Rice University

Events at Rice

Thesis Defense

Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies

Speaker: Rachel Schneider
Doctoral Candidate

The Ethics of Whiteness, Race, Religion, and Social Transformation in South Africa

Monday, April 17, 2017
10:00 AM  to 12:00 PM

215  Humanities Building

What is the relationship between religion and white supremacy? While often explored in the North American context, the explicit connection between religion and white racialization is seldom studied in contexts outside the United States. This research gap has consequences. It leaves opaque the role of religious institutions, traditions, and practices in global systems of white supremacy. Furthermore, it leaves unanswered the empirical question of whether religion might offer ethical alternatives to white individuals and communities. My dissertation responds to this gap by focusing on white racialized subjects in post-apartheid South Africa. Building on historical and anthropological studies that emphasize the role of religion in the conquest and colonization of southern Africa, I show how religion impacts white responses to past and present racial injustice. The Ethics of Whiteness is an ethnographic study of progressive white Christians living in Johannesburg who sought to engage with histories of racism, contemporary racial inequality, and calls for racial redress. After apartheid, many whites attempted to preserve their privileged way of life through strategies of withdrawal, isolation, and emigration. In this context, Christian churches became key sites for maintaining elite white cultural norms. The individuals and groups I studied chose an alternate path: one which sought to embrace sociopolitical change. My interlocutors intentionally lived and worked in poor black spaces and were part of experimental social and spiritual communities aimed at bridging race and class divides. Seeking to challenge dominant white norms, they strove to cultivate lives of simplicity, service, and “downward mobility.” Their actions, while not unproblematic, were legitimated through an assemblage of secular and religious ideals that framed authentic South Africanness, authentic humanness, and authentic Christianity as bound up with lived sacrifice and struggle. At the heart of this study is what I call the ethics of whiteness. The beliefs, practices, and values that motivated those I studied to engage in efforts to think and act otherwise in relation to their conservative white peers. I develop the notion of an ethics of whiteness in dialogue with theoretical concerns and methodological approaches found in the anthropology of ethics. A field which explores the empirical and qualitative dimensions of ethical life, the anthropology of ethics focuses on the various ways ethics are imagined, embodied, pursued, and enacted. While wary of traditional religious institutions, my interlocutors drew from a number of religious sources and histories to develop their ethics, including 1) Black Theology and South Africa’s history of multiracial religious activism against apartheid; 2) liberal Protestantism and its focus on social development and civic engagement; and 3) the Emerging Church Movement, an Anglo-American reform movement that begin in the late 1990s in opposition to conservative white evangelicalism. The confluence of these movements allowed my interlocutors to understand themselves simultaneously as political activists, development workers, and Christian revolutionaries engaged in the work of building a “new” non-racial, democratic South Africa where white and black alike could find a dwelling place. In linking religion to the moral challenges posed by white privilege and racial injustice, I do not contend that religion contributes to the best (or only) form an ethics of whiteness can take in South Africa or elsewhere. Rather, I seek to describe and analyzes how religion influenced the ethical ideals, values, and practices of progressive white South Africans and place these alongside other social movements that wrestle with questions of moral responsibility in the face of poverty and oppression. This dissertation ultimately demonstrates how religious commitments shape ethical and political practice and inspire social change. Not only do I emphasize the ways religion shaped the anti-apartheid movement and its utopian ideal of a non-racial South Africa, I also illustrate how religion continues to impact political activism, civic engagement, and community development in the post-apartheid era. South Africa provides a postcolonial example of a majority black society that remains dominated by a white western ethos. At the same time, South Africa has sustained dramatic shifts in power relations, making it impossible for whiteness to remain what it used to be. Given that white dominance continues to assert itself in local and global forms, there is much to learn from the racial politics of South Africa and the tensions embedded in the utopian yearning for a non-racial, democratic society. My research contributes to debates about entanglements between race and religion and considers what happens to white privileged identities when this privilege is challenged by those on the underside of white supremacy.

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