Escaping Whiteness: Egypt as Whiteness

Vintage engraving of Ancient Egyptians building a Pyramid

by Paul Alexander

Part 2 of 8

It is well known that Israel’s exodus from Egypt is a central story for liberation movements, and it could be a way for people who have been raced by Whiteness as White to “inhabit the world beyond the theological problem of whiteness.”[1] I am inspired by African American biblical hermeneutics and the lyrics of slave spirituals that underline the resonances of exodus within enslaved Africans’ hearts and their hermeneutical freedom to identify the Egypt land with the US south.[2]

When Israel was in Egypt’s land: Let my people go,
Oppress’d so hard they could not stand, Let my people go.
Go down, Moses,
Way down in Egypt’s land,
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go.

– “Go Down, Moses”

While most liberation theologies have used the exit-from-Egypt narrative for liberatory purposes by identifying with the oppressed in Egypt, I shift methodologically and ‘identify’ with the Egyptian power structures as those who were socialized to perform as ones raced for privilege.[3] I offer a liberation reading of the Exodus as one raced by Whiteness as White. While I hope that this reading resonates with and can be liberatory for those raced by Whiteness in Othered ways, my intention is to struggle with this story as a person raced for privilege and oppression who seeks to resist and exit that racing and “spacing.”[4]

I read Egypt as the construct of Whiteness, the systems and structures of White Supremacy and oppression. Whiteness is an all-encompassing eschatological and teleological vision that defines all people through its gaze; it is a soteriological hope that seeks to save all people either through their becoming White or through their annihilation. Where in the Exodus story is the oppressor who ceases oppressing? Where are the Egyptians who change, who transform, who as disoriented and then reoriented become in solidarity with the oppressed? Where are the bodies raced as White that exit Whiteness? Can people who have been raced as White exit Whiteness? If so, how? Who are the raced-as-White people (read ‘privileged’) in this story and do any of them ever get out of Whiteness alive?[5]

Paul Alexander is the director of the Sider Center and professor of social ethics and public policy at Palmer Seminary. This is part 2 of an 8-part series on “Escaping Whiteness.” See part one.

Notes:

[1] J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 379.

[2] This includes African American pentecostals such as William Seymour, Charles Harrison Mason, and Robert Lawson.

[3] An example of the racings of Whiteness is the fact that for census purposes in the United States of America, “White” includes people “originally from North Africa and the Middle East.” I am consciously employing the metaphor of Egypt and Egyptian power structures as Whiteness, even though a colleague pointed out that most Egyptians and people of Egyptian descent are generally darker skinned than most ‘people of northern European descent’ (that is, the lighter-skin-toned folk who created the construct of “Whiteness”), and this reading could be seen as a hegemonic move on my part. But I resist that essentializing of skin tone as I employ a methodology used by liberation theologians, but I do so from a different social location.

[4] By “spacing” I refer to Vine Deloria’s argument that ‘White’ culture is temporal focused while First Nations are spatial. God Is Red: A Native View of Religion (New York: Putnam, 1973). Also Tinker, American Indian Liberation.

[5] Sigmund Freud argued that Moses was an Egyptian. Der Mann Moses und die Monotheistische Religion (1937), republished as Moses and Monotheism (New York: Random House, 1955).

 

 

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