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The Death of Respectability Politics

This weekend was the anniversary of the murder of Mike Brown.  A year has passed and the country has borne witness to countless uprisings and interruptions. The white left is losing its mind over protestors who dare to disrupt white political saviors with the message that “black lives matter.” The white right reflects on this anniversary with the same mantra they had a year ago: Mike Brown “was no angel.” Everywhere along the political spectrum comes critique of black voices: slow down, wait until the facts are in.

The only facts in my mind this weekend have been these:

mike1 mike2mike3 mike4 mike5 mike6 At the heart of all this commentary about how black voices should respond to black deaths are the unwritten rules of respectability guided by the cultural principles of white fragility. White fragility demands that any challenge to power come forward with respect and deference to whiteness. Dr. Robin Diangelo writes:

The Rules of Engagement

After years of working with my fellow whites, I have found that the only way to give feedback correctly is not to give it at all. Thus, the first rule is cardinal:

1. Do not give me feedback on my racism under any circumstances.

If you do, you break the cardinal rule:

2. Proper tone is crucial – feedback must be given calmly. If there is any emotion in the feedback, the feedback is invalid and does not have to be considered.

3. There must be trust between us. You must trust that I am in no way racist before you can give me feedback on my racism.

4. Our relationship must be issue-free – If there are issues between us, you cannot give me feedback on racism.

5. Feedback must be given immediately, otherwise it will be discounted because it was not given sooner.

6. You must give feedback privately, regardless of whether the incident occurred in front of other people. To give feedback in front of anyone else—even those involved in the situation—is to commit a serious social transgression. The feedback is thus invalid.

7. You must be as indirect as possible. To be direct is to be insensitive and will invalidate the feedback and require repair.

8. As a white person I must feel completely safe during any discussion of race. Giving me any feedback on my racism will cause me to feel unsafe, so you will need to rebuild my trust by never giving me feedback again. Point of clarification: when I say “safe” what I really mean is “comfortable.”

9. Giving me feedback on my racial privilege invalidates the form of oppression that I experience (i.e. classism, sexism, heterosexism). We will then need to focus on how you oppressed me.

10. You must focus on my intentions, which cancel out the impact of my behavior.

11. To suggest my behavior had a racist impact is to have misunderstood me. You will need to allow me to explain until you can acknowledge that it was your misunderstanding.

This isn’t new. The Civil Rights movement had his own set of respectability expectations. This is why we all know who Rosa Parks is, but Claudette Colvin, the pregnant teen that months before Parks’ defiance refused to give up her seat on a bus, remains obscured by Parks’ respectable image. This is why King himself and many others frequently marched in suits. But Dr. King knew as well as any black person in America today know, respectability won’t save you.

FullSizeRenderThe only way to challenge systems of white supremacy is to challenge the political structures that give it cover, which can be messy. It can appear rude and it will be out of order. These young organizers know that. And so, for their banner, they’ve chosen to honor Mike Brown. Not because he makes a pristine poster child, but because he was a human being gunned down in the street without dignity. They choose Eric Garner whose petty crime of selling loose cigarettes was met with punishment so disproportionately brutal that thousands would take to the streets singing, “I can hear my neighbor crying saying I can’t breathe. Now I’m in the struggle and I can’t leave.”

They choose women like Natasha McKenna, who contended with mental illness and violent policing until the latter did her in by covering her face, shackling her hands, and tasing her until she died. This movement isn’t playing by respectability rules. I have to say, as a white Christian, I’m here for it.

The cross tells us all we need to know about respectability politics. You don’t get more respectable than the holy, sinless, Son of God. Rome was known for its cruelty, for its arbitrary justice and unmatched power. Yet there amid empire approached a young carpenter whose days and nights were spent with the poor, those who made their living from the land and sea, the politically disenfranchised, the zealots, harlots, and yes, even turncoats who once extracted payment from their own kin for the sake of the empire. He called them to Himself, and He went into their homes in pursuit of them. The company He kept alone could have sent Jesus to the cross.

Jesus dwelled among the radicals because in loving Him, one could not help but be made radicalized. Jesus’ challenge to empirical power was not a direct one. He led no military, He told men to put their swords away when they had opportunity to strike. Yet He confronted power at every turn. He denounced the legitimacy of entrenched institutional power: religious and secular. He stood captive before both the Sanhedrin and Pilate and in those crucial moments before power, as author-pastor Mark Buchanan writes,

Jesus is silent and He commands silence when speaking would gain the most attention, applause, financial support, adulation, self-protection. But He speaks when it costs Him the most.

I thought about Jesus’ silence this week when I saw a video of a young mother refusing to give her full information to the police that were forcefully interrogating her in front of her kids. I thought about Jesus’ speaking and table-tossing when I saw a pair of black women take a Seattle stage set for Bernie Sanders. I saw it when Sandra Bland refused to leave her car and persistently articulated her rights. Everywhere I look in this movement for liberation, I see Christ.

You see, Mike Brown may have been “no angel.” He didn’t need to be. He was a human person like you or I, full of sin and yet made a saint in Christ. Like the alleged criminal on the cross next to Christ, Mike, Eric, Sandra, Natasha…they all suffered punishments that weren’t meant to bring justice. Their deaths were meant to send the same warning to the populace the thief’s crucifixion would have sent: don’t mess with Rome. Rome wins at all costs.

Jesus looked at the thief at His side and promised paradise. He gave the man hope of a place where justice actually would be just, where the meek would reign instead of being rained down upon by the powerful and privileged. In going to the cross and identifying with those He met there, Jesus demonstrated the injustice, utter brutality, and callousness of Roman culture. His death indicted that system the way Mike Brown’s death indicts ours, perhaps not in a temporal sin-fraught court, but in an eternal one that regards black life as sacred, and the marginalization of black lives a systemic sin of great proportion. It is from this place I hear echoes of the refrain, “black lives matter!” It is in those courts that like Isaiah, I say to the Lord, confessing my white fragility and renouncing my own desires for respectable confrontation:

Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

It’s not an easy to thing to do racial justice work as a white person. There are times when we will feel burned by our own legacy. Solidarity often has a sting like death. Will we open our mouths to relieve this commission?

In the book Radical Reconciliation: Beyond Political Pietism and Christian Quietism, Curtiss DeYoung writes:

Unjust systems appear normal to those in power, and any change will produce feelings of loss. True reconciliation, through the cross of Jesus, will affect the lives of the privileged. The colonizer has to completely leave the confines of power and privilege and join with those who are colonized. Of the colonizer, Memmi declared, ‘let him adopt the colonized people and be adopted by them; let him be a turncoat.’

This is exactly what protestors have been challenging us to do since Ferguson when they disrupted an orchestral concert singing a requiem for Mike Brown: “Which side are you on, brother, which side are you on?”

Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross doesn’t give us a free pass to continue to cooperate with systemic evil. We must speak out about these black deaths, respectability be damned. It is time to work out our salvation here, white folks. This week as I reflect on all that has happened this last year, I want my white friends to count the cost of doing this work well. How freely do we give up space? How quickly do we make demands based on our own entitlement? Are we willing to take on burdens that aren’t our own and become turncoats? What are we willing to risk for solidarity and liberation?

Will we be humble enough to receive correction or will we defensively respond with our “good white person” resume? There’s only one Savior, and it’s certainly not us. White folks, do we truly want us all to be saved from white supremacy?

Captain Irony S. Lostonme: pretending systemic racism doesn't exist since 1992 (or longer)

Captain Irony S. Lostonme: pretending systemic racism doesn’t exist since 1992 (or longer)

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One of the good ones

This weekend, I went to a DC Black Lives Matter training called, “Dear White Allies.” The training was created because of the hurt that some of the white protestors have caused protestors of color at local actions. Friends, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve messed up as an ally.

There comes a point when as an ally of marginalized folks, you’re tested. Truth be told, many of us will fail these tests. Some of us learn from failure, apologize, and pick up again, better allies for the lesson in humility. Those lessons are important, but we shouldn’t be cavalier about our learning curve: “I’m just going to keep showing up [and being abusive and checked for it] because that’s how I learn, through experience.” Nope. A big part of being an ally is learning that when we fail in these ways, we hurt people.

Even the most well-intentioned ally can stumble. After a while of doing this work, we begin to think we’ve arrived. We get comfortable with what we know and how trusted we’ve become. We may even get a little famous for it in our communities (or on the internet).

Unfortunately, not enough of us are...yet.

Unfortunately, not enough of us are…yet.

Calling our own people out becomes a way of distancing ourselves from the “us,” and makes us allies feel like the good guys. We’re the white hat deputies in the fight against injustice, don’t you know?

symbolsYet inevitably, as professing allies, we’ll say or do something downright stupid. We might have our act together on the outside, but our inconsistencies and personal prejudices will start to show. Our ignorance will prevail upon an unsuspecting victim. If we’re vigilant, these mistakes can create an important time of pruning for us. If we’re in loving relationships, someone who cares will point these things out to us.

But many of us buck against the critique when it comes. We do all the things we fuss at our own folks for: we reject critique because of tone, we deliver our ally resume and dismiss those we deem less-qualified to speak, we pick up our ball and go home. We complain that we are untrusted, persecuted, all the while losing sight of the fact that the folks we say we’re standing with of face that kind of scrutiny and skepticism daily. Sometimes seemingly “unfair” scrutiny is the price of solidarity. Good allies are willing to take that kind of heat.

Hours before they all run for the hills.

Hours before they all run for the hills.

We ignore the fact that our failure hurts folks and instead of centering the concerns of our friends, the stakes become about us and our reputations: “Y’all make me look like a bad ally. I look like one of *those* people we’re all against.” We make the mistake of thinking that allyship is about our heroism, our ability to be the exemplars, the shiny contrast among our kind. We forget how easy it is to betray our friends and their cause. We get offended that people are injured by our offenses, so we put up barriers for self-preservation, even obstructing the progress we once supported.

The Most Rebuked Apostle

The Most Rebuked Apostle

Being a good ally begins with centering the concerns of others. Remaining a good ally depends upon the same. Ally work isn’t about reinforcing “us versus them” by merely switching teams. This is humanity we’re talking about. Not some (albeit awesome) dualistic sci-fi adventure.

Sweet! Team Blue Swords

Sweet! Team Blue Swords

Allies fail when we get confused and think a good ally is one of “us” joining “them” in the fight against “us.” Ally work involves navigating both spaces: “us” and “them.” Allies help the rest of “us” shed personal prejudices and join the work to undo power structures that keep “them” oppressed by everything involved in the “versus.” We do oppose our own folks from time to time, but with the clear vision that our enemy is bigger and more insidious than the individuals in front of us:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:12)

Allies who trade difficult navigation work for self-congratulatory gate-keeping will fail every time. That’s not our role. Our desperation to preserve appearances and maintain our post at the gate can quickly become an idol. Let’s keep ourselves humble, listening to and weighing critique when we receive it. Let’s never let our reputations as allies become more important to us than the people we’re standing with in solidarity.

I began this post saying I’ve messed this up big time as an ally. I still do. As a disabled woman, I’ve also learned to forgive equally epic failures. Building a beloved, just community is hard work. Humility, empathy, and quick repentance are required. If you’ve messed up, confess it. Do the work in you and then get to dismantling structures of oppression (even those you’ve helped to build).

That’s the work of an ally. No gate-keepers need apply.

Privilege in Feminism, Part 3-Centering Marginalized Women

The last two posts, I’ve looked at both biblical examples and American historical examples of how patriarchy grants certain women privileges over other women in order to preserve male-dominated order. I had planned to write an intense, equally-long final installment to discuss how we can move forward from this place of competition to a position where the voices of marginalized women take center stage and privileged women and men stand in solidarity with them against oppressive forces. I had planned to say a lot of things, but given the topic at hand, I decided to just frame up this post, and create a space where you all could hear from some of the women that are teaching me these days.

I may be just a humble substitute teacher, but I can still give all y'all a quiz.

I may be just a humble substitute teacher, but I can still give all y’all a quiz.

Much of the feminist and anti-racist scholarship of today is focused on a concept named by professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 as “intersectionality.” Crenshaw coined the term to describe the intersection of oppression that black women face as both women and as black people. This concept can describe any number of levels of oppression against a person or group of people. You can read a sample of her academic work at the link above. Crenshaw, like many of her colleagues, argued that until there was an effort to address the intersections of oppression comprehensively and holistically, marginalization and discrimination would persist.

Author, poet, and activist Audre Lorde famously wrote:

Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference, those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older, know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.
audreIn our current context, you see similar critiques of the myopic perspective espoused by prominent contemporary voices like Sheryl Sandberg, whose book Lean In, was touted as a call for American women to re-engage in feminism. Scholar and writer bell hooks panned Sandberg’s emphasis on women pulling themselves up by their bootstraps in her critique for The Feminist Wire:

Although Sandberg revised her perspective on feminism, she did not turn towards primary sources (the work of feminist theorists) to broaden her understanding. In her book, she offers a simplistic description of the feminist movement based on women gaining equal rights with men. This construction of simple categories (women and men) was long ago challenged by visionary feminist thinkers, particularly individual black women/women of color. These thinkers insisted that everyone acknowledge and understand the myriad ways race, class, sexuality, and many other aspects of identity and difference made explicit that there was never and is no simple homogenous gendered identity that we could call “women” struggling to be equal with men. In fact, the reality was and is that privileged white women often experience a greater sense of solidarity with men of their same class than with poor white women or women of color.

Sandberg’s definition of feminism begins and ends with the notion that it’s all about gender equality within the existing social system. From this perspective, the structures of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy need not be challenged. And she makes it seem that privileged white men will eagerly choose to extend the benefits of corporate capitalism to white women who have the courage to ‘lean in.’ It almost seems as if Sandberg sees women’s lack of perseverance as more the problem than systemic inequality. Sandberg effectively uses her race and class power and privilege to promote a narrow definition of feminism that obscures and undermines visionary feminist concerns.

While works like Lean In bring feminism into the main stream of American culture, but rarely do they affect sweeping changes. This week, we saw similar skepticism emerge following a speech by Emma Watson at the U.N. (a speech for which she received immediate threats against her privacy and her person).

Is that spelled correctly?

Is that spelled correctly?

Watson was praised for her candor and her embrace of the term “feminism,” and while the moment was, for many, a needed introduction to feminism, it was not representative of the movement. As always, when we see these rallying points, we have to be circumspect about who is being left out of the conversation, and how we can keep moving forward, rather than setting up camp here in Women’s Studies 101. Consider these comments from Mia McKenzie on Watson’s speech as it centered men in the fight against misogyny (and really, read the whole post):

The underlying message here is that women deserve equity and equality because of our relationships to men. Continuing to re-enforce the idea that men should respect women and fight for women’s equality because mother/sister/daughter/whatever perpetuates the idea that women don’t already deserve those things based solely on our status as human beings. It encourages men to think of women always and only in relation to themselves, as if our pseudo-humanity is only an after-thought of men’s real humanity. The truth is that women are whole, complete people, regardless of our status in the lives of men. This is what men should hear, over and over again. This is what everyone should hear, every day.

These critiques aren’t new. As long as someone is “discovering feminism” for the first time, there will be someone right behind them saying, “there’s still a lot you have yet to learn.”

This is a good thing.

If we are ever going to step out of oppressive paradigms and fully realize in a new Kingdom coming, one that is properly ordered around God and not a particular powerful segment of humanity, we need to commit to humility and to listening to the people who are pushed to the margin. That is, after all, who Jesus himself ran with on a daily basis.

With that in mind, here are a few additional readings for you to interact with and explore. You don’t necessarily have to agree with all of it, but you do have to listen. Consider them homework, if it helps. You do yours (don’t go asking your marginalized friends for answers, either). I’ll do mine. We can meet back and compare notes later.

Accomplices, Not Allies: Abolishing the Ally-Industrial Complex from Indigenous Action

Justice then Reconciliation by Austin Channing Brown

I, too, am racialized by Lydia Brown (includes discussion of disability!)

Killjoy Prophets: Troubling and Broadening our Liberation by Emily Rice (highlights current struggles within the “progressive” Christian community)

Feminism’s Ugly Internal Clash: Why It’s Future is Not Up to White Women by Brittney Cooper

I Can’t Believe by Micky Jones

Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy by Andrea Smith

White People, White Power, White Platform by Caris Adel

Extra credit (only because you can’t just click and read it, but get this anyway): More Than Serving Tea: Asian American Women on Expectations, Relationships, Leadership, and Faith. Authors: Asifa Dean, Christie Heller de Leon, Kathy Khang and Editors: Nikki A. Toyama, Tracey Gee, Jeanette Yep

Privilege in feminism, Part 2: Lessons from America’s racist history

We pick up our discussion of relative privilege and feminism today with a look at some slices of American history. I recently read an interview with scholar Tressie McMillan Cottom, following her presentation to a group of white feminists during which she said:

A lot of corporate capitalist feminism begins with the idea that feminism is always starting on the day the person discovered feminism,[But] my feminism can’t start when you discover it, I need mine to start 300 years ago. [She went on to tell the interviewer,] feminism wants to start today. Always. Even the historian in there said, Well feminism started in 1970—and I almost fell out the chair. Like, really? I’ve got black feminists organizing in 1889. But even when we’re talking historical terms we’re not dealing with history. And I think that an affirmative feminism would be precisely that.

Oh, how I wish our history was chock full of M&Ms instead of oppression!

Oh, how I wish our history was chock full of M&Ms instead of oppression!

With that in mind, let’s take a look back at our own history. For those unfamiliar with women’s history in the United States, the fight for women’s suffrage that began before our nation was founded, began to gain momentum just before the Civil War. During that time, suffragists and abolitionists Lucretia Mott (shout out to Quakers!) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton traveled to London to attend an anti-slavery convention with their husbands. At the assembly, the women were asked to sit behind a curtain where the male-only speakers and attendees would not be distracted by their presence. Infuriated by this, the women traveled back to the States with a plan that they would hold their own convention, this time on the rights of women as well as abolition. And thus the idea for the Seneca Falls Convention was born.

Love me some Lucretia Mott.

Love me some Lucretia Mott.

This is significant because here we see how intertwined feminism and anti-racism were at the beginning. Following the Civil War, however, the women’s suffrage movement became divided over the prospect of the Fourteenth amendment, which would grant voting rights to former slaves. Some suffragists wanted to pursue voting rights for black men before making suffrage universally applicable to all citizens (particularly women). Abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, who had worked with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton on both abolition and women’s rights, was distanced from his former allies over their disagreement on the issue.
Ta Nehisi Coates offers a snapshot of the pervasiveness of the problem:

It got worse. By the dawn of of the 20th century, Anthony and Stanton were openly courting avowed white supremacists like Belle Kearney. 1903 found the old stalwart abolitionist, Anthony, in New Orleans at the National Association of Women’s Suffrage Association’s convention, enduring a rousing rendition of Dixie, and tolerating Kearney’s “semi-barbaric denunciations of blacks.”

By that point, some of the most ardent suffrage activists were outright racists like Rebecca Felton, who fervently supported lynching, and Kate Gordon who eventually abandoned the suffrage movement because a national amendment would threaten white supremacy. “State sovereignty and white supremacy are inextricably linked,” said Gordon. Kearney argued that “the enfranchisement of women would insure immediate and durable white supremacy.”

Still, there were voices even then, advocating an integrated approach to both issues. Lucretia Mott, herself struggled to reconcile her own participation in both movements. But the most famous spokeswoman for both causes was Sojourner Truth. Speaking at the Women’s Rights Convention in Ohio in 1851, Sojourner Truth said:

Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

This rift between women of color and white suffragists continued into the next generation of women’s activism. As the women’s suffrage movement began to splinter into different groups with different approaches to the issue, suffragists of color continued to work at the margins of the “mainstream” white suffragist efforts. Activist Ida B. Wells, whose work against lynching was predated the Civil Rights Act by half a century, was invited to participate in Alice Paul’s famous 1913 suffrage parade, but asked to stand with her colleagues in a segregated unit of the parade. Wells refused, and joined her state in the procession in defiance of the white suffragists’ request. Wells consistently called out white supremacy in her anti-lynching work and as a feminist. She did not hesitate to take white Christians to task, either:

It is the easiest way to get along in the South (and those portions in the North where lynchings take place) to ignore the question altogether; our American Christians are too busy saving the souls of white Christians from burning in hell-fire to save the lives of black ones from present burning in fires kindled by white Christians.

Burgeoning white feminism was cooperating with racism on a number of fronts. During this period, Native people faced some of the most intense, organized oppression they had ever suffered. Scholar Andrea Smith writes, in her book Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide, that efforts to fold Native people in to white society was not only culturally-oppressive, but heightened danger for Native women:

 The “assimilation” into white society, however, only increased Native women’s vulnerability to violence. For instance, when the Cherokee nation was forcibly relocated to Oklahoma during the Trail of Tears in the nineteenth century, soldiers targeted for sexual violence Cherokee women who spoke English and had attended mission schools instead of those who had not taken part in these assimilation efforts. They were routinely gang-raped, causing one missionary to the Cherokee, Daniel Butrick, to regret that any Cherokee had ever been taught English…Cherokee women were promised that assimilation would provide them with the benefits of dominant society , [when] in fact assimilation efforts made them more easily subjugated by colonial rule.

In contrast to this, feminists like Anna Julia Cooper worked to bridge divides among women of color and identify ways to combat patriarchy in solidarity with one another.  Cooper argued that women of color should reject the competitive power dynamics white patriarchy imposed:

Quoted in "The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper" (link to Google Book through image)

Quoted in “The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper” (link to Google Book through quote image)

Cooper went on to say, to all women, in her famous work, “Woman Versus the Indian:”

It is not the intelligent woman vs. the ignorant woman; nor the white woman vs. the black, the brown, and the red,–it is not even the cause of woman vs. man. Nay, ’tis woman’s strongest vindication for speaking that the world needs to hear HER VOICE. It would be subversive of every human interest that the cry of one-half the human family be stifled. Woman in stepping from the pedestal of statue-like inactivity in the domestic shrine, and daring to think and move and speak,–to undertake to help shape, mold, and direct the thought of her age, is merely completing the circle of the world’s vision. Hers is every interest that has lacked an interpreter and a defender. Her cause is linked with that of every agony that has been dumb–every wrong that needs a voice.

As history marched on, once again, the advancement of people of color and women coincided during the Civil Rights era. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique shook the culture in 1963, and raised up a conversation about the plight of domestic, middle-class, educated white women with her discussion of “the problem that has no name.” Friedan wrote:

The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question “Is this all?”
Friedan’s tome quickly became the rallying cry for a second wave of feminists. It remains an important work today, yet the book is clearly written through a focused lens that normalizes the middle-class white woman’s experience and pushes the concerns of working women, women of color, single women, etc. to the margins.

The 1960’s saw the enactment of the Civil Rights Act after long state and local battles to end segregation and abridgment of voting rights. That same decade produced leaders like Dolores Huerta, who, working alongside Cesar Chavez, organized farm workers and pursued just living conditions for Latino agricultural workers. Huerta called for solidarity and ears to hear the marginalized voices of women of color at a time when white feminism was the talk of the day.

I'm here for Huerta.

I’m here for Huerta.

At the same time, Japanese activist and internment survivor Yuri Kochiyama was working with Malcolm X and the black, latino, and Asian-american communities to advance equality for all. Kochiyama was an outspoken advocate for solidarity at a time when movements were often compelled by the structures of white supremacy to compete for advancement and white acceptance. Before her death last year, Kochiyama charged younger generations:

And I think today part of the missions would be to fight against racism and polarization, learn from each others’ struggle, but also understand national liberation struggles — that ethnic groups need their own space and they need their own leaders. They need their own privacy. But there are enough issues that we could all work together on. And certainly support for political prisoners is one of them. We could all fight together and we must not forget our battle cry is that “They fought for us. Now we must fight for them!”

Lord, I love a woman with a bullhorn.

Lord, I love a woman with a bullhorn.

Alongside these actions, second wave feminism’s leaders began working to overcome some of the divisions of the past, and sought opportunities to reach beyond whiteness to work with feminists of color. Up-and-coming feminist icon Gloria Steinem wrote in 1969 in New York Magazine:

Finally, women began to “rap” (talk, analyze, in radical-ese) about their essential second-classness, forming women’s caucuses inside the Movement in much the same way Black Power groups had done. And once together they made a lot of discoveries: that they shared more problems with women of different classes, for instance, than they did with men of their own; that they liked and respected each other (if women don’t want to work with women, as Negroes used to reject other Negroes, it’s usually because they believe the myth of their own inferiority), and that, as black militants kept explaining to white liberals, “You don’t get radicalized fighting other people’s battles.”

Gloria Steinem and Angela Davis

Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman-Hughes

Unfortunately, these collegial meetings and cooperative efforts, though outshining their foremothers in inclusivity and solidarity, still consistently centered white feminism, and those privileged enough to be earning a “voice” at the table. In that same piece, Steinem wrote:

The middle-class, educated and disillusioned group gets larger with each college graduation. National Organization for Women (NOW)—founded in 1966 by Betty Friedan, among others, “to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men” — is a very effective voice of this group, concentrating on such reforms as getting irrelevant sex-designations out of Help Wanted ads and implementing Equal Employment Opportunity laws.

Women like Steinem were using their platform to raise some of the issues that women of color faced, but they were doing so from a position of relative privilege.

Feminists like Angela Davis became more prominent in the movement, and kept white feminists accountable with her critique of capitalism and activism for black liberation. Davis not only challenged patriarchy, but she questioned “mainstream” (aka: white) feminism’s ignorance of history in it’s struggles for political power, economic equality, and reproductive justice. At a time when abortion became the centerpiece of the white feminist agenda, Davis raised questions about the historical omission of reproductive crimes against women of color (including forced sterilization), and openly educated the movement about its eugenicist roots of the contraception/abortion. In her 1981 book, Women, Race, and Class, Davis wrote:

Over the last decade the struggle against sterilization abuse has been waged primarily by Puerto Rican, Black, Chicana, and Native American women. Their cause has not yet been embraced by the women’s movement as a whole. Within organizations representing the interests of middle-class white women, there has been a certain reluctance to support the demands of [these campaigns]…While women of color are urged, at every turn, to become permanently infertile, white women enjoying prosperous economic conditions are urged, by the same forces, to reproduce themselves.

Still, many young white feminists today are unaware of women of color’s contributions to the movement. Despite moments of solidarity, second wave feminism, like the generations of feminism before it, remained dominated by the agenda of white feminists.

Once again, whiteness was central to the move for increased women’s rights, so much so that author Alice Walker coined a new term, “Womanist” to create distance from “mainstream” feminism and advance a broader agenda that challenged capitalism, patriarchy. Walker wrote, “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.” Womanist feminism incorporates the concept of intersectionality, and actively confronts the multifaceted barriers created by supremacy.

Next week we will look at a few contemporary examples of these challenges within feminism today and I hope to offer a suggestion or two about how we can get feminism past mere inclusivity (though that still needs to be a priority) and move forward through the leadership of women on the margins.

Sunday meditations: Where do we go now?

Andrew Wilkes, from his piece in the Huffington Post, “Ferguson as Christological Challenge: Rethinking Jesus in an Unjust Society:”

The Christological consensus of American Christendom — and its corollary ecclesial equation — is that our Savior changes persons that, in turn, change the world. No sense of institutional iniquity or social sin here, just an excessively voluntarist, volitional account of discipleship and good works. This Christology does not resemble the Jesus of the Gospels or Paul’s epistles, is politically untenable, sociologically flat-footed, and inadvertently anoints hierarchies of power, wealth, and opportunity. Further, this self-help Savior is a privatized pardoner of individual indiscretions and secret sins — not the Righteous Reconciler, Palestinian prophet, and cosmic Lord of the New Testament. Let us bury the New York Times-bestselling, life coach Jesus, along with the ecclesiology of egoism it implies.

 

Instead, I propose that we restate a conviction that requires interpretation in every generation: Jesus saves us from sin. One sin from which we need saving now is our unjust treatment of and implicit bias about who bears God’s image. The idea that each human refracts, however imperfectly, the qualities of a just and loving God, is a precondition for Christian redemption. Everyone who breathes — even when police officers choke out their capacity to do so — mirrors the ineffable yet discernible attributes of God. Black folks are not candidates for redemption when our inalienable rights, endowed to us by our just and loving Creator, cannot be asserted without rigorous rejoinder. If these things be true, where do we go from here?

To the foot of the cross, equally needed by all, where Jesus redeems the privileged and the precarious — red, yellow, black, brown, and white — by renewing our embodied minds from self-sovereignty, God-hostility, and interior acceptance of ugly, social asymmetries of power, opportunity, and wealth along the fault lines of race. Jesus can save us from sin, especially the sin of white supremacy and all its imago Dei-negating works.

 

Operation Help or Hush is providing supplies for people on the ground in Ferguson.

Stories on housing integration, social networking integration, and churches that have been harassed for serving as a refuge center for Ferguson residents/protestors.

churchAn amazing theological Twitter discussion about Marissa Alexander’s case (image at bottom links to more info).

killjoytweetAnd a piece by Sarah Jaffe and Mariame Kaba and Randy Albelda and Kathleen Geier on the criminalization of mothers.

Stay prayerful, and as Katelyn at By Their Strange Fruit says, let’s “put some feet to our tweets” this week, y’all.

Art by Jawaan Burge (2014)

Art by Jawaan Burge (2014)

 

The Silent Idol of Whiteness

Since my post over the weekend, I’ve been having a lot of conversations about whiteness. And I don’t like it. To talk about whiteness is to saddle up the angry elephant in the room and ride that sucker around.

In America, whiteness is our default. I catch myself in conversations with my husband where I’m describing a new acquaintance and I’ll describe everything about her BUT her race if she’s white. If she’s not, race is the first thing I usually mention. White is my default. Everyone else is other. I’m learning to see whiteness.

And what I’m seeing when I see whiteness isn’t just race. I’m seeing the lies behind the labels. I’m seeing my own fears and biases. (If you want to borrow my mirror on this, there are bias tests that can help you see your own ugly.) This week, I shared this comment on Facebook. It felt like a plea for help, like all confession does.

I don’t condone destruction or looting. I have to ask, though, why collectively we’re more concerned about storefronts and the destruction of property than we are about loss of human life? Why are we more afraid of a large group of unarmed angry black protestors than we are of armed angry white protestors? I’m asking these questions of myself as much as I’m asking any of you guys. When it comes to racism, there may be differing degrees of complicity and perpetration, but we’re all in recovery together. Let’s admit we have a problem…Hi, my name is Cayce and I’ve adopted racist constructs and fears.

Most of the conversations I’ve been having about whiteness go off the rails immediately. The biggest obstacle to productive discussions and reflection comes when a white person I’m talking to says, “Are you calling me a racist?” I’m immediately put on the defensive, and compelled to walk back what I’ve said, etc. because where we live, being called a racist is worse than actually being one. Now, there are a lot of fantastic resources on the web to deal with this particular derailment. (My favorite is this one.)

But the truth is, no matter what facts you give, no matter how you walk it back or try to explain it, the accusation that you’ve called a white person a racist just sticks. So from here on, I’m changing my strategy. If you ask me am I calling you a racist, I’m going there with you:

Yes. You are a racist. So am I. Let’s get some help.

If I’ve learned anything from my walk with Jesus, if someone is calling me out, I will want to fight it. But every confrontation with the truth goes easier for me if I surrender quickly. So, my reputation as a white person with racist attitudes is out there.

There is a fear in facing the whiteness and all the privilege it entails. We can’t seem to look it in the eye. There are a lot of reasons for that, but I think the most likely is this: we like the lie.

Bejamin Corey addresses this at Patheos:

If we admit to the existence of systemic racism in America, it will prove false the American narrative so many of us grew up believing…We can’t admit that systemic racism exists, because that will mean the narrative we were taught about America is a huge lie…If we admit to the existence of systemic racism in America, it makes us guiltyWe don’t want to admit it because we’d have to admit that we’ve been complicit in the sin by not addressing the sin…If we admit to the existence of systemic racism, it would demand costly change.

And Ta-Nehisi Coates nailed it this week in the context of conversations about what’s going down in Ferguson:


We are being told that Michael Brown attacked an armed man and tried to take his gun. The people who are telling us this hail from that universe where choke-holds are warm-fuzzies, where boys discard their skittles yelling, “You’re gonna die tonight,” and possess the power to summon and banish shotguns from the ether. These are the necessary myths of our country, and without them we are subject to the awful specter of history, and that is just too much for us to bear.

Taken all together, the body count that led us to our present tenuous democratic moment does not elevate us above the community of nations, but installs us uncomfortably within its ranks. And that is terrifying because it shows us to be neither providential nor exceptional, and only special in the subjective sense that our families are special—because they are ours.

As Coates points out, we have a distorted view of our history in America. We want the good old story so bad, so we will refuse to see the connections of the evils in our past and the evils in our present.

Squandering opportunities to do it better than we did before.

Squandering opportunities to do it better than we did before.

The Bible makes it clear that there’s nothing new under the sun. Perhaps it’s because despite our lip-service to the contrary, we don’t really want to learn our lesson. But God has given us everything we need for life and godliness. He’s given us the opportunity to start again. He died and brought Himself back so that we could know the liberation of confession, forgiveness, and contrition. He’s given us His Word to bring us hope and to teach us what to do. He’s calling us to stand with the oppressed.

Greg Ogden writes:

The symbol of justice in our society is a blindfolded woman, indicating that justice is blind. The fair judge is dispassionately objective, free from bias, who rationally decides what is right before an impersonal law. On the other hand, the role of the judge and justice in Israel was to actively and redemtively seek to protect the poor from the wiles of the rich and powerful. So strong was the skepticism toward the powerful that the poor in the courts were often viewed collectively as the innocent and the righteous…

Time and again we see God’s prophets rail against the abuses of the powerful. To those of us living under the illusion of “American justice” as it stands today, reading the Scriptures can be disconcerting. We want to explain this aspect of God’s character away with a hermeneutic, “Well, He meant poor in spirit. Well, He meant that for that time, and that culture only. He doesn’t do that to nations or expect that of us anymore.” We just ‘splain these texts away.

To us, Biblical justice feels unfair. It feels like partiality. Because it is.

God in His wisdom, has accounted for our propensity for sin and abuse of power. He has anticipated our behavior, both the individual and the collective, and He talks about it. A lot.

Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun:

I saw the tears of the oppressed—
    and they have no comforter;
power was on the side of their oppressors—
    and they have no comforter…

He also gives us a solution for these problems in confession, repentance, and ultimately, solidarity:

Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down,
    one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
    and has no one to help them up.
Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
    But how can one keep warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered,
    two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

-Ecclesiastes 4

The privileged among us don’t just stand in solidarity just to be helpful. We are called to need the oppressed. The oppressed keep us accountable for our complicity in oppression. They remind us of the suffering servant Jesus. They give us the opportunity to participate with God in an act of restorative justice. They shatter our insulated, white-informed [un]consciousness with their prayers of lamentation:

We are touching the bibles handed down from our great-grandparents gnarled hands to our smooth, desk-working ones. We are reciting the promises inside them. Those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousnessBlessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Yea, though I walk through the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. 

You promised, we pray, as though we’ve been betrayed. You promised, we repeat, as though we may have been forsaken. But we’d forgotten that we are still walking and that the shadow of death may not look like a hospital bed at the end of a long, storied life, but instead like a city on lockdown, asphyxiating its citizens, imposing a curfew on all who seek justice, donning riot gear and rolling tanks simply to protect a police officer who murdered someone whose skin looked like our own.

(There is still time left, right, Lord? There’s still time, isn’t there, for You to redeem these dark times?)

 Please. Please. Just be patient. We are making our way. But you must understand that it is hard, when we are cordoned on all sides by toxic clouds. Surely, you can empathize with how difficult it is to be clear-eyed while gagging on these cannisters of cover-ups.

Stacia Brown

We’ve worked hard to build this American narrative: of founding fathers, hearth-tending mothers, courageous colonizers, forbearing minorities, and magnanimous white benefactors. But hard work does not a truth make. We have become like the blacksmith constructing an idol in Isaiah 44:

The blacksmith takes a tool
    and works with it in the coals;
he shapes an idol with hammers,
    he forges it with the might of his arm.
He gets hungry and loses his strength;
    he drinks no water and grows faint.
The carpenter measures with a line
    and makes an outline with a marker;
he roughs it out with chisels
    and marks it with compasses.
He shapes it in human form,
    human form in all its glory,
    that it may dwell in a shrine.
He cut down cedars,
    or perhaps took a cypress or oak.
He let it grow among the trees of the forest,
    or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow.
It is used as fuel for burning;
    some of it he takes and warms himself,
    he kindles a fire and bakes bread.
But he also fashions a god and worships it;
    he makes an idol and bows down to it.
Half of the wood he burns in the fire;
    over it he prepares his meal,
    he roasts his meat and eats his fill.
He also warms himself and says,
    “Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.”
From the rest he makes a god, his idol;
    he bows down to it and worships.
He prays to it and says,
    “Save me! You are my god!”
They know nothing, they understand nothing;
    their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see,
    and their minds closed so they cannot understand.
No one stops to think,
    no one has the knowledge or understanding to say,
“Half of it I used for fuel;
    I even baked bread over its coals,
    I roasted meat and I ate.
Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left?
    Shall I bow down to a block of wood?”
Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him;
    he cannot save himself, or say,
    “Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?”

It’s time to acknowledge the singe story we’ve told ourselves, and admit we’ve bought into a system of oppression. We’ve believed it. We defended it. We’ve taught our children to love it. We have worshipped the idol and laid waste to the image of God that He set before us in the bodies of our black brothers and sisters.

policeAcknowledging the truth about America doesn’t mean I hate it. It doesn’t negate the sacrifice people before us have made with their lives. For the love of God, Christ died for sinners while they were still sinners. We’re no exception to that because we’re American or because we’re white. We’re full of error. And that is an amendable fact if we own up to it.

shirleyWe have to ask ourselves if we have biases that inconsistent with God’s justice. Who gets the benefit of the doubt? Who gets scrutiny? Who do we easily love? Who do we easily fear? These aren’t fun questions. The answers are often embarrassing. But they don’t have to be the last word because we have a remarkable capacity for change.

Am I racist? Yes, but I might not be racist tomorrow. It’s possible to do better. Rather than defending my reputation, I want to change my posture and seek to be saved from this. I have to hold out hope, despite the things I’m seeing to the contrary, that us white people can get it right.

Toward Better Alliances

I recently commented on the #yesallwomen phenomenon, but since there has been so much discussion over the last week about the movement and the response to it, I wanted to address the male reaction to the outcry.

One of my favorite responses was Jeopardy! winner Arthur Chu’s article on misogyny in nerd culture. Since his essay went viral, Chu has spoken on media outlets to talk about the impact of male bystanders on violence against women. Phil Plait offered a thorough response to the “not all men” series of derailments:

Why is it not helpful to say “not all men are like that”? For lots of reasons. For one, women know this. They already know not every man is a rapist, or a murderer, or violent. They don’t need you to tell them.

Second, it’s defensive. When people are defensive, they aren’t listening to the other person; they’re busy thinking of ways to defend themselves. I watched this happen on Twitter, over and again.

And another hashtag emerged in support of women: #allmencan. A number of male allies went to the internet with selfies and signs of support:

It's possible, fellas.

It’s possible, fellas.

Unfortunately, these affirming responses weren’t enough to stifle a defensive backlash. Poking the misogyny bear on the internet proved dangerous. Rebecca Solnit writes at Salon:

By Sunday night, half a million #yesallwomen tweets had appeared around the world, as though a dam had burst. And perhaps it had. The phrase described the hells and terrors women face and specifically critiqued a stock male response when women talked about their oppression: “Not all men.”

It’s the way some men say, “I’m not the problem” or that they shifted the conversation from actual corpses and victims as well as perpetrators to protecting the comfort level of bystander males. An exasperated woman remarked to me, “What do they want — a cookie for not hitting, raping, or threatening women?”

Now, I’ll go on record and say that cookies are amazing. But, if you’re truly interested in being a person’s ally, you’ll realize you’re not entitled to them.

The goal of allyship isn’t accolades or recognition. The goal is to better love people and to make this place more just. That starts with listening.

yesallwomen

I realize that in a culture that affirms male dominance, moving away from misogyny feels painful to some men. It can be confusing and there will inevitably be some resistance to it. While women’s voices are essential to this conversation, it really will take all of us thinking about this to reshape masculinity in a way that affirms the dignity of women. Consider this exchange in a discussion on pick-up culture from New York Magazine [language warning]:

Reporter, Kat Stoeffel: One of my dark, early reactions to the shooting was that I wished someone had just slept with Rodger. Obviously, that’s not the real problem. But is there something women can do to defuse what you call “toxic masculinity”?

Author, Harris O’Malley: Honestly, it’s not women’s fault. Women aren’t the gender police. You’re not going to see as many women complaining or punishing a guy for being willing to show more emotions the way you’re going to see men telling a guy, Don’t be a pussy, man up. It’s not on women to change men; it’s on men to change themselves. We already put so much unfair responsibility on women when we say things like boys will be boys and women have to dress modestly because men can’t control themselves. That’s bullshit. Saying that it’s women’s responsibility is a way for men to absolve themselves. Even if someone had slept with Elliot Rodger it wouldn’t have fixed anything. If he had had a girlfriend she probably would have been his first target.

Stoeffel: Fair enough. What should men do?

O’Malley: The best thing men can do for other men is to be open to each other to support each other instead of treating each other as competition or pawns in status games. Being willing to be honest and not shame each other for having feelings and doubts and for not living up to this hypermasculine ideal.

When we consider that even church purity culture often affirms the role of male as pursuer and female as pursued, we have a long way to go. For men, and women in positions of privilege, there are a couple of affirming ways to respond to new or disruptive truth about our culture.

First, we can be allies by really hearing someone different from us.

"Look man, you can listen to Jimi but you can't hear him. There's a difference man. Just because you're listening to him doesn't mean you're hearing him."

“Look man, you can listen to Jimi but you can’t hear him. There’s a difference man. Just because you’re listening to him doesn’t mean you’re hearing him.”

The ability to hear hard truths is the mark of humility. Valuing someone else’s experience, feelings, or thoughts above your own is honoring to that person. It’s also Biblically commanded:

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.
 -Romans 12:10

Second, we can honestly evaluate our own participation in the problem presented to us.

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. -Matthew 7:3-5

The ability to examine our motives without deflecting, defending, or collapsing into a self-pitying heap is a mark of maturity.

Settle down, it'll be okay.

The first step is admitting that you have a problem.

I’m still learning this myself. As an ally, I’ve often lamented that I’m misunderstood or misrepresented. After all, I’m one of the GOOD ones! Me want cookies, not solidarity!

Some great tips for overcoming this as it pertains to race could be applied to gender discussions or other contexts from Julia at Love Isn’t Enough (longer descriptions at the link):

Broaden your definition of racism

Acknowledge how racism has shaped you.

Acknowledge your white privilege.

Accept your limitations.

Get comfortable with humility.

Share power.

Educate yourself.

Recognize that it’s not about you.

Listen to people of color and accept their truth.

Accept that effect counts more than intention.

Speak up and do your part.

When we are acting as an ally to get something in return, we’re ultimately cheapening what it means to be an ally. As a parent I find myself having lots of these kinds of conversations with my kids:

Me: Can you help me out by doing a quick chore?

Kid: What do I get if I help?

Me: You become a better person and you honor God for helping me without expecting something in return.

Every parent has dealt with this. In our culture of “what do I get?” it’s counterintuitive to find our motivation in love instead of reward. Ultimately love is more rewarding and relationships are priceless. But even our understanding of pricelessness is attached to something that can be bought:

I want my money back.

I want my money back.

As Christians, our motives should go even deeper than cookies, self-improvement, or what we get. Oswald Chambers writes in My Utmost for His Highest:

Our motive for surrender should not be for any personal gain at all. We have become so self-centered that we go to God only for something from Him, and not for God Himself. It is like saying, “No, Lord, I don’t want you; I want myself. But I do want You to clean me and fill me with Your Holy Spirit. I want to be on display in Your showcase so I can say, ‘This is what God has done for me.’” Gaining heaven, being delivered from sin, and being made useful to God are things that should never even be a consideration in real surrender. Genuine total surrender is a personal sovereign preference for Jesus Christ Himself.

What we’re looking for when we demand cookies is an “even” exchange: I give you my help or loyalty, you give me gratitude and a free pass when I’m making life harder for you. Fair trade, yes?

What Jesus calls us to “trade” are our demands, our selfishness, our foolish way of thinking about the world. It’s inherently uneven. We give away our selfishness when we give of ourselves in humble submission to one another and we get a glimpse into the heart of the God if the universe.

This is grace. It’s not cheap, but it sets us free.

don-draper-says-what