Wrestling with White Supremacy

Second edition published in 2014.

In an essay published in December in The Cresset that is now available online, Richard T. Hughes recounts how he slowly came to see the myth of white supremacy as one of the most significant in forming American history and identity. The author of Myths America Lives By (published by the University of Illinois Press in 2004 and revised in 2014), Richard shares how a comment offered during a panel at the American Academy of Religion initiated a change in his thinking:

I had spent years thinking about the Great American Myths. I had taught classes and written books and articles on that subject. While I acknowledged the persistence of racism in American life, not once had I considered the notion of white supremacy as an idea that has been central to the American mythos. I understood that avowed white supremacists stalked the American landscape, but I had always viewed them as standing on the margins of American life. To suggest that white supremacy was a defining American myth struck me as preposterous.

The challenge had come from James Noel, who was the H. Eugene Farlough, Jr. Chair of African American Christianity and Professor of American Religion at San Francisco Theological Seminary. (Dr. Noel passed away in 2016, remembered here as a “Prophet, Pastor, Professor, and Painter” ).

Richard describes how he spent many months reflecting on what Noel had said:

I began to see that even whites like me—whites who strongly reject racist ideology—can escape the power of the white supremacist myth only with extraordinary effort, if at all. This is because assumptions of white supremacy are like the very air we breathe: they surround us, envelope us, and shape us, but do so in ways that we seldom discern. Put another way, notions of white supremacy are so embedded into our common culture that most white Americans take them for granted, seldom reflecting on their pervasive presence or assessing them for what they are.

The essay takes a somewhat surprising turn when it connects this change of perspective to the category of character formation. (The essay is adapted from a talk delivered at Baylor University in October, “The Character of the University,” hosted by the Institute for Faith and Learning).

To those of us who understand our work with students as involving the formation of character, Richard offers the following warning and provocation:

I have told these stories to help us discern the powerful ways that white supremacy routinely undermines our work of building and buttressing character in the lives of our students and our parishioners. If we fail to grasp the power of white supremacy for what it is, we may very well do our work from the confines of a white-washed bubble. We may well indulge ourselves in the illusion that we are working at character formation when, in reality, we merely reinforce in the hearts and minds of our students the very same notions of white supremacy that have shaped us, their teachers. We risk raising up students—especially white students—whose goodness and morality chiefly serve the interests of people who look like them. Finally and inevitably, if we fail to grasp the power of white supremacy, we insulate ourselves and our students from the ethical concerns that stood at the heart of Jesus’s life and ministry. And that is why I believe that the work of unmasking the myth of white supremacy is our most urgent task in the work of character formation.

The importance of the subject matter combined with the honesty and clarity with which Richard relays his change of mind makes the entire essay well worth your time. It is not difficult to imagine it being used in the classroom or other venue to prompt substantive discussion. Here is a link to Richard’s essay, “Escaping the Web of White Supremacy: Our Most Urgent Task in the Work of Character Formation.”

How does a serious wrestling with white supremacy inform your scholarship, teaching, mentoring or other work with students?

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