Whiteness as the Masculine Ideal: the History of Racism in Purity Culture

Think about all the different “real man” campaigns you’ve seen. “Real Men Wear Pink.” “Real Men Don’t Buy Women.” “Real Men Don’t Hit Their Wives.”

Many of these campaigns have white men as the face of their brand, telling us what being a man means and what it looks like.

Now think of the popular evangelical work on masculinity and what it means to be a man. Who are the leaders of those movements? If you’re picturing a sea of white men, you’d be basically right. The evangelical conversation on masculinity is often led by white men, about white men, and for white men.

When my brothers were younger, my dad took one of them to a Promise Keepers rally in Minneapolis. This was a Men Being Men event about how to be good fathers, husbands, and men. The pictures from the event featured large crowds of white men, gathering around to sing songs to God. Photos from this past year’s Act Like Men conference, spearheaded by James MacDonald out of Wheaton, IL, and promoted by Mark Driscoll, are similar monochromatic.

What’s more is that the conversation and access for how to be a “real” men in the evangelical church costs money. Conferences, books, classes, Bible studies – all of these things require a devotion of time and access that many poorer men do not have access to. Being a “real man” in Christian purity culture is an exercise in white, middle class living. As such, it cannot and should not be considered Gospel, as the Gospel needs to be able to speak to people where they are, in their situations right now. The Gospel should not come with a cover price.

But in the world of evangelical masculinity, the ideal is very white and very moneyed. Cultural cues, references in sermons, the very image of God, create an environment where men of color are an Other, often a reference of what not to be. Black rappers are held up as examples of how not to treat women, while white rockers who sing about stalking and killing are given a pass. Ministries to the “inner cities” presume to teach men how to be men and women how to be women (by dressing modestly and saving sex until marriage – cf Secret Keeper Girls). These ministries function from the assumption that those who populate the inner cities – a euphemism for poor communities of color – need white, suburban purity teachings in order to get their lives back into place.

None of this recognizes the influence the privilege of birth has on the theology. Such purity theology about masculinity and femininity is considered timeless, biblically taught, and God’s word. But in reality, it is a white response to a larger civil rights movement, born out of cultural prejudice to protect, in large part, white women’s beauty.

In Black Theology and Black Power, James Cone tells us of the history of the integration of slaves into their master’s churches. Black churches amongst the slaves were a robust spiritual community, places where they were briefly free from the ownership of the white man. As a result, these liberating forces were seen as a threat to the white slave owner’s property, so they began to forcibly disband such churches and force their slaves to attend white churches. This is the legacy of the relationship between the white church and the black church in America.

In many ways, the white evangelical church in America is still unconsciously parroting this anti-liberation sentiment, basing their paternalism toward black churches in assumptions about lack of purity and sexual proclivities. The white theology of purity has become the message of the Gospel, flowing from white suburbia into the inner city. The evangelical purity culture seeks to set aright “black promiscuity,” a myth invented to justify white lust and white fear.

And, by extension, the vision of masculinity presented by white evangelical culture simultaneously appropriates and demonizes black culture. Rap music is baptized by white men learning to rap; rhythms of language and black slang become marketing slogans. The specter of teen pregnancy in euphemistically “urban” areas is brought forward as a reason for more abstinence education and church membership – ignoring the presence of thriving black churches in such areas.

The white church needs to examine and interrogate the cultural mores that create their “biblical” perspectives. So much of the context of masculinity ideals is grounded in white cultural ideals, and yet such context is ignored because it’s “the scholarship.” But nothing exists within a vacuum, not even biblical scholarship. Interrogation of contexts, privileges, and ideas needs to occur. Until the white church is willing to do that, it will continue to repeat the racist sins of its forefathers.

[Photo Credit: Cobalt123 on Flickr]