The Courage to Show Up: A Response from Broderick Greer

White communities and institutions must themselves conjure the courage to show up and dismantle their various scaffoldings of dominance in order for a more just world to begin to be realized.

I remember seeing Brené Brown respond to DeRay McKesson’s tweet last autumn and thinking, “This won’t end well.” It never occurred to me that I would end up in the audience of their public dialogue that began on August 20. One of my initial responses to Brown’s tweet and its subsequent thread was recalling all the moments in my own life when someone – almost always white – would follow up something I said about race with an “analysis” not rooted in critical race theory or some similar critical framework. That familiar moment reemerged at the beginning of Brown and McKesson’s dialogue when Brown implied that black people and other people of color must be open to hearing about the painful experiences of their white counterparts.

Brown went on to give an example of a white person at the bedside of a loved one in a cardiac intensive care unit (CICU) and how that person would be far more concerned about their loved one’s health than about white supremacy’s constant social, economic, and political assault on the lives of black people. While this might be true, Brown failed to make a compelling argument for why a white person – after the release of their loved one from CICU – would or should care about the lives of black Americans. The argument Brown did make dealt with people’s need to cultivate empathy when listening to the stories of black people and black people’s need for patience when recounting their stories to their white neighbors. This approach, however, places the onus of dismantling white supremacy on its victims, not its perpetrators, purveyors, and beneficiaries.

Any approach to social, economic, or political liberation for black people that does not include the giving up of one group’s historic power and wealth is ultimately untenable because it skirts around the heart of whiteness: hoarding. McKesson illustrated this when discussing a sermon he heard in the wake of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Instead of the pastor condemning the actions of white supremacists in undeniable ways, the pastor said it would take people on both sides listening to one another, getting to know one another, and committing to peace with one another in order for white supremacist violence to cease. This, of course, is an absurd assertion, seeing as the actions of white supremacists in Charlottesville were totally unprovoked by people of color. McKesson went on to say that the pastor chose whiteness over God.

Brown then asked McKesson whether his operationalization of whiteness could instead be framed for white people as a call for the dissolution of power and money. The only problem with Brown’s suggestion is that whiteness – to paraphrase James Baldwin – is simply a metaphor for power and money. I am hard-pressed to imagine any white person, or person in power for that matter, being more agreeable to surrendering said wealth and power than the trappings of whiteness, white supremacy, and white global dominance. Brown’s desire to parse apart what scholars, theologians, and activists have come to understand as whiteness is a step in the wrong direction, not a progressive evolution in the ongoing fight against hegemony in all its forms.

Even in its neophyte state in the Medieval Europe, whiteness has operated as a way of categorizing people and thus, space. Dr. Willie James Jennings explores this extensively in his book The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. In chapter after chapter, Jennings tracks the evolution of how Western European Christians made white Christian identity a matter of proximity to divinity. The further away one found themselves away from whiteness and Christianity, the closer one found themselves to being on the receiving end of white European genocide (Indigenous peoples), enslavement (people of African descent), and colonization (peoples in Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Australia). For centuries, white Christians have chosen their whiteness over the God revealed in Jesus Christ, a God who is impoverished, brown, and living in occupied territory in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire.

To say that white Christians will simply be won over by sugarcoating whiteness with words like “power” and “money” is functionally naive and renders the whole project of black liberation a stack of foliage with no fruit. Until people benefiting from whiteness have the courage to show up and admit that is their whiteness, not their talent, ingenuity, or industriousness that maintains their cultural dominance, the world my ancestors fell asleep conjuring, imagining, and singing about will be that much further from being realized. This means that white people must no longer expect black people and other people of color to be their emotional midwives, that they must believe us when we speak of our lived realities, and that they must be willing to relinquish their sense of entitlement to longer life expectancies, better schools, and more wealth than black people and other people of color.

The Rev. Canon Broderick Greer is Canon Precentor at Saint John’s Cathedral in Denver, Colorado. At Saint John’s, Broderick coordinates ministry to people in their 20s and 30s, oversees the Cathedral’s daily and weekly liturgies, and assists the Dean with stewardship and development. He occasionally speaks on matters related to history, black and queer theology, and racial justice. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Teen Vogue, On Being, and The Washington Post.

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