This is part of a series of guest posts and dialogues around the question: How does Whiteness Separate us from God?
WRITTEN BY Bethany McLean Davey
Breathe in, breathe out. Curtain opens. Step onto the stage. Smile into the crowd. Squint into the spotlight. Become the character. Recite the lines. Move in choreographed unison. Wait for the cue. Exit stage left. Enter stage right. Move downstage for the monologue. Pause for dramatic effect. Hurry backstage for the costume change. Final number. Smile big. Smile bigger. Hold the pose. Curtain closes. Curtain re-opens. Join hands. Rush forward. Absorb the applause. Receive the resounding approval. Smile still. Smile longer. Hold it. Exit stage left.
Audience leaves. Cast trickles to the parking lot.
Breathe in, breathe out. Curtain opens.
Everyone is watching, and I am ready to perform. I didn’t have to audition, as this role was handed to me at birth. Whiteness* offers the allure of center stage, if I am willing to do as expected. I am not a creative here, not an imaginative being, but a receptacle for the ingestion and on-demand regurgitation of Whiteness’ promises: here, I can make you something! Here, you will be watched and seen and applauded for and envied and part of something bigger than yourself!
Smile into the crowd. Squint into the spotlight.
I am prepared for my White Lady role, knowing precisely what is expected. The trick is to find oneself in the in-between spaces: be opinionated, but not too opinionated. Take up space, but not too much. Show emotion, but only from the prescribed set Whiteness has deemed acceptable. If I perform as demanded, the show can go on, and how fulfilling it must be to receive the promised accolades, to possess a leading role without an audition!
Become the character. Recite the lines. Move in choreographed unison.
Such a unified production must be rooted in artistry, and I’ve been invited to partake!
Performing provides a certain thrill, the rush that comes with being watched and admired. And yet, though surrounded by people, the stage can be one of the most disconnecting spaces. Whiteness’ script is rigid, and thus, so is the performance. We are actors confined to the limitations of our assigned roles, performing side-by-side and yet disjointed; though onstage with many humans, I have never felt so alone. Whiteness is counting on me to do my part. We are center stage. After all, isn’t everyone watching, enthralled with our every move? We dance to the three-four rhythm of an Old English waltz, knowing our sophistication as surely as we have ever known anything. This must be art.
Wait for the cue. Exit stage left. Enter stage right.
It is clear that improvisation will not be tolerated. Those who err from the script are cast out: deviants, defectors. We are afraid, acting out of our fear. We take no risks, reciting our lines as demanded, with shallow breath and perspiration on our brow. If I can’t be perfect, I should make all efforts to appear perfect; we are told repeatedly to present ourselves as Whiteness has taught us. We were born onto this stage that was constructed by and for us. I suppose I ought to appreciate it.
Why do I feel short of breath?
Move downstage for the monologue. Pause for dramatic effect.
I’ve said too much. Taken too much of the scarce space. I felt more deeply than I ought, and I worry this will not be tolerated, that I will not be tolerated.
In the pause,
No one has noticed. I am still playing the role as expected.
I wait for the right moment, then move once more.
Hurry backstage for the costume change.
I am disconnected from all bodies: my own and others’. Solitude in a multitude is perhaps the most disorienting. I step rigidly about, and I do not feel like myself in a dress too small, in shoes that squeeze my toes together. Whiteness insists that anyone and anything other than the main actors be ignored: they are the set, they are the background,** instructed to move about silently as though invisible. They are to keep the spotlight on center stage, to make us look good. I sense danger and suffering around and within, yet Whiteness orders me to ignore it: the show must go on. I shift just enough to gain approval. I know how I should look, move, speak. It hurts when I bend my body this way, but I will tend to that later. I should fulfill my role.
Final number. Smile big. Smile bigger. Hold the pose.
I am told center stage is the only place to be and so I smile. Smiling this big hurts, but it’s expected so I ignore the pain. I hold my body in place for as long as I can. I feel rigid and tense, my body aches with exhaustion. I anticipate the roar of applause and wait for it to fill me.
Are we done?
The pace of performances is unsustainable.
Join hands. Rush forward. Absorb the applause. Receive the resounding approval.
It’s so loud.
Where’s the joy?
I thought I would feel differently than I do.
Smile still. Smile longer. Exit stage left.
The exhaustion sets in.
Adrenaline slips away.
We each played our part—is this something to celebrate?
The show is all there is, and no more: nothing before, nothing after.
Cast trickles to the parking lot.
No celebration after all.
This isn’t what was promised.
Lights out. Doors lock.
I’m cold. The hollow sterility of the darkened theater engulfs me. The theater doors clang shut and I am desperately alone, severed from the depths of myself, from relational connection, from creative potentiality, from the divine.
A scream roars from deep within me, echoing through the rows of empty seats as if attempting its own escape. I touch my face, wet with tears. This pain isn’t scripted. This pain isn’t allowed.
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
I tear down the aisle—barefoot, hair loose—and throw the weight of my body against the door. Will it give? I didn’t know I was trapped inside this theater, unable to access the life that lies beyond its doors.
But wait. A sound from the back of the theater. It sounds like a melody. This can’t be right. I thought I was alone, I thought the show was over.
I move slowly toward the hypnotic rhythm, noticing a drum, deep and resonant.
Voices! Syncopated, harmonious, fluid and free.
It sounds like joy.
I inch closer still.
Am I allowed here?
I see what moments ago I had only sensed: the theater is teeming with life, movement. Even the stage is alive! The set is in motion, stagehands and actors—some from the earlier show and some I have never before seen—dance among the scene, hammers and drills undoing the set as the set undoes itself. The stage deconstructed in song.
I creep closer.
I hear laughter.
It’s warm here, surrounding me.
I feel held.
Is that my great grandmother? A wink from her and she returns to her work, sawing beams that once held the stage.
Eyes and souls connect as the stage is broken down, bit by bit.
May I join?
The air here is fresh, flowing. A window opens and then a door. Earth’s dewy sunlight seeps into crevices long cast in shadow.
Someone sees me. They seem to realize that I was just in the evening’s performance.
I am beckoned forth, invited in. The song swells around me, the drum’s beat vibrates through my body and I am compelled to move, to release, to exhale.
I am not alone.
I am surrounded.
We are not alone.
We are surrounded.
I can breathe here. I can be known and know, I can love and be loved.
What is this space, being both deconstructed and constructed anew?
In joyful and interwoven collaboration, we improvise in co-creating this new thing that is becoming.
Do I accept?
This is where the life is.
Breathe in, breathe out.
*I intentionally capitalized “Whiteness” in this portion of the piece to signify that whiteness is acting as its own character, a force in and to itself. I wanted to play with personifying whiteness, and capitalizing in this instance felt most resonant. The same is true for White Lady, as I wanted to represent a set of racialized patterns in common for many white femmes as both a characterization and overarching idea.
**I was introduced to the concept of “backgrounding” through the work of ecofeminist Val Plumwood, who described it as integral to the dualism of colonialism: those/that perceived as the “center” regard those/that perceived as “other” as part of the background to hegemonic power. This “hyper-separation” serves the perpetuation of dualistic, domination-of-“other” relationships and denies the existence of interdependence among individuals and groups (Val, Plumwood, “Decolonisation Relationships with Nature,” PAN: Philosophy Activism Nature, no. 2, 2002: 10, 12).
My initial attempts at this post were “academic.” This is understandable, as I am in my second year of a Master of Divinity program. However, as I began incorporating Plumwood’s notion of backgrounding, I remembered how it initially struck me as the paradigm through which I have understood my life, as though I am center stage, and all else (initially, this thought journey regarded the Earth) is my set, my backdrop, merely a support to Centered Me. This led me to consider the ways that whiteness functions as a hyper-separating stage performance, with a specific script and expectations of rigid compliance for those centered and those backgrounded. This piece became an attempt to convey how whiteness feels in my body—both as an isolating force from which I need to be freed, and as an identity that has nothing to offer until I begin to deconstruct it. I don’t want to perform my White Lady role. I want to go off-script with others who are doing the same: I want to co-create something new.
Whiteness demands that I sever from the deepest parts of myself: my emotions, my fullness and bigness and fury at the collectively-felt impact of injustice. Whiteness demands that I sever from all it considers “other.” Whiteness demands I disconnect from all within and around me, leaving me isolated from the divinity and vibrancy of existence.
I refuse to sever.
The show must not go on.