If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Curse of Whiteness: a sermon on white racism from Numbers 12

Whiteness is a curse. If you don’t believe me, read again the twelfth chapter of the book of Numbers. Miriam is cursed when God turns her skin “white as snow.” You might say Miriam was the original “Snow White.” In her case, white skin was a curse. I’m aware of a long history of black skin being considered a curse of God, but never white skin. I wonder why? “Whoop, there it is!” right smack in the Holy Bible. Whiteness is a curse.

Now, before some of us white people go and get our noses all bent out of shape, let’s take a closer look at the biblical story itself. It’s a highly problematic text for a number of reasons. But I hope to “tease out” from this ambiguous text, and how we read it, some themes that might assist us in coming to terms with the insidious nature of white racism.

The biblical story starts off with Miriam and Aaron, Moses’ sister and brother, speaking out against him for marrying a Cushite. Who is she? Is this Zipporah, the daughter of the Midianite priest that Moses married after fleeing Egypt (Exodus 2:15-22)? She doesn’t appear to be the same woman. She is from Cush, the name given to one of Noah’s grandsons, a son of Ham. Where do we find the descendants of Cush? Cushites are believed to be from Ethiopia. The Septuagint, an ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, indicates that the woman was from Africa. So, in our text Miriam and Aaron have a complaint against Moses for marrying a black African woman. And God has a problem with their attitude toward this black woman. How do we know? Because, in an act of “poetic justice” God curses Miriam with white skin.

On the face of the text we might immediately think that this story is about racism, and particularly interracial marriage. At first glance the issue seems to be about Miriam and Aaron’s racial prejudice against Moses’ black wife. Reading the “skin” of the text through a white lens we might assume that Moses is a white man. Well, Moses was white, wasn’t he? Just take a look in your illustrated Bible or on the walls of most Sunday School rooms. Moses was a white man, just like Jesus was a white man. Jesus must have been white, because I have even seen pictures of him in paintings, stained glass windows, and even in my Bible. And, Holy Moses, he’s as white as yours truly! And while we’re trying to figure out the race of Moses and Jesus, what’s the race of God? If you look at the Michelangelo’s painting of the creation of Adam in the Sistine chapel, both God and Adam are white men! But, maybe God is a liberal white man, because he’s okay with Moses marrying a black African woman. You see, the color of the lens through which we read texts may be indicative of our larger predicament that causes us to read people according to their skin color.

We might have assumed that Miriam and Aaron were racially prejudiced, since they don’t want their brother marrying a black African woman. But, the Semitic tribes were probably a mixed stock of Afro-Asiatic peoples, which simply means Moses was no white man. So, this text is not about an interracial marriage. Neither is it about racism. As a matter of fact, there is no such thing as race in the Bible. That’s because race is a modern invention.

What? Race is an invention? You’re kidding, right? You mean to tell me that those boxes you’re supposed to check on the census form are all made up? Caucasoid, Negroid, Mongoloid, and all those other “oids”----they’re all modern, made up human categories. And if Moses and his wife had to fill out one of those forms, they would have been scratching their heads for days. It’s not that they couldn’t see any differences in human skin color. It’s just that in ancient times people didn’t classify themselves using racial categories. In the Bible, and in many cultures today, differences are marked by class, tribe, and nationality.

People weren’t judged to be superior or inferior based upon race. Biblical scholar Randall Bailey even proposes that the African woman was considered to be of a higher social status than Moses. What presidential candidate John Kerry recently said during the debates fits Moses, “I married up.” That’s the issue behind the complaints of Aaron and Miriam. According to Bailey, their complaint is that Moses has gained status before God because of his marriage to the Ethiopian woman. That’s why they believed God spoke to Moses. But, God’s rebuke to Miriam and Aaron indicates that Moses was not a prophet because of his social status, but simply because God chose to speak to Moses one-on-one. There is the recognition of higher and lower social status in this story, but it is based in class and nationality, not race.

Class, tribe, and nationality have created a politics of difference in many cultures throughout the ancient and modern worlds. Recently I was in a meeting in Chicago with the antiracism team of Mennonite Mission Network. We started off our first meeting by sharing our experiences of racism. One by one we went around the room and talked about how we experienced race and racism growing up in America. There were differences of experience, particularly depending upon whether we grew up white or black. One member, Gilberto Flores, who grew up in Guatemala, had a totally different story. He talked about prejudices in his society that were not based upon race. The indigenous people in Guatemala were treated badly because they were considered lower class. As a middle-class Latino, Gilberto had to decide to set aside his status and work for the liberation of the poorer class.

Sometimes racism in the United States is difficult for people of color from other countries to grasp because their experience of prejudice has more to do with class and nationality. Class-based prejudices are closer to the social context of Aaron and Miriam. They had problems with Moses’ Ethiopian wife because of her class and nationality. The politics of difference has always been operative within the world in many forms. In Western culture it has taken the particular form of racism.

Race is a modern human invention. It was created to justify and reinforce inequality. More specifically, race was invented to support white supremacy. Race is a creation of Western culture during the period of European conquest, which was justified by Western religion, politics, and science. Ironically, the earliest reflections on race in the U.S. came from the man who penned the words of the Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal.” That man was Thomas Jefferson, who owned about 200 slaves. In his writing Notes on the State of Virginia Jefferson spoke of the inferiority of the African slaves he called “blacks.” The concept of the inferiority of “blacks,” and on the other hand the superiority of whites, came into being in America out of a need to justify the institution of slavery. If all men were created equal, then how could one justify that some were slaves? Well, Africans had to be innately inferior. So, “blackness” became a racial category, invented for social, economic, and political reasons. “Blackness” became an identifier of social inferiority. In the U.S. race was an invention created to justify slavery, and to deny equality of social status and American citizenship to those of African ancestry.

In America whiteness was constructed to unify a variety of ethnic groups into a single “race” with special privileges. Whiteness defined what it meant to be an American. Wait a minute. What about America, the great “melting pot”? I thought this grand experiment was meant to boil down our differences and create one common people we call “Americans.” America became a melting pot only in the sense that diverse European ethnic groups became identified as “white” over against Africans, Indians, Asians, and Mexicans. The original American race was the white race. To this day whiteness is still understood by many U.S. residents to mean “American.” In the 2000 census two-thirds of the foreign-born residents identified themselves as white. Almost half of Latinos checked the “white” box in the census. Why would those we might consider “people of color” want to be identified as “white”? Not only because they see “white” as meaning “American,” but in the U.S. social and economic discrimination based upon race is a powerful incentive to identify as white.

Noel Ignatiev has written a fascinating book entitled How the Irish Became White. It may sound strange to us to talk about “becoming white.” Ignatiev describes the process of how Europeans became white using the example of Irish immigrants. The Irish, who were considered an inferior class of people by the English, came to America and experienced much of the same discrimination in the new land that they faced under the British. In America they occupied a social position only slightly above blacks. Becoming white give the Irish an economic advantage in their competition with freed slaves for jobs in the North. Whiteness was a historical, social, economic, and political construction, an ideology invented to unify and justify the pre-eminence, privilege, and power of one group over others. That is the “curse of whiteness”----the racial classification of people for the purpose of supporting superiority and subjugation.

I suspect that some of us may have had a visceral reaction to the opening of my sermon, when I said “whiteness is a curse.” In some audiences that might have gotten a few “amens!” I suspect that a lot of us have difficulty identifying ourselves as “white.” One reason some of us have difficulty thinking of ourselves as white is because we don’t view ourselves as one racial group among many. Whites usually don’t think of themselves as being part of a race. Usually when whites talk about racial groups, we mean other people. To identify ourselves as white sets us over against blacks and other racial groups. We don’t like that. But this was the original reason for the invention of race---to distinguish ourselves from others for purposes of privilege.

That’s another reason we have difficulty identifying ourselves as white. Whiteness implies access to power and privilege, which most whites don’t want to acknowledge, including Mennonites. “I’m not white. I’m Mennonite!” That could be our new slogan. White Mennonites would prefer to think of themselves as still being a persecuted minority, different from other whites. This is a delusion we haven’t yet gotten over. Consciously or unconsciously Mennonites participate in the same benefits as other whites. Whites have power and privileges that we take for granted. I participate in those invisible privileges. If I want to move I can be fairly sure I won’t have problems getting housing I can afford. I can go shopping without being eyed or harassed by store clerks. I know that when my children are given curriculum in school my race will be represented. If I’m walking down the street at night I don’t have to worry about being stopped by the police who are suspicious of me because of my race, like my son. I’m never asked to speak for everyone in my race. I can make a presentation without hearing that I’m articulate or a credit to my race. As a white person, I have a built in form of affirmative action when I look for a job or go to a school. And on and on the list of privileges goes. To identify ourselves as white is to begin to acknowledge that we are part of a racist social system that grants us plenty of power and a preponderance of privileges. And we don’t like to recognize that fact.

So, even though I can say I don’t wear a white hood, don’t use the “N” word, or tell racial jokes, even though I may have black friends, live in a neighborhood that is populated mostly by African-Americans and Puerto Ricans, and work on an antiracism team, it has nothing to do with the clout I have and the favoritism I receive because I am part of a society shaped by white supremacy. Living within that kind of society, it’s not always easy to acknowledge whiteness.

One more reason we have a problem recognizing our whiteness is because it’s often invisible. It’s not something white people can easily see or state. It’s like asking a fish to describe water. Whiteness is the sea we swim in. Whites don’t notice it. People of color do. When was the last time you identified yourself as being white? “Hello. I’m calling about renting the apartment. U-huh. Yes. But, first, I should let you know. I’m white.” For most of my life I don’t recall ever having to think about being white. It was not something I noticed or needed to acknowledge or affirm. “Say it loud! I’m white…and I’m proud?” The reason whiteness is invisible is because it’s considered normal and natural, the standard. If you don’t believe me, go to the store and buy flesh colored band aids. White is not a separate race, one among many. It is the norm. And as the norm we don’t notice or necessarily have to identify whiteness.

Most if us don’t talk about white Christians, white churches, white preaching, white theology, white music, white food, white history, white politics, white culture. White, white, white, white, white….We don’t use “white” to describe things associated with our race. We do use race to describe things associated with other racial groups. “Did you know it’s black history month?” “He’s pastor of a Hispanic church.” “Let’s order Chinese food.” Here’s something you will never hear----“Why don’t you come over Saturday tonight. We can study for our white history exam, order some white food, and go to a white church on Sunday.” We don’t recognize whiteness, because it is understood as being normal. But, when we don’t recognize whiteness, when we think of whiteness as natural, we miss understanding the power relations that are embedded in this invented category.

During a workshop on racism Paul wanted to divide the group into a caucus group of people of color and another of white people so each group could have more in-depth discussion. Immediately some of the white people said, “But I’m not white.” They were distressed about being identified as “white.” A white woman stood up and said, “I’m not white because I’m not part of the white male power structure that perpetuates racism.” A white man from a working class family said, “I have it just as hard as any person of color.” Another white man said, “I’m not white, I’m Italian.” By then, an African-American co-worker of Paul turned to him and said, “Where are all the white people who were here just a minute ago?” Tongue-in-cheek, Paul replied, “Don’t ask me, I’m not white, I’m Jewish!”

In the biblical story we read earlier, white skin was a curse laid upon Miriam as a result of looking down on someone because of social status. In their social context Aaron and Miriam appear to have discriminated against Moses’ African wife because of her class and nationality. Though her dark skin is not the primary issue, it does identify her nationality. Let’s not get into why Miriam was cursed with leprosy and not Aaron. But she was plagued with white skin, an affliction from God for speaking against Moses and his black wife. It was as if God were saying, “You have a problem with this black woman? Well, then, Poof! Hello, whitey!” God judges the one who judges another based on class and nationality. White skin was Miriam’s curse.

Whiteness is our curse. Not white skin, but whiteness as an ideology of white superiority. Whiteness is a vast system of affirmative action for whites. Whiteness is a social and political construction of domination and subjugation. That is our affliction. It is a curse we have brought upon ourselves and continue to perpetuate. First of all, it is a curse because it harms people of color. Bell Hooks once wrote, “All black people in the United States, irrespective of their class status or politics, live with the possibility that they will be terrorized by whiteness.” But, secondly, whiteness is a curse because it is also harmful to whites. It robs us of our unique identities, our ethnic histories, our distinctive cultures. I grew up wanting to leave behind my embarrassing identity rooted in a lower-class, tenant farmer family, post-Grapes-of-Wrath-Okies-in-California. My aspirations were fit in with my white, middle-class, suburban friends. Whiteness strips us of our distinctive cultural roots.

Whiteness also alienates us from our essential connectedness as children of God. Like a sword, it slices the body of Christ into pieces. It can even alienate us from other whites, if we work to acknowledge the privileges associated with whiteness and work to dismantle white racism. We need to be healed of whiteness as a domination system.

God is no respecter of persons. God does not affirm our human categories that create hierarchical systems of gender, race, class, or nationality. In our biblical text God doesn’t see the African woman’s skin color as a problem. The problem is with Aaron and Miriam who buy into a politics of difference. God does not discriminate based upon our human boxes. God didn’t chose to speak through Moses because of an elevated social status from marrying an African woman. God doesn’t make those kinds of distinctions. With God there is no Jew or Gentile, black or white, slave or free, male or female, American or Iraqi. Those who affirm God’s vision of a world without division seek to disrupt and dismantle hierarchies of gender, race, class, tribe, and nationality. As the story in Acts 10 clearly states---God is no respecter of persons. It took a vision from God for the Peter, a Jew, to recognize Cornelius, a Gentile, as his brother. It took a vision for Peter to see that God shows no partiality.

We need a vision like Peter’s to heal us. We need a vision from God to be cured of the curse of whiteness and healed of our discrimination against people of color, which is embedded in our society. We need a vision that unveils white power and privilege for all to see clearly. We need a vision of whiteness that is not based upon domination and discrimination. We need a vision and practice of being white that is truly mutual, life-giving, aware, informative, and transformative. We need whites and people of color who, like Moses, are willing to plead to God for our healing. Our healing will take a new vision that spiritually empowers us for the hard work of transforming the church into a truly multicultural body. We need a vision that can affirm and support the work of antiracism teams within the MCUSA and local churches for challenging us to be the church God envisions. We need to use our eyes and voices and hands and feet within the church and world to become conduits of the Spirit for the transformation of our lives and our institutions, like Paul, Peter, and other visionaries in the early church who stood up and spoke up for a church inclusive of Jew and Gentile. We need visionaries who will stand up and speak out against racism and proclaim the hope of a church undivided by gender, race, class, and nationality.

Our healing will require the vision of a new world, where all peoples and places, tribes and tongues, races and regions stand on equal footing before God and one another. I have seen such a vision, literally on a video my wife brought back Australia of a “gathering of the tribes.” I was amazed to see with my own eyes indigenous Christian peoples coming together from around he world to witness in body and soul against the racism that had robbed them of their culture. I saw them celebrate in body and soul their Christian faith through their own cultural lens. My eyes were bathed in light as I saw Native Americans, Maori, Hawaiians, aboriginal Australians in the own native dress and using their own native language, along with white Americans, dancing and praising God together with abandonment. It reminded me of another healing vision. In the book of Revelation John the Seer was allowed to look at humanity through divine eyes. John’s eyes were bathed with a vision of a healed humanity, where every tribe, tongue, people, and nation stood before the one true God, who is no respecter of persons. Wash our eyes in this vision, O God!

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count,
From every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,standing before God and the Lamb with palm branches in their hands.They cried out in a loud voice,
Salvation (transformation, healing, and hope) belongs to our God.
(Revelation 7:9)


  1. Excellent. ****4Star****. Thanks for publishing this piece.


  2. Great article Mr. Hartshorn. I only wish the masses could open up their hearts and minds to read this. I' a working on a chapter in my book called (The two Curses) Subtitle(The curse of the Black Hebrew and the Anglo). Like you I clearly see the biblical issues in dealing with the races and the consequences enforced upon both houses. The problem is that the masses are blinded and many simply do not care to seek the truth that God is non discriminant towards anyone. Unfortunately the evil one(Lucifer) has used this issue to destroy and tear us apart, taking the focus off of the real evils of our world. Anyways a great piece and I hope all is well for you. Happy 2015 to you and may God bless.


  3. Awesome article :) a gift of hope - the hope I grew up expecting as a given and at least a definite eventuality - the hope I grew up taking for granted until I experienced enough racism myself to threaten that hope...the hope which good reads like this one remind me is not in vain. Amen. Salvation belongs to our God. Amen.