Whiteness as the Background Radiation of Gender

In a recent, roundly praised op-ed in The New York Times, Dr. Russell Moore commented:

The thriving churches of American Christianity are multigenerational, theologically robust, ethnically diverse and connected to the global church. If Jesus is alive — and I believe that he is — he will keep his promise and build his church. But he never promises to do that solely with white, suburban institutional evangelicalism.

He then, in a somewhat radical but obvious statement coming from a white, conservative evangelical, proclaimed Jesus as a dark-skinned foreigner who likely doesn’t care for chants of “Make America Great Again.” I watched as white people across my feed praised Moore for his “bravery” and his views, while many of the POC I follow expressed frustration, critique, and, at best, unease. In matters of race, I take my cues from the people who are most deeply affected by the questions of racial “reconciliation” and creating multiethnic churches. As numerous people pointed out, too often “multiethnic” churches mean churches that assimilate POC into whiteness, failing to engage deeply with the nuance of the issues.

And this week, in response to the White House’s proclamation that allowing transgender people to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity is a matter of protected civil rights, Moore issued another op-ed, this time remarking that gender is a fixed state, as opposed to the unnatural “fiction” of race:

Sex-differentiated bathrooms and sports teams and dormitories for men and women aren’t the equivalent of, say, a terrorist Jim Crow state unnaturally forcing people apart based on a fiction, useful to the powerful, that skin color is about superiority and inferiority. Every human being knows that there are important, and necessary, differences between men and women. Without such recognition, women are harmed and men are coarsened.

The framework from which Moore is working has to be exposed here, as both his position on racism and his position on transgender identity function to maintain his power as a white man with a central hold on theological and political supremacy. Both reflect an understanding of white supremacy that allows him to act as a “racial reconciliation advocate” without actually doing anything to advance justice for black women, in particular.

Our modern understandings—which Moore inefficiently attempts to reject in his op-ed—of gender are developed by and understood as whiteness. The clearest way we can see this pervasive whiteness is through looking at the role the black woman plays in this intersection of gender and race. Feminist theorist Patricia Hill Collins writes that black women live under a number of “controlling images” about their bodies and their place in the world: that they are mammies, black matriarchs, jezebels, welfare queens, or black ladies. The white understanding of a black woman’s “role” in society is based in and developed by these controlling images, creating a position where she is either raced or gendered, but not both. Black womanist scholars have written extensively about the oppression that happens at this intersection, about the ways in which whiteness pervades our understanding of femininity and masculinity, disallowing black women from obtaining the ideal of femininity without giving up their blackness.

When Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, the image of a housewife trapped by her husband’s will and trapped in her position was fundamentally a white woman. Black women in that time frequently worked in white homes, taking care of white children, cleaning houses after white people, and were seen as people who were supposed to blend into the background. White analysis of gendered roles in mid-20th century feminism was not meant for the black women, who were, as Collins writes, “outsiders-within.”

Moore is working off this same prioritization of whiteness when he talks about understanding Biblical masculinity and femininity, the teaching of which has never been applicable to black women in America. Indeed, the second Bush administration used welfare dollars for programs basically designed to teach black women how to follow these white gender roles by finding a husband and having him provide for their families as a method of getting out of poverty. By learning how to be a good wife, it’s assumed, black women can take on the role of black matriarch again and lift their families out of poverty. This kind of approach fails to address the ways in which redlining, housing discrimination, job discrimination, and poor education tied to property values all perpetuate and impact a single person’s social mobility, much less an entire family’s. Indeed, the program itself failed.

All this to say that Moore’s op-eds are not necessarily contradictory pieces of work. There are various surface level contradictions within how he argues—he’s very much of the cake, too, variety—but once you understand that everything he is saying extends from whiteness, that even his position on the gender binary is a form of whiteness, then it’s easy to see how it’s internally logical. Race is a fiction when it’s convenient to him to make himself look like a white ally, but his insistence on gender roles and dependence on the rigidity of a gender binary exude whiteness. It is impossible to avoid at this point.

Collins writes:

The foundations of intersecting oppressions become grounded in interdependent concepts of binary thinking, oppositional difference, objectification and social hierarchy with domination based on difference forming an essential underpinning for this entire system of thought, these concepts invariably imply relationships of superiority and inferiority, hierarchical bonds that mesh with political economies of race, gender, and class oppression.

Moore would say we’re equal—separate, but equal—in terms of gender. He would not hesitate to say that people who believe themselves to be white (as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes) and black people are certainly equal, and we are all created equally in the eyes of God. But it is only in whiteness that his insistence in both gender roles as reality and race as a fiction make any sense. Both are constructed by societal pressure and societal development, but that does not make them any less meaningful for the people who experience both as part of their daily life. Moore’s whiteness affects his thinking on gender just as much as it affects his thinking on race, and until he (and the rest of the white evangelical church) is willing to acknowledge it as such, we’re simply going to continue drowning in a world of platitudes about how important multiethnic churches are without any real effort to create them.

We cannot hope to approach a world in which racial justice--not reconciliation, justice--is achieved unless we are willing to challenge whiteness in all its forms, including within the discussion of gender. Russell Moore is fundamentally the wrong person to lead this charge, but an unsurprising one from a political standpoint. It helps the white church to look "progressive" on certain issues, to play their cards right in the midst of a tumultuous election season. But the centrality of whiteness to all of Moore's positions guarantees that no real change will ever happen.

I'm pretty sure the Bible had some things to say about people who say a lot to sound and look good without backing it up with justice-oriented action.