Of all the major concepts I learned in law school, there is one maxim in particular I will never forget. It was my second year, and I relished the thought of getting beyond the mandatory first year coursework in order take courses that seemed more meaningful. Having been assigned to Paulette Caldwell's Property class during first year, it was an easy decision to enroll in any course she was teaching, as she had emerged as one of my favorite professors of all time. Moreover — as one born into the religious traditions of the Black Church (nearly literally — Mom was a Sunday School teacher!), raised in the servant leadership ethos of the post-civil rights era, and just two years out from my life-altering encounter with Alice Walker's masterpiece, In Search of Our Mother's Gardens — when I saw her course entitled "Race and Legal Scholarship," it was a no-brainer. I signed up!
Early in the course, probably in the first class, Professor Caldwell dropped a simple yet profound piece of knowledge on us that has stayed in my head ever since: "Racism is gender-specific.”
On a personal level, this statement affirmed what I already knew through life experience but hadn't given much thought: my experience of race and racism in a female body comes with a unique set of reactions and interactions that differs from that of the black men and boys in my life. In a similar way, I had to admit that there were certain expressions and negotiations of black life emanating from male embodiedness that I would never experience.
The hard part came in being able to acknowledge both to be true, intellectually and practically, without feeling like I had to suppress one part of my self in order to embrace another part of my self. On paper, it seems like the right thing to do to honor and respect differences within a group that has much in common. Yet what I have found in over twenty years of working in the social sector and in faith communities is that it is a rare thing when we are able to live this out in the real world.
One of the hot buzzwords in today’s social justice circles is “intersectionality” — that its, “the need to account for multiple grounds of identity when considering how the social world is constructed”.
This introduction to the field of “critical race theory” helped my mind to catch up with my body.
Thankfully, the good professor saved me from a lazy critique of racism. A blanket, one-size-fits-all analysis of racism’s impacts, and therefore of racial equity, would no longer suffice. I had to account for the bodies. When the bodies are different, the experience of race and how racism performs its dehumanizing work may indeed look and feel different. I had to stretch beyond either/or thinking.
Speaking up about our differences need not be seen as compromising truth-telling. There are myriad ways in which we as black folks in particular, and people of color in general, indeed share common experiences of racial oppression in the U.S. As much as I felt a solidarity with black folks everywhere, in light of our common systemic foe and aspects of shared cultural heritage, I was now being asked to acknowledge variations of human experience within my own community — while also being offered a new way to speak up for my self in the context of the whole. How freeing!
As a Christian, and as a clergyperson striving to serve in the prophetic tradition of my savior and the many witnesses on whose shoulders I stand, this path of naming and speaking up for the sake of setting free makes a lot of theological sense.
One of my favorite passages in Scripture, one that I am known to quote in many a workshop or training, is found in Jeremiah 6:14: “You cannot heal a wound by saying it is not there!”
In my more than twenty years in the social sector, I have seen a pattern that, unfortunately, is also alive and well in our faith communities — a tendency (sometimes knowingly, sometimes not), to trivialize the experience of the “other” and silence their voices. This excludes members of our own community from the center of community life and public discourse. While this kind of “othering” is often unintentional, it can become systemic and oppressive if allowed to go unchecked.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement and the #SayHerName campaign provide us with loving checks. These efforts prompt us to speak from our diversity as well from our unity. In a liberating way, they aim to identify strategies that will supplant oppression. Yet they also recognize that on the way to collective liberation, we can engage in some self-liberation by including all storytellers and stories as worth hearing.
Each of our stories provides us with a truer sense of the whole, a true self of ourselves. All of our stories, collectively, when embraced to be told and heard, bring us that much closer to the change we seek, the liberation we crave, and the healing and wholeness we so desperately need.