Reading while White (4)

David Carr

In an earlier period of my life, I slogged through a master’s degree while working for a business in Midtown Atlanta. One day, I found myself idling in the city’s famously inert rush hour traffic, stressed because I still had schoolwork to finish that evening. While sitting in my humble, but (mostly) reliable, ’96 Nissan Sentra, I complained about my lack of progress in the gridlocked traffic. Suddenly, it dawned on me: “Wait a minute. I am the traffic!” I was struck by the sudden awareness that I was not external to the motionless collection of vehicles, which I had viewed as obstacles between my location and my destination. I realized that I was part of the very thing about which I was complaining.

Representatives of the racial majority in the US find ourselves in an analogous situation with respect to biblical studies. We may recognize that the church and academy have a history of problems in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Many of us are concerned about those problems and make genuine efforts to combat them. As teachers, for example, we lecture on multiple models for interpreting Scripture. We revise our syllabi to include a diverse range of authors. We learn about and acknowledge the validity of multiple approaches to biblical interpretation. But, as in my days of moving at a snail’s pace in Atlanta traffic, I’ve also been guilty of perceiving the reality of problems without recognizing the role I’ve played in sustaining them.

It can be difficult for us in the majority culture(s) to realize that our modes of biblical interpretation aren’t universal. Rather, what I call “reading while White” is a particular, historically contingent set of approaches to studying our sacred texts (see part 1). Such is not a problem, in and of itself. It is problematic, however, when we presume that other approaches are nice and helpful, yet outside of “the norm.” If we hold such views and act in accordance with them, we can marginalize other perspectives without realizing we’ve done so. How, then, can we respond to our predicament? As I often say in my classes, if I had the answer to that question, I’d be an important person! Nonetheless, some thoughts come to mind.

1. Historical Perspective. We can begin by critically examining our modes and methods of biblical interpretation. In addition to learning how to use methods, we should study their histories—how and why they came into being. What questions or problems do methods address (see part 3)? Who created them? Were they developed in response to other practices or movements? Importantly, what other interpretive approaches did marginalized people—those without power to influence the academy—use in their contexts? How might the field of biblical studies differ today if those practices had received more attention? By answering questions like these, we can gain perspective on the particularity of our own interpretive practices.

2. Self-Awareness. We should engage with multiple perspectives on the Bible with humility. We are fortunate to live in a time when people of diverse backgrounds and viewpoints are publishing in biblical studies at increasing rates. We should read widely, but, for transformation to occur, we need to read with intellectual humility, a virtue characterized by self-awareness and the acknowledgment that we have much to learn from others. To use an analogy, nothing reveals my distinctively American presuppositions to myself like the experience of traveling to a country with which I don’t share the language or cultural assumptions—a humbling experience indeed! I learn about myself by encountering difference. Similarly, by traveling into the worlds of other people’s interpretations openly and humbly, we can discover aspects of our interpretive norms that we might not have otherwise perceived.

3. Sharing the Road. We who already have a place in the field of biblical studies have opportunities, and a moral responsibility, to make space for others. We can empower those who have been marginalized by working to remove roadblocks that have prevented their voices from being heard. Yet, counterintuitively, those efforts don’t begin with advocacy. They start with our listening to the claims of minoritized peoples and assessing how we might have unknowingly erected roadblocks.

A friend who read this series told me that he left each post wanting more—more direction and guidance. I feel the same: I also want more! But maybe that’s how it should be. Maybe, it’s best to begin by recognizing that “I am the traffic” and to let that recognition energize my journey of discovering the myriad of ways in which it’s true. I suspect that understanding what it means to “read while White” is a lifelong process, one filled with listening, self-examination, and transformation. I hope by God’s grace to stay on that road, and I hope that others will join me.

Posted Apr 18, 2022

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