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Sunday, January 12, 2014

Identity in a White-Default World

The following has been adapted from an article I wrote for Rev. Marty Troyer's series on self-

Google results for 'flesh-colored dress'
(See also: Michelle Obama's dress)
It can be difficult to hold in harmony both our individual and communal identities, particularly when it comes to race. Some folks have more freedom to self-differentiate (that capacity to maintain the values and benefits of their community, while asserting their own individual identity) than others. How do we navigate our personal identity within the context our racialized world?

White folk tend to be perceived and treated as individuals, distinguishable from the rest of their racial group, whereas people of color tend to be perceived as representatives of the entirety of their group. But white folks also greatly benefit from their membership in a broader racial group. As a group, white folk have access to better housing, better healthcare, better education, and better jobs than other races (see: Disparity by the Numbers). Yet, when a white person is late to a meeting, burglarizes a house, or commits an act of terrorism, the deficiency is ascribed to that individual's character, largely without consequence for other members of the race (see post: Pathology of Mass Shooting).

White folk can more easily identify as individuals because there is an under-appreciation of the concept of 'white culture' and its pervasiveness within the United States. Whiteness is the 'default,' the dominant culture against which others are compared. White folk consider themselves 'normal' individuals when it comes to their choices of food, music, movies, history, spoken dialect etc, despite in reality being part of a distinct communal identity (see Abagond's 'White Default'). Non-white cultures become homogenized groups, characterized as 'exotic', 'ethnic,' or 'special interest.'

As a result, Kartina Richardson notes that "it denies [white people] a specific identity by absorbing them into neutral blankness." White folk miss out on a communal racial identity and believe that they have nothing to bring to dialogues about the multicultural body of Christ. They forsake their shared group identity for the sake of individualism (even while benefiting from membership in that community).

Consequences of a ‘White Default’
White folks' privilege often ends up squashing the individuality of others. In a system where white is default, it is much more difficult for a person of color to be seen as an individual than it is for white folk. How often is a white student asked for 'the Caucasian perspective' in a class discussion about immigration reform?
Details Here

The institutionalized racism that results from a white default means that people of color must conform to a white standard to succeed within the dominant culture. People of color must sacrifice their own self-differentiation in order to be successful in job interviews, standardized testing, or media representation. Because people of color are less likely to be perceived as individuals apart from their own racial group, they must work harder to fit an unspoken mold of the dominant community.

Stereotypes function as a denial of identity for people of color. It manifests itself in racial profiling on street corners and in airports. It is functioning when we turn people's cultures into costumes and mascots. We limit who can be a 'true American,' demanding legal documents from some, and relegating others to perpetual foreigner status. We polarize stereotypes about Asian Americans and Black folk, leaving white folk in the default, 'goldilocks,' middle ground, free to be who they want to be.

Responding to the ‘White Default’
There are several options to combating the revoking of self-differentiation. First, people of color can seek refuge in fellowship with those of similar racial identities. On the surface, this response may appear to decrease individual identity for the sake of prioritizing communal identity. And indeed, a greater sense of within-race unity and identity may be fostered through these means than is seen in white communities. But in addition, such environments also allow for self-expression and -differentiation for individuals within that group in a way that is not possible outside of those settings. There is a freedom to be who you are, rather than how the dominant culture expects you to be.

A second response to white suppression of self-differentiation is the greater collective assertion of cultural identity in the face of racial whitewashing. There can arise a broader self-differentiation of a marginalized culture within the context of the dominant 'default' community. While having to conform to white standards in some aspects of life, racial minorities can gain strength in creating music, clothes, names, and language that is wholly distinct from the majority culture (even as the dominant culture pathologizes and mocks their use). Thus, communities of color can self-differentiate in the context of their broader role in society.

So how can racial allies empower the self-differentiation of marginalized groups? How do we remain in loving community, but challenge it to grow? We can affirm individuals' experiences when others try to delegitimize racial concerns. We can become more aware of white culture and its influence on us as individuals. We can make sure there is a place at the table for marginalized voices to be heard, both as a group and as individuals. Then perhaps Christians will have self-differentiation in our earthly environment--being in the world, but not of the world and its racial inequity.

I'm new to thinking about self-differentiation in the context of racial identity. How can Christians navigate individualism within the body of Christ to understand our roles within the communal Church, particularly in racial terms? Share in the comments section below.


  1. Well said. Had a fb conversation yesterday in which he lumped groups together in defense of his own personal offended position. I ended it with an-agree to disagree- response, mainly because I don't yet have a strong enough narrative to peaceably make my point. Thank you!

  2. Those can be harrowing debates. smh. Thanks for your witness!


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By Their Strange Fruit by Katelin H is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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