When God Sends You a White Mother-In-Law

On August 8, a conservative evangelical council called The Gospel Coalition published an article titled, “When God Sends Your White Daughter a Black Husband.” It was written by a nurse named Gaye Clark whose daughter, Anna married a man named Glenn. The systemic racism that this article points to–and the fact that a Christian organization like The Gospel Coalition would find these views mainstream enough to publish the article–are terrifying.

As they say on their website, The Gospel Coalition—a conservative council with ties to the Reformed tradition—tries to encourage and educate “current and next-generation Christian leaders by advocating gospel-centered principles and practices that glorify the Savior” so they can “speak and live for him in a way that clearly communicates to our age.” A 2014 child abuse scandal rocked the organization, but they have continued to be the leaders in and peddlers of a particular kind of conservative Christian viewpoint. Even a year ago, before Trump’s candidacy revealed the underbelly of white supremacy still seething in America, it might have been easy to dismiss The Gospel Coalition’s publication of Clark’s article. But as we try to have conversations that enact real change about racial injustice in 2016, understanding the viewpoint of the audience of this article seems particularly crucial.

These are the conservative evangelicals Trump is trying to woo.

The article provides insight into a predominantly white subculture for whom interracial marriage is a fraught and difficult concept. Clark gives a brief history of the 1967 Loving v. Virginia trial in language that shows that the information might be new to many of the readers. She describes family members who have “fears, concerns, and objections” (but advocates for not calling “Uncle Fred a bigot” since that “dehumanizes him”—God forbid we dehumanize Uncle Fred!). She notes that “several people” asked Anna and Glenn which “world” they will live in, “black or white,” which she finds problematic not because these are set up as two mutually exclusive worlds, but because “interracial marriage in Christ” is about “unwavering allegiance to the one true God.” As she writes, it is clear that Clark considers herself to be moving, and leading her audience towards, a place of greater acceptance and racial awareness. However, the gaps between her level of awareness and actual consciousness—being woke—demonstrate the acceptable benevolent racism in many corners of the Christian world.

Throughout her article, Clark describes her son-in-law Glenn in ways that figure him as less than ideal, even though that seems to the opposite of her intent. She thought she was “open-minded” when she prayed for her daughter to marry a man who was “godly, kind, a great dad, and a good provider.” She names the ideal of that type of man: “a college football quarterback who loved puppies, majored in nuclear rocket science, and wanted to take his expertise to the mission field.” But, as she puts it, “God called my bluff” by bringing her a man that she sets up as the opposite of that ideal man: an “African American with dreads named Glenn.” The paragraph in which she describes Glenn relies on a level of surprise that he is “on his way to being a great dad and good provider” by listing his accomplishments, including opening doors, “even at the grocery store.” (In addition to Othering her new son-in-law’s body, she also names his place of employment online, which seems spectacularly uncool. Seriously, Glenn, the entire internet feels for you right now.)

Clark makes her intended audience clear in a number of places: she is writing to “the parent like me who never envisioned her daughter in an interracial marriage.” She also helpfully provides eight tips to remember when “your white daughter brings a black man home for dinner.” (Batten down the hatches, everyone, they’re COMING FOR DINNER!) She appeals to this audience by saying that thought “I never shared this prejudice, I never expected the issue to enter my life”—the ‘issue’ being her new son-in-law, Glenn, who at this point is probably ready to quit his job, cut his well-documented hair, and run for the hills. Clark’s audience is able to live in an all-white world and assumes that their white children will marry other white people.

The whiteness of the world that Clark describes and appeals to indicates the depths of the divide in conservative American Christian culture.

In a particularly disturbing example, Clark describes the day her daughter Anna brought Glenn to church; a friend leaned over and “gingerly asked, ‘Are they . . . dating?’” (Ah, the ellipses, useful tool of every awkwardly racist family friend.) Clark responds by grinning, winking, and telling Mrs. Ellipses they are engaged. Mrs. Ellipses replies with “a pained smile, and then sighed and shook her head. ‘It’s just . . . their future children. They have no idea what’s ahead of them!’”

Here are a variety of responses that Clark could have given Mrs. Ellipses:

  • “You are racist and gross. Please stop.”
  • “Are you serious?”
  • “How are we still friends? Please stop looking at my daughter and her fiancé and go away.”
  • “What’s ahead of my future grandchildren like, they might become president someday?”
  • “I’m not sure I know what you mean. What’s ahead of them? Would you go into detail?”

Instead, Clark responds by saying that life is hard and no one can avoid hard things. She stopped believing what she calls “the lie we could control our trials years ago.” She does NOT say that her future grandchildren will be perfect just as they are.

To be clear, she is calling being the biracial children of loving parents “a trial” that her future grandchildren will have to overcome.

Clark never questions one of the central tenets of racism: that being black is less desirable than being white. Instead, she counsels white parents in how to handle the situation when your daughter marries a less than desirable man. Glenn is dehumanized throughout the article, certainly not Uncle Fred.

There are aspects of Clark’s piece that demonstrate a desire to move past systemic racism, but whether she means to or not, she too often relies on racist tropes to make her point that, even though her new son-in-law is black, he’s OK. As she says, “Glenn moved from being a black man to beloved son.” That statement summarizes the problem with this article: he didn’t “move.” He is still a black man. And he may be beloved, but the unfortunate way she phrased that statement is still racist: she might as well have said, “I love him in spite of the fact that he is black.”

Clark and her family have several conversations in their future about how to talk about children and about blackness in America. The real issue is that The Gospel Coalition is perpetuating the worst aspects of racist language by publishing an article with the unquestioned assumption that a black man is an “issue” a gracious white mother-in-law must learn to overcome.

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