The Common Good

Walking, Chewing Gum, and Confronting Racism and Sexism at the Same Time

People who do diversity work run the risk of setting impossible goals for themselves: The Beloved Community. The Kingdom of God. Unity among all tribes, nations, peoples, and languages. Sometimes people use the impossible idealism of these goals as an excuse for not trying -- or punt to Jesus' return as the only time we'll get it right. But as a firm believer in what N.T. Wright calls "inaugurated eschatology," I hold that we must begin making our best efforts here and now.

Of course this does not exclude the need for forgiveness for many failures along the way -- we could not even begin this work without the assurance of grace. So after a week of much discussion of the Deadly Viper fiasco (click here to read the posts), I'll be the first to apply for some of that grace in missing a major dimension of the conversation in the posts I published as blog editor.

In diversity work, there's often a paradox between wanting to let marginalized voices speak for themselves, and on the other hand, not always making it their responsibility to point out injustice. Privileged folks need to "do their own work" and stand in solidarity too. Here's an attempt to blur that line, since I'm writing this post but will thank Julie Clawson for articulating concerns I shared but failed to prioritize in the midst of an already heated debate:

I was disturbed that many of the people calling for an apology were saying stuff like "I think the content of the book is great, I just have problems with the culturally insensitive packaging." I think they were saying that to be nice and build bridges, but in all truth the curriculum is full of sexist stereotypes that use women as insults. The authors even have a video on their website promoting their Mancave series that is simply a series of gender stereotypes where manly=good and girly=bad.

I applaud the efforts to stand up to insensitive racial stereotypes in the church, but wish people hadn't affirmed gender stereotypes in the process. And I really wonder if that same group of people would put forth the effort to take a stand for treating women in the church with respect just like they asked for Asians in the church to be treated with respect. I want to believe they would, but far too often I see sexism protected by the shield of "theology" in ways that racism can never be in our modern world.

The same day I read -- and was convicted by -- Julie's post, I received an e-mail with this article by Gara LaMarche of Atlantic Philanthropies:

I've often written about racial, ethnic and economic barriers relevant to Atlantic's work, but rarely about gender. This is an all-too-common omission among social justice advocates and organisations, as Linda Burnham writes compellingly in her 2008 working paper "The Absence of a Gender Justice Framework in Social Justice Organizing" ... Burnham found that gender is absent from social justice work because sexism is often viewed as a subordinate concern to racism and other forms of bias, where entire communities are vulnerable. Women are often disproportionately affected by inequalities related to race, economic status or ethnicity, but the connections between gender and other inequalities are often overlooked. However, if you take a closer look at disadvantaged populations, you see that they are often largely women. It would be a mistake to try to address disadvantaged populations without considering gender.

In the pursuit of justice, it's difficult not to focus on only one issue at a time. Often there's a tendency to consciously or unconsciously assume, "That's not my issue," or "I'm not called to that," or "That's not my gift." Or, we simply have a total blind spot. What helps to expand one's focus, and illuminate those blind spots, are meaningful relationships with those affected, especially the knowledge of how deeply wounding all of these kinds of offenses can be to people I care about. Soong-Chan Rah and Eugene Cho both wrote movingly about how racial stereotypes hurt their children. Gender stereotypes wound just as deeply, and I have seen those wounds in my own relationships.

I also confess that I've unthinkingly inflicted both kinds of wounds. We probably all have. What we need to be most careful about is getting defensive when someone points out our blind spots. The tendency is to explain what we meant -- that we didn't intend to hurt. But though explanation of intent can help, it doesn't remove the impact of the offense. As one of our Deadly Viper posts points out, a better posture in such a situation is: "We're sorry. We didn't know. We want to learn. How do we do that?"

And sometimes, for those of us who claim to be wise, it's: "I'm sorry. I really should have known better. I'm still learning. How can I continue to learn?"

Ryan Rodrick Beiler is the Web Editor for Sojourners and a photographer whose work can be seen at www.ryanrodrickbeiler.com.

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