Michael Oliver on his research on Anti-Black Racism



Anti-black racism and constructions of identity


After serving for three years as Departmental Lecturer of Modern Theology, and Tutor at St Benet’s Hall, I have spent the last year as a Visiting Research Fellow for St Benet’s. During this time, which began in the early stages of the pandemic, I have been in the United States. I have truly enjoyed being a member of the Hall, living at 38 St Giles' in the middle year of my contract, teaching papers for the Faculty of Theology and Religion to Benet’s students—in lectures, classes, and tutorials—and being part of a welcoming and hospitable community.

As a Visiting Research Fellow, I have continued lines of research that were begun whilst in Oxford, engaging with issues of systemic injustice in the form of several writing projects. My first book, Deconstructing Undecidability: Derrida, Justice, and Religious Discourse (Lexington Books, 2020), explored the thorny predicament of choosing which form of injustice takes priority, through the lenses of philosophy, ethics, and theology. My basic argument was that the pursuit of justice leads to an inevitable recognition of having to make limited, difficult decisions for particular forms of justice. Worse yet, indecision offers no escape. To borrow from a former Master of college at St Benet’s, Professor Werner Jeanrond, in his review: “The tension in choosing one line of justice at the expense of another cannot be resolved. Indecision remains an illusion; we must decide.” In an online talk for St Benet’s last summer, I reflected upon this tension with reference to renewed attention to anti-black racism and the Black Lives Matter movement.

My work has continued to focus more explicitly on anti-black racism and constructions of identity, most recently publishing a peer-reviewed article entitled “James Baldwin and the ‘Lie of Whiteness’: Toward an Ethic of Culpability, Complicity, and Confession” in Religions. The article explores James Baldwin’s understanding of, and discussions about, whiteness in order to begin sketching what a moral response to these reflections might look like. In Baldwin’s views and reflections on white identity he employs the phrase “the lie of whiteness” to suggest a crisis of identity. If we take Baldwin at his word—or at least seriously about these reflections on whiteness—what might that mean for those who seek to respond ethically? I propose that should take the form of something like confession, by which I mean telling the truth about white complicity in systemic, anti-black racism. The end result would be a more honest appraisal of white responsibility in the struggle against racism. Rather than seeking exoneration from accusations of culpability and complicity, I argue that confession leads to more genuine acknowledgement and thus more tangible transformation, which in turn has potential to dismantle anti-black racism.


- Michael J. Oliver, Visiting Research Fellow at St Benet' Hall