The Ethics of Whiteness: Race, Religion, and Social Transformation in South Africa
Schneider, Rachel Christianna
Bongmba, Elias K; Faubion, James D
Doctor of Philosophy
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, rather than resist, sociopolitical and racial change. My interlocutors intentionally lived and worked in poor, black spaces and were involved in 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.” Such actions, while not unproblematic, were legitimated through a plurality 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 concept of the ethics of whiteness in dialogue with concerns and methodological approaches found in the anthropology of ethic, which focuses on the empirical and qualitative study of ethical life. While wary of traditional religious institutions, my interlocutors drew from a number of religious sources and histories to develop their socially engaged form of Christian spirituality, 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, I suggest, ultimately 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.