Before I get started, thank you all so much for reading last week’s post and providing such encouraging feedback. I feel a lot calmer and more sure of what I need to do about that relationship. However, I don’t have any updates I’m comfortable sharing right now. Thank you for clicking on this post and being willing to let me talk about something else this week.
A Facebook friend recently posed the following questions for her followers, largely White people like me, to consider:
What kind of impact does depicting Jesus as a white man have on those who are not white?
What harmful narrative is being upheld by depicting Jesus as white?
A lot of people who commented responded in one of two ways. First, they admitted that they think of Jesus as White, but don’t think that matters. Artists all over the world can depict Jesus as looking like them, however they look. Second, people said they always assumed that Jesus should be depicted as White because the Jewish people they know look White to them. I want to respond to both of these ideas, but first, I want to break down how Whiteness is perceived and used in the US.
First, let’s acknowledge that race is a social construct. It is a made-up label. It has no biological basis. White and Black are words people use to describe others and themselves, but they are made up. They have been assigned significant and complex meaning, but they are not real in the sense that they are not objective. Race isn’t biology. So it’s perfectly understandable if a person chooses to not use any of these made-up race labels, and thus to avoid those assigned meanings. But that’s a different blog post.
I recently read an explanation of Whiteness in the US that goes like this (paraphrased from Robert Nash’s book Moving the Equator: The Families of the Earth and the Mission of the Church). When Europeans first began coming to what would become the US, they categorized people in two ways: White and Indigenous. White meant free. Indigenous meant eradicate. This wasn’t universally true in every instance, but it was the shorthand White people developed and governed themselves on the assumption of. After 1619, there was a third category: Black, meaning enslaved. In time, White people had eradicated Indigenous people so thoroughly that they dropped off as a category (though they of course still exist) and there were only two categories: White meaning free and Black meaning enslaved. The assumption was enslavement even in the north, and White people terrorized Black communities for decades as a result (Indigo by Beverly Jenkins depicts this period well).
Though enslavement is not technically true for Black people in this country anymore, we White people have kept to this shorthand. It was apparent in Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, for example. We know he was innocent of any crimes, certainly any that would have warranted him being shot in the back by two random men. Those two White men were acting as though they had total authority over him, authority to question his behavior, to judge it unsuitable, to follow him, and then to murder him. I heard Rev. Starlette Thomas describe it on a podcast as those two White men were acting like they were “still on the plantation.” They were acting off of this old binary idea that Ahmaud is Black, therefore he isn’t free. They were acting like Black = enslaved. They were acting like plantation overseers and slave catchers.
Perhaps most insidiously, we White people have forced other races who have come here (or have been brought here in the case of Chinese railroad workers, for example) to prove themselves “not Black” in order to be considered free, contributing to anti-Blackness around the world. The existence of this binary is why Columbus has such a large role in our culture’s mythos and a holiday dedicated to him. Italian immigrants in the early 1900s were facing horrible discrimination and were trying to prove they belonged here, so they popularized this story about the Italian founder of the continent. This effort to prove Whiteness was apparent recently when Asian Americans were facing racism as the coronavirus began spreading in the US. Articles encouraged Asian Americans to present themselves as professionals, always prepared and dressed nicely, to try to combat this racism. This amounted to a demand that Asian and Asian Americans prove their Whiteness in order to not face racism, to be treated as free. It wasn’t considered enough for them to just exist, and it wasn’t enough to expect White people not to discriminate against them.
Jesus was Jewish. But we shouldn’t base our assumptions of Jesus’ physical appearance on what many Jewish people in the US look like today. It’s an understandable tendency but it ignores about 2000 years of Jewish history as well as our tendency to see people in a binary of White and Black (or White and not-White). Most Jewish people we encounter daily, who are our neighbors and coworkers and classmates, are descended from people who lived for centuries in Eastern Europe, Northwestern Europe, and Russia. And regardless of how White many Jewish people look to our biased eyes, that assignment of Whiteness is conditional. Jewish people face racism and xenophobia in xenophobic jokes from the president as well as internet mobs about public figures, and in such events as the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue by a white supremacists. It’s very hard for Jewish people who don’t look White to be accepted even in Jewish circles, and all Jewish people (from what I understand) remain aware and wary of how conditional that acceptance from White Western culture is.
Remember the St. Louis: Nearly a thousand Jewish people, including families with young children, fled from anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany aboard the ship the St. Louis. But when they arrived in New York City, they were not allowed to disembark. The US was unwilling to accept them as religious refugees, and neither was any other country. Eventually, they were forced to return to Germany and most passengers were murdered in the Holocaust. This same anti-Semitic reticence to welcome Jewish people into Western countries led to Western backing for the creation of the state of Israel.
We can’t know for sure what a Jewish man living in Palestine actually looked like in the first century, though there are a number of brown skinned, black-haired guesses. We as White Christians cannot know how painful it must be to see so many depictions of Jesus as White, blonde haired and blue eyed. How many depictions? Is it really that ubiquitous? Well, I have two questions for you.
(1) How many of you grew up seeing the below photo of Jesus in your church, or even your home?
There’s a great article in the Washington Post about how this painting became a 1940’s Protestant advertisement and spread the image of Jesus as White around the world.
(2) How many of you have a nativity set that doesn’t depict the Holy Family as White?
It can’t be many of you because I had the darnedest time finding one for Tyler’s and my first Christmas together. And what I often did find was a base with anglican features and bone structure and hair texture, painted over in blacks and browns.
You may feel that what Jesus looked like while on earth has no effect on your belief and trust in him. Let’s assume you’re totally right. But how we as people portray him definitely does matter. It matters because our White Western culture is dominant and held up as the ideal (or at least influencing others’ ideals) all over the world. In Trevor Noah’s memoir Born a Crime, he says his grandmother always wanted him to pray aloud because he could do so in English. To her, it was perfectly obvious that Jesus was White and spoke English, so a prayer in English must be more powerful. Read Noah’s full explanation below.
If every culture simply represents Jesus as looking like them, as I’ve heard argued, we wouldn’t have beautiful black grandmothers in South Africa believing both that Jesus answers White people’s prayers in English first.
How we portray Jesus also matters because to depict Jesus as White is to depict a man born of an oppressed people as looking the way his people’s oppressors look. (The White women screaming in stores for being asked to wear a mask may think they’re being oppressed, but they aren’t. Inconvenience is not oppression.) For much of the world, White Western people have been the oppressors, the colonizers and invaders and economic overlords. So regardless of what Jesus may have looked like, we shouldn’t portray him the way we portray oppressive individuals or oppressive groups. That doesn’t represent Jesus’s humanity, family, mission, or values. In fact, that contradicts Jesus’ message of radical love and sacrifice for God and others.