The ‘C’ Word: What We’re Missing When We Talk About ‘White Privilege’

Publicity photo of Tony Dow and Jerry Mathers from the television program Leave it to Beaver. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Author, scholar and activist Khyati Y. Joshi has been one of the seminal voices on race and religion. Ever since her groundbreaking New Roots in America’s New Sacred Ground nearly 15 years ago, Joshi has been at the forefront of how religion and religious communities are racialized, and how such racializations have embedded Christian supremacy. 

As we near an election that could have longstanding ramifications for America’s racial and religious landscape, Joshi’s new book White Christian Privilege: The Illusion of Religious Equality in America takes a blowtorch to the long-held idea that all Americans have equal access to religious freedom and shows how White Christian privilege subordinates religious and racial minority groups. She took some time to discuss the book with RD contributor Murali Balaji.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Thank you, Khyati for joining us at Religion Dispatches. One of the main things to emerge from the anti-racism field is the idea of white privilege. What made you take things a step further to address the issue of white Christian privilege?

I’ve seen the growing literature coming out on whiteness over the last decade and a half—actually probably now two decades—and I always thought that there was an element missing. That the religion element wasn’t getting highlighted. I mean, there’s so many instances in U.S. history, whether we’re talking Native Americans and the Civilization Act of 1819, or immigration law, or even when we’re talking about people who are enslaved, religion is an element of that story. And when everyone started focusing on whiteness, I was like, well, there’s the historically Protestant piece and the more present day Christian piece to it

It’s also personal for me. As a racial and religious minority, I’ve been discriminated against and ostracized because of both. I could see white privilege, but I could also see Christian privilege, and then sometimes I’m seeing white Christian privilege. So it’s both a personal and professional project for me, for sure.

You write that white Christian privilege requires an understanding of the symbiosis between race and religion, and that Christian privilege and Christian normativity are part of the larger construct of white Christian supremacy. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Well we focus on white supremacy when we’re looking at race, but it’s really beyond my understanding how we don’t notice the Christian element. I mean let’s be clear: the Klan’s not burning poles, it’s burning crosses, right? White Christian men aren’t shooting up shopping centers; they’re shooting up Black churches, gurdwaras, and synagogues, right? Historically it wasn’t teachers going out to convert and beat the Indian out of the Indian child. It was missionaries, right? So we’ve got to see how Christianity was just made normative. Christianity even today is synonymous with being American and we have to be able to tease those terms apart.

Can you talk about how the focus of your work has evolved from racial and religious minorities to White Christian America? 

Well, I started out wanting to focus on the experience of the oppressed, starting from my experiences. I wanted to be able to name those, articulate those, tell the stories of other people; that’s why I collected my data on 2nd generation Indian Americans. And that’s often where racial minorities will place their emphasis when they’re starting to first learn about discrimination and racism in our country. 

So even I started with, you know, I had a chapter in that book on religious oppression where I talked about Christian privilege. I was talking about Christian privilege from the time of my dissertation in the late 90s. However, you start learning more and more, you start connecting the dots, right, so then I learned much more about Asian American history, I learned much more about Latino history and much more about African American history than I ever learned [before]. 

And you start saying wait a minute, there’s a common denominator here. And in order to really get to social justice, we’re going to have to see how all of these groups are impacted by the dominant groupin this case White Christians. It was an evolution over time where my focus shifted from focusing on racial and religious minorities to focusing on White Christian America. If we’re going to really make change in this country and rethink the way we do things, we’ve got to focus on the majority. 

It’s like when people talk about racism, you’ll hear the phrase “disadvantaged groups,” and we know what “disadvantaged groups” means,  and sometimes people use that language when they don’t want to say “Black people.” They’ll say “disadvantaged groups.” But the thing is if there’s a disadvantaged group there’s an advantaged group. But we don’t talk about it that way, right, and that’s where we do get the concept of privilegeand if we’re talking about race, white privilegeand we have to focus on that, we have to focus on the Christian privilege because that’s what’s been embedded into our laws and public policies. 

And that’s what this book has really been about for me, is highlighting that which is there and making the invisible structures visible. That’s a big big part of this book. So it’s absolutely an evolution and I think that we’ve got to see the majorities in this country taking a good hard look at their own communities and all of us seeing how whiteness and Christianity has been embedded into history, and even current day, and we have to do that in order to move forward.

When we talk about Christian normativity and education how have Others—Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam, and traditional animist and indigenous cultures—been framed in the U.S. education system? Is this othering so institutionalized that it’s impossible to change that orientation?

It is very institutionalized and it’s going to take a lot of work because these religions in their own ways are completely Orientalized and we have to acknowledge that our schools are not religion neutral. Our starting point is White Christian supremacy. When I walk into a school and a building principal says to me, “Oh, we really don’t deal with religion, no we’re just not going to have it.” I’m like “No, it’s here, religion is in your building.” You know, can we work on bringing in other religions in an authentic way? Can we bring in secular humanists, atheists, agnostics in an authentic way? The answer has never been about taking religion out. It is always about how we can bring it in because that’s reality, that’s the reality of our lives and in our country.

What do you see as the reason we’ve become so regressive when it comes to our racial and religious politics? It seems like we were coming to a moment where there were some opportunities to move away from white Christian normativity and then we’ve, it’s almost like we’ve literally been bounced back. What do you think are the forces behind that?

Well I think that there’s, you know, there’s always been this latent fear and anxiety about the growing racial and religious diversity in this country and we know that in the 2016 election the current president tapped it. He tapped it right, and let it loose. And we see that there’s a big following. In my world of course he’s a problem, but so are his, you know, 35% of the people [in this country] who believe in him and want to see him with a second term, and of course that number fluctuates. 

So I think that he’s able to galvanize support by reminding people of a time that actually didn’t exist in our country. But they’ve romanticized the 1940s and 50s and, you know, it’s as if there weren’t people of color here during that time. 

When you look at Leave it to Beaver and when you look at some of the other shows that are indicative of that time period and what it means to use the phrase “Make America Great Again,” it was about going back to the 40s and 50s of our country. This was also a time where our doors to immigration were effectively shut. Black folks did not have civil rights. We’re still fighting for civil rights, and so to say that’s what we want our country to go back to is telling and it’s very appealing to many, many people because our numbers are growing. 

You’re a woman of color and a Hindu who has written eloquently both in scholarship and in mainstream media about white Christian privilege, race and religion, and yet it seems as if these issues are only spotlighted when someone who might be white and Christian highlights them. Can you talk about what that’s been like for you to have your track record, you know, kind of get diminished when someone just puts it out there and happens to be a white Christian man?

It reminds us at every turn of who we are. Whether it’s because of the way we look, our hair, our skin color, our names, you know, [all] are obstacles to be overcome and it’s frustrating to see how white Christian privilege is playing out—even in getting the word out about the book. 

I mean the other piece that’s related to this is even the way journalists have covered issues around religion. Ever since Trump walked to St. Johns’ and waved that Bible, most news stories and commentary focused on what white evangelical America is saying. Well guess what? Only 40% of this country identifies as Christian in some way, shape, or form, and only a portion of those Christians identify as evangelical. So why won’t journalists pay attention to the other 60% of folks who identify as unaffiliated, and those of us who are Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Baha’i? Journalists are further perpetuating this white Christian normativity and privilege.

What will it mean for our politics and our society if the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant and an Indian American Hindu immigrant gets elected as our vice-president?

Choosing Senator Kamala Harris has stirred up excitement in many different communities across our nation. I am excited about the conversations that hopefully will occur, not just because Harris has Indian and Hindu family members and has been exposed to this culture and religion, but also because of what it says about biracial, multiracial America. 

President Obama’s biracial heritage has helped pave the way but Senator Harris has a different type of biracial identity. President Obama had one immigrant parent, and in Senator Harris’ case, both her parents are immigrants. I think it will really be exciting to see how we’re going to be able to have more complex and nuanced discussions about race—and religion—in our country, which we absolutely need to do.