Let me just say it from the start: I’m a white, Western, able-bodied, straight, cis-gender, Christian, middle-class person of privilege. So in any expressions of thought or opinion, I am bound to offend someone. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for political correctness. But even in my my most well-meaning attempts, I sometimes step on a land mine. Trouble is, what’s a land mine to one person may not be one to another.
Years ago, in a conversation with a gay activist, I used the phrase “has his head screwed on straight” and got roundly chastised. Years later, I was (half) jokingly telling members of my congregation that I’d been worried about the part of the scripture reading that day when St. Paul visited “a street called Straight.” They thought I was being pretty silly, so I told them the story of the “head on straight” debacle. They thought the activist’s reaction was pretty silly, too. So – who’s right?
A lot of metaphorical ink has been spilled since the Charleston shootings about racism and white privilege. Of course, that’s been going on since #BlackLivesMatter. What role do white allies have in protests and demonstrations? I tried to talk about this dilemma at a dinner party recently and a Jewish guest immediately explained to me how I also could never understand her history as an oppressed person.
I get that. I really do. But I’m worried that we have become so siloed in our own stories that we aren’t able to communicate with those in other silos or join together with everyone for the good of all. For example, a friend who is lesbian was chafing against being lumped into the “white privilege” category without a recognition of her own history of marginalization. She’s not against accepting her place of privilege, but would like there to be a better way for us all to talk about these maters.
In a way, I get Rachel Dolezal. I don’t condone what she did and I don’t know all of her story to really know why she did it. But in a way I get that to be accepted as an advocate for a particular group pf people, you have to have experienced their oppression first-hand.
Back in my Buffalo days, we tried a program of getting folks from white congregations in the suburbs to visit black churches in the city, not just for worship but also to sit down and talk. One pastor of a suburban church was honest enough to express his anxiety at the start of the conversation time. He said right up front that he was afraid he was going to say something that would come out sounding racist.
I’ve had that same anxiety – in many circles. After all I’m a white, Western, able-bodied, straight, cis-gender, Christian, middle-class person of privilege. And I know that I’m probably being offensive in even asking if we can somehow come out of our silos – a least for a little while – in order to talk together openly and honestly. Could we agree to be respectful, listening to one another’s stories, gently correcting one another’s misconceptions and errors?
Could we, in a spirit of interdependence, explore ways to advocate for one another that honor the unique experiences of one group without excluding the gifts of another?
Maybe we have to be willing to risk offending and being offended. This is big, I know. One category where I can claim marginalization is as a woman and a woman in a male-dominated occupation. So my feminist hackles can go up pretty quickly. I know how challenging it will be for all of us to take these risks.
Still I wonder. Is it time?
Susan Strouse, Pastor of the First United Lutheran Church of San Francisco