Skip to main content

By George Yancy

Even if the movement for reparations someday transforms the profound economic disparities that fall along racial lines in this country — addressing income disparities, the wealth gap, housing and health care inequities, and unemployment disparities — a fundamental problem of anti-Black racism still won’t be solved.

What remains is a fundamentally ontological problem: the reality of the being of whiteness, and its denial of Black humanity within white racist America.

White privilege, white immunity from systemic racism, white forms of racist habitual embodiment, white claims to “innocence,” gatherings of white religious practitioners at monochromatic white places of worship, and predominantly white institutions where white students walk around their predominately white campuses feeling wanted and at ease — these are manifestations of white ontology, white modes of being.

As Judith Butler writes, entering and assimilating into white institutions and white worlds “is not a matter of a simple entry of the excluded into an established ontology, but an insurrection at the level of ontology, a critical opening up of the questions, What is real? Whose lives are real? How might reality be remade?

My sense is that Butler is pointing to something that is deeper than racial economic rearrangements, even if they are for the greater good. For me, there is that nagging sense that white ontology or white being can remain a problem even if economic parity is achieved. Martin Luther King Jr. expresses this same idea in Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? where he writes:

Often white liberals are unaware of their latent prejudices. A while ago I ran into a white woman who was anxious to discuss the race problem with me. She said: “I am very liberal. I have no prejudices toward Negroes. I believe Negroes should have the right to vote, the right to a good job, the right to a decent home and the right to have access to public accommodations. Of course, I must confess that I would not want my daughter to marry a Negro.”

Notice how the white woman’s liberal political stance, her views regarding equity or fairness, reflects a sense of inclusion regarding Black people. Yet, there is the sudden denial, the racially twisted sense of anti-miscegenation that is demonstrative of how she sees Black embodiment: ersatz, inferior, ugly, disgusting, wretched, disposable, hypersexual and ungrievable — the nigger! This white woman does not challenge economic equity so much as she unconditionally and vehemently rejects ontological equity, where whiteness, especially white female embodiment, is off limits to Black men. It is whiteness as a mode of superior ontology that is asserted, where white people are deemed the apex of civilization, the initiators and creators of history and time itself, where Blackness “sullies” the purity of whiteness, where Blackness is “sin” and whiteness is “salvation.”

Yet, it is my deep suspicion, perhaps even my deep pessimism, that white people are not up to the task of engaging in an insurrection at the level of white ontology. The weight of what is to be done regarding white ontology will involve white people risking everything. James Baldwin writes, “The price of this transformation is the unconditional freedom of [Black people]; it is not too much to say that [they] who [have] been so long rejected, must now be embraced, and at no matter what psychic or social risk.” It is this psychic risk that will require white daring, and the relinquishment of the illusion of white safety: I am “secure” because I’m distant from Black people and I know them as “criminals” and “disgusting.” White “safety” is predicated upon a lie, one that reinforces white people’s mythical “purity” vis-à-vis Black “impurity” and “danger.”

This necessity of white daring, where white people collectively refuse such a myth, forces me to doubt that my full humanity as a Black person will ever be recognized in North America, a country founded upon both genocide and anti-Black violence and brutality, especially as white “safety” is purchased at the expense of keeping Black people at an ontological distance, as those who are monstrous and wretched.

I want to approach this question of white ontology — and how to challenge it — from the vantage of religion.

Etymologically, religion comes from religare, which means “to bind.” One way of interpreting this is that religion binds us to God. Yet, there is a tension that needs to be revealed in the form of a disquieting, perhaps a dangerous, question: What does it mean to be white and to be religious? In what way is the phenomenon of “binding to” (that is, religare) a site of deep ethical tension or contradiction vis-à-vis whiteness? After all, to be white, regardless of one’s religious orientation, is to be linked to, to be tied to, to bind to white power, white privilege, white hegemony, to be shaped by forms of white hubris and white solipsism, and to be bound to a psychic life of deep white opacity regarding one’s own racism, where one does not know the limits of one’s own racism. To be white is to be bound to forms of perpetuating racialized injustice.

Therefore, to talk about religion and whiteness in the same breath, one must point out the profound aporias, the deep religious and theological challenges and contradictions. Many white people, religious or not, love to quote King when faced with their own white racism. They are quick to cite him as a prophet who stressed the importance of Kumbaya moments that are ideologically color-evasive. Yet, it was King who wrote, “I’m sorry to have to say that the vast majority of White Americans are racists, either consciously or unconsciously.” And while giving a talk in 1967 at the American Psychological Association’s Annual Convention in Washington, D.C., King stated, “White America needs to understand that it is poisoned to its soul by racism and the understanding needs to be carefully documented and consequently more difficult to reject.”

What is King getting at? I think that he recognizes something that is structurally ontological about whiteness. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s voice is crucial within this context. He wrote, “One may be decent and sinister, pious and sinful.” It is the deployment of “and,” the insertion of a conjunction, that I think is important to thematize when we specifically raise the issue of the ontology of whiteness as a phenomenon that has deep anti-religious and anti-theological implications given its structural violence, or what might be called its structural sinfulness. I define whiteness as the transcendental norm, which means that whiteness is structurally binary; whiteness tears us apart. To be white is to be a person as such, a human as such, unraced, unmarked and unnamed; but to be Black, Indigenous, and a person of color, is to be raced, marked, named, deemed the subhuman, the sub-person. Yet, as Rabbi Heschel wrote, “To act in the spirit of religion is to unite what lies apart.” Whiteness, then, problematically, belies the spirit of religare.

If we are to confront whiteness from a religious vantage, it is necessary to ask some uncomfortable questions: What if there is no white innocence? What if such a construction is a farce? What if whiteness is structurally binary and thereby creates a situation where the “binding” is violent? In this situation, whiteness is both paradoxically ontologically distant, but needs Black people and people of color to conform to certain racist stereotypes: “dangerous,” “criminal,” “deviant.”

It is necessary to unsettle distinctions between “good” and “bad” whites, a distinction that I think obfuscates the deeper realities of whiteness itself as oppressive. After all, Baldwin reminds us when referring to white people, “It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” As we focus on the forms of spectacular white racism that we all witnessed when so many white people stormed the Capitol or when white people went to Charlottesville, Virginia, to “Unite the Right,” we must simultaneously confront whiteness itself, in all its forms. Perhaps its innocence is the pressure that causes Black asphyxiation: “I can’t breathe!” “I can’t breathe!” “I can’t breathe!” “I can’t breathe!”

Critical pedagogy scholar Barbara Applebaum writes, “The white complicity claim maintains that all whites, by virtue of systemic white privilege that is inseparable from white ways of being, are implicated in the production and reproduction of systemic racial injustice.” Notice that Applebaum links systemic white privilege, white ways of being and systemic racial injustice. Given the history of whiteness, its phantasmatic creations, its distortions, its lies, bad faith, its epistemological ignorance and its expansionist (and, I would argue, consumptive) logics, I think that we can conclude with critical whiteness historian David Roediger that, “It is not merely that whiteness is oppressive and false; it is that whiteness is nothing but oppressive and false.

If this is true, then we need to demand that white people, regardless of their religious affiliations or religious sensibilities, face a reality that is far more disconcerting, unnerving, alarming and even traumatic. This means, among other things, if you are white you mustn’t be like Odysseus who dared to be adventurous and yet remained safe by tying himself to the mast of a ship. You must allow the Sirens to sing to you without plugging up your ears with wax. You ought to allow for unpredictable spaces of openness, an openness that is capable of fracturing calcified norms and unproductive sedimented practices, and white-embodied orientations. You must be prepared to speak parrhesia, or courageous speech, and engage in acts of courageous listening. You must be daring; you must be vulnerable, which means that you must be open to be wounded; you must be open to rethink how you are already touching others — indeed, touching others while leaving traces of pain and suffering. You must be willing to think about how your whiteness is not atomic or discrete under a false white neoliberal ontology, but how your whiteness constitutes an ontology of no edges; where your whiteness is always already haptic — and violently so.

For me, this means that white people — especially liberal religious white folk who see themselves as beyond the muck and mire of white racism — must practice kenosis, which is a kind of death in the form of emptying: a death to white stubbornness, a death to white denials, a death to white epistemological ignorance, a death to white arrogance, a death to white narcissism, a death to white goodness, a death to white fears, a death to white color evasion, a death to white privilege, a death to white denials, a death to white self-righteousness, a death to white illusions of safety, a death to heroic whiteness, a death to claims of white non-complicity; indeed, a death to white innocence, a death to all of those white tricks that white religious people play to convince themselves that they are fine, that they are the “good ones,” the “righteous ones,” the uncomplicated white allies.

Rabbi Heschel reminds us that, “The history of interracial relations is a nightmare.” Yet, for some of us, it is a nightmare that can cost us our lives. If you have any doubts, then ask George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Botham Jean, Stephon Clark, Danny Ray Thomas, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Laquan McDonald, Eric Harris, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, Samuel DuBose, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, and so many others. W.E.B. Du Bois, in a speech that he delivered in Peking, China, at the age of 91, sums up an important message that all too familiarly speaks to Black life in North America. Du Bois said, “In my own country for nearly a century I have been nothing but a nigger.”

Du Bois also wrote, “Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question — How does it feel to be a problem?” This is a case where white people have problems, but Black people are problems. Yet, I want to ask a different question: How does it feel to be a white problem? Or, better yet, how does it feel to be white in a society where whiteness is “Pharaoh-like” and where Black bodies suffer from forms of social death and civil death?

So, what is necessary and what must be done? Surely, it must involve religious white people risking themselves. As Baldwin says, “One can give nothing whatever without giving oneself — that is to say, risking oneself.” This is suggestive of what Butler theorizes as an insurrection at the level of ontology. If religious white people cannot risk themselves — that is, risk their whiteness or white ontology, then how can they be capable of giving? Indeed, isn’t the very structure of white giving almost always about white people, white goodness, white noblesse oblige, white heroic efforts at civilizing “those savages”?

It seems to me that whiteness needs to revolt against itself, to disarticulate itself, assuming that this is even possible, from assumptions and institutions that undergird its power. Whiteness must be untied from forms of relationality that are anti-Black — whether consciously or unconsciously. Whiteness, not white people, must be forsaken, abolished. What is needed is a requiem for the death of whiteness, and a birth of something radically new and radically human.

When it comes to the disposability of Black bodies, what we need are no illusions about the history of white supremacy, especially the kind that is uneventful, mundane and everyday — the kind that shows itself each Sunday morning in places where white bodies commune together, and bond together, where Black bodies are de facto absent through iterative white practices of exclusion. Within the context of how I think about the complexity of whiteness and white people engaging in the process of attempting to undo or untie whiteness, the concept of arrival is complicated. Often white people will read a book by a Black author or author of color and claim that they have “seen the light,” that they are “woke.” They think that all the work has been done. This reminds me of some religious people who assume that through practicing a set of rituals they are now “holy” or “flawless” in their religious commitments to goodness and righteousness. They forget that an honest religious life consists of a continuous striving, a constant reaffirmation. So, too, when it comes to undoing and challenging the subtleties of whiteness, there is no place of being “whole,” “complete,” or where one has finally arrived. Unless, of course, one is talking about whiteness, which is often full of itself.

My sense is that when white people stress arrival vis-à-vis their “anti-racism,” this can function to keep them from further exploring the depth and complexity of their whiteness. Kenosis in relationship to white racism involves diligence. There is no single and total kenotic moment or emptying of white racist sedimentations, assumptions, images and affects. This is why it is crucial to nurture a disposition to be un-sutured, a disposition to crack, re-crack, and crack again the calcified operations of white ontology, one’s white gaze. In this way, despite white people’s ties to white racism, perhaps there are times when one’s white being dilates and takes the form of an ontological generosity, one that is also critical of its acts of giving, its openness.

This speaks to what French-Caribbean philosopher Édouard Glissant had in mind when he wrote, “Thought of the Other is the moral generosity disposing me to accept the principle of alterity, to conceive of the world as not simple and straightforward, with only one truth — mine.” Yet, he warns us, “But thought of the Other can dwell within me without making me alter course, without ‘prizing me open,’ without changing me within myself.” This is why he added, “Thought of the Other is sterile without the other of Thought.”

To trouble such sterility, the question that religious white folk should ask Black people and people of color is: “Who art Thou?” The purposeful structure and implication of this question are related to the work of philosopher Luce Irigaray as she critiques the power of the male gaze and its reduction of the female “other.” However, I deploy the question within this context to demonstrate its power to both disrupt white rigidity and un-suture whiteness. While “Who art Thou?” is a question that is implicative of moral generosity, it can also counter the consumptive dynamics of white care, white giving, where alterity or “otherness” is eclipsed precisely by the act of white generosity, that act of giving. This is a case where the “other” is not treated as exceeding one’s care, where one’s generosity functions as a form of imprisonment.

Read radically, however, “Who art Thou?” ought to trouble one’s sense of white enclosed or impervious self-identity, where the “other” is not totally legible within the framework of white giving, but also where there is the self-reflexive question: “Who am I?” In this case, one is confronted with one’s own porosity, where one becomes importantly illegible to oneself, where one is also excessive and not frozen in the act of touching without also being touched.

White people, as Baldwin would say, must stand and confront history, do battle with forms of historical creation that have gotten us to this place, a place where whiteness (and white people) refuse or fail to be undone, fail to lose themselves to an address that comes from outside of themselves, from Black people and people of color. It is this refusal that is at times done in the name of religion itself.

Baldwin says, “Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” bell hooks says love involves telling the truth to ourselves and to others. Black theologian James Cone says, “Love is a refusal to accept whiteness. To love is to make a decision against white racism.” So, where are those religious white people who are refusing to accept whiteness in the name of love?

King says racism is “like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness.” If Black lives really matter to white people, especially religious white people, I would like to see their white rage overflow in the streets of this nation shouting: “My whiteness is a lie! My innocence is the crime!

I desire to see white people in massive droves lay down the armory of white privilege, white innocence, and be in crisis. Crisis, as I am using the term, is a form of metanoia, a kind of perceptual and psychic breakdown. It isn’t about an immediate repair but involves tarrying within spaces of breakdown, recognizing the full weight of one’s investment in whiteness.

I want to see a U.S. where white lives cease to matter only because they are white, where whiteness is in crisis, where white religious folk stand before their congregations and scream, “I refuse to live behind the craven mask of whiteness!” And I would like for them to do this without being assured, where there is no “safety.”



IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.