After Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, educator Jane Elliot held an experiment with her elementary school students that she called “Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes.” The experiment became famous, and she repeated it for various audiences for years, often including one particular key moment where she asked the White participants in the audience to stand if they wanted to be treated the same way that Black people were. When no one stood, she forcefully pointed out the hypocrisy of passivity in the face of racism, for, she explained, everyone knew exactly how Black people were being treated, and didn’t want to be treated the same way themselves.
This moment has received attention in recent years as something of a culture war hot-take, but I’m not sure how well it would work today. Would some White people stand because of a belief that affirmative action benefits Black people more than White people? Would some White people stand because of an appreciation of, or fascination with, Black culture? Would some perhaps even stand because, if they were completely honest, part of them would like to be Black?
There is a long history of White people imitating Black people in minstrelsy, which reveals both a fascination and condescension in how many White people have historically related to Blackness. That White people make up the majority of consumers of hip hop music today, and that Black people have significant fame as entertainers without sacrificing their identity, reveals that while some of the condescension may have waned, much of the fascination remains.
Two stories from last September — that of Jessica Krug and Satchuel Cole — are intriguing illustrations of that fascination. Cole was a well-known social justice activist in Indianapolis who is White, but until recently pretended to be biracial. Krug was an associate professor at George Washington University who, for years, identified as Black when in fact she was White, and was from the suburbs of Kansas City. She wrote, taught, and spoke publicly about Black history and culture, even using the N-word in her classes at times, but in September chose to confess her lies in a Medium post, calling herself a “coward” and a “culture leech.”
Both stories are similar to that of Rachel Dolezal, and as with Dolezal, childhood trauma may have played a part in Krug’s and Cole’s facades. Certainly, a powerful motivation is required for educated women to live such lies in a world where social media can expose and shame with speed and force. But trauma only explains the extreme lengths to which these women went in their lies. It does not explain why they were drawn to Black identity in the first place. Likewise, it may appear that these women were drawn to inhabit Black identity because being Black affords a different level of power and recognition in the realms of academia and social justice advocacy. But this explanation only goes so far; we still must ask why the predominantly White world of American academia has come to view and value Black identity as it does.
The stories of Dolezal, Krug and Cole are relatively rare, but those stories, along with the controversy surrounding Hilaria Baldwin’s accent in December of 2020, and the questions about Princeton’s incoming freshman class, press us to dig deeper into why White people would go to varying lengths, sometimes extreme lengths, to assimilate into Black culture. Whether it’s getting cornrows or appropriating Black phraseology (“_______ be like…”) or fully inhabiting a Black identity, considering the relationship between White people and Black identity today is worth some attention for what it reveals about how White identity plays in the minds of many White people today.
The Biblical and Historical Context of Assimilation
Cultural assimilation is a topic with a lengthy historical and biblical context, and it is a context that can help us thoughtfully process the Black/White cultural assimilation that we see today.
On the one hand, Scripture shows that assimilation can be fraught with trouble: Paul, in Romans, rebukes the cultural pressure cloaked in theological language exerted by Gentile believers on Jewish counterparts in Rome (Rom. 14:1-15:13). Similarly, many Jews, along with the circumcision party in Galatia, were pressuring the Gentile believers “to live like Jews” (Gal. 2:14).
Such forced assimilation is distinctly out of step with the gospel. But that doesn’t mean that assimilation is always unbiblical in every way. Discipleship, for instance, is a form of assimilation towards Christlikeness, albeit spiritual, not cultural: “We all, with unveiled faces, are looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory; this is from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18).
Furthermore, Paul himself engaged in a kind of assimilation that today might be called ‘code-switching,’ where he purposefully and thoughtfully assimilated among various peoples for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:19-23). And Hellenist Jews had partially assimilated into Greek culture, and the Apostles did not keep them out of significant roles for it (Acts 6:1-6). Stephen and Philip, in particular, were Hellenist Jews used powerfully by God, and arguably, their Hellenistic leanings equipped them to serve as effectively as they did. The history of Israel, of course, was proof that cultural assimilation could easily lead to spiritual infidelity, but Scripture does not condemn all cultural assimilation outright.
The biblical witness does show that cultural assimilation is an issue that Christians must thoughtfully navigate no matter where or when they live, and it demonstrates that we are prone to veil our cultural preferences with spiritual concepts. So when we turn to the colonial era, it should be no surprise to see European colonizers doing precisely that:
All the injury that we purpose unto [Indigenous peoples] is but the amendment of these horrible heathenismes, and the reduction of them to the aforesaid manly duties, and the knowledge… of that God who must save both them and us 1
Wild as they are, accept them, so were we To make them civill, will our honour bee 2
It’s also evident from the context of Romans and Galatians that cultural power is the primary precursor for, and direction towards which, cultural assimilation typically moves. This may be localized, like the situation in Galatia, or it may be broader, as with the Hellenizing influence wrought by Greek and then Roman dominance over Israel. In the case of American history, Whiteness has exerted dominant influence in American culture for centuries, and it was towards White cultural norms that White people wanted Black people to change:
As the negro becomes more intelligent… his observation and experience both show him that his interests are identified with those of the white race here (Wade Hampton, South Carolina Governor, 1879).
Moving towards an inhabiting of White identity through meeting White cultural norms was also the direction that some African Americans thought they needed:
Completely “stripped of his cultural heritage,” the slave became a brute, Frazier argued. The slave’s emergence “as a human being was facilitated by his assimilation” of his master’s culture. And now, Black “assimilation of … the more formal aspects of white civilization” is on going in urban areas, Frazier concluded. “Intermarriage in the future will bring about a fundamental type of assimilation.”3
This was not a perspective shared by all African Americans. Langston Hughes strongly opposed the assimilation of Black people into Whiteness:
[I]t is the duty of the younger Negro artist, if he accepts any duties at all from outsiders, to change through the force of his art that old whispering “I want to be white,” hidden in the aspirations of his people, to “Why should I want to be white? I am a Negro–and beautiful”?4
Historically then, assimilation in the American context included the forced assimilation of Black people into Whiteness, and some willing assimilation of Black people into Whiteness. For centuries, assimilation was unidirectional: it did not include the movement of White people towards Black identity, which was unthinkable to many and was a reality enforced by Jim Crow laws.
Changes From the Civil Rights Movement
But the Civil Rights Movement was a significant turning point in the history of assimilation in America. Jim Crow was being overturned, racism was increasingly viewed as shameful and regressive, and segregation was more broadly accepted as a distinct marker of racism. Martin Luther King Jr., particularly after his death, was increasingly venerated in the popular imagination as a hero, and colorblindness was more and more embraced as standard moral thinking.
One of the unintended consequences, however, of accepting colorblindness as a marker of morality, is that the act of publicly identifying as White became problematic. If people are not supposed to see color, and if acknowledging color is evidence of deficient biblical ethics, then White people could not openly and proudly identify as White. This self-imposed paradox implied hypocrisy on the part of White people, who, to various degrees, may well have avoided openly acknowledging Whiteness but quite obviously never managed to unassumingly join Black churches or unwittingly move into Black neighborhoods.
This context has meant that a significant amount of White supremacy’s cultural power was broken during and after the Civil Rights Movement. Expressions of White pride became unacceptable and sometimes shameful in broader American culture. Efforts to express White pride had to be veiled to sound legitimate, and even then, could easily fail to do so.
In contrast, expressions of Black pride are not broadly viewed as shameful. This might be explained by the fact that Black pride is not the equal opposite of White pride; Black pride is often an expression of joy at the redemptive arc of overcoming centuries of oppression.
Take, for instance, a Black friend who recently posted a photo of her family on social media, with the statement, “This is what they tried to destroy/” It was reminiscent of the popular phrase, “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams,” powerfully embodied by Tulane University Med students in 2019.
Such assertions proclaim truth. The Black family was systematically assaulted for centuries in America. And there can be little doubt that African American ancestors from the 1700s or 1800s would be stunned and overjoyed by the freedoms and achievements of their descendants. But more significantly, such proclamations are also distinctly Black, and beyond the reach, so to speak, of most White people. Which points back to the question: What might we learn about the varying degrees to which some White people desire to assimilate into Blackness?
The Illegitimacy of Whiteness
White people cannot say, as a default, that we are our ancestor’s wildest dreams. Nor can most of us say that our families were being systematically destroyed in the past. But we might be able to say similar things if we are well connected to our ethnic background; Irish and Italian immigrants, for example, were frequently persecuted and have their own arc of overcoming oppression.
But another problem then arises: our ancestors, particularly those who emigrated to America in centuries past, often wanted to become White, and they often overcame oppression not simply by working hard but also by assimilating into Whiteness, sacrificing their history and cultural distinctiveness in order to disappear within the dominant American caste.
A few years ago, my family learned with some surprise through a DNA test that we have a Jewish ancestor on my father’s side. One of my great-great-grandmothers was a Jewish woman living in New York City in the 1800s. At some point, she gave up practicing Judaism, married a non-Jewish man, and stopped telling people about her background.
I don’t condemn her for making those choices. Just as the Hellenist Jews were not condemned for their cultural assimilation, so White people cannot categorically condemn our ancestors for doing the same. Dominant cultures exert powerful influence, and assimilation typically affords some level of freedom from oppression. Assimilating by choice is not automatically wrong.
But in seeking to be viewed as White, our ancestors were giving up their unique and beautiful connection to a distinct geography and a distinct culture, to take on an identity that is too ethereal for ancestral lines and too abstract for geographic boundaries, and is thus without a legitimate culture. This is the wound that Wendell Berry was talking about in his book, The Hidden Wound:
If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound into himself. 5
White culture cannot be viewed as legitimate as long as White identity is constructed in the minds of White people in such a way that we avoid talking about it. Colorblindness is the fruit of socially, legally, and even theologically constructing Whiteness to be distended from geography and family lines; such construction made colonization and racial supremacy easier, but it also made human bonding and relational connection harder. Whiteness was, in its inception, created for the sake of supremacy, which perhaps explains the popularity of colorblindness. And colorblindness, functioning as a veil over the consequences of racism, only maintains the remove between White people and legitimate cultural heritage.
Then what of Black identity? Is Blackness not disconnected from ethnicity as well, albeit a forced rather than chosen disconnect? It’s true that part of the plundering and destruction of African people included the elimination of African ethnic identities. But the culture of African Americans is the product of familial unity and togetherness in the face of oppression, which is legitimately unifying and deracializing, in that it recognizes embodiment through ancestry and common culture, and it does not enforce purity and dominance according to skin tone (as the one-drop rule did for White identity). Black people have not rejected their connection to Africa, despite the early attempts of enslavers, and their unity was not founded on and maintained by the immorality of racial dominance.
White people, of course, do have a type of culture. It’s an amalgam of legitimate elements from various European cultures, hamstrung and disconnected, appropriated and reappropriated in different ways, often — intentionally or unintentionally — serving to maintain White cultural dominance. Giving up ethnic identities disrupted connections to healthy ancestral dignity, and has made us, to one degree or another, culture leeches. It should be no surprise, then, that some White people today consider assimilating into Black culture appealing. The curious cases of Rachel Dolezal, Jessica Krug and Satchuel Cole are, in the end, not as surprising as they may have first seemed.
What I’m arguing here should not at all be taken as a condemnation of White people; my argument is that we, along with our ancestors, have already declared a condemnation over legitimate ethnic backgrounds and we have left ourselves much the lesser for it. But I can understand and sympathize if what I’ve said sounds condemning, for I likely would have thought the same in years past. Andrew Wilson is right to point out that much cultural dialogue today would have made little or no sense to us even ten years ago. God is abounding in mercy and patience, a graciousness that we do not often find in our culture today, but which is real and available to all of us.
My prayer is that we would see God’s grace as extending to, and guiding us through, the anthropological mess we find ourselves in. This was the desire of Berry:
I want to know, as fully and exactly as I can, what the wound is and how much I am suffering from it. And I want to be cured; I want to be free of the wound myself, and I do not want to pass it on to my children. Perhaps this is only wishful thinking; perhaps such a thing is not to be done by one man… And so maybe I am really saying only that I feel an obligation to make the attempt, and that I know if I fail to make at least the attempt I forfeit any right to hope that the world will become better than it is now 6
Rightly understanding social constructs and reconnecting with ethnic identities lost and buried under multiple generations may seem like an impossible task. Doing so in our bitterly divided world feels borderline comical. But what other direction is there which is rightly bound by biblical anthropology, biblical ethics, and allows for the flourishing of unity in diversity?