Whiteness, religion, and modernity


Dear White People:
Religion is always about whiteness, since the category of religion is itself fundamentally an expression of whiteness. And vice versa.

How is it possible to do the study of religion without acknowledging the centrality of whiteness? The discipline was developed largely in western universities (in Europe and north America), by people who racialized themselves as white, and very often to understand how non-white people were different from them (in terms of religion).

Whiteness is at the centre of this process. It is the elephant in room. It is very much hidden in plain site.

Whiteness is a key part of racialization — it was (and is) a way of constructing colonial differences (in discourse and in practice). The political processes by which Europeans racialized and constructed others as ‘races’, were also a means by which they constructed and empowered a racial ideology of whiteness for themselves.

Thus, whiteness is the product of Europeans’ own racialization of themselves, which is largely done without comment or acknowledgement.

As WEB Du Bois noted a century ago, such whiteness is based on a particular, culture and politics bound ‘theory of human culture and its aims’ which ‘has worked itself through warp and woof of our daily thought with a thoroughness that few realize’ (Du Bois 1920):

‘ I am quite straight-faced as I ask soberly: “But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?”
‘Then always, somehow, some way, silently but clearly, I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!
‘Now what is the effect on a man or a nation when it comes passionately to believe such an extraordinary dictum as this? …’

When thinking and talking about whiteness, it is important to note that the term is not only about the extremes of white identity and power. It is very easy to portray whiteness in terms of extremists — in particular, the KKK and other forms of violent right-wing organisation. Not all white identities are extremist, indeed most are not (Baker 2016a, 2106b).

Anyone who considers themselves ‘white’ (or not non-white) engages in whiteness. And likewise, the idea of ‘race’ — as a way of differentiating ‘others’ in terms of skin colour (as ‘black’, ‘brown’, ‘Asian’, etc.) — is in itself part of the ideology and practice of whiteness.

And further to this, whiteness is not about individual identities. Like other issues in the study of race, whiteness is about cultural, social, and religious power. To be white is to be part of a very powerful system.

Such whiteness is an extremely dominant discourse of power in Europe, north America, and Australia. Sometimes it is articulated openly (such as in the march at Charlottesville, Va in August 2017, in the White Australia policy of the early twentieth century, in South African apartheid, and US Jim Crow segregation, and in many other respects).

But for people living in western Europe or north America, whiteness is all around them. It is the air that they breathe. Whiteness is as taken for granted as the water in which a fish swims. Whiteness is the public ‘we’.

As Richard Dyer (1997) has pointed out, whiteness is usually invisible and unnamed, and is assumed as the default form of humanity. Thus a person is only given an adjective if they are non-white (e.g., a black person, or Asian person, etc.); without such an adjective the person is, by default, assumed to be white.

Most often whiteness is unspoken and assumed, both on a personal and a political level. But in being so, whiteness is still very present and very dominant.

Sometimess, the importance of whiteness is articulated — very often when those who are white consider a threat or a challenge.

For example, a tweet from Fox News in December 2016 articulated concerns for its viewers about discussion of electoral reform (following the US Presidential Election that year). It showed the then white anchorman Bill O’Reilly reassuring Fox viewers about the calls by ‘the left’ to take power ‘away from the white establishment’ (that is, the US political system as it currently exists).

One of the privileges of whiteness is to be able to decide when it is possible to talk about whiteness. And also, to decide when whiteness does not need to be acknowledged, since it is simply how things are — it is the system.


This is the power of racialization: to racialize others (those considered non-whites) is to name and to define. For the racializer to racialize the self and the system, there is no need to do anything other than assume the default, the natural, and that being white is ‘just’ being what should be.

In trying to understand this, Kehinde Andrews (2016) has labelled this the ‘psychosis of whiteness’,

an attempt ‘to deal with the dissonance between… “white mythologies” and the reality that Western capitalism is built on and maintained by racial exploitation’ (Andrews 2016, 439).

The racialization of such identities as ‘white’ relies to a large extent on the specifically religious identity of Christianity (CSRAC 2009). This whiteness is not always articulated in such religious terms, and may in contemporary contexts be a formation that is built around an identity which considers itself secular as much as (or in contrast to) being religious.

And the historical creation of a racialized group who identify as white occurred very much within the context of Christian (and particularly Protestant) discourses (Driscoll 2016, Baker 2011). And likewise, the distinction between the religious and the secular is in itself a part of whiteness (Fitzgerald 2007).

That is, the category and practice of whiteness is both racial and religious.

For example, markers of Christianity are often taken as markers of whiteness (such as God, the Bible, the ‘family’, particular sexual ethics, and politics).

And of course this is not only historic, it is also the means by which contemporary white Americans are made into white American-ness and (white) American nationalism. This is achieved with reference to others, particularly non-whites such as Muslims.

White Christian American identity is a religious idea of sorts — it is a form of nationalism, and it is an expression of self-racialization. This is what is meant when sociologists talk of America’s ‘civil religion’ — it is in itself an articulation of white nationalist ideology.

Thus, Barnor Hesse (2007) framed the idea of historic, colonial ‘white mythologies’ in these terms,

Whiteness, Christian, the West, Europeanness comprise a series of racial tropes intimately connected with organicist and universalist metaphors so frequently assumed in various canonical accounts of modernity. (Hesse 2007, 643–44)

White racialized identity cannot be separated from the perception of the Christian cultural self of Europe. In the nineteenth century, a central part of white European (particularly British) identity was Protestant Christianity. Based on this, the perception of the civilizing mission of empire was formed on the ‘obligation’ of Christianity (i.e., white Christian colonizers) to impart its salvation to the world, onto non-white non-Christians as a ‘civilizing mission’ (Fischer-Tine and Mann 2004).

When Tomoko Masuzawa (2005) asks about the emergence of the forms of classificatory knowledge that talked of ‘other religions’ (i.e., world religions, or religions of the world), this process can be understood as the interplay between such whiteness and Christianity. That is, the discourse of world religions came into being as a means of trying to classify and control non-white alternatives (and ‘deviants’) to (white) Christianity.

This process was linked to the discourses of colonialism that were based on a political system in which those who were categorized as non-Christian were subject to the power and control of white British Christianity. At the same time, this political system was also based on a pervasive ideology which assumed whiteness — and thus Christianity — were the reason for this power; that colonization was purportedly a means to bring religious civilization to those non-whites/non-Christians.

It was the interplay between such power and ideology, and the rationalization of the particularities of understanding and governing such systems across large populations and areas, through which systems of knowledge were constructed.

This took the form in the nineteenth century of both scientific racism and systematic studies of world religions.

No matter where we turn within the concept of religion, the ideology and practice of whiteness has defined the terms and constructed what we think we know.

And so, to give the final word to WEB Du Bois, on his prognosis for the souls of white folk:

Eastward and westward storms are breaking — great, ugly whirlwinds of hatred and blood and cruelty. I will not believe them inevitable. I will not believe that all that was must be, that all the shameful drama of the past must be done again today before the sunlight sweeps the silver seas. …
Back beyond the world and swept by these wild, white faces of the awful dead, why will this Soul of White Folk — this modern Prometheus — hang bound by his own binding, tethered by a fable of the past? I hear his mighty cry reverberating through the world, “I am white!” Well and good, O Prometheus, divine thief! Is not the world wide enough for two colors, for many little shinings of the sun? Why, then, devour your own vitals if I answer even as proudly, “I am black!”

Religion Bites is edited by Malory Nye, an academic and writer teaching at the University of Glasgow (until the end of June 2018). He can be found on Twitter (@malorynye) and on his website, malorynye.com.

He produces two podcasts: Religion Bites and History’s Ink.

Malory Nye is also the author of the books Religion the Basics (2008) and There Shall be an Independent Scotland (2015). He is currently working on a new edition of the Religion the Basics book, together with a new book on Race and Religion, which will be published by Bloomsbury Academic.

He is the editor of the Routledge journal Culture and Religion.


Works cited:

Andrews, Kehinde. 2016. “The Psychosis of Whiteness.” Journal of Black Studies 47 (5). Sage: 435–53. doi:10.1177/0021934716638802.

Baker, Kelly J. 2011. Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915–1930. Lawrence, Kansas : University Press of Kansas.

— — — . 2016a. “The New White Nationalists?” Religion & Politics Blog, October 20. https://religionandpolitics.org/2016/10/20/the-new-white-nationalists/.

— — — . 2016b. “White-Collar Supremacy — Opinion.” The New York Times, November 25. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/25/opinion/white-collar-supremacy.html.

CSRAC. 2009. “Forum: American Religion and ‘Whiteness.’” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 19 (1). University of California Press, Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture: 1–35. doi:10.1525/rac.2009.19.1.1.

DiAngelo, Robin. 2011. “White Fragility.” The International Journal of Critical Pedagogy 3 (3). http://libjournal.uncg.edu/ijcp/article/view/249.

Driscoll, Christopher M. 2016. White Lies: Race and Uncertainty in the Twilight of American Religion. Routledge.

Dyer, Richard. 1997. White: Essays on Race and Culture. London: Routledge.

Fischer-Tiné, Harald, and Michael Mann. 2004. Colonialism as Civilizing Mission: Cultural Ideology in British India. Anthem Press.

Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Religion and the Secular: Historical and Colonial Formations. Sheffield: Equinox.

Garner, Steve. 2007. Whiteness: An Introduction. London: Routledge.

Gunew, Sneja. 2007. “Rethinking Whiteness: Introduction.” Feminist Theory 8 (2). Sage: 141–47. doi:10.1177/1464700107078138.

Hesse, Barnor. 2007. “Racialized Modernity: An Analytics of White Mythologies.” Ethnic & Racial Studies 30 (4): 643–63. doi:10.1080/01419870701356064.

López, Alfred J. 2005. Postcolonial Whiteness: A Critical Reader on Race and Empire. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Masuzawa, Tomoko. 2005. The Invention of World Religions, or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. London: University of Chicago Press.

Morrison, Toni. 1992. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. London: Harvard University Press.