Super chill book review: After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (Willie Jennings)

I kind of want to say that this one’s for the nerds out there. But I’m also kind of against the anti-intellectualism that words like “nerd” might carry. 

So…this one’s for anyone interested in thinking about seminaries and other institutions of higher education. Or, really, anyone interested in thinking about any sorts of institutions with roots in colonialist ways of thinking about things. Which is, like, lots and lots of institutions.

The book is After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging, written by theologian Willie James Jennings, published in 2020. I didn’t really know what to expect when I checked it out from the library—I just think Willie Jennings is brilliant, so I figured I’d (make an exception to the mostly-women-authors rule and) check out his new-ish book. 

After Whiteness isn’t quite as dense as the other book by Jennings that I’ve read, or attempted to read—that would be The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race—but it’s still not at all easy reading. And, while a lot of it could be applied to all sorts of schools and other organizations, it is also very seminary-focused. So it might be most of interest to people who’ve attended seminary or otherwise have some sort of connection to the seminary world. (If you read it and don’t have that connection, I’d be extra curious to hear what you think!)

Here are a few things that stood out to me:

1). I recently became an elder at my church (woohoo!). This was one of the questions the four of us new elders were asked to answer at our ordination service last Sunday:

“As an elder, will you work to tell the whole story of the Church – its redemptive acts AND also the Church’s complicity in violent oppression, injustice, genocide, slavery and other acts of terror committed against God’s beloved children? And will you lead the Church in repentance of these things?”

I love that this question was included. I feel like it should be top priority in these interesting times we find ourselves in—in general, and in Christian communities in particular. I’m all about telling the whole story of the church. And I feel like Jennings is a leading voice as we all figure out together how to do that.

This is one of the things at the heart of Jennings’ book, I think: telling the whole story of how Christian churches and seminaries have been formed in a colonialist, white supremacist, patriarchal mindset, and how this is killing us. The only way to life is complete repentance, complete overhaul of so many toxic ways of thinking and being. 

2). Jennings writes, “The modern world formed in the bricolage of native worlds collided and collaborated with the old world of Europe, and together they formed the cultural baroque, something new and unanticipated. Yet this reality of shared agency and shared creativity was occluded by a white aesthetic regime that refused to share the world of meaning and purpose with those outside the old world of Europe or the colonial West as well as their colonialized subjects.

“Theological education in the West gloried in this refusal, and took as its task forming people who would embody this white aesthetic regime as fundamental to performing a gospel logic and a Christian identity. Western education is designed within a forced affection, shaped to take all of us on a journey of culture additionadd to the great European masters other thinkers who are not white or male but who approximate them, add to the great European artists other artists who are also great like they are, add to the eternal wisdom and universal insights of Europe the wisdom of other peoples that resemble them. Add these nonwhite others as embroidery to frame a picture, or spices to season a dish” (p. 64).

I don’t know if I’d really thought about the possibilities that were present when “native worlds collided and collaborated with the old world of Europe”the possibilities of cultures mixing, learning from one another as equals, collaborating together to build something good. All of these possibilities that were curtailed by Europeans’ colonialism. 

We still see the effects of this way of thinkingwhere European stuff is the cultural standard of awesomeness, and non-white artists, thinkers, etc. can sometimes be added to the canon if they sound enough like those already in itin all sorts of places. It reminds me of my seminary reading lists, so full of white dudes, with the occasional (white) woman and/or person (read: man) of color (rarely a woman of color, yikes) thrown in for good measure (like “spices to season a dish”). 

It also reminds me of the time a fellow student pointed out that part of the reason why there weren’t more theologians of color on our syllabi was because a lot of them weren’t saying the things our (mostly white male) professors wanted them to say. Double yikes. Sure, we’ll include your voice…as long as you don’t disagree with us or challenge us in any significant way.

3). I appreciated Jennings’ thoughts about thinking and feelingabout the “affective reality of Western institutional life” (p. 93).

He writes, “There remains a legion of scholars and administrators who continue to hold a dualism of thought and feeling. The educational space in their way of thinking is a space of thinking, not feeling. Too many scholars believe in rigorous thinking and banished feelings, and they teach students that a thinking subject wars with a feeling subject…

“But institutions feel just as institutions think. To discern institutional thinking is also to explore institutional feeling. More specifically, it is to invite those who inhabit an institution to sense its comfort, its joy, and its energy aimed in a direction, even if it is the wrong direction” (p. 93).

Yes, get rid of that thinking/feeling dualism. It isn’t serving us well. (Does that mean we get rid of the Myers-Briggs personality test too? That’s probably fine…) 

The thought of theological scholars and seminary administrators who think that they should think and not feel is kind of terrifying. But also explains a lot. And then what kind of pastors and church leaders are they forming?

Among other things, this kind of thinking/feeling dualism generally tends to suck for women, who get painted as the “feelers.” Which leads to being devalued in a society that overvalues thinking and undervalues feeling. And gives men a pass on all sorts of things like sensitivity and social concern and community-mindedness, things we all (not just half of us, and the half who tends not to be in power) desperately need.

4). I feel like more and more of the books I’m reading these days mix in some poems and such, and I’m super into it. The first time I saw that, I was like, whoa, you can do that? Apparently, you can. And now it feels like all the cool kids are doing it. It’s great.

I really liked some of Jennings’ poems and poem-like writing that he mixes in throughout this book. Maybe especially because his academic stuff can be so dense and, well, academic, I enjoyed feeling like I got a window into a different (but very much related) side of his (very large) brain. (I know brain size doesn’t actually correlate to intelligence, but that’s still how I picture it.)

I guess it’s also a way in which Jennings is living out his own words about breaking down the dualism between thinking and feeling. If more academic-style discourse tends to operate primarily in the realm of thinking, and if poems tend to operate primarily in the realm of emotion, blending them into one book helps bring the two back together, as they belong.

5). This is one of the poems that I especially liked: 

Could self-sufficiency
be redeemed?
But who would want
such a thing?
Certainly not one who asked
Mary for life, or one
who needed friends along
the way of discipleship, or
one who called on an Abba-God, or
one who fell onto God’s Spirit
like a limp body
in need of support just to
face the morning sun
or one who said, ‘This is my body and my blood,
eat me
because you need me in you.’
Certainly not one who on a cross
killed the illusion of
self-sufficiency” (p. 106).

Throughout the book Jennings critiques the idea of a “self-sufficient man”or of “white self-sufficient masculinity” (p. 8)which is often what seminary education (whether intentionally or not) aims to form. And which is a problem…for lots of reasons that Jennings goes into over the course of the book. One of the reasons being that it’s not at all Jesus-like.

6). Jennings writes about communalist societies (pre-colonization) and how they “were not utopias, nor were they immutable, but they were powerful ways of thinking the one in the many and the many in the one” (p. 144). 

In contrast, “the goal of the colonialist—whether trader, explorer, missionary, merchant, or soldier—was to reduce the many to the one as a point of negotiation, management, conversion, and profit. The goal manifested in every colonial site was to move people slowly but clearly from any kind of group thinking about their wants and needs to thinking like an individual who could enter into exchange over goods and services guided by a rationalist freed from communal obligation except at the level of volition. Such people would form connection through capital and perform a relationality woven first and foremost in utility and aiming at profit. Exchange networks need not be personal, need not be communal, need not be storied, need not suggest long-term obligation or relationship, need not even require names or identities. They only require items and money, that is, commodities” (p. 144).

Yeah, that pretty much sums up the root of all our problems. 

And then Jennings completes the gut-punch (but a really important and much-needed one) with this poem:

1698, in a port city on the west coast of Africa,
near what is now Ghana,
the following conversation took place:
African I: What’s your name?
African II: You don’t need to know my name.
The earth starts shaking.
African I: What are you selling?
African II: This ox.
African I: Where did it come from?
African II: You don’t need to know that.
The birds start crying not singing.
African I: How much do you want for it?
African II: I want guns and alcohol.
African I: I have that.
Many plants and trees collapse to the ground.
African II: Let’s do business.
Two hands touch in agreement.
The world feels ruin.” (pp. 144-5)

I’ll be ruminating on this one for a while. 

Well, I hope you enjoyed these tidbits from Jennings’ thinking—especially if you don’t end up reading the book, which, as I mentioned, is kind of seminary-centered and probably not for everyone. 

As usual, holler with your thoughts about any of this!

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