Posted On April 15, 2019

“Whiteness” and the Eternal Nations: A Commentary on Ekemini Uwan’s Sparrow Q&A (Part 1)

by | Apr 15, 2019 | Theology

Our Mission: Peacemakers. Rec·on·cil·er, noun | A person who brings peace. We exist to catalyze the next generation of reconcilers.

Screenshot from Sparrow Women’s home page.

The world needs peacemakers, because conflict is everywhere – in relationships, on social media, at work – so follow God’s call and join an amazing community of peacemaking women at the 2019 Sparrow Conference!

This year we’ll walk through the entire book of Ephesians and learn what it means to Walk in Love.

The advertised format of this year’s Sparrow conference was to walk through the book of Ephesians. Previous respective conferences focused on James and 1 John. What could be better than focusing an entire conference around a book of the Bible? No problems here so far. Another positive note is the organization’s doctrinal statement. I’m typically used to seeing some sort of 3×5 index card statement or even just a copy and paste of one of the historical creeds. So deep is this doctrinal statement that it even proclaims particular atonement.

But God, sent redemption through His Son, Jesus Christ who was born of the Virgin Mary, fulfilling all Old Testament prophecies. Jesus came to live in the darkness with God’s people, to dwell with them, to walk as they walked, being fully God and fully man. He lived a sinless, perfect life. Jesus willingly submitted to mockery, shame, physical torture and was crucified to pay the great debt of God’s people. The only way to God is through the righteous standing of Christ. On the cross, Jesus took on the sin of God’s people and absorbed the wrath of God in our place. Every single sin of the saints was laid upon him. Jesus died and rose three days later, putting death to death and displaying His authority over sin and evil.

AMEN.

There were some things to be concerned about at the start, however. A quick perusal of Sparrow Women’s web site reveals a strong attachment to “racial reconciliation” and “social justice.” Sparrow’s executive director and founder, Rachel Joy, is the wife of a pastor at The Village Church, which has already shown itself to be completely invested in the social justice movement. Some of the links on the “permanent” website content include the Truth’s Table podcast (of which Uwan is part), Jemar Tisby’s Pass the Mic podcast, and such books as I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, and What Does It Mean to Be White: Developing White Racial Literacy. Further perusal of Sparrow material reveals a strong focus on critical race issues. Moreover, Uwan’s interviewer, Elizabeth Woodson, is on Sparrow’s staff and didn’t provide any critical pushback during the interview.

As has now come to light, several attendees walked out in protest during Uwan’s talk. One can’t help but infer that some attendees didn’t quite know what they were walking into. However, the overall message of Sparrow’s website is congruent to what Uwan said. Sparrow’s five-sentence apology should not be taken as a shocked rejection of Uwan’s message as if they didn’t know her views. Such is not lost on Sparrow Women’s social media commenters, who largely see Sparrow’s reaction as lacking the courage to stand up for Uwan.

In this article, I’ll first address the definitional issues of whiteness and ethnicity from Uwan’s Q&A. I will then expound on the theological and historical problems within.

Elizabeth Woodson and Ekemini Uwan

Elizabeth Woodson (left) and Ekemini Uwan (right). Censorship bar added by the author.

(Click here to watch the Q&A. The above image is provided as a visual warning.)

Whiteness and Ethnicity

Uwan told Religion News Service that she “mentioned the term ‘whiteness’ more than two dozen times throughout the 30-minute talk.” If the Uwan-endorsed transcript is accurate, that exact number is 25.

Here’s how Uwan describes racial identity. It’s the clearest statement of the subjugation motif:

So when you’re talking about healthy racial identity development for white women, the reality is that we have to understand that race is a social construct that was organized around strife, difference, racial stratification, so that obviously white people are on top, people of color being on the bottom, and blackness being at the very bottom. So there’s levels to this.

This is an awfully narrow way to view world history, as dominant ethnicities have not always had light skin colors. But we can see that Uwan is making a distinction between race and ethnicity. She finds “race” to be an unbiblical concept and concludes from this that the power structure of race needs to be dismantled. As opposed to race, ethnicity is a biblical concept, but—according to Uwan—whiteness has somehow stripped people like Elizabeth Woodson from knowing what their actual ethnicities are. By extension, whiteness is also to blame for white ethnic groups such as Italians, Irish, and Polish abandoning their distinct ethnic identities and assimilating.

So then when we talk about white identity, then we have to talk about what whiteness is. Well, the reality is that whiteness is rooted in plunder, in theft, in slavery, in enslavement of Africans, genocide of Native Americans. We are sitting on stolen land. If you are in America, we are sitting on stolen land, everywhere in America. This is the reality of land that was stolen from Native Americans, and we have to recognize that and acknowledge that.  It’s a power structure. That is what whiteness is.

For Uwan, whiteness is a power structure which (1) wields violence and power over others, and (2) strips ethnic groups of their unique ethnic identities. Uwan herself did not invent the whiteness category. Neil Shenvi has a helpful article on how whiteness is being used within the greater realm of critical race theory, and he does an excellent job breaking down the overall idea. Indeed, this would be much easier to process if critical race theorists used a race-neutral term that acknowledges that any race can commit whiteness. “Hegemony” was a trendy term in my college days (2003–2007) that would at least be color-neutral.

Uwan issues an imperative to her audience as a remedy to the stated problem:

And so that the thing for white women to do is you have to divest from whiteness, because what happened was that your ancestors actually made a deliberate choice to rid themselves of their ethnic identity, and by doing so they actually stripped Africans in America of their ethnic identity.

How exactly does one “divest from whiteness”? Whites and blacks must rediscover and embrace their original ethnicities which were lost to the ravages of whiteness.

The goal for our white sisters is to rediscover your ethnic heritage. So I’m not pulling something away from you without telling you to replace it. So the goal for you all is to recover what your ancestors deliberately discarded. So that means return to whatever that ethnic identity is. Are you Italian? Are you Irish? Are you Polish? Are you Turkish? Whatever that was, you have to do that work to find out what that is. Pull into that. Learn what that cultural heritage is. Celebrate that. It’s going to be work on your part, but that IS the work. The work is to divest from whiteness, and the work is also for people of color to divest from whiteness too.

The above prescription appears to be largely missing from the social media conversation. Is there really a biblical imperative to work to retain or recover our ancestors’ ethnicities?

Ethnicity and the American Nation

Uwan mentions Revelation 7 and its statement “tribes, tongues, and nations” to support the notion that people in their new bodies will retain their ethnicities. How she goes about this is rather strange, however.

That means by God’s grace, when I make it to glory, I will remain as I am – I will have a new body, we don’t know what is going to be, but I will be not even just Nigerian, because Nigerian is a colonial tag, that name was given to us by colonists, so I probably won’t retain that, but I will retain the fact that I am an Ibibio woman – that is my tribe – I will be that, and I will have kinky hair and  I will have a broad nose and I will have dark skin in the new heaven and new earth and we know that because our savior is embodied – Jesus Christ did not raise as a ghost, He is embodied right now, we live in an embodied faith.

At least two basic problems exist here. First, Revelation 7:9 is the wrong passage to argue this. It speaks of “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands” without mention of ethnic distinctions. But one can gather something of this from Revelation 21:24–26. At least among us dispensationalists, this means that there actually will be nations and kings in the eternal state. The text is not explicit whether these are entirely new “nations” (ethnos) or ones constituted from the Old Earth, but let’s play with the latter for argument’s sake. What will our nations really be?

Uwan argues that she will be with the Ibibio people. Moreover, Uwan tells her interviewer—Elizabeth Woodson, who is black—that “whiteness” has stripped Woodson of her ability to know her ethnic identity for now. She’s just stuck being “black” until she gets to learn what she actually is in eternity. The sufficiency of Woodson’s identity in Christ appears to have taken a back seat.

Here I partly share a commonality with Uwan. My mother came to the United States in the 1970s. The plan wasn’t for her to stay, but Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took control of her native Cambodia. My paternal grandfather was age five when he and the family emigrated from Ireland. As far as I know, I have no pre-20th century ancestry in the United States. Will I reside with the Irish or the Khmer in the eternal state? Arguably neither. In the grand scheme of history, nearly every nation, ethnicity, and culture is constituted from nations, ethnicities, and cultures that came before them. To this end, the United States is arguably its own ethnos, albeit with diverse sub-groups within it. Let me put it this way in my own behalf: suppose at some point in my time in the U.S. Navy that my ship had made port visits to Ireland and Cambodia. Would I have felt more at home in either of these lands or with my American shipmates of every “color” imaginable?

To take Rev. 21:24–26 as a biblical imperative to recover our ancestral ethnicities is a divisive overreach at best. In reality, it eisegetes critical race theory into the text. It moreover pulls our focus away from the clear gospel truth of penal substitutionary atonement, the imperative of sanctification, our unity within diversity as believers as proclaimed in Galatians 3:28, our adoption as children of God in 1 John 3 and Romans 8:14–17, and our unity at the Lord’s Table from 1 Corinthians 11:17–34. And ironically, it goes entirely against the “reconcilers” and “peacemakers” theme that Sparrow Women proclaims on its front page.

Conclusion

This article attempts to clarify that what Ekemini Uwan and the greater field of critical race theory mean by “whiteness.” Whiteness is a power structure that in reality is not confined to whites and thus really shouldn’t be termed that at all. Uwan proposes a rediscovery of ethnic identity as a remedy to this whiteness problem. This imperatival rediscovery of ethnicity, however, is not a biblical imperative and actually works against biblical reconciliation.

In part 2, I plan to address Uwan’s attempted integration of gospel theology more specifically, consider the ecclesiological implications of critical race theory at our seminaries, and perhaps close with a reflection on the missing demographic at Sparrow Women.


Bibliography

These are article-length writings on this topic that I found significant. I have not filtered this list by perspective.

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