A day or two after I documented on this site that The Gospel Coalition has drifted into identity politics, the evangelical world was introduced to Ekemini Uwan a.k.a. M.DivA. The self-proclaimed “anti-racist” spoke at the recent Sparrow Conference, declaring to the audience that “whiteness is wicked,” among other things, causing a dozen or so white women to walk out in protest. The conference organizers decided not to make M.DivA’s talk public.
The sequence of events that followed was predictable. M.DivA and her supporters erupted in a twitter storm. She called her lawyer. The Sparrow Conference folks issued an apology. M.DivA rejected the apology and notified various news outlets, including Christianity Today and CNN, about “what’s happening.” She and her supporters throughout this traumatic ordeal denounced “white fragility.”
Here are her most offending comments:
Because we have to understand something—whiteness is wicked. It is wicked. It’s rooted in violence, it’s rooted in theft, it’s rooted in plunder, it’s rooted in power, in privilege….The work is to divest from whiteness and the work is also for people of color to divest from whiteness too….we live in a white supremacist nation it takes a lot of work and you have to do a lot of unlearning.
Jemar Tisby’s response to the event captures the general sentiment among her supporters:
So, what happens to whiteness when Black theology confronts its idols and takes up room in its sacred spaces? It claws for its purse in the darkness, storms quietly out of the theater, and asks to see the manager.
Others offered less theatrical explanations of the term “whiteness.” It refers not to ethnicity or “white people”; rather whiteness is the cause of our society’s racialized social hierarchy, conferring power and privilege on some and suffering on others, which explains why some groups have social/economic/political power and others don’t. “Divesting” oneself of whiteness is in part the acknowledgement that white people (and some non-white people) assume, typically unconsciously, racial categories that in their very nature arbitrarily exclude and oppress people.
The purpose of this essay is not to dispute the existence of “whiteness” directly, nor its alleged effects on racial disparities in contemporary society. On these issues, the historical, analytical, and statistical work of Heather MacDonald (see here and here), Coleman Hughes, Jason Riley, and Thomas Sowell (see here and here) has, to my mind, destroyed most racialist explanations for current racial disparities. However, I will not question the truth of what Uwan has said, nor what her supporters have said. I want to analyze the comments as rhetoric. What they evince, as with most other race-rhetoric, is what I call rhetorical privilege.
I define rhetorical privilege as the following:
Rhetorical privilege is the ability to assert what in content or in mood of speaking will or would offend the majority of one’s audience and yet the speaker suffers no institutional or social consequences. The most extreme form of this privilege is when the audience must assume prima facie the plausibility and even the truth of whatever the speaker asserts, and failing to do so results in adverse social, economic, and institutional consequences for those audience members.
This actually is a privilege. Having a privilege, by definition, is bearing a status that exempts one from some accepted norm (such as a law, rule, civic duty, etc.). In our society especially, there is a generally accepted norm that most speakers, as participants in public discourse in dialogue, will face certain consequences when saying what most or the principal part of the audience find offensive or by speaking in a non-discursive mood (e.g. being dictatorial such that disagreement is practically precluded). Avoiding negative consequences when speaking in these ways is a privilege.
Ekemini Uwan and other black evangelicals, along with many white evangelicals, have tremendous rhetorical privilege. Prominent evangelicals can say almost anything and suffer no real consequences. Here are some examples:
Dr. Anthony Bradley, PhD—who is a professor at King’s College, a conservative evangelical college in NYC, tweeted, “Evangelicals have never had the gospel. Ever.” When questioned about whether “evangelicals have never grasped the Gospel of Salvation,” Bradley answered “exactly” and then we’re told to “read a book.”
Thabiti Anyabwile accused the parents and grandparents of all white Americans of complicity in the murder of MLK:
It gives opportunity to repent of the things some have with too much pride too often refused to admit is there. My white neighbors and Christian brethren can start by at least saying their parents and grandparents and this country are complicit in murdering a man who only preached love and justice.
I am not aware of even one institutional or economic consequence resulting from this sort of rhetoric in evangelicalism in recent years. Indeed, the exact opposite is happening. This race-rhetoric has catapulted people into prominence and skyrocketed their social media following and influence. Uwan’s case actually reveals just how secure black evangelicals are in evangelical discourse, and it brought to light the huge consequences of trying to “silence” such “voices.” The 2020 Sparrow Conference, if it occurs at all, will have this theme: Listen and Repent, Listen and Repent, Listen and Repent. And, let the reader note, I am writing an article on the rhetoric of someone who calls herself “M.DivA” and “the queen.” The alleged threats of being “silenced” or “unheard” are merely rhetorical devices to expand what is already firmly established—being heard. In our day, nothing adds more to one’s credibility, legitimacy, and audience than being a “marginalized voice.” This is one of the many rhetorical absurdities in contemporary discourse that, despite being right there in front of us, goes unnoticed.
There is far more to evangelical race rhetoric than being able to say just about anything without negative consequences. Most important about evangelical race rhetoric is the posture assumed in its delivery: it is dictatorial. By this I mean that the debates on the best causal explanations for current racial disparities, the existence of “whiteness,” the explanatory power of “implicit bias,” the effectiveness of anti-poverty policy, the effectiveness of reparations to repair race relations, the prevalence of “white supremacy” in American society, the prevalence of police brutality and racist cops, the injustice of the “war on drugs”, and so on are already treated as completely settled by evangelical race-rhetoricians; and therefore conclusions and solutions are not only assumed, but dictated and declared to their audience—viz., their speech is in a non-discursive mood. Hence, Uwan never bothered to support any of her most crucial (and apparently offensive) premises, because she operates from an environment that has moral (not empirical) certainty backing her conclusions. Assuming her most contentious claims, she prescribed for her majority white audience their required response: repent of your whiteness–a demand echoed. Of course, repenting of one’s whiteness requires one to possess it, something that was assumed from the outset.
White people are then in a position where propositions and imperatives have been asserted upon them dictatorially. Naturally, anyone—that is, any human—would recoil from this speaker/listener relation, perhaps choosing to walk out. Walking out, after all, removes oneself not only from the content but from the dictatorial posture assumed by the speaker.
Now, we should notice that the whole rhetorical posture is designed to preclude any serious disagreement. The premises are assumed as morally obvious, meaning that disagreement is a moral matter, not an intellectual one. And when one disagrees, the response to this disagreement is often a type of kafkatrapping (i.e., disagreement on white racism is just what white people would do), or you’re accused of “indifference” or accosted for your “white fragility.” This rhetorical posturing is called poisoning the well—formulating and presenting an argument in such a way that the opponent’s disagreement is prima facie false due to some personal feature or circumstance of the opponent. Furthermore, since the reasons to believe are backed not by supported premises but by the identity of the one asserting them, to disagree is an attack on the speaker. The nature of the rhetoric makes any disagreement necessarily a personal attack on a black speaker.
If “white fragility” is a thing at all, it is likely a response to the rhetorically impossible position that black speakers have forced upon their audience, not a response to the content of the speech itself. But this fragility, which would seem to be natural for any human in such a position, is reinterpreted as sufficient evidence for one’s own whiteness, and then fragility is enlisted as a psychological trigger to redirect that negative emotion toward his or her own whiteness. One then resigns herself into “listening humbly.” The whole system of rhetoric uses unproven (and dialectically questionable) assertions, spoken dictatorially, to trigger perfectly natural emotions in such circumstances that are then identified as (indeed the only) evidence for the assertions, and these emotions are then appropriated as catalysts for white people to act in accordance with the imperatives linked to those assertions.
Solidifying that rhetorically impossible position is the fact the white audience is disallowed, at the threat of social exclusion, to ascribe any negative qualities to non-whites and only negative ones to themselves. Non-whites, on the other hand, can (and often are pressured themselves) to do the exact opposite: ascribe only negative qualities to white people and only positive one’s to non-whites. This rhetorical inequality is enforced through social pressures, particularly through a regime of power-words—racist, white supremacist, white nationalist, bigot, etc.—that serve only to place the accused in an unavoidable defensive position, even when the accused has said what is factual and the accusation is dialectically groundless. These words are powerful, despite having very little meaning in themselves, because the accusation itself derails the discussion and the eyes of the crowd toward the person accused and her expected denial, which is just what a racist would do anyway. The use of these words usually says more about the accuser than about the accused. This socio-rhetorical system of unequal rhetorical possibilities exacerbates the already tense situation caused by the speaker’s dictatorial posture. Listening would make the audience complicit in an unjust socio-rhetorical system that grants privilege to some and disadvantages others. One might say that walking out in such a situation is an act of defiance against injustice.
“Don’t merely listen; listen humbly” we’re told endlessly by just about everyone important in evangelicalism. It is true that unique experiences matter in understanding how to act and determine policy. This is why many police departments have community relations activities: It helps to determine how best to protect and serve the community. But this is not what these folks are requesting. Listening humbly is acknowledging the rhetorical privilege of black evangelicals. That is, whites must suspend for themselves the normal rules of persuasion and dialogue and adopt a posture of “learning” in order to “unlearn” what they think they know about themselves. After all, white people are unable, due to their unconscious hold on whiteness, to accept their privileged and oppressive status and therefore must “humble” themselves. White people are not to engage the objective truthfulness of these accusations of whiteness but only to contemplate themselves and their world through them. To engage the ideas directly indicates only a self-interested resistance to the obvious.
“Listening humbly” also coerces agreement and suppresses disagreement, for disagreement demonstrates that you weren’t listening humbly. True listening is evident only if you assent to their premises, conclusions, and call to action. It’s yet another way that race-rhetoric in evangelicalism precludes debate and places white evangelicals in a rhetorically impossible position, which as I’ve said makes possible the appropriation of a natural emotion (viz. “fragility”) as a mechanism for assent and action.
“Listening humbly” is designed as psychological cover for the cognitive dissonance that follows from rhetorical privilege. It replaces that unease from blatant psychological manipulation and dictatorial postures with euphoria and tranquility. It legitimates in your mind the socio-rhetorical rules that render you speechless, except the speech that parrots those with rhetorical privilege. The various resulting confusions—who you are, what to think of yourself, how to act, who to follow, who to believe, what to believe, etc.—are your fault, despite the many contrary duties of whiteness-recovery, but your confusion-induced unease is suppressed and rendered harmless when you grant rhetorical privilege and follow their dictates—when you become “vulnerable.” Only then do you realize that your good is acting for theirs. Of course, you’ll never do enough. But rest assured in the dictatorial rhetoric of Kelly Douglas, Dean of Union Divinity School: “Just because you look like a white American doesn’t mean you have to act like one. The first step on the road to recovery is to own one’s whiteness and realize how it keeps you from your true identity as a child of God.”
The term “whiteness” is rhetorically powerful for its vagueness. All terms have both a definition and extension, the latter referring to the things to which it applies. So the term “bird” might be defined as vertebrates with feathers and beaked jaws and it extends to bluejays, cardinals, mockingbirds etc. The confusion and conflation of definition and extension is the root of all sorts of rhetorical mischief. Most important here is the fact that having a solid definition does not itself supply the things to which the definition applies. So for “whiteness,” the fact that someone can supply a clear definition does not mean that one immediately grasps the concrete social phenomena to which it extends. And there is an inherent vagueness to the extension of “whiteness,” for its definition is almost limitless in application, especially since it in effect excludes the legitimacy of all alternative non-racial explanations. Even if we fully comprehend and embrace the definition of “whiteness,” we will remain continuously in need of guidance on its concrete extension, which inevitably will come from whom? Black evangelicals (or anyone who adopts the rhetorical posture and terms). Hence, even after we’ve unlearned our whiteness in definition, we still must perpetually learn how to deal concretely with it. The vagueness of the term lends itself to the perpetuation of rhetorical privilege and thereby leverage over a full range of issues and institutions, including on matters of civil and ecclesiastical policy. The nature of the term, combined with the social forces that legitimize it, provide considerable power to all who wield it.
All these terms—whiteness, white fragility, listen humbly, etc.— are effective in evangelical discourse, not because of their definitional coherence, nor because they clearly correspond to reality or Christian duty, but on account of the constructed social force granted them by evangelical leaders—particularly by white evangelical leaders, who themselves in turn benefit both from wielding the terms against deviant evangelicals and in maintaining the ideological qualification for evangelical elite membership. Labeling white women who walked out “fragile” shames and discredits them only because the terms, when applied to people, are backed by forces of discreditation. These terms serve as instruments to enforce the arbitrary power of rhetorical privilege. Rhetorical privilege is a social construct enforced by a set of terms backed by threats of social exclusion for political, ecclesiastical, and institutional leverage.
Divesting oneself of rhetorical privilege does not mean than one must give up his or her ability to make arguments and assert truth-claims. It simply means that one acknowledges and turns from unprincipled and harmful rhetoric that treats others, whether consciously or not, as unable to reason and see objective truth. Rhetorical privilege perpetuates systemic bias that places people in a rhetorically impossible position and thereby coerces people, backed by the threat of social exclusion, to assent to the truth and use of theoretical terms without debate that seem dialectically questionable. This privilege must be surrendered, as a precondition, before an honest discussion on race in evangelicalism can occur.
In an age of absurdity, unprincipled rhetoric, and psychological manipulation, you must will to think clearly, and thinking clearly often means coming to conclusions that run contrary to psychological incentives. Let reason determine the will. Cognitive tranquility is no substitute for rigorous and rational thought. Psychological discomfort is no indicator of poor thinking or moral failures. The courageous in our age will be those who, resisting and pushing through inclinations to the contrary, dare to think.
1. The article made such an impression that Alan Noble briefly paused from tweeting about Trump’s collusion with Russia to call it “delusional.”
2. I do acknowledge that a few people have this ability to offend and not face negative consequences on account of sophisticated technique in engagement (e.g., Ben Shapiro). This is not rhetorical privilege.
3. By “white people,” I’m adopting the race-rhetoricians’ own race-designations.
4. For example, the rejection of some application/extension of social justice is sometimes viewed as a rejection of social justice itself.
5. Jonathan Haidt used this phrase “social force” on his website Heterodox Academy: when “disagreements are resolved by social force and political power, not by argumentation and persuasion.”