I Bring the Voices of My People: A Womanist Vision for Racial Reconciliation

February 13, 2020

You’re Doing Racial Reconciliation Wrong

An Excerpt from I Bring the Voices of My People

The following modified excerpt is from the introduction of I Bring the Voices of My People: A Womanist Vision for Racial Reconciliation by Chanequa Walker-Barners, copyright © 2019 Eerdmans. Reproduced by permission.

In the past two decades, racial reconciliation has emerged as an increasingly popular topic of academic and ministerial discourse in the United States and South Africa. In the United States, in particular, the racial reconciliation movement has strong roots in evangelical church and parachurch organizations, with the most high profile efforts occurring within Promise Keepers, a predominantly White evangelical men’s organization. In the late 1990s, Promise Keepers established a reconciliation division that was charged with developing educational curricula. At its 22 stadium rallies in 1996, evangelical men heard that racial reconciliation was not only valued, but also mandated by the gospel. And during its 1997 gathering of 500,000 men on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., Promise Keepers founder Bill McCartney declared the lofty goal of eradicating racism in the church by 2000.

While Promise Keepers largely receded from national attention by the dawning of the 21st century (a fact that McCartney attributes to the backlash from White Christian men regarding the emphasis on race), its theology of racial reconciliation has shaped – and was shaped by – the dominant evangelical paradigm. Central to this paradigm was a belief that racism is a form of sin that results from division based on socially constructed categories of racial identity. Critical here is the idea that separateness – particularly the separateness evident among Christians during Sunday morning worship – is the “problem.” The “solution,” then, is “togetherness.” Consistent with the evangelical emphasis on Christian identity being centrally expressed through the individual believer’s relationship with God, the evangelical understanding of reconciliation focuses on: (1) transforming interpersonal relationships between Christians of different ethnic backgrounds; and (2) establishing racially diverse congregations.

The exclusion of women’s racial experiences precludes any real understanding of the dynamics of race and racism. 

Reducing racial reconciliation to interpersonal relationships presents a particular problem when confronted with gender. In the evangelical worldview, women are seen primarily as wives, mothers, and daughters, that is, as extensions of men rather than human beings and leaders in their own right. Women are not seen as “raced” human beings. They are not imagined as having experiences of race and racism that are distinct from their male counterparts. This is what enabled Bill McCartney to imagine that friendships between men of different races would singlehandedly eradicate the problem of racism.

The exclusion of women’s racial experiences precludes any real understanding of the dynamics of race and racism. Historically, women’s bodies have been the sites upon which racial boundaries have been policed and racial wars have been fought. Two of the primary ways by which White supremacist patriarchy has exercised its power have been by controlling what White women could do with their bodies and by demonstrating that Black women’s bodies were violable. Thus when evangelical pastor John MacArthur uttered “Go home” when asked to respond to the name of author and preacher Beth Moore – a White woman who has become vocal about racism in the church following the election of Donald Trump – he was alluding to the rightful place of White women in the racial-gender order: silent and confined to the domestic sphere.

The silencing of women in Christian dialogue about race results in anemic understandings of racial that hinder our efforts toward justice and reconciliation. African American women, and women of color broadly, have a heightened stake in the dismantling of White supremacy, which intersects with other forms of systemic oppression to shape our realities. Women of color are often the marginalized among the marginalized. Our very survival depends upon knowing how the “isms” (or as I prefer to think of them, “the powers and principalities”) work. We are constantly bending and genuflecting in order to fit into the small, contorted spaces that society has set for us – not just in our own homes, as MacArthur stated about Moore, but in the kitchens, nurseries, and janitorial rooms of White families and White churches. Women of color in ministry know all too well the hurt that comes when we dare to step out of place. And we are always aware that others – men of color as well as White women and men – do not have to bend and sidestep in the same ways or to the same degree.

Womanists, in particular, reject outright the notion that reconciliation can be reduced to interpersonal relationships because we are fully aware that power structures relationship.

This is why Black women and women of color reject the idea that reconciliation is about feelings or friendship. Womanists, in particular, reject outright the notion that reconciliation can be reduced to interpersonal relationships because we are fully aware that power structures relationship. We know that intercultural contact will not reduce prejudice or increase racial harmony because we carry the cultural memories of mothers, grandmothers, and other mothers whose service as domestic workers for White men and women provided lots of intercultural proximity during slavery and Jim Crow. We share kitchen table talk with aunts and cousins who labor today as the new domestics: as home care, nursing home, and hospice nursing assistants for elderly White people and as nannies for the young. We know firsthand that such proximity does not protect us from the abuses of racism; it often renders us more susceptible.

So if you have been working for racial reconciliation by focusing upon friendships, proximity, and building bridges, you’re doing it wrong. Because genuine reconciliation is not about friendship. It is about dismantling White supremacy. It is about confronting inequalities in power, privilege, and access. Its telos is not simply the cessation of racial hostility; it is the establishment of justice and liberation for all people…regardless.

Click here to view the original article, titled, "You're Doing Racial Reconciliation Wrong" by Collegeville Institute.
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