I was the pompous Christian college student who spent time with friends memorizing Scripture, even if I didn’t truly live them.
It was misplaced rigor, misguided piety and an out-of-focus faith. I could spit these passages out and talk about the virtue of humility, but practicing humility was not my strength.
My whole Christian fraternity and I memorized Philippians 2:3-8, but I missed the point. I had plenty of selfish ambition and was truly blind to what this passage meant.
Furthermore, my selfish ambition and vain conceit was tied up in my views of race.
Born in Vidor, Texas, a well-known sundown town, I was influenced by white supremacy in the earliest years of my life.
My white racial identity was a standard by which I compared myself to others and the norm against which others were seen as different or less than.
By white, I don’t simply mean skin color. White is not ethnicity or nationality. To be white is one thing, but the pride in whiteness is problematic given how whiteness was created to marginalize, oppress and enslave as part of our nation’s history.
Whiteness is America’s original sin as Christian author Jim Wallis put it. And it was mine as well.
My parents knew the cost of raising a family in a racist town, so we moved when I was in grade school, from southeast Texas to southwest Louisiana. It was only a few dozen miles away, but it was another world.
The diversity of Catholic Cajun culture provided a much more diverse friend group, but I still experienced how whiteness was privileged, protected and granted positionality in places of power.
We were raised to see the difference of whiteness and, given that almost everyone I knew in a position of authority was white, I believed that white had value that blackness did not. I did not outgrow those beliefs for years.
My college years created a wrestling of these ideas. I knew I wanted to overcome what I had begun to recognize as sin, but in a predominantly white institution, white supremacy is normative, even if not intentional.
As Beverly Daniel Tatum puts it, if we are not turning around on the moving walkway of racism, and choosing to be antiracist, we are at best proclaiming ourselves “not racist” while still participating in racist systems.
I was ready to declare myself not racist, but I had no idea what conversion would look like. I didn’t quite know how to undo the sense of superiority all around me.
From here, I went to seminary, at best, as a recovering racist.
Theologian Elizabeth Barnes taught me 25 years ago that we are all, at best, recovering racists. And by “we,” she meant our white seminary (in Richmond, Virginia, no less).
I was introduced to Black liberation theology by a white professor, and I was introduced to womanism by a white woman. I was taking steps to turn around, but as white people do, I wanted resolution and reconciliation.
“Racial reconciliation” was an attempt by many white churches in these days to right some historic wrongs.
I participated in racial reconciliation work, which mostly included me apologizing, expecting things to be OK and becoming frustrated that the relationships did not work the way I wanted.
I heard an analogy along the way comparing racial reconciliation work to me stealing someone’s bicycle, apologizing after years of riding the stolen bike while the other person had to walk, not giving the bicycle back or making amends for the loss of time and energy I caused and yet being frustrated the other person won’t be my friend.
As Baylor colleague Malcolm Foley puts is, we cannot expect to reconcile a relationship that never existed. Nor can we truly ask that of God, if we as white Christians aren’t willing to do more of our share of the work of being conciliatory.
As part of my seminary education, I found my way into a joint program with social work education. Here, I learned the language of power and privilege.
Our school was still predominantly white and, as I’ve come to realize, white people reminding white people of our privilege may illustrate diversity, but it does not teach equity or inclusion and it could not undo white supremacy.
By the time I began to work in social work education, the practice and teaching of cultural competency was the norm for undoing racism. However, I didn’t have to change or undo anything in myself to appreciate someone else’s culture.
From this perspective, I could teach and learn about diversity and further develop practices of being not racist, or so I thought. I could ask questions and explore the culture of the populations we were serving, but this required little of me.
I did not have to explore the history of the inequalities, disparities and violence perpetrated against Black bodies in my effort to become competent. I could maintain privilege as I walked with students through the neighborhoods where we served, proud of myself for finally becoming a good white person.
Serving as professor and dean in a school that seeks to understand the ethical integration of spirituality and religion in social work practice keeps me thinking about the role of virtue and the place of humility in my work, particularly when it comes to race.
The past few years have been a national plea for recognizing the role of whiteness in racial violence. Continually seeking a place of humility not only as a white male, but also in light of the whiteness of our culture, is essential to this work.
Dean and professor of the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University.