In part one of this series, I introduced the idea of “reading while White,” that is, interpreting Scripture through the lenses of White racial identities. To explore the concept further, it’s important to discuss some key features of racial identities.
Have you ever heard someone say that race is a construct? What does that mean exactly? In part, it means that racial identities aren’t objective facts somewhere out there waiting to be discovered. Instead, they, like all identities, are constructed by different components.
I sometimes explain this with an analogy. Consider Las Vegas, a city with an identity. That identity is so recognizable that sports analysts can appeal to it with questions like, “What’s Vegas saying about this matchup?” They refer to the city as if it were a person with a meaningful opinion about a sporting event. The city’s identity includes geographical coordinates, buildings, and other infrastructure in the Nevada desert. But the identity of Las Vegas has been “constructed” by more than physical characteristics alone, and numerous features contribute to it: gambling, nightlife, entertainment, and a host of other activities. We can recognize this identity because we have some awareness of its component parts, which do include its physical features, but also its history, events, public perceptions, and more.
Now, to say that an identity is a construct is not to say that it isn’t real. People’s involvement with the construct of Las Vegas can have real effects on their lives. The same is true of other constructs. Take national borders, for example. What we know as the boundaries between Canada, the US, and Mexico are political constructs. But if we transgress these constructed borders, we may face serious consequences. We in fact organize our lives around constructs all the time—church denominations, academic institutions, and others.
Likewise, when we say that racial identities are constructs, we mean that they consist of more than just skin tones. Even when we use skin color to identify a race, our references allude to the multiple factors that contribute to that identity. To be White, Black, Brown, or something else is to inhabit an identity with a history and social, cultural, and political dimensions. Moreover, racial identities are not created equally. In the US racial hierarchies existed before any of us were born. And as the city of Las Vegas has more power to influence culture than, say, the small towns in which I grew up, so too, the racial majority possesses disproportionate power to shape societal norms.
We bring our racial identities—and their constitutive factors—with us to the pages of Scripture, and we read in environments marked by racial disparities. In particular, experiences of injustice have contributed to the racial identities and the interpretive lenses of people of color in ways that they have not for White folks in the US. Consider Esau McCauley’s title Reading while Black. The descriptor “driving while Black” refers to a pattern of injustice so common that it earned a nickname. The racial majority does not have a counterpart nickname because we lack parallel experiences on a comparable scale. For this reason, “reading while White” is not simply the other side of the coin of reading while Black. Furthermore, White folks occupy the center of biblical scholarship in the West, and our readings are overrepresented in the academy and in seminaries. In contrast, interpretive approaches developed by people of color too often remain in the margins of biblical studies.
In efforts to achieve greater equity, professors—and I have been guilty of this—sometimes add diverse voices to the mix of interpretive approaches after teaching “standard” models. Despite our intentions, this can reinforce the assumption that reading while White is the norm while other approaches are not. Put differently, we may aim for inclusion but unintentionally convey that we are including others into a space that belongs to someone else.
Before we consider methods for studying Scripture, perhaps we should start with some ethical considerations. For White readers like myself, morally responsible reading may begin with recognition of racial identities and how they have been constructed. Such recognition can help us engage multiple viewpoints with some insight into how different perspectives relate to one another. These insights can help us to read more hospitably and to recognize when the perspectives of the racial majority have pushed other voices to the edges of our conversations. Indeed, because White readers like myself are so well represented at the table, perhaps we should even follow Jesus’s advice and take the less honorable seats so that others can occupy places of honor (Luke 14:10).
With these points before us, I’ll discuss racial identities and interpretive methodologies in part three.