. Since reparations implicitly questions this orienting myth, understanding the need for reparations, let alone actively committing to reparations, would require my extended family to unlearn the world as they have been taught, and racialized, to understand it. To the extent that this myth structures and orients white identity in the United States, questioning the myth puts themselves into question.
This is just one example of the way the provocations of #BlackLivesMatter have played out in my white family in recent years. But this example illuminates the rhetorically subtle and politically ingenious way in which #BlackLivesMatter signifies, and thereby interrogates, the continuing racial ignorance of most white people, the unrelenting prerogatives of white racial privilege, and the persistence of the culture of white supremacy.
My purpose in this essay is not to document the history or demonstrate the ongoing realities of white privilege and systemic anti-black racism in the United States. Yet if you are a white person and doubt the realities of the long history of affirmative action for whites, or the historical longevity of white identity politics, or the ongoing effects of systemic anti-black racism, there are plenty of resources out there for you to do your own research. Doing this work should be understood as a responsibility of Christian faith. Learning about how the world is experienced by others is part of what it means to practice neighbor love—how is it possible to know how to love our neighbors if we do not try to understand their experience? This is not to say that neighbor love is reducible to race and racism—but race and racism are aspects of our world and experience, and therefore learning what we can about race and racism (i.e., how we and others have been racialized, and the various ways in which racism impacts us all) is a discipline entailed by neighbor love. Neighbor love is not only about loving others. We are to love others as ourselves. And since we as white people also live in a racialized world, neighbor love also entails learning (and unlearning) how race and racism have formed (and malformed) us. In short, neighbor love, in a world such as ours, entails that white people need to get free from Whiteness. This may sound quite odd. If we didn’t choose when, where, or to whom we were born, and we can’t change the color of our skin or our genealogy, what could it possibly mean for white people to get free from Whiteness? My aim in this essay is to explore one aspect of this idea.
Neighbor love is not only about loving others. We are to love others as ourselves. And since we as white people also live in a racialized world, neighbor love also entails learning (and unlearning) how race and racism have formed (and malformed) us. In short, neighbor love, in a world such as ours, entails that white people need to get free from Whiteness. This may sound quite odd. If we didn’t choose when, where, or to whom we were born, and we can’t change the color of our skin or our genealogy, what could it possibly mean for white people to get free from Whiteness? My aim in this essay is to explore one aspect of this idea.
Recently I had the privilege of co-teaching portions of a seminary class with Professor Linda Thomas, the guest editor of this special issue. Most of our students were white and will be serving ministries in predominantly white congregational settings. We opened the class with a clip from the movie The Matrix. We showed the scene in which Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne) helps Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) to see that everything that he believes to be real is really a computer simulation. Neo is understandably terrified by this, and he doesn’t want to believe it. The world that, up to that point, he believed was real, that his mind and the people around him told him was real, was not the world as it really is! The reality was that humans had been colonized by the technologies they had invented, their minds had been hacked by the computer programs they had designed, and, in a reversal of roles, their bodies were being harvested by machines. Discovering this reality throws everything into question for Neo and forces him to make a choice, a choice offered to him by Morpheus in the form of a “red pill” or “blue pill.” The “blue pill” would return Neo to the ignorant bliss of the simulation (and his and others' ongoing exploitation), whereas the “red pill” would free Neo from the simulation. But in place of the comforting bliss of ignorance, the “red pill” would force Neo to figure out who he really is, how the world really works, and to struggle with the responsibilities entailed by his awakening.
After opening with this richly metaphorical scene, we turned to the text we had assigned that day, Charles Mills’ The Racial Contract. This is a difficult text in several respects—philosophically, morally, and even spiritually. The Matrix provides a useful heuristic for interpreting Mills’ argument. Mills the author-philosopher is like the character Morpheus—a wise and experienced elder helping readers to see the world as it is rather than as they would like it to be (and as they have been racialized to understand it). Readers (and especially white readers) are like Neo, painfully coming to see reality (yes, the movie plays with many allusions, including Plato’s “allegory of the cave”). And the argument of the book forces readers to make a choice about how they will live after reading it (and being read by it)—will they choose the blue pill and continue to live enslaved to racial ignorance, or will they choose the red pill’s liberating path of knowledge, struggle, and uncertainty?
Dr. Hogue teaches and writes at the intersections of theology, religious ethics, and philosophy of religion. He is particularly influenced by the pragmatist, process, and naturalist lineages in American philosophy of religion, which he refers to as the “left-wing of American radical theology.”Read More