I recently attended a Political Theology seminar. This movement has emerged, largely, through the Liberationist Theologians who have created power from the margins as we have challenged everything from decoloniality (imposed power based on both race and ethnicity) to other forms of inequity. The issue of White Supremacy as a social, anthropological, or even religious construct, is part of the Master’s House.
As a Theologian, I believe Liberationist Theologians, who boldly critique unjust power systems, demonstrate their own power from the margins. I have noticed many “masters” who appear to fear the power such a critique may yield. Though rarely stated as such, this fear of critique creates a sense of angst and fear of losing one’s position or influence. If one fears such a critique, they can do one of many things. As Audre Lorde says,
“Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people. As members of such an economy, we have all been programed to respond to the human differences between us with fear and loathing and to handle that difference in one of three ways: ignore it, and if that is not possible, copy it if we think it is dominant, or destroy it if we think it is subordinate. But we have not patterns for relating across our human differences as equals. As a result, those differences have been misnamed and misused in the service of separation and confusion” (Lord, p. 115).
Lorde is right in her analysis of how we treat difference. Today, these differences have been amplified through people of color being elevated to higher positions within politics such as becoming an American president or new Supreme Court Justice, and in everyday institutions such as Academia.
In particular, the “success” of those who are different is often stymied within Academia by the way we create and assess knowledge production. It is this very notion of knowledge production which has provided one of the greatest contributions to White Supremacy. Therefore, when movements such as Political Theology emerge to challenge the “rightness” of such assumptions, these movements become a form of “difference” which the majority will be tempted to ignore, appropriate, or destroy.
These differences are seen in stark contrast within the Halls of Academia. There may no longer be the separate water fountains with signs such as WHITES ONLY, but that’s not exactly progress within Academia. Afterall, we do not use water fountains as a primary mode of dispensing knowledge. Instead, we use specific thinkers, and patterns of thinking for such disbursement. Those we herald as superior and informative are the thinkers we ask to conduct lectures for a hefty fee. We use their books as part of our core curriculum in higher education and we hire thinkers who become experts on this knowledge production.
Political Theology would then function in a similar way. As Liberationist Theologians have engaged this critique of political / moral responsibility in light of theological claims, liberationists have pushed back against existential theological assumptions that accommodate moral apathy. The liberationists have, in this way, created a power on the margins.
How does the Religious Academy respond to this power on the margins? One of the ways to respond is to appropriate that power. While using terms like “decoloniality” or “Political Theology,” religious academics frequently continue doing the very things they critique. How does one engage in Political Theology, for example, from a WHITES ONLY perspective thereby ignoring the decades of work from the margins? Doing so, by inference, suggests that even the narrative on the margins is controlled by “Whiteness” and not the oppressed.
At a recent conference for the Society for the Study of Theology (SST), religious scholar Robert Beckford aptly named this “epistemological apartheid.” This is helpful for critiquing the WHITES ONLY approach to knowledge production.
This oversight of a WHITES ONLY knowledge production is often unapologetically offered as thorough scholarship. During the question and answer period of these national conferences or intimate school seminars, many scholars have questioned these oversights. Responses have included, “I realize that’s my bias.” Another, “I was aware that I left those [Black] thinkers out.” And, in the case of the recent seminar, where the speaker demonstrated a religious, epistemological apartheid, the WHITES ONLY framing for the conversation received this response, “I was trying to locate non-religious thinkers for the Political Theology.”
Staying with that seminar presenter, it seems odd that he acknowledged he was influenced by Liberationist Theologians. Yet, he simultaneously ignored their work. His belief that he was able to narrow his research so as to justify ignoring all Black scholarship was baffling. Does he not know that there are Black scholars who have been providing this critique from multiple disciplines? Now, Political Theology is a tool wielded to disengage or ignore the oppressed? This behavior clearly treats non-White scholars as part of that “surplus” within a profit economy as stated by Lorde.
The sociological thinking of Patricia Hill Collins or Charles Mills, the cultural critiques of bell hooks and Carol Anderson – these are all available as viable critiques of populism – with scholarship working in tandem with that of liberationist scholars for decades. In addition, how does one critique Political Theology and ignore the impetus for this movement? To replace “theology” with “moral” does not let one off the hook in terms of engaging those who are centered in these discussions – people of color. Instead, it leads one to evaluate why he didn’t engage with the various ethicists who have made these critiques.
This is only one example of a serious issue in higher education: White Supremacy. The Master’s House cannot stand without White Supremacy. The Master’s Tools include using a WHITES ONLY framework which ignores the knowledge production of Black scholars. It includes using a WHITES ONLY approach to hiring, research funding, promotion and resources required for the core curriculum.
Here’s the thing. The scholars in question believe they can dismantle the epistemological apartheid, the White-centered knowledge production that we currently critique. But they are using a WHITES ONLY approach to do so.
The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house (Lorde, p. 19).
Reading Lorde’s infamous critique in context, she is specifically addressing White feminism which can hold patriarchy in place. Patriarchy and racism work in concert to hold colonial mentalities in place. In this way, Lorde’s observation applies to the current concern regarding epistemology.
Epistemological apartheid creates the very real issue of under-employment and unemployment for Black academics – especially African descended women. Black women carry the highest percentage of student loan debt. We are the least hired but we invest the most in higher education by risking our financial futures.
By continuing to advocate that African descended people are merely receptacles of knowledge and not producers of knowledge, such persons become expendable within Academia. The Religious Academy, therefore, finds itself unable to use the texts of scholars of color in core curriculum, in hiring or in research funding.
These voices are rich and fill an essential gap within Religious Academia. But to be clear, it is even more than this. To steal power from the margins, by providing a WHITES ONLY approach to discourse helps reify the very thing that these “allies” believe they are critiquing. Indeed, a self critique can be terrifying and painful – but it must happen. Most cannot do this adequately. But, by amplifying the voices of those who are most harmed by the WHITES ONLY approach to epistemology, a true critique can occur. Furthermore, this allows us to move away from an epistemological apartheid. It informs our courage to stop assuming that knowledge production is the privileged right of only one group.
Black academics are the tools which dismantle the Master’s House!
Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, New York: The Crossing Press Feminist Series, 1984, p. 115
Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, United Kingdom: Penguin Random House, p. 19
© CL Nash, PhD, 2022