Reflections on “After Whiteness”

I want to share some reflections about a book I just read, After Whiteness: an Education in Belonging, by Willie James Jennings.

I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but it turned out to be something even better than I thought—something really thought-provoking and important.  I read it with the other ELCA seminary leaders and I think it was a great book for us to talk about together and continue to process.

Here is my take on the book—or maybe better, the lens through which I read his argument.

Jennings sets theological education in the larger context of institutional racism, and argues that we all have been formed (and therefore continue to form others) as one very specific type of leader: the white “self-sufficient man.”  This model pushes us toward mastery and control; and, tragically, toward isolation, when what we really long for is communion and belonging.  It demands “performance” of a very specific type from all of us, even when this is not at all authentic to who we are. As we know, this performance is rewarded by congregations (and faculties–the primary context of the book is seminaries/divinity schools) who have also been trained to admire this type of leader: poised, confident, well-groomed, polished. About this type, Jennings writes, “He showed himself to be a knower aiming at mastery, a mind striving for possession, and a body in control…a brilliant performer of white self-sufficient masculinity.” Isn’t that what a leader should look like?

The ugly truth about this model of leadership, which no one wants to talk about or acknowledge, is the fact that this particular “formation”–distorted formation, in truth, seeks to re-create the “white master that sees everyone and hears no one.” [And he spends a good amount of time in chapter three unpacking this image using a print titled “Slaves at Worship on a Plantation in South Carolina,” which had been found in the Billy Graham Center Museum archives.]

In contrast to all this “presumptive possessiveness,” this poise and polish, Jennings longs for real bodies, in concrete spaces and places—bodies that touch and feel, bodies that find their home with other bodies in the “intimate and erotic energy that drives life together with God.”

And so he asks, “What does leadership feel like? What is its taste? How is its touch? What does it say and how does it hear?”  I love these questions, because it brings the body front and center into one’s understanding and “performance” of leadership, and reminds us how we are called to bring all of who we are into our leadership, and that we can embody leadership differently—and this difference is a gift to our institutions, congregations, etc.

At the end of the book, he emphasizes his desire to frame theological education as “formation within the erotic power of God to gather together.”  He knows this is a “dream,” but it is “God’s dream,” and therefore, we need to take it seriously. And to step into this dream require us to struggle against the “old man that haunts us,” the man that dreams of mastery, control and possession as marks of success.  

Throughout the book he tells story after story—stories that he says are both truth and fiction, but that clearly express the reality of the suffering of those who do not live up to or into the model of the “white master.”  They are illuminating and tragic, especially those stories of creative, talented leaders who are worn down and broken by the systems and institutions that refuse to accept them as they are, refuse to be changed by their gifts, refuse to see a different future for themselves shaped by the vision of a new communion created by God, a radical belonging where all are held together in God’s passionate love.

In my view, this is a definite must-read for anyone in theological education, and I think it would be a good read for congregations, too.  Jennings offers many different avenues into fresh perspectives and new, creative thinking, and even in spite of the pain and struggle in the book, ultimately I found it hopeful.  Change is possible–not because we are so capable and wise, but because God is deeply loving and persistent.  Because God is always at work, there is always hope.

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