Here’s an easy exercise: Go to Google and search “Jesus.” Then click images. What do you see?
Exactly. The majority of the pictures found in the search results would have you believe this historical figure somehow resembled Jared Leto in all his majestic whiteness rather than what’s far more likely—a darker-skinned Galilean Semite with average features.
Does this really matter? No, not in any significant way. So why use the term “white Jesus?”
“White Jesus” is a double entendre emphasizing both the distinct anthropomorphic nature of this divine character and, more specifically, the fact that this character is largely whitewashed in its conceptualization to better jive with the Eurocentric white gaze.
Further, when referencing Black Christianity, it juxtaposes the absurdity of Black folks embracing this Westernized model widely transmitted from their white oppressors through inculcation and coercion.
And just so we’re clear, “white gaze” refers to a white-centered hegemonic outlook wherein aspects of culture is predominantly distilled through an interpretation of the world told by white people for white people. When this viewpoint is normalized, cultural ideas and social mores are calibrated to this custom of whiteness. We see the implications of the white gaze everywhere—media, beauty standards, Hollywood, literature, policing, and so on.
Got it? White gaze, whitewash—white Jesus.
Long before there was a Jesus, Xenophanes teased out the human tendency to anthropomorphize their ideas of the divine. Atheists would even consider this meta—one form of imagination informing another form of imagination. Xenophanes stated:
“If cattle and horses and lions had hands or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do, horses like horses and cattle like cattle also would depict the gods’ shapes and make their bodies of such a sort as the form they themselves have…Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black. Thracians that they are pale and red-haired.”
The term “white Jesus” reminds us that this imagined divinity we’re referring to is a fictional character as well as notes the common conceptual rendering of Jesus is clearly configured in a particular way to satiate the white gaze.
So there you go, “white Jesus” explained.