“You’d be Really Pretty if You were White”: Jesus and Race in America

Editor Note: Today’s Guest Post is by Doneila McIntosh. Doneila is completing her M.Div. at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, MN and is a wife and mother of two boys. 

A few nights ago, as my family was sitting down for dinner, my three year old Levi asked, “Mommy is Levi white?” As I hesitated to answer, he replied “everybody is white, Levi is brown.” At that moment I realized something: Levi had begun to articulate the racialization process that he will undergo the rest of his life.

I don’t remember becoming racialized, but I do remember, during my senior year of college, sitting on the bus next to an older Caucasian woman who turned to me and said, “You would be really pretty if you were white.” I don’t remember how old I was when I first realized that I was black and that I was deemed lesser than a white girl, but I do remember being in high school and having a guy that I liked tell me he would never date a black girl. I normally do not think about those memories. Frankly, many of them just hurt too much. But when Levi told me, “Everybody is white, Levi is brown,” it crushed me. I cried for two hours later that night as I thought of all of the defining moments of my life and realized that 95% of them were moments that defined me racially. I do not want my kids to experience the pain and rejection that I have throughout my life, but it is inevitable.

As I continue to process the racialization of my sons into black men, I have begun to think critically about how, as a black woman, do I steer my children into a understanding of black flesh that resists the identity of black flesh as rendered by whiteness (i.e. stereotypes, stigmas, racial profiling, etc.)? Further, how do I help them articulate an identity of black flesh that resists violence especially against female black flesh (i.e. prostitution, domestic violence, sex trafficking, etc.)?

To me, the mountain top that Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed the night before his death is not one I will see within my life time nor shall my children. Look, for every Barak Obama and Oprah Winfrey there are thousands of Trayvon Martins. In the community where I live, tragic death is more of a reality than is success. I believe that Dr. King’s vision and many like it are beautiful yet abstract and theoretical views of the world. However, as Christians we must not forget that we live in a fallen world that is not only susceptible to sin, but also to the demonic powers that control the systems of the world. Despite our theologies of hope and liberation, we may never see the fulfillment of a society that overcomes its own racialization. This does not mean we stop fighting for freedom. It means that, along with theory and dreams, we must become more practical.

My husband and I have decided that we will intentionally teach our sons what it means to be racialized. We will not teach them in the way that we learned: those implicit, tacit messages that told us because we were black, we were inferior. My husband and I are committed to teaching our sons that being racialized does not mean they are of little value. It does not mean that they cannot achieve their dreams. It does not mean that others are better or more handsome due to the color of their skin. Our goal is to teach our sons how to embrace themselves as well as to embrace others who are different from them. We are all members of the same family—fearfully and wonderfully made by a God who is far more diverse and racially mixed than we can imagine. We have made it a goal to teach our children different languages and to expose them to different cultures within our own larger community of the Twin Cities. My three-year old does not understand complex abstractions of race relations that tell him that all people are created equal. We must show our sons that all people, whether black, white, latino, chinese, or native are all God’s beloved, all created in his likeness and image.

On this side of eternity, my sons will never know what it means not to be racialized. Though a life truly freed from the domination of racialized oppression seems a hopeless dream, I believe that there are times when I experience small tastes of a heavenly freedom that propels me beyond my racialized flesh. These random moments give me hope for what is to come. In J. Kameron Carter’s book Race: A Theological Account, Carter seeks to redirect our understanding of race by pointing to the significance of Jesus’ Jewishness. For me the true significance of the Jewishness of Christ is that Christ himself, God with flesh-on, experienced life on earth and the imprisoning systems that abound. Yet he overcame them all in order that one day my children will be set free from the shackles of race and racism.

About Kyle Roberts
  • Ingrid

    I’m so sorry that someone said to you, “You would be really pretty if you were white.” That is horrible. I am white and hate my pale, freckled skin BUT it is how God created me. Still I struggle and wish I had beautiful darker skin. My boys have several friends who are African-American and I see and hear the struggles that they have with being black. It breaks my heart and I always remind all of them (mine included) that they are exactly who God wanted them to be and they are all beautiful (handsome). My hope and prayer for them all is that they grow up being secure in who they are and living as men of God.

  • Claudia

    Yes, how foolish and ignorant some are in this area, I am so sorry and ashamed by this….yet I am comforted by the Bible that says… the first shall be last …. and the least of these … the racialized, the mistreated, the abused … the weak , the mentally challenged … on and on goes the list… it is these that shall lead us and be first and receive comfort and healing and encouragement …. I am so happy SO HAPPY that I am color blind as is our beautiful Lord … may you all be blessed of the Lord

  • Marcus

    As I read the article I wondered what you meant by “This does not mean we stop fighting for freedom.” Why would we fight, whom would we fight? You write from an emotional perspective, and that makes sense to me as you explain your formative memories. However, it makes me understand you less when you ascribe emotional intent to Jesus mission when you conclude “Yet he overcame them all in order that one day my children will be set free from the shackles of race and racism.” Why would you deem this a primary purpose of Jesus mission? Maybe I am misunderstanding you here. Wouldn’t the logical (I realize you are arguing emotionally) conclusion of Jesus mission more directly address our sin problem with the Father, rather than with the consequences of sin between people. I too have suffered in my life because of rejection, but my response is to more and more yield to the Spirit of Jesus to let less of me into this world. I don’t sense I have an obligation or ability to change the “world” and its sinfulness. God is the one who has a plan, and I am trying to follow it rather than come up with my own. I think the biggest blight on we Jesus people is that within the Kingdom of God, we have not achieved the theoretical reality of “Jew and Gentile becoming one”. I would enjoy hearing more about your racial experiences within the church, I just am not surprised that the “world ” has treated you the way it has. As you point out, fallen is what it does best. But I would differ with your contention that we are all beloved, as I see a difference between the “beloved” and everyone who is created in God’s image.

    • Silas

      Marcus, just a few words in response to your comments here.

      First, I find it very problematic that you dismiss Ms. McIntosh’s reflection as ‘emotional.’ Her work here is a well-argued, clearly articulated, and well-balanced theological analysis of her experience of being racialized, a political relation that a profoundly theological modality, one that merits a theological response and a theological interpretation. Just because she speaks from a vulnerable and pained place of experience does not mean that her work is not logical. This is explicated in her interpretation of race as a theological problem, namely that she understands the incarnation, the divine act of taking on human flesh, a flesh marked by its Jewishness no less, as an example of divine solidarity with her experience being racialized. This taking on of flesh, the particularly scandalous flesh upon which race emerges as a punitive category, is an divine act of grace, a grace that demonstrated the universality of divine love, a love of the “life-giving Spirit” in which she participates and so gains hope for a different human future: this is indeed the Christian gospel.

      Second, the desire to positively change the world and its ills through social and political change is not an aberration from this ‘good news’, but rather is a practiced act of Christian discipleship, a performance of the invitation by Jesus to “take up one’s cross and follow after me.” Indeed, the cross was indeed a spiritual place of transformation where God is revealed to humanity and where humanity is invited to share in the divine life through faith (if this is not Luther’s theology of the cross, I don’t know what is!), and yet this selfsame cross is a political space: a place of judgment, of death, of torture, of violence upon bodies, of injustice. The church and the world are not that different in that both are “crossed places”: spaces that are given their meaning through Christ’s performance on the cross and its lessons – both spiritual and political – for us. The power of the cross is that it demonstrates to us that God is present with us, that the divine stands in radical solidarity with all forms of pain, suffering, and death, especially those that threaten the many who suffer the most from the systems of forces and relations established by the few. The identity of Jesus Christ and his crucified work on the cross is NOTHING if not a radical condemnation of racism, xenophobia, and a refutation of those religious systems that promote and maintain the structures that reinforce these attitudes, even in their religious forms.

      Ms. McIntosh does us a great service by reminding us that our Christian identities are not just religious or spiritual ones, but also (ought to) have profoundly radical political ones as well. Racialization is a social pathology that is often undergirded by a theological promotion of whiteness as the universal condition of what is human. Lives transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ are lives that recognize that this is untenable and we must ACT now to reverse this sinful course. As human beings, we are indeed fallen, but so are our theologies when they respond with a resistance to learning from those who call us to listen to them. We must eagerly embrace their words, even when we don’t understand them. In this regard, the church is not often not distinguishable from the world, and so we too, must be saved. Unfortunately, your response to her, it seems to me, is an example of this problem. Racialization is indeed a churchly problem; it gets repeated in our faith communities daily by those who claim to be ‘color blind’ but fail to see the role that race shapes them or the need for theological responses to the problem.

      • Marcus

        I am not sure I understand what you are saying…

  • http://sarawg.com Sara Wilhelm Garbers

    Dee-

    Thank you for your thoughtful, honest writing. I’m grateful for your voice and look forward to seeing how you lead this conversation in your continued studies, living and reflecting.

  • Brad Sickler

    Silas, you said, “Racialization is a social pathology that is often undergirded by a theological promotion of whiteness as the universal condition of what is human.” It make it sounds like racial discrimination is uniquely (or predominantly) Christian or Western/American. Both are utterly false. It has nothing to do with theology or whiteness – it is equally, if not MORE, prevalent outside the church and outside our country. Remember the white Christian abolitionists who ended the slave trade and fought for liberation. Racism is not western. It is not Christian. It is human.

    • Kyle Roberts

      Brad, Silas said racialization is “often undergirded by…” He didn’t say always, or only, or uniquely. Furthermore, this essay is a reflection on racialization in America, not in the world. And if you think that the history of racial oppression (and slavery) in our country had nothing to do with theology or Christianity, then I just don’t know what to say. Obviously many of the abolitionists were impelled by theology (and Scriptural interpretation), as you mention. But so were numerous slave owners. Read some of the debates that took place in any number of Christian denominations. The SBC, for example, was founded precisely because of its theological defense of slave ownership. Certainly there were alternative (competing) theological and hermeneutical visions of what it meant to be “Christian.” But what it seems to me that Silas is pointing out is this: while slavery, thankfully, is gone, debilitating, oppressive racialization is not. And it is still funded by theologies of privilege, power, whiteness, etc., sometimes in the form of a simple unwillingness to acknowledge disparity, oppression, privilege, and other factors of contextuality.


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