Review: Dr. J. Kameron Carter’s “From the Religion of Whiteness to Religion Otherwise”

Image by Pawel Czerwinski, https://unsplash.com/@pawel_czerwinski

Review of the online lecture by Dr. J. Kameron Carter, given on Feb 23, 2023, sponsored by The University of Winnipeg’s Department of Religion and Culture. This lecture was made possible through the Newcombe Family Foundation.

Through reference to numerous works by cultural theorist and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) Carter’s talk presented and clarified the framework of “Whiteness” as “apocalyptic cosmology,” and “Blackness” as “postapocalyptic poetic living,” drawing from his forthcoming publications The Anarchy of Black Religion: A Mystic Song (Duke University Press, August 2023), and The Religion of Whiteness: An Apocalyptic Lyric (Yale University Press).

Whiteness, Carter explained, is related to, but not equivalent to, white people. In outlining his talk, Carter names “settlerism” as another name for Whiteness. In short, Whiteness involves practices of ownership and domination uniquely defined by anti-Blackness and the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and present in all histories of settlerism. The problems of Whiteness are thus not limited to openly racist or white supremacist logic, but undergird all social, political, and religious forms in the legacy of these histories. The agents of Whiteness are not solely white people, though white people tend to benefit from Whiteness while marginalized groups suffer its fallout. Whiteness is witnessed in the historical complex of Christian societies, settler-colonialism, and capitalism.

According to Carter, Christian thought has played a fundamental role in histories of Whiteness. Whiteness operates via an “apocalyptic messianism” which it derives, explicitly or not, from Christian thought. Christianity is enamoured with the transcendent, that which it understands to be beyond the apparent chaos of creation, and which has ultimate rule over this creation. In turn Christianity has had a tendency to 1. operate as though violent hierarchical patterns of dominance and ownership are basic to reality, and 2. project transcendent standards onto creation, naturalizing violence and injustice as “the way it is.” Whiteness is “apocalyptic” because it claims access to ultimate truth, and because it is responsible for mass destruction as it attempts to assert its truth. It “destroys by seizing.”

One example Carter used of “apocalyptic messianism” involved the missionary schemas of settler-colonialism. Efforts to colonize and evangelize Indigenous peoples have historically been enacted under the premise that colonized subjects are “heathens” who need to be “saved” or “civilized.” Christian societies impose their violence on others by presuming that these others need to be “saved.” Carter suggested that, in fact, at the root of these missionary efforts lies Whiteness’ need, not to save others, but to save itself, to shore itself up, by making all else subject to its logic. Whiteness “performs itself in the face of resistance.” Its “project of imposition” is, in fact, “Whiteness working out its salvation,” affirming its practices of ownership and domination by laying claim to anything which resists this logic, making “ownable” all else.

The fact that Whiteness continues to need to perform itself, that there is resistance which it continually needs to conquer, suggests that it is not in fact totalizing, and that there are aspects of reality which continually exceed its grasp. Blackness refers to that which exceeds or is otherwise to Whiteness. Blackness, according to Carter, “release(s) earth from practices of ownership,” “undoing the shoring up that happens with transcendence.” In “Black ecology” the distinctions which differentiate dominant and dominated and which maintain hierarchy are withered. Blackness is seen in “postapocalyptic poetic living,” in a “future that can’t be narrated,” which is “nameless, wordless” in its inability to be narrated by Whiteness, but which in some regard resists, escapes, or is fugitive from, the totalizing efforts of Whiteness. Blackness offers the possibility of “new socialities after Whiteness” precisely because it is “incalculable, experimental,” and “incomplete.”

 

Dr. J. Kameron Carter is Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington where he also is co-director of IU’s Center for Religion and the Human. Professor Carter engages questions of Blackness, race, political theology, and ecology through what he calls “the black study of religion.” He is the author of Race: A Theological Account (Oxford University Press, 2008) and editor of a special issue of the journal American Religion. That special issue is titled The Matter of Black Religion: Thinking with Charles H. Long (2021). Professor Carter is the author of the much anticipated The Anarchy of Black Religion: A Mystic Song (Duke University Press, forthcoming, August 2023). His next book, The Religion of Whiteness: An Apocalyptic Lyric (with Yale University Press) and from which this lecture was drawn, is in final preparation.

 

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