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I don’t know what I expect when I write some blog posts.  Usually I’m just in my own little head trying to get some coherent thoughts out so I can learn and think.  So, I write what I’m thinking.  Somewhere in the back of my mind I do hope it’s helpful to someone else.  But sometimes it stirs up questions and comments I didn’t anticipate.  Like the post “This Black Leader or That Black Leader.”  I suppose I knew it would stir conversation, but I didn’t anticipate being accused of furthering Black-White divides, especially when I’ve written so much to challenge the very question of “race” itself.  Outflanked on the right, I suppose.

Then there was this great question: “Where does the idea of ‘blackness’ come from anyway?”  Hmmm.  That’s a fine question.  It revealed my assumption that everybody had a working notion of “blackness” or “whiteness” and some sense of where it comes from.  I’m glad for the question for two reasons: (1) It proves not everybody does–that’s good news; and (2) it suggests real progress on this front–also good news.

But, perhaps it’s good to attempt a short answer to this question before resuming the schedule of posts I have for this week.  Perhaps answer this question will help make some sense of the previous posts and make the subsequent ones more helpful (at least understandable).  So, where does “blackness” (and for that matter, “whiteness”) come from?

Not from the Bible

First, we ought to say something about where it does not come from.  It does not come from the Bible.  As I understand the Scripture with what light the Spirit has given me, the Bible’s story line emphasizes our great continuity with one another.  To be sure there are different families, clans, nations, languages, and religions, but there is one humanity, descended from Adam, made in God’s image and likeness.  Genesis 10 tells us of the fracturing of peoples into various clans and regions.  But note that everyone there descends from one family, Noah’s.  Acts 17:26, a favorite text of early African American Christians fighting to be regarded as human, reads: “And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation” (KJV).  I suspect Paul had Gen. 3:20 and Gen. 10 in mind when he preached those words in Athens.  So, if by “whiteness” or “blackness” we mean something approaching “race” as biological other, then that idea finds no support in the Bible.

Not from Genetics

Acts 17:26 (KJV) is also interesting for another reason.  At least in terms of American views of “race,” there has been the long-standing “one drop rule.”  That’s the idea, at first social and then legal, that one drop of African blood made a person “black.”  This is why we ask insane questions like, “What color is Johnny?” or “Is Barack Obama black?”  And this is why we make the equally insane conclusion once we find out that somebody in Barack Obama’s family was black-skinned that, in fact, Barack Obama is “black.”  The one-drop rule resulted in terms like “full-blooded” (as in the case of “full-blood Cherokee”) or “half-breeds” (a pejorative if ever there was one), and “mixed-race” people.  The one-drop rule rests upon a faulty genetic premise: that there is sufficient genetic difference to constitute different “races” (read, “species”) among the peoples of the world.  The mixing of these “bloods” resulted in, it was assumed, real genetic differences between the “races.”  However, you’d be really hard-pressed to find one genetic scientist today who would argue for any genetic basis for different races.  The genetic difference between blacks, whites, browns, etc. is so marginal that we’re left to affirm Acts 17:26: “He made from one blood all nations of men.”  So, race (and therefore “blackness” or “whiteness”) has no genetic foundation.

From Society

So where does “blackness” and “whiteness” come from?  There are four interlocking sources, if you’ll let me speak in general terms.  First, it comes from society.  ”Race” and attendant ideas like “blackness” and “whiteness” are social constructs, made up by people and cultures everywhere.  One thing many people don’t realize is that there has never been in worldwide consensus on precisely how many “races” there are.  Different societies developed different definitions.  In America, most of the history focused on two “races”–black and white.  But in South Africa, that society classified people into three “races”–black, white, and colored.  Early Chinese ethnographers argued for ten racial classifications.  We could go on.  If you want more about this, read the introduction to Colin Kidds excellent work, The Forging of Races.  The point is that “race” and “blackness” or “whiteness” are socially constructed identifiers.

What’s fueling these social constructions of racial categories?  That brings us to our second of the three interlocking sources: spiritual alienation from God and one another.

From the Fall

Read Genesis 3-4 and 10 again.  What was meant to be one humanity under the reign of God subduing the earth and filling it with His glory became a alienated, hostile, murderous, dispersed, confused, and separated mass of peoples.  The effects of the Fall are real, and it’s our fallen nature that drives us to not only classify ourselves along racial lines but also to join feelings of alienation, hostility, and xenophobia to those classifications.  What’s the first thing Cain says when God pronounces his banishment?  “Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me” (Gen. 4:14, NIV).  Do you see the alienation from God and other peoples in Cain’s speech?  It’s an alienation he received from his parents and that we receive from his parents.  The spiritual “other” or “alien” really emerges from sin’s entrance into the world.  And it’s partly what explains the existence of “blackness” and “whiteness.”

From Psychology

The Fall touched every part of man, corrupting him at his root.  The rational faculties of man are no exception.  That’s what I mean when I say “race,” “racism,” “blackness,” and “whiteness” come from our psychology.  There’s a theory in social psychology called “social attribution theory.”  Simplifying a bit, the theory teaches that basically all of our minds are pretty quick stereotyping machines.  We recognize certain characteristics in others and then our minds–often so quickly that we’re not conscious we’re doing it–begins to make attributions.  You’ve perhaps heard of the famous (though flawed) psychological study that showed a black baby doll and a white baby doll to little children and asked the children to describe what they thought about the dolls.  Routinely the children rated the black doll as dirty, dumb, and so on, while rating the white doll as pretty, desirable, etc.  That study was pivotal in the Brown v. Board case that led to the end of racial segregation in the United States.  I point to the study simply to illustrate the point: we are assigning attributes to one another all the time based upon things like skin color and hair texture.  It’s not simply that we have a category of “races” in our minds, or simply that we notice skin color.  That’s not how the mind works.  We notice skin color, file the person into a racial category, and then our minds take over by filling in assumed attributes (positive or negative) about the person.  We do it and we often don’t even know we do it. The mind is a mercilessly efficient stereotyper.  That’s why we have the notion of “blackness” or “whiteness.”

From Interaction

Now, there’s a fourth source of “blackness” and “whiteness” we need to consider: cross-ethnic interactions.  Our experiences with one another have a lot to do with forming, reinforcing, and shaping our notions of “blackness” and “whiteness.”  Part of what it means to be “black” or “white” gets formed in the crucible of shared pain, suffering, joy, hope, failure, success, loss and so on.  Despite our various categorizations, we share one planet and occupy one social world.  There are places in this social world where we may retreat with others who share our identity, but even then we’re aware of “the others” and that awareness shapes how we’re together.

Now, here’s an important point under this category of interaction: White people helped define “blackness” for Black people, and Black people help define “whiteness” for white people.  The entire argument for slavery which depended on defining “blacks” as inferior and subhuman had and has a tremendous effect on how others see Black people and how Black people see themselves.  Many others bought and buy the lie.  So, too, did some Blacks.  And those Blacks who did not nevertheless had to forge a definition of “blackness” in response to the negative definitions of whites.  There’s a dynamic negotiation and struggle for the control of “blackness.”  Where does “blackness” come from?

But the truth is: White people created “blackness,” and Black people have returned the favor.  ”Blackness” and “whiteness” come from the conflicts and interactions of black-skinned and white-skinned people fighting for that most absolute power of defining self and others according to your own social location.  In the same whites, Blacks have mounted counter-strikes to define white-skinned people, so that “whiteness” in the Black imagination includes certain things.  To be silly and very stereotypical, “whiteness” includes the inability to dance, strange tastes in music, no ‘cool’ or ‘soul,’ and so on.  Or, to be more serious, “whiteness” represents risk to one’s Black self, oppression, marginalization, and so on.  We are simply one lifetime away from a social setting where mistakes with Whites ended in lynchings, cross burnings, and so on.  That’s ugly, real, painful history.  It illustrates how “blackness” and “whiteness” result from a fallen social world where attributions and interactions happen at the speed of thought and carry enormous consequence.

So…

That’s why any discussions of “race” almost immediately move to discussions of our experiences.  It’s in the interactions that these things get defined in powerfully personal ways.  Now the problem with the quick move to experiences is that (a) we can’t change our histories, (b) our histories can enslave us, and (c) our personal histories often blind us to the underlying issues of the Fall and the social attributions we make.  So, our histories keep us from doing the harder, deeper work of forging a biblical view of ourselves and others.  And this is very important: Because these ideas are formed through interaction, it’s going to take massive levels of interaction to undo the damage that’s been done and to forge a new path.  We won’t escape the quagmire by waving a wand or by fiat.  Nor will we get there by simply decrying the fact that others “still think this way.”  We have to roll up our sleeves, reach into our hearts, pull out the old and plant the new.  I pray the Lord will allow us to do this more and more by His word and His Spirit.

 

Some References for Those Who Might Like to Read More:

Collin Kidd, The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000 (Cambridge, 2006)

Joseph L. Graves, Jr., The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists in America (Plume, 2005)

Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People (Norton, 2010)

Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill, 1968)

David R. Roediger (ed.), Black on White: Black Writes on What It Means to Be White (Schocken, 1998)

Debra J. Dickerson, The End of Blackness: Returning the Souls of Black Folk to Their Rightful Owners (Anchor, 2004)

W. Fitzhugh Brundage, The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory (Belknap of Harvard, 2005)

Mia Bay, The White Image in the Black Mind: African-American Ideas about White People, 1830-1925 (Oxford, 2000)

Eric L. Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (Princeton, 2006)

Mark M. Smith, How Race Is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses (Chapel Hill, 2006)

Scott L. Malcolmson, One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2000)

Amitai Etzioni, The Monochrome Society (Princeton and Oxford, 2001)

Grace Elizabeth Hale, Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940 (Pantheon, 1998)


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Comments:


17 thoughts on “Where Does “Blackness” and “Whiteness” Come From?”

  1. Andy Chance says:

    I have a little request for a blog post. Could you give some advice on how parents should talk with their children about issues of race?

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      Hi Andy,

      Thanks for the suggestion, bro. It’s a good topic. The closest I’ve come to addressing this issue is here: http://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/thabitianyabwile/2007/05/31/talking-to-children-about-race/

      You might also take a look at this: http://www.carolinahopeadoption.org/blog/archives/63/.

      If neither of these help, let me know. If you have a more specific idea about what such a post should cover, I’ll give it some thought or maybe another reader will have some thoughts/recommendations.

      For the King,
      T-

  2. Mark Sims says:

    Pastor Anyabwile, is there a road map in your mind of how to get to the point where “race” is not a big issue among believers? It’s easy to envision the possibility of a colorblind society/church as long as it’s assumed that “I” (whatever I am) am in the majority. If statistical trends hold true, the day is quickly approaching in the US when there will be NO racial majority…maybe “whiteness” will come to take on palpable meaning in 75 years. Maybe my grandkids, if they’re “white”, will “feel” whiteness as others today “feel” blackness…maybe they’ll know the further struggle to fully identify in Christ when “whiteness” runs so deep. But is there a way today for me? A way that doesn’t just ignore our past or assume my majority status in Kingdom terms? The throne portraits in Revelation are celebratory in their multi-whatever (race, ethnicity, nation, people-group) panorama as God’s people are once again seen as one people. What, in your mind, is a good war forward so that my children and grandchildren will feel their “Christ-ness” more deeply than their “whiteness”, “blackness”, or “redness”? (not sure this makes any sense)

  3. OFelixCulpa says:

    You make a lot of very interesting points. I think many of them are correct, but there are a few I’m uncertain about.

    One tendency I have noticed is that, in our lament over historic wrongs related to skin color differences, people in our day often want to pretend that no differences exist; and they aggressively shame anyone who stumbles up and mentions any of the incredibly obvious and undeniable differences that do exist (e.g.—like it or not—it is just true that “white” people tend to lack the natural ability to dance that many “black” people possess).

    It seems like the thinking is something like this: “It is impossible for two people to respect one another unless they believe—despite any evidences to the contrary—that have no differences whatever. We want people to respect one another, so we must compel everyone in our society to believe (or pretend to believe) that they are in no sense different from one another.”

    That strikes me as absurd. As you point out, our minds can only work by categorizing things, and much of that must be done by educated guesswork. I don’t see how that is avoidable or necessarily harmful, so long as we don’t assert our guesswork as fact. For example, I have no reliable way of evaluating my neighbor’s level of basketball skill. If I were pitted against him, my mind would naturally wonder how the contest would go. The only thing that I know about him that might possibly relate to that issue is that his skin is a medium brown (while mine is freckled and ‘white’). Because I know that, generally speaking, fewer people of my skin color are talented at that sport than people of his skin color, I think it would be reasonable in that situation for me to guess that I have a difficult game ahead of me. Certainly that guess would not have a very strong basis, and it may be wildly incorrect, but I have nothing else to go on. I don’t see how making such a guess is morally wrong or disrespectful.

    I am aware, of course, that my neighbor would probably also be making a guess about the match—but the opposite one. In that case, his guess would be rather unfavorable toward me, but I don’t think doing so is necessarily disrespectful. That’s just the way our brains work, right?

    It seems to me that the shame that is cast about by the line of thinking I described above would be more likely to increase tension among different groups than to achieve (through coerced pseudo homogenization) the intended respect.

    Does this make sense to you? I’m curious to know what you think.

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      Hi Felix,

      Thanks for joining the discussion! If by “makes sense” you mean do I follow/understand what you’re writing, I think so. I’d have one point of clarification, one point of agreement and one point of difference.

      1. Clarification: I’m not saying that we should pretend there are not differences between ethnic groups. As you say, that’s false. There are differences and we should neither ignore them or worship them.

      2. Agreement: Yes, I think our brains are efficient at categorizing and making attributions. That whole process is called stereotyping. There’s no way for our brains to not categorize and to make attributions. So, I agree. We’re never going to escape that.

      3. Difference: I would argue, however, that we should settle for sloppy categorization and attributions. For instance, you used the example of playing basketball with your brown skin neighbor and making certain “educated guesses” about one another. But you also admit that the judgments lack “a very strong basis.” I would say, then, that the guesses or attributions are not in any way “educated” and ought to be rejected. I would suggest that the better response would not be to act on those things but rather to do the slow thought-work of speaking to yourself true things. Or, go and do actual homework by asking the neighbor their ability or interest in basketball.

      You see, the efficient stereotyping our brains do can also be described as intellectual and relational laziness. It’s lazy thinking to settle for what we know to be uneducated guesses rather than educating ourselves more effectively. And that laziness is morally wrong and disrespectful. That’s why when we’re stereotyped, judged and mistreated we’re actually hurt and angered. That’s why I’d contend it’s better to uproot the long set of assumptions with actual data (though inefficient and often messy) than to keep going along with the assumption that “race” exists and the attributes we make are reliable.

      Thoughts?

      T-

      1. OFelixCulpa says:

        I should have been more clear. Though you were not saying that that we should deny differences, I brought it up because that seems to be the most dominant theme in the way our culture approaches issues that touch on “race.”

        Regarding the difference you explained: I agree that sloppy categorization is bad and that we should get the best information we can when we are making our judgments. But I think the dictum “avoid lazy thinking” oversimplifies things. Better information is simply not available much of the time. Though we can sometimes hold issues in abeyance for a while, usually we can’t. Life cannot work unless we are willing to make our best guess and go with it (e.g., “Do I have enough time to turn left before the oncoming car gets here?”, etc.) Sometimes we guess wrong, but we still have to guess.

        To me, the problem would seem to be more in:
        1) Taking those guesses too seriously; i.e., behaving as if our guesswork is unquestionable fact.
        2) Making unwarranted conclusions from our guesswork.
        3) Refusing to reevaluate our guesses or learn more to improve them.

        I do understand that it really hurts sometimes when people make bad guesses, and there is often sin involved in our guessing about others. But, I can’t see how it is even possible to stop all guessing.

        I’m eager to hear your thoughts.

        1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

          Hi brother,

          We’re not too far apart. I agree with most of what you’ve written here. It’s not possible to stop all guessing–and I’m not arguing that we do. That’s just how the mind works. I’m arguing we feed the mind biblical data and better information to change the pattern of guessing and self-identification.

          T-

  4. MarieP says:

    In my creative writing class in college, we had to write a journal entry on our first experience with race/ethnicity. A white classmate wrote that, when she was in kindergarten, a black friend of hers asked why her skin was a different color. She replied, “When I was born, God must have dipped me in white chocolate, and when you were born, God must have dipped you in dark chocolate!”

  5. This post was so helpful Pastor T, and I will indeed be printing this and reading through a few more times. Thank you!!

    I also want to thank you for adding more books to my already long Amazon wish list! Of the making of books…and so forth and so on… ;)

    Blessings!

  6. graham and nicola says:

    Pastor Anyabwile

    We consider you to be one of the most impressive and honourable Christian writers on the internet. So we were distressed by some of the comments that you received on recent posts.
    We are disturbed by the rise of “white” racism on US conservative blogs, and at the evidence of racism in US society and US evangelicalism provided by Bradley Wright in “Christians are Hate Filled Hypocrites…and Other Lies You’ve Been Told”
    We are so glad that you have addressed this issue; your message is important at this moment. Please know that we have found your posts insightful, encouraging, uplifting, and we’ll pray for you.

    The Veale Family

  7. Tremley says:

    Everybody says there is this RACE problem. Everybody says this RACE problem will be solved when the third world pours into EVERY white country and ONLY into white countries.

    The Netherlands and Belgium are just as crowded as Japan or Taiwan, but nobody says Japan or Taiwan will solve this RACE problem by bringing in millions of third worlders and quote assimilating unquote with them.

    Everybody says the final solution to this RACE problem is for EVERY white country and ONLY white countries to “assimilate,” i.e., intermarry, with all those non-whites.

    What if I said there was this RACE problem and this RACE problem would be solved only if hundreds of millions of non-blacks were brought into EVERY black country and ONLY into black countries?

    How long would it take anyone to realize I’m not talking about a RACE problem. I am talking about the final solution to the BLACK problem?

    And how long would it take any sane black man to notice this and what kind of psycho black man wouldn’t object to this?

    But if I tell that obvious truth about the ongoing program of genocide against my race, the white race, Liberals and respectable conservatives agree that I am a naziwhowantstokillsixmillionjews.

    They say they are anti-racist. What they are is anti-white.

    Anti-racist is a code word for anti-white.

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      dear Tremley,

      Thanks for joining the conversation and leaving your thoughts. You’re correct when you say, “Everybody says there is this RACE problem.” Many, many folks recognize the difficulty people have of getting along across ethnic and cultural lines.

      But I don’t think you’re correct when you say everyone wants to solve the problem by having non-Whites move into “White” countries. As far as I am aware, that’s never been proposed as a “final solution.” In fact, the historical debates–at least in terms of Blacks and Whites in America–have always centered on whether African Americans should repatriate to African countries. Sierra Leone was created for just that purpose. I’ve never read anyone anywhere say the solution was for people to move to “White” countries.

      By the way, history demonstrates that White colonizers invaded “black,” “brown,” “yellow” and “red” people’s lands. It seems historically ignorant or dishonest to complain about immigration into “white countries” when so much of the world’s history features whites invading the lands inhabited by others. Which begs an interesting question, doesn’t it? What “white countries” do you have in mind? Europe perhaps? But surely you wouldn’t include America and Canada would you? Lands that belonged to Native Americans. You wouldn’t include South Africa would you? Land that belonged to Africans. “White countries” would seem to represent a fairly small space, wouldn’t it?

      Also, friend, no one as called for “assimilation” through inter-marriage. I think intermarriage is fine–great, actually. If two people find love and compatibility across ethnic and color lines, who are we to condemn or forbid them?

      I’m afraid that if someone labeled your comments “racist,” I’d have to agree with that assessment. There’s nothing redemptive in your comments, nothing acknowledging our common humanity, nothing offering hope or a way forward.

      A better approach might be to offer the world the only hope there is for conquering our fears and our hatreds: the love of God shown in the crucifixion, resurrection, and second coming of His beloved Son, who has Himself become our peace, ending the hostility by nailing our sins to the cross, and uniting us in His one body (Eph. 2:14ff). Without Jesus, everyone is outside the covenant of promise, without God, and without hope. But with Jesus, the old has passed away, the new has come, and we who once were far off from God and each other are brought near through His blood. There’s hope for me (the former racist combating his sin) and for anyone currently holding racist attitudes. That hope is in the Lord and it never disappoints. I pray you would both have that hope and live it out more fully each day.

      Grace to you,
      thabiti

      1. OFelixCulpa says:

        Interesting. While Tremley’s comment seems to center on fear and mistrust of people who are different, he doesn’t really make the same kind of stereotypes we are used to cringing at. He hasn’t clearly said anything about superiority/inferiority, etc. I don’t know what he actually believes, but, theoretically, he might view everyone as human and deserving of equal respect but have some idea that it is improper for people of different “races” to procreate together. Perhaps those ideas are related, but they appear to be 2 separate wrong ideas: the first that people of some ‘races’ are superior to people of others, and the second that ‘races’ are some sort of natural boundary which should not be crossed in procreation. Perhaps discussions about racism should be more specific about the basic assumptions of the type of racism under consideration, for many of the arguments required to challenge those assumptions would be different.

        Whatever the underlying assumptions are, I think explanations like you gave are far more effective than our culture’s typical response of casting shame and resentment in the general direction of anyone who expresses anything that might possibly be interpreted as an aberrant view.

  8. OFelixCulpa says:

    I don’t understand how anything in Thabiti’s post or my comments amounts to anti-white cliche. I do think that many people make the mistake of thinking that being respectful of all people entails a sort of punishment mentality toward white people, but that is not my view, and I don’t believe that it is Thabiti’s view. Is there anything in what either of us has said here that suggests to you otherwise?

    It seems like we would all agree that our culture hasn’t done a particularly good job of respecting all people, and that very often differences in race have been at the center of that failure. We would like to see our culture (especially Christians) do better. Does that make sense to you?

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Thabiti Anyabwile


Thabiti Anyabwile is a pastor for Anacostia River Church in southeast Washington, DC and a council member of The Gospel Coalition.

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