Yesterday Rodney Thomas wrote a post titled “Can White People Do Contextual Theology Too?” wherein he rightly argues, “…many well-intentioned religious thinkers try to hide …whiteness in the name of universality. The idea that even white people do contextual theology is disruptive.” I recommend reading it, because it is true! Sometimes those of us with more Eurocentric worldviews forget that all history is not western history (using “western” for lack of a better word), all philosophy is not western philosophy, all religion is not western religion, and so forth and so on. While Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, and other “postmoderns” receive a bad rap in my circles I think this was one of their great insights and one of their great contributions to the critique of western thought from within the paradigm of western thought: we should not assume our non-universals to be universals.
We hear a lot about African, Asian, and Latin American biblical studies/hermeneutics/philosophy/theology as if it is the abberation of the objective, universal approach to the aforementioned subjects. This assumes too much. It speaks of Eurocentric (i.e. white) approaches to various topics as universals when the truth of the matter is that this approach is contextualized as well. While I think it is right to discuss African, Asian, and Latin American (and other categories) forms of thought in order to be more aware of the differences, we must be careful to avoid to assumption the they contrast a fundamental, universal approach (i.e our approach).
It is easy to make this mistake. Often we assume our view is the universal, especially if we are in the majority. For example, my wife recently shared a few paragraphs from a chapter titled “Religious Microagressions in the United States: Mental Health Implications for Religious Minority Groups” in Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact (ed. Derald Wing Sue) where the following paragraphs grabbed my attention (its from the Kindle edition so excuse the lack of page numbers):
“…another common experience for religious minorities may include asking someone to be a spokesperson for their entire religious or nonreligious groups. Such an act implies that individuals from a specific religious group have had universal experiences and that each person is interchangeable and nondescript. This phenomenon is similar to the theme ‘assumed universal black experience’ in which a Black/African person is asked to speak on behalf of the entire race (Sue, Nadal, et al., 2008). Expecting a person from a religious or nonreligious group to speak for his or her group can be viewed as unfair and may evoke stress from the recipient. Perpetrators from dominant religious groups are rarely asked to be representatives of their groups. This form of religious microaggression can be similar in literature on race. For example, McIntosh (2003) reveals that one privilege that Whites have is that they may never be asked to represent their entire group, while people of color may be asked to be spokespersons regularly. Similarly, Christians may never have to be spokespersons, while Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and other religious and nonreligious minority groups may be asked recurrently.””
I have heard from fellow Caucasians/Whites the opening line, “My friend _____ is Black and s/he thinks….” as the beginning of an argument for why one African American/Black’s vantage point suddenly sums up the views of a whole ethnic/racial group. Some examples would be “My Black friend _____ doesn’t like the idea of Affirmative Action, therefore….” or “My Mexican friend _____ says that s/he doesn’t think it is fair for the school in the Latino neighborhood to get a larger portion of government aid, so….” and the African American or Latino who happens to have a view similar to that of the majority is cited as evidence that the minority group either (A) doesn’t necessarily disagree with the majority or (B) since some within the minority group agree with the majority the concerns of the rest of the minority are unjustified.
I am a white, male Protestant/evangelical. This puts me in the majority in the United States. Sometimes I sense the need to defend myself against the demonization of “whiteness” or “maleness” and often one card we white males play is the appeal to our minority or female friend. I know why we do this, but I’m not sure that it is wise, especially when we ignore the views of a minority group in favor of a “spokesperson” who agrees with us.
Those of us from religious groups that are the majority do the same thing. I have heard some fellow evangelicals warn about the dangers of Islam because they heard “a former Muslim, now Christian” outline their own negative experience with Islam and then they assume this describes all Muslims. The same thing can happen when a “former Catholic” explains to Protestants why “Catholicism” is bad. The Protestant appeals to the view of one former Catholic, but does not give other Catholics a speaking platform. (This is one reason why I was hesitant in writing my series on Oneness Pentecostalism, since I know I am only one former adherent.)
I am not saying that this is the type of thing being done of Rachel Held Evans’ blog where she has a series that includes, “Ask an Atheist”; “Ask a Catholic”; “Ask an Orthodox Jew”; “Ask a Humanitarian”; “Ask a Mormon”; “Ask a Mennonite”; and “Ask an Evolutionary Creationist”, but I do think there is a danger that readers of these posts may assume a smug sense of “awareness” now that “a Catholic” or “a Mormon” has spoken on behalf of the religious minority. Rachel’s series does something very positive–it invites evangelicals to dialogue with “the other”. It allows someone from a minority group to speak rather than be spoken for by an outsider. Most importantly, it allows an individual to show that a generalization of a given group ignores that different individuals in that group have different opinions on various matters. If these things are kept in perspective all is well and good. What needs to be avoided is that misconception that the “spokesperson” represents the group or that it is even a “good” thing that they must be a “spokesperson”. It should be seen as the beginning of a conversation including more voices, not a final word spoken by one individual.
For those of us in the majority we must ask ourselves how much we would like to be represented by one voice. One example, as a citizen of the United States it was very concerning to talk to people who thought that because President George W. Bush had a particular foreign policy that he represented the entire American ethos. One person I know from Belgium was quite surprised to hear that all Americans aren’t pro-war!!! Another example is that as a white male I don’t like when it is assumed that I come from a line of slave owners (no evidence of this in my family line) or that I think a good woman is one who washes the dishes and cooks every meal (I cook sometimes and I do many of the house chores). If someone asked my dad what a “white, American male” thinks of a given subject I’d be quite horrified if someone assumed that his views are my own.
So we must avoid the fallacy of assumed universal experience from two angles. First, we must avoid the idea that our own experience is the universal while others are abberations. Second, we must avoid the misconception that the view of one person of a minority race, ethnicity, sub-culture, or religion represents everyone in said group.
What are your thoughts on this issue?