Wednesday, August 6, 2014

An Opportunity Missed

Recently, TIME published an article from Sierra Mannie who asked white gay men to stop appropriating the culture of black women. While some understood and agreed with the overall message of the piece, many others (including some of my friends) took offense to it. As you might guess, the blogosphere produced a number of passionate responses of agreement and disagreement.

For me, I cannot think of a more perfect introduction to intersectionality, a term developed by law professor Dr. Kimberl├ę Crenshaw. I’ve always found the term to be awkward and overly "academic," but the concept behind it is a good one. If you are unfamiliar with the term, I would suggest starting with the Wikipedia page and then read a couple of excellent articles here and here.

In Christian terms, it’s a practical tool to help us follow the Golden Rule.

Christena Cleveland, a social psychologist, author, and speaker, puts it this way:

"But when we only pay attention to and promote stories that we personally find relatable and affirming, we blind ourselves to the ways in which we are cutting ourselves off from, silencing and marginalizing others. It's easy to think that only ├╝berprivileged people need to think intentionally about connecting with and creating space for marginalized voices. But those of us who straddle the line between privilege and oppression need to be equally vigilant in this area. We can be blinded by our single-minded vision to raise our own voice and in doing so, ignore and oppress those who have even less of a voice than we do."

I believe that is the concept (and opportunity) that many white gay men missed: while being oppressed in their own right, they are at high-risk for being blinded to others unlike them who are also oppressed. Instead of listening to this woman’s story and experience, many simply responded in defensiveness. An opportunity for learning, connection, and a step toward reconciliation was missed.

While I have experienced some significant marginalization in society and in the church (I am a gay man), I also have an enormous amount of privilege (white, cis-gender male, U.S. citizen). Additionally, the acceptance of gays, lesbians, and same-sex relationships has increased and gained momentum in the U.S. in the past decade.

As someone with this mixture of privilege (a lot) and marginalization (some), I feel called and equipped to be a bridge between the two. Let me provide an general example. Often, those who are only just coming to terms with their own privilege have a lot of questions and experience a mild-to-moderate amount of shame, distress, and panic. Those who are marginalized often feel bombarded by the same questions and concerns by these folks. While the person of privilege may have honest questions, the onus really isn’t on the marginalized person to provide soothing words of comfort! However, some of us, including myself, have the experience to be a bridge between those so marginalized that they do not have a significant voice in our society, and those who are struggling to understand their own privilege and the existence of significant systems of oppression. To put it more simply, I do have the time and the energy to answer these questions, to provide education, and to amplify the voices of the marginalized to the ears of those more privileged than I am.

I think a lot of the angst and tension between activists and bridge-builders can be explained by this misunderstanding of roles. Activists are marginalized people and their allies standing in solidarity, moving the conversation forward in the public sphere, and challenging the status-quo. Bridge-builders are marginalized people and their allies providing the way forward for those who are willing, yet still searching, questioning, and integrating their own experiences and shadows. Because we are equipped for different roles, we experience disagreement in methods, tone, strategy, and even purpose.

In the end, we are all reliant on the Holy Spirit to guide us in love. May we listen to the Spirit’s voice and follow with courage. May we trust the Spirit to work in others as well, even if it looks strange and unsettling to us. May we always be open to critique, and may the Spirit give us discernment. And may we not miss another opportunity to celebrate our intentional diversity in the Body of Christ.

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