Dyson: ‘whiteness has become a religion’

While every lecture at Chautauqua  Institution brings something new, Interfaith Lecturer Michael Eric Dyson is the first — to rap while at the lectern.

Dyson is a professor of sociology at Georgetown University and a noted author, scholar and radio presence. Delivering his lecture from the Hall of Philosophy on Friday, Dyson closed out the week’s theme of “Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion and Violence,” with his lecture, “The Terror That Religion Battles, The Terror That Religion Brings.”

While he discussed religion, Dyson referred to a denomination that most in attendance did not see coming: whiteness.

“Whiteness is a crucible of race imposed upon ethnic experience,” Dyson said. “Whiteness is a politically useful identity that exempts people from certain forms of scrutiny and suspicion. Whiteness is a religion adhered to by people who have been seduced by the genealogy of contaminable race.”

Humans are attracted to religions for its ability to answer life’s unanswerable questions and to not feel isolated and alone in the universe, Dyson said. Especially within communities of color, people seek religion to find solace amid issues of slavery, segregation, disenfranchisement and societal abandonment of people of color.

It was then he rapped a verse from Tupac’s song “Still I Rise,” the title of which refers to Maya Angelou’s third volume of poetry.

“Not to disrespect my peoples but my poppa was a loser,” Dyson rapped. “The only plan he had for momma was to blank [Dyson omitted the expletive] her and abuse her. Even as a little seed, I could see his plan for me, stranded on welfare, another broken family.”

While these issues drew people into religion, Dyson said, whiteness has become its own religion that centralizes around marginalization, disrespect and violence toward people of color.

“So we have to challenge that,” Dyson said. “If religion is the source of relief from terror, it must not now become the means by which that terror becomes articulate in the modern world.”

One of the most persistent ways that this religious terror has manifested itself is in the form of violence against blacks from both legal and nonlegal forces. He specifically cited the recent case of Sandra Bland, who was stopped for changing lanes without using a turn signal in Texas and was then jailed for the offense. She was later found dead in her cell.

“You say my words are too extreme, but look at the stream of deaths,” Dyson said. “Look at the stream of deaths that have washed over this country since the rise of a black president.”

With the violence against black people, Dyson said, there is also a privilege of being white that leads to complacency in the status quo, despite the subhuman treatment of people of color in society today.

“The ultimate form of white privilege is to reach into your pocket in front of a policeperson and not being murdered [under the assumption] that it’s a gun,” Dyson said. “That is the ultimate white privilege. Not to be assumed to be a criminal; a thug; a miscreant; a morally misled, effortlessly contaminated human being.”

In closing, Dyson argued strongly against passivity. He said people of genuine religion cannot sit back and do nothing and call themselves good, religious folk. He said bystanders cannot be let off the hook by way of ignorance, apathy or disregard.

“We in America, with the terror that the religion of race brings, worshipping in the houses of ethnicity that obscure our ability to tell the truth about race and culture and justice in America … must appeal to our religious upbringings and traditions to fight back actual terror, to unmask the privileges of whiteness, to ask how it is that black deaths become ritualized in the civic policy of a country with a black president, and police brutality and profiling at an all-time high,” Dyson said.