Reading while White (1)

David Carr

I have a fair amount in common with Dr. Esau McCaulley, assistant professor at Wheaton College and author of Reading while Black (IVP Academic, 2020). For instance, we both played high school football in the Deep South—him in Alabama and myself in Georgia—with limited success. Though, his limited success was much more impressive than mine. We’re both Bible scholars and transplants to the North. In fact, I occupy his old office at Northeastern Seminary! In my interview for the position, I expressed angst about winters in Rochester, NY. His response? “There’s just something primal about shoveling yourself out of your driveway in the mornings.” This was less than comforting. But our willingness to endure impressive amounts of snow to teach biblical studies reveals another similarity: we both care deeply about biblical interpretation.

Despite our similarities, we have some important differences. Dr. McCaulley, a Black man, was reared in the Black Church and shaped by Black cultural influences. I, a white man, grew up in an almost all-white congregation with different heroes than his. He had to navigate a white-majority world and experienced traumatic encounters with police officers. I’ve never once been searched by the police. He faced ideological challenges in college that stemmed largely from being a minoritized student struggling to understand a predominately white institution. My challenges in college were academic in nature, not due to racial power dynamics.

Embodied experiences like these shape the lenses through which we interpret Scripture, and Dr. McCaulley’s work gives voice to a tradition of Black biblical interpretation. He distinguishes this tradition from Black liberation approaches, but he doesn’t conflate it with white evangelical models. He does this without using stereotypes or attacking other traditions. By describing this strand of Black biblical interpretation, Dr. McCaulley contributes to the diverse landscape of interpretive practices that people around the world bring to the Bible. I’m grateful for these gifts that Dr. McCaulley and others have given to the field of biblical studies and to the church.

But there is a risk for White Christian readers like myself when we unwrap such gifts. Because White folks in the US represent the majority culture, we can easily take for granted that what’s normal for us is normal for everyone. As philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists have argued, we can assume too readily that our experiences, perspectives, and practices are universal. We can presume, for instance, that other people have race or ethnicity, but we’re just people.

Such assumptions surface in conversations, like when we refer to certain foods as “ethnic foods,” as if our own cuisine doesn’t come from a specific ethnic group. This view also appears in consumer products. When we refer, for example, to paint that’s “flesh tone” or to flesh-colored band-aids, whose flesh does it resemble? When these products bear the same color tones as Caucasian skin, we implicitly assume that most skin is white and that non-white skin is other than the norm. This perspective became painfully apparent some years ago when Dove received backlash for marketing a skincare product called Summer Glow, with the description “nourishing lotion for normal to dark skin.” Those in the majority culture can easily assume that what’s normal for us is simply normal.

Such assumptions pose a risk for people like me when we read works like Dr. McCaulley’s. I believe that we should engage a broad range of perspectives to discern the fullness of God’s word when we read the Bible. But it can be problematic if we with white racial identities read while assuming that our interpretive approaches and methods are or should be the norm. Such assumptions can lead us to regard Black biblical interpretation as just one approach among many that lie outside of what we consider “standard biblical interpretation.” That is, we risk viewing it as beyond or other than what’s normal.

As a starting point for avoiding this danger, I think it’s important to recognize that the approaches to biblical interpretation we presume to be universal and normative are actually a collection of particular and historically located perspectives and practices. I shouldn’t assume that I’m “just reading the Bible” when like anyone else, my particular racial and cultural identity shapes how I read it. Just as Dr. McCaulley describes a distinct way of interpreting the Bible, so too, we should recognize that what we might term reading while white is “a thing,” as they say. It’s a particular way of reading the Bible among others, even if we who practice it don’t always recognize this.

What is involved in reading the Bible through white racial lenses? In a series of subsequent posts, I will discuss some introductory ideas that focus on methodologies and practical concerns.

Posted Oct 25, 2021

Comments are closed.