Thursday, December 12, 2013

Was Jesus White?

The intertubes exploded today after Megyn Kelly on Fox News described both Santa Claus and Jesus as White, saying that their race was just a historical fact, so Santa Claus shouldn't be shown as Black. 

I'm no expert on mythical, commercialized holiday figures (although I have it on good authority that the Easter Bunny is a particularly fine specimen of Oryctolagus cunniculus), but I do know something about Jesus and race, so I wanted to put an anthropological perspective on this whole question.

The question "Was Jesus White?" would have been meaningless to His followers.
First of all, if you'll forgive a spiritual aside, the question would be meaningless because Jesus was God. Although He took on human form and mortality for our sake, His apostles and the founders of the Church made it very clear that Jesus was not defined by His physical shape, nor were His followers. As St. Paul said in his letter to the Galatians (3:28) "There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither slave nor freeman, there can be neither male nor female -- for you are all one in Christ Jesus". 

St. Paul's list is instructive. He gives us three important categorical differences: male vs. female, slave vs. free, and Jew vs. Greek. Note he didn't say: White vs. Black. (Slavery, at the time of Jesus, was not race-based, so the reference to slave vs. free had nothing to do with skin color.) St. Paul didn't ignore skin color because he had never seen variation in human appearance. The Roman Empire spanned the entire Mediterranean and much of Europe. It was in close contact with powerful empires in East Africa and west Asia. St. Paul would have been familiar with people of many different hues, facial structures, and hair types. But people of his time did not categorize people on that basis. Cultural and religious differences were how they put people into boxes (Jew vs. Greek), regardless of skin color. 

What we think of as racial categories are just one arbitrary way of taking the reality of human physical differences and adding convenient labels. We do this all the time, not just to humans. For example, time is a reality. But when we divide a day into a specific number of hours, and the hours into minutes, we're creating arbitrary labels for our own convenience. Those categories are not inevitable or inherent: we could have chosen a different number of hours in each day, or minutes in each hour.

Like time, physical differences between people are real. But how we divide those differences, like hours, is arbitrary. In the modern US, we use a combination of skin color and facial features to divide people into categories that we call Black, White, Asian, etc. But other societies use different physical and cultural traits to divide people into totally different racial groups. In other words, what racial groups you believe exist - and what racial category you would put a person in - depends on your society's definition of race. In the Middle East of Jesus's day, the categories of Black and White weren't recognized or used. (They weren't even used in the early years of European colonization of the United States, in fact. Our modern ideas about race didn't develop until slavery became a race-based institution in the 1700s.)

So if you could ask St. Paul "What race was Jesus?", his answer would probably be "Jew". But if you responded, "No, no, I mean, was Jesus White?", he probably would just scratch his head and look confused.

OK, OK, so people at that time didn't say "White" and "Black", but if Jesus was alive in the U.S. today, would he be considered a White man?
Maybe. We don't actually know what Jesus looked like, and there were people from all over Europe, North and East Africa, and western Asia in the Middle East at the time. However, our best bet is that Jesus was physically similar to the Semitic peoples of the Middle East today (Hebrews and Arabs). In other words, it is very unlikely that he looked like the blue-eyed, honey-haired Jesus of my children's illustrated Bible. Instead, he was likely somewhat olive- or swarthy-skinned, with brown or black hair, and brown, black, or greenish eyes. If you use old racial categories, and divide the whole world into three groups (Caucasoid, African, and Mongoloid), then the Semitic peoples are Caucasoid. That is, they look like the people of Europe, much of the Mediterranean, and western Asia. To the extent that Caucasoid = White, that would make Jesus White.

But Caucasoid doesn't necessarily mean the same thing as White, especially for Semitic peoples in the U.S. In the early 1900's, immigrants from what was then the Ottoman Empire were classified by the U.S. Census and immigration officials as "Syrians". The U.S. Government had to decide whether people from this area were White (and therefore eligible for citizenship under the immigration laws of the time) or Asian (and therefore not eligible for citizenship). Although the Middle East is, after all, in the western part of the continent of Asia, it's not a surprise that these southwest Asian immigrants petitioned to be classified as "White", and thereby be allowed to stay in the country. (For the whole story, check out this interesting article by the Arab-American Institute).

So, for specific historical and political reasons, Semitic peoples in the U.S. are considered, for Census purposes, to be White. However, that category denies some pretty important differences in the life experiences of many people from Semitic backgrounds. In fact, there is an on-going campaign to convince people of Arab, Persian, and other Middle-Eastern backgrounds to write in their ethnicity in the Census questionnaire, instead of checking White. Many people with backgrounds similar to that of Jesus feel that they are not White, since that category, in the US, is associated with people whose cultural and physical features are not stigmatized or the target of systematic bias. The fact that the phrase "flying while Arab" has entered our vocabulary suggests that people of visible Middle-Eastern background do not have the same privileges as people from Northern European backgrounds. In other words, if Jesus were alive and in the U.S. today, He could check the "White" box on the census, but He might do well to avoid TSA checkpoints.

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