The Exorcist

I didn’t know what to do with him. This little boy, this little black boy, exchanging glances with me in the coffee shop. He and a younger black boy were with an older white man, a man who — for the moment anyway — stood as their parental figure, their guardian. Was he okay? Why did he keep looking at me?

Maybe this was the unspoken mystical relation blackness seems to engender. You know, the kind of unspeakable and ineffable connection between black people when we see one another, the kind of unstated familiarity that prompts me to say “what’s up boss?” to a black man I encounter on the street while darting my eyes when I see someone white; this mystical relation that moves me to smile when I see a black woman — not to address or hit on her, but to show her that I see her, that I know her presence is there and it is meaningful to me. Maybe this is what was happening between me and this young boy. Maybe it was just black people being black people. I smiled.

But his glances were covert. He would glance my way only when the white man wasn’t paying attention; he was trying to get a good look at me without letting the white man know he was looking my way. Maybe this white guy was his dad, and maybe his dad had told him that people like me were to be avoided. Or maybe he had not ever been exposed to other black people aside from the young black boy who sat across the table from him. But that would be too cynical, wouldn’t it? In having these thoughts, I found myself struggling with my own pathology, my own “affective erethism,” as Frantz Fanon once called it. Hyper-sensitive to whiteness, I found myself trying to psychoanalyze a white man who was paying me no mind at all. I found myself trying to make sense of his relationship with these boys, when it is quite possible that he was their dad, and a damn good dad at that. Maybe, like Barack Obama’s mother and grandparents, he encouraged these young black boys to fully embrace their blackness as a good thing. It’s possible.

Nevertheless, my mind went in a host of different directions. Why the subversive glances? I bristled internally and externally at the possibility that I may have upset this man’s child, that I may have disrupted the delicate balance of apparent white liberalism and white saviorism marking this coffee shop experience. My mind spun. And I found myself down a rabbit hole of my own making (or was it my own making?), down a dark hatch of my own racial sensitivities to whiteness. Both the boy and I were beholden to whiteness, this time embodied in a man who had no clue he had entrapped the both of us. His very presence froze the both of us, subsuming our blackness under his whiteness, whether this whiteness was paternal or novel. And he did it without even trying.

That is a remarkable feat.

I don’t think white people understand how much power they truly wield. I mean, the very possibility of white backlash to a black president who played by all of their white rules should say this enough, but it hasn’t. Barack Obama never dominated the news cycles the way Donald Trump does; we didn’t get daily updates from BHO’s Twitter feed, or palace intrigue articles about who’s beefing with who today — and this doesn’t mean that BHO didn’t tweet or that he didn’t have internal personnel issues. Maybe he covered them up better than DJT does; maybe he was just more savvy.

Part of me thinks that’s the case, but there’s a nagging sense that the media is preoccupied with DJT because he’s white, but he’s white in a way that exposes whiteness’ shit stains. He doesn’t blow dog whistles; he blows regular ones. His idiocy is on display, and his incompetence is confirmation of the fact that whiteness is far from being fit enough to lead.

But the question of fitness is not a question whiteness asks — not because it shouldn’t ask this question, but because it doesn’t have to. One of my wife’s co-workers (a white woman) once “let it slip” that Trump was saying what “all of us are thinking,” and Andrea had to shut that shit down.

But the reality is, the co-worker wasn’t lying; if everyone is pathological, then we don’t wonder about health. Trump was saying what whiteness was thinking, and not just the conservative, violent, white-supremacist form of whiteness, either. He was saying what liberal whiteness was thinking — in a different idiom, of course, but he was saying it nonetheless. Bill Clinton did, after all, lock up black folk like it was his primary objective — and he had “black” support for this too (black people are not immune to whiteness — hell, I’m writing in English right now). And he locked them up for actions and activities that Trump and the media (liberal and conservative) now deem as “epidemic” realities. Trump wants a wall; the Democrats don’t mind more “border security.” Trump is aggressive with foreign countries; Hillary Clinton is a hawk. Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi jumped at the opportunity to compromise with Trump — to the point where Pelosi was praising Chuck’s ability to talk to Trump in a way that resonated with him. One wonders how two people who are supposedly to be diametrically opposed politically can come to similar positions so quickly? (we cannot forget that Trump was once a Democrat.) Could it be that the white lines between conservative and liberal whiteness are so blurred that they’re two sides of the same coin? If so, this can only mean one thing: Donald Trump isn’t whiteness’ shit stains showing.

He’s simply the person who shows that whiteness is a shit stain.

The other day, my best friend told me I didn’t know what I believed. He told me that my faith was always in flux, that some days I was a Christian and other days I was an agnostic. I responded — quite hastily, now that I think about it — that I knew what my faith was; that my understanding of God was simply different from traditional understandings. I affirmed my agnosticism, and said I was quite comfortable in what I believed.

But the truth is, we were both right. My faith remains in flux because I’m an agnostic. And I’m an agnostic because when I turn to the sacred text of my youth — the Bible — I increasingly find myself disoriented; the Jesus I read about in the Gospel of Luke, for example, is a Jesus who did not proclaim his divinity, but rather claimed his connection to divinity, who relied upon the Holy Spirit as the source of his power. Which means that we have access to that same power, that we might have the ability to work like Jesus worked.

What makes the Jesus in Luke so interesting and powerful, though, was that he used that power in the service of an equitable redistribution of resources. In other words, Jesus was a straight-up socialist.

Well, not quite socialist. I don’t think they had those kinds of words back in the day, and I don’t think we have any real words for the kind of politics Jesus instantiated. What I do know, however, is that Luke’s Jesus was not out here condoning the relentless pursuit of profit or the perpetuation of economic inequality. So it strikes me as truly, truly anti-Christian when white (and again, black people can and do participate in whiteness), purportedly Christian, politicians roll out a tax plan that is as anti-Jesus as it is anti-nonwhite and unequal. For a moment, I’d like to compare the two — namely, Jesus’ approach to the Republican approach:

  • Jesus did not simply make healthcare affordable; he made it free (Luke 4:38–40; 5:12–16, 31–32). Republicans seek to not simply make us pay for healthcare, but seek to disrupt the markets to make it far more expensive for the people who need it the most.
  • Jesus’ entire ministry was organized around the poor and oppressed (Luke 4:18–20). The Republicans’ entire economic agenda is organized around the rich oppressors.
  • Jesus blessed the poor and oppressed (Luke 6: 20–21) and rebuked the rich and privileged (Luke 6: 24–25). The Republicans operate in the exact opposite direction.

My problem here is not that the Republicans are organized around the rich; that’s been the case for a while, and whiteness is not self-reflexive enough to rethink its direction. However, what repulses me — and what keeps my faith in flux — is that these same politicians claim the name of Jesus; they make grand overtures to their Christian identity, but they only understand it in terms of personal morality. Divested of the social critiques Jesus leveled at the larger society, Republican Christianity feels anti-Christian; it appears as a form of false prophecy that Jesus warned us against.

But the mere fact that people like them can claim adherence to a tradition whose founder was clearly committed to social justice means that this tradition is in flux; in my view, to be a Christian means one must be agnostic, because I don’t whose God is showing up in which churches.

This isn’t a “you’re looking at people and not at God” type of thing ; too many people make this argument, and from my perspective, this line of thinking is rather shallow. It assumes that it is possible to know who and what God is without taking into account our individual and collective experiences, which is impossible. I’m teaching a class on this, and my students are now starting to realize that theological claims are not merely “what one makes of them”; instead, theology is a public practice, a form of discourse that must make recourse to human life, society, and culture. In this regard, it would be theologically irresponsible to make claims about who and what God is, or to say that looking at people and looking at God are two different things. If I’m looking at God, that means I’m looking at God — which means God is still being filtered through my human experiences. And my human experiences are always connected to the larger culture within which I find myself.

So to look at God is also to look at society and culture; to look at God means one must look at people. And as long as I see people, I see discord and confusion, which means, collectively, we have no clue what the term “God” means.

Well, this isn’t quite right; in this country, if we look at paintings and look at history, it appears that the term “God” has been so connected to whiteness in this country that they’ve almost become synonyms. Many black philosophers and theologians have at least hinted in this direction — if not claimed it outright. And in this regard, maybe God is a white racist: William Jones once asked this question, and it seems like the question remains important today. And if this is the case, if God has shown Godself to be a white racist, then I’ll remain firmly in my agnostic position, eschewing the God of whiteness in order to push for the blackness of the divine.

I haven’t given up on the divine, but I think me and “God” are done.

I’ve written these three pieces to make one point: that we cannot reduce whiteness to one specific sphere of society. Whiteness is at once a racialized, economic, political, and religious reality, which means that, despite what people say, everything is about race — it is about the demonic configuration of race, economy, and politics that shows up as whiteness. In my estimation, whiteness is irredeemable; there is nothing restorative about it because it only operates to reinforce and defend its own solipsistic deification. Idolatrous in its very existence, whiteness refuses to be honest with itself, entrapping itself in its own self-inflicted delusions of grandeur.

This might not be a problem if whiteness was sequestered; it wouldn’t be an issue if we could, like Jesus did, exorcize it into a group of pigs who would run into the sea. But that is not a possibility in our contemporary moment. Pathological, diffuse, affective, economic, and racialized, whiteness has invaded and infested every dimension of our contemporary life — to the point where even someone like myself is consumed with it. Like the white man who controlled me without trying, whiteness has metastasized to my own brain, consuming my thought space, and demanding my attention even when I don’t want to give it attention.

Maybe I am alone in this. Maybe there are those who have found a way to exorcize the demon of whiteness, casting it out of their lives completely. But:

as soon another person is killed by cops;

as soon as Trump tweets again;

as soon as liberals make appeals to “white working classes”;

as soon as I’m asked to think about the long moral arc of history;

as soon as black people are admonished to play a game whose rules did not have us in mind;

as long as Puerto Rico remains colonized and out of power;

as long as we put people into debt for going to school;

as long as we are dominated by realities of credit, debt, and interest;

as long as we are cultivated to chase money;

as long as we think of ourselves as a great nation;

as long as we think the greatness of this nation is tethered to its economic and military dominance;

as long as we think advanced capitalism (thanks to Keri Day for this term) as a viable mode of economic engagement;

as long as we think of the world as broken up into individual nation-states;

and as long as this country refuses to grapple with its past,

whiteness will haunt us all, demoniacally attempting to possess our bodies and our minds in an attempt to gain a totalizing grip on life itself.

In this regard, I feel a call from the divine to engage in the work of exorcism, to join in with the thousands of other people who, through their words, feet, hands, and song, have begun this work of casting out whiteness in favor of the power of love. They’ve been doing this exorcist work; I now feel the push to participate in this work as well.

And I know I will fail. Whiteness is a violent reality that, most of the time, doesn’t even know it’s doing violence — which means that when you call it out it will try to defend itself, telling you that it, too suffers, and that it has good intentions. It will tell you that not all of it is racist, that a “few bad apples” cannot spoil the whole bunch.

But I know better. And, along with those other exorcists, I continue to be filled with the power of the Spirit in order to continue my work.

And I will lose time and again.

But you know what? The power of exorcism is not in the accomplishment, but in the attempt. Cast out one demon, and millions more will come. So, in a remix of Paul, I fight not against whiteness’ flesh and blood but against whiteness itself, against whiteness’ spiritual wickedness that has infiltrated high places to the point where it has become almost undetectable.

I will not win all of the time. But I will rest in the struggle, for it is in the enactment of my desire for something better that I find solace and joy. When I succeed, I will rejoice; and when I fail, I will fail happily, for the joy of the divine will always be my strength.

My only prayer: may the love that is in my heart continue to keep me sane and committed to the divine vision of justice and care.

May you all be well.