xbn .
"The Capture of Tenochtitlán" (Library of Congress)
Politics of Scripture

Occupying Whiteness: A Reflection in 2020

Biblical scholars could yield profound insights into the deep and dangerous ways the Bible has been employed in the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny. They might also have to reckon with the role of biblical scholarship in justifying imperialism.

While writing this response in the USA in October 2020, I would try to manage my election-related, pandemic-era anxiety through socially distant walks in the unceded and occupied ancestral homelands of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican people. The legacies of colonial violence structure this majority-white region, even as they shape the news I imbibe after a summer when too many people have been murdered because of police violence and antiBlackness: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and now Walter Wallace, Jr. COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on minoritized communities in the USA underscores the lethal and harmful effects of less overt inequities tied to white supremacy. 

Whiteness in biblical studies feels more innocuous. I do not wish to compare it to police brutality or even the lethal inequities of COVID-19, but I also do not want to pretend that everyday bourgeois white domination is unrelated to more aggressive forms of violence. 

Whiteness occupies not only the Americas, as Sara Ahmed’s work and that of others on Britain and many other countries can attest to, even as whiteness manifests distinctly because the historical and geographical conditions of power shape different—and yet interrelated—regimes of signification. As a pale, mixed-race child born in one settler colonial state (Costa Rica) but who has lived most of her life in another one (the USA), and who has benefited from privileges of white proximity, I have mostly experienced whiteness as a form of governing occupation and colonial domination, and that is how I often experience biblical studies. 

Whiteness Occupies

Whiteness is not “an ontological force of its own,” as Sara Ahmed states in “A Phenomenology of Whiteness” (159). Sylvester A. Johnson has argued that we cannot understand race as one specific set of physiognomic characteristics, or even merely as discourse because “Race is a state practice of ruling people within a political order that perpetually places some within and others outside of the political community through which the constitution of the state is conceived” (394). 

Obviously, when speaking of whiteness I am not writing about all people who would be identified as white. Whiteness as a structure of dominating governmentality cannot be reduced to a particular skin tone or a particular person. According to Cristina Beltrán, whiteness is “invested in the unequal distribution of wealth, power, and privilege” (12). The academy at large witnesses a significant investment in the unequal distribution of resources and privilege. The Society of Biblical Literature’s own membership numbers underscore how disproportionately white and male the organization remains.

Occupying whiteness further enacts “political creation through founding communities, drawing boundaries, and regulating the movement of others” (28). Whiteness occupies the spaces of biblical studies: it has created spaces for white scholarship to practice forms of exclusion, to regulate the questions that get asked, and to patrol the temporal and spatial borders of interpretation.

Occupation through Publication

Working with Cheryl Harris’s pivotal analysis of how whiteness functions as property, in the nexus of capitalist-colonial-enslaving histories, Ekaputra Tupahamu impressively outlines how whiteness as property has shaped important facets of biblical studies. As Tupamahu explains, the dominant journals in biblical studies are broadly governed by white scholars and mostly publish white scholarship. This mode of single-author publishing generally perpetuates a propertied whiteness too, as it is often most concerned with single-authored credit, independent research, and individual claiming of published territory. 

Minoritized scholars have sought their own spaces or attempted to occupy white spaces back in order to disturb and redistribute resources. However, as Maylei Blackwell observes, Chicana scholars and other women of color have often prioritized an anthological approach. They have done so not simply because white publishers did not publish them, but because they value collaboration and polyvocality, preferring published spaces that underscore diverse and conflicting perspectives rather than spaces that assert an individual claim to expertise. Yet anthological publishing is risky for those without the privileges of tenure because of how academic institutions at large and biblical studies in particular value individual-property scholarship and the spaces of mainstream white scholarship. 

Occupying Ancient History

Tupamahu illuminates how white scholarly lenses have impacted the questions, and assumptions, mapped onto the ancient world, and the very method of historical criticism itself. Gay Byron’s work has amply demonstrated the problematic ways biblical Africans have been interpreted and the “historical amnesia” that has excluded Ethiopia as a geography of ancient biblical study.

When Tupamahu describes the synoptic problem in biblical studies, he illuminates quite thoroughly its entanglements with questions of property, ownership, and domination. While the synoptic problem is a problem of property and ownership, it is also a problem of a quest for origin(al)s as Tat-siong Benny Liew has termed them

Not only do quests for an original author point to how devalued collaborative work is, even in how scholars imagine the ancient past, quests for origins and originals are also deeply connected into theologies around purity. As Shawn Kelley has demonstrated, biblical studies’ pursuit of origins draws on European philosophical assumptions about quests for racial and religious purity. So, for some scholars the synoptic problem and the quest for Q has not just been about answering historical questions, but it has also been about finding the origin(al), and thus purest, most “authentic,” and most authoritative version of gospel texts. Settler colonial religio-racial formations then occupy the past. By making one narrow cultural interpretive question central to biblical studies, whiteness as governmentality in the field controls what questions can be asked of the past.

I am not trying to argue that we should abandon historical constructive work. On the contrary, much interesting research around synoptic relationships or Q traditions has resisted historical amnesia or narrow frameworks of purity, origin(al)s, and property. However, thorough scholarly excavation of the connections between religio-racial logics of purity, biblical studies, and the Americas have only begun to be examined. In jumping to a constructed ancient past as if the intervening millennia of interpretation, reception, and rejection have no bearing, scholars have too readily fetishized the origins they construct so as to ignore the specificity of white occupations in the modern world and in the study of the ancient world.

Temporal Boundaries and Transgressions

One way of controlling the space of biblical studies is also by controlling the time periods considered to be legitimate foci for serious biblical scholarship; “reception” histories can be studied, of course, but, with a few important (and promising) exceptions, such work is marginalized, spatially at SBL meetings and in the received mainstream publications Tupamahu named. As is evident in Tupamahu’s description of being forced to revise an essay, the norms of white biblical studies often exclude modern histories.

A delimited temporal focus on a narrow past (the “ancient” world) with narrow geographical referents (the “Mediterranean”) forecloses any examination of how modern histories of domination impact our questions. Doing so allows biblical studies to ignore the ways it has been complicit in white supremacy and could have better served struggles against racist domination. As Khyati Joshi outlines in White Christian Privilege, whiteness in the Americas has been intertwined with Christian identities, histories, and theologies. For example, the Doctrine of Discovery, and its employment in US legal cases such as Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823), articulated a form of domination, a declared “right to purchase, appropriate, and occupy the land” through logics of property that were also deeply entangled with logics of Christian domination (74). Land could be taken from indigenous peoples precisely because they were not deemed “Christian.” 

Biblical scholars could yield profound insights into the deep and dangerous ways the Bible has been employed in the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny. They might also have to reckon with the role of biblical scholarship in justifying imperialism. In a recent presentation for SBL’s “Black Scholars Matter” Symposium, Vincent L. Wimbush drew historical connections between the founding of the SBL and the Berlin Conference of 1884 that carved up parts of Africa for different European countries’ imperial domination. Part of Wimbush’s own response to this history may be gleaned from the organization he founded, the Institute for Signifying Scriptures, that refuses the historical Christian supremacy of biblical studies by making the Bible one of many scriptures to be studied.

If we consider some crucial Latina/o biblical scholars, we can see how they refuse to skip over multiple histories and multiple dynamics of power. In his SBL presidential address, Fernando F. Segovia proposed a global systemic criticism grounded in a true diversity of voices that examine the production and circulation of texts in multiple past and present moments.

As for other examples, Gregory Lee Cuéllar, Jean-Pierre Ruiz, and David A. Sánchez all have written monographs and essays that examine the legacies of multiple imperial histories, and their contestations, in shaping biblical texts themselves, how they’ve been read, how biblical studies has developed over time, and how we even relate to the object we term the Bible. These are works that examine biblical texts in ancient world contexts, in medieval and Early Modern imperial contexts, in British and US imperial discourses, and in minoritized Latina/o/x communities at different moments in the past and the present. Their scholarship hopefully points to the possibilities of a biblical studies more temporally unbound.

The Stubborn Invisibility of Whiteness in Biblical Scholarship

Because whiteness lies at the center of biblical studies, the accepted way of doing biblical scholarship is one that engages white questions, white concerns. The system forces scholars of color, especially those who receive their doctoral trainings in the western educational system, to be familiar with white scholarship.

Occupying Whiteness: A Reflection in 2020

Biblical scholars could yield profound insights into the deep and dangerous ways the Bible has been employed in the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny. They might also have to reckon with the role of biblical scholarship in justifying imperialism.

Invoking Paul’s μὴ γένοιτο and Sofia’s “Hell No” Against the Stubborn Whiteness of Biblical Scholarship

First, we must all remember our history and stop the blatant amnesia behind racial and power dynamics in our field…Women and enslaved persons were not a part of the founders’ initial understanding. The same is true for the founding identities of the Society of Biblical Literature.

Banishing Baur: The Antisemitic Origins of White Supremacy in Biblical Studies

What worries me…is the fact that Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism forms the historical and theological ectoplasm out of which the invisible specter of whiteness emerges.

Looking for White in the Synoptic Problem

As a White interpreter who has been examining the phenomenon of whiteness in biblical interpretation, both popular and academic, for nearly a decade now, I want to know just what whiteness looks like.

One thought on “Occupying Whiteness: A Reflection in 2020

  1. These essays thus far are giving me life. So thankful to have such pensive reflections to interact with.

Comments are closed.

Like what you're reading?

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!