A Teachable Moment
By Dr. Mary McClintock Fulkerson
Professor of Theology
Duke Divinity School
It would be wonderful if the recent furor over President Obama’s comments criticizing the white police officer’s treatment of Harvard Prof. Henry Louis Gates proved to be a true “teaching moment.” While it is impossible to keep up with the constantly shifting version of reality offered by the news media on such things, at least two themes implicit in this story beg for theological reflection. First, why is “race” always attributed to minority populations and, secondly, why should Obama be criticized for getting “off track”—for not talking about “all of the American people” as one commentator put it—if he brings up race? These themes are connected and have significance for the church.
Race in the U.S. is similar to gender. Both are markers of identity typically associated with a particular group, in the first case, people of color, in the second, women. Think of the presidential election press coverage—only Hilary Clinton and Sarah Palin had “gender;” only Barak Obama had “race.” This assumes that only white men have no identity markers, e.g., are simply normal human beings without interests shaped by social location. Now having “race” or “gender” does not indicate “minority” in the numerical sense—women frequently outnumber males, especially in churches. No, the “marked” vs. “unmarked” designation is about power: being “unmarked” has to do with dominance; being “marked” indicates that a group has in some sense been historically marginalized.
Theologically speaking, why isn’t historical marginalization, or being “marked,” a concern of everyone? Why is race only an “issue” for African Americans, or others designated as persons of color? Why is “whiteness” -- my race and its attendant privileges— typically hidden and rarely if ever acknowledged? Why do we continue to engage in what race theorists like Ruth Frankenberg calls “dodging difference” or “color evasion”? Why do we whites continue to think things are fine-- we don’t see color-- when, in fact, “colorblindness,” as sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva puts it, is the new form of racism? Our egregious racial history still shapes our society; we cannot act as if things like racial profiling are only the problems of “minority” groups. Our country is in desperate need of discourse of the common good, so that when Obama raises issues of race he is respected and appreciated, not lambasted for playing the “race card.” Although complicated, messy, and scary (especially for whites), these are crucial issues for “all of the American people.”
In this “teachable moment,” public discourse could surely learn from the church. As it seeks to follow Jesus, the church replaces “individualism” with stories and faith practices around grace-filled community and concern for the “outsider.” However, most white churches have a great deal in common with the culture of color evasion. Only 2.5% of mainline churches have significantly interracial membership; evangelical churches do only slightly better with 6%. We may not be individualistic, but how often are “community” and eucharist gatherings with folks just like us? Our challenge: let this be a “teachable moment” for the church. Let us face one another across deep racial and other divides in sustained and grace-filled honesty. Let us do “welcoming community” with less color-blindness. Is talking about our different experiences with regard to race and the implications of racial difference for our lives difficult and scary? You bet; that’s why many of us don’t do it. But incarnation is by definition messy and worldly.