Why I can’t say I don’t contribute to another’s oppression

The other day on twitter I said:

A friend responded to that last tweet, asking if I could expand on that, perhaps in a blog post, so here I am trying to do that. Those few short sentences, though, reflect something that’s so fundamental to my understanding of, well, understanding itself that it may be tough.

Why can’t a white person (like, for example, me) say, “I’m not racist”?

Well, mainly because, as white people, we’re not on the receiving end of racism. We don’t experience its reality day in and day out. I’m not talking about individual prejudice here, either. Racism is much bigger than some yokel saying “I don’t like black people.” It’s an entire system that others, disparages, discards and devalues anyone who is not white. When you’re white, you don’t experience it in full. You may see instances of it. You may recognize its effects, but it’s not a force pointed at you, so you don’t really know it.

Moreover, it’s so interwoven in your entire society, in your upbringing, your history, your schooling, your media, your stories, that it’s right there in your head.

Racism isn’t about individual attitudes and actions. They’re just one part of it. Sure, we can all point at the KKK, at the horrible things that one coworker said, at obvious manifestations of prejudice, but if we limit our definition of racism to those sorts of things, then we’re refusing to see how deep racism really goes. Yeah, I’ll be repenting the rest of my life for helping my dad campaign for David Duke when I was a teenager, but that’s not what I was thinking about when I wrote My name is Gabe and… I’m racist.

See, our whole culture is shot through with racism. It was in the air I breathed as a child. It was in the stories I read, the shows I watched, the behaviors of those all around me, and now it’s in me. It’s one of my own little demons, one of my own original sins, inside me for as long as I’ve had consciousness.

I’m part of the system that creates and perpetuates white privilege and white supremacy, simply by virtue of being a white person in this world, and especially being a white person in the US. I don’t get to decide when I am not racist because I’m not the one that racism is pointed toward. If someone said “What you said/did was racist,” I don’t get to respond, “No it’s not, because I’m not prejudiced.” It’s not about me. It’s not about my intent. It’s about something I did that plays into, reinforces and upholds the racist forces that shape our society (societies?). I can’t even speak from a place of authority on this, because I’m white. Hell, by being a white person telling other white people about racism, I’m probably playing into that systemic racism, elevating my voice above the voices of people of color.

It’s similar to, but not the same as, when straight people say “I’m not homophobic.” Homophobia isn’t about some individual hating or fearing gay people. It’s about a systemic devaluing of non-straight people and sexualities. Just because a straight person doesn’t have any problems with gay people, just because they’re a professed ally, doesn’t mean that they don’t play into the systemic nature of homophobia.

When you’re not part of an oppressed class, you’re not an expert on their oppression. It’s like what Grace said about intersectionality:

To say, as a white person, “I’m not racist,” or as a straight person, “I’m not homophobic,” or as a cis person, “I’m not transphobic,” what you’re doing is privileging your own understanding of other people’s experience over their understanding of their own experience. You’re taking yourself out of the societal forces that shape you and everything around you, defining yourself in some mythical neutral space. Doing so is a refusal to recognize the agency of people to know and understand their own experience. It’s to put your voice above theirs.

So maybe we white folks oughta say, “I’m probably racist, but I’m trying to work against that.” Straight folks oughta say, “Homophobia is endemic to the culture in which I grew up, but I’m trying to lessen its presence around me.” Cis folks oughta say, “I was shaped by a world hostile to trans* people, but I’m trying to work against that hostility in my own life.”

But more than all of that, more than making it about us by saying “I’m not [insert form of societal prejudice here],” we oughta just be quiet and listen to the people who are experts on all of this, because it’s really not about the members of the privileged class. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, all oppressions, they’re not about any individual’s intent. They’re about the impact those things have on the lives of those against whom they’re directed.

Stuck in Trafficking

For some time now I’ve been suspicious of the anti-trafficking movement, and especially that segment of it that’s specifically Christian. It’s long struck me as sensationalist, focusing on sex work to the exclusion of other forms of forced labor (Hi there, Nike and the US Agriculture industry!), as well as overly broad. It seemed there was a reluctance among anti-(sex-)trafficking groups to precisely define trafficking in a way that avoided lumping consensual sex work in with forced sex work. The idea that no one really wants to do sex work seems to run deep, with Slave Free Earth stating: “We have a broad definition of Sex Trafficking and will work from the philosophy that the vast majority of prostitutes are not there by choice.” (Side note: Homebrewed Christianity being sponsored by that organization is one of many things that put me off of that podcast and blog, despite its hosting so many interesting thinkers. But that could be a whole other blog post.)

The feminism I came into is one that is concerned with the rights, voices and safety of sex workers. That includes the right to and practice of self-determination. Yeah, a slave-owning pimp infringes upon those rights, silences those voice and provides no real safety. The idea that sex-workers need some sort of rescuing (almost always by affluent white folks) can do the same.

It was with great satisfaction that I saw some of my concerns being reflected and expanded in Are Evangelicals Monopolizing, Misleading US Anti-Trafficking Efforts?, an interview with professor of Christian Ethics, Yvonne Zimmerman, as well as in Chink in the Evangelical wall: Sex trafficking, colonialism and Christian ethics from “The Naked Anthropologist,” Dr. Laura Agustín. They are both worth your time, and deserve to be read widely in evangelical circles.

God bless MLK. God damn MLK Day.

Today I’m off work for the MLK Holiday, and I’m thankful for that. I can use the rest. I’m also dismayed by the day.

Rev. King was killed in Memphis while he was there supporting the sanitation workers who were striking. I walked out my front door today to see the rows of emptied trash bins, evidence that while I was sleeping in, the sanitation workers in my town were up long before dawn, working. People are at work right now, making nowhere near a living wage at WalMart, Burger King, gas stations, coffee shops, hotels, janitorial services and nearly every retail or service industry job, while a handful of us rest. Or worse, shop.

The president is being sworn in today with his hands on Dr. King’s Bible. Dr. Cornel West expresses everything that is wrong with that, and does it far better than I can.

So we celebrate the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by letting a privileged few off work while those who labor and still make poverty wages are ignored. We celebrate King’s agitation for peace by having the leader of the world’s largest killing force, a man who murders by order and by robot, falsely associate himself with King’s vision and King’s faith by placing his hands on the Rev. King’s Bible.

We do nothing to stop war. We do nothing to end poverty. We ignore the basic humanity of people near and far. Yet we can feel good about ourselves, because there’s a day on the calendar to honor a man who did all the work that we refuse to.

God bless Martin Luther King, Jr. May his legacy never die and his words never fall silent. God damn the empty holiday that bears his name.

What makes a company “pro-gay”?

Church this morning nearly gave me a migraine. See, a fair portion of the service was related to all the Chick-Fil-Hate hullabaloo this week, and the deep pain that it caused so many people. I’d spent the week arguing, raging, seething and hurting over the immense hatred that was flowing from the “gotta have straight chicken” and their “but what about the free speech red herring?” compatriots. It was an exhausting week, and while it was wonderful and healing to be amidst folks who shared in the hurt, just revisiting the topic sent my neck and shoulders back into the tension of that rage. The pastor’s message of “Hold on, better times are coming” was wonderful, but I still needed a massage when I got home.

While the plate was passed for the offering the image below was projected up onto the wall, I assume as a reminder that there are companies who aren’t trying to have people killed for being gay.

The image, and the idea behind it, just don’t sit well with me. You can see HRC’s criteria for their Corporate Equality Index here. That’s the list of things they use to determine if a company is “pro-gay” as described in the above image.

But there’s so much that they leave out. Coca-Cola may have wonderfully inclusive insurance, and they may include orientation and identity protections in their hiring procedures, but they also have a history of murdered union workers in their bottling plants in central America. What does it matter if they won’t discriminate against you for being gay if they’re just going to have you killed for demanding safe working conditions and fair wages. Their corporate headquarters may be a great place for LGBT people to work, but I’d bet those plants are not.

The same can be said of the factories that produce Apple products, Nike’s sweatshops, Gap’s sweatshops and Hershey’s child-slave farmed chocolate. Even here in the US, Starbucks has a history of union busting. Those are just the ones I knew about off the top of my head!

Hiring practices and sponsoring Pride parades don’t mean jack when you’re mistreating and killing your employees. You can’t be pro-gay and pro-slavery. Queer people are slaves. Queer people are union organizers. Queer people are textile workers in sweatshops.

Playing nice in the public eye doesn’t make you “pro-gay,” not when your murder, exploitation, slavery and unfair business practices affect queer employees and their families. You can’t be “pro-gay” when you’re anti-human.

A Radical Reading of Galatians 3:25:29

Galatians 3:25-29

25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

I have seen the assertion that the identities so important in identity politics are subsumed by our identity in Christ. Someone is not a Jew, they are a child of God who is Jewish. Someone is not a slave, they are a child of God who is in bondage. Someone is not a woman, they are a child of God who is female. Someone is not black, they are a child of God who is of African descent. Someone is not gay, they are a child of God who is attracted to the same gender.

In the Kingdom of God, the ways in which we divide ourselves are overridden because we are in Christ who unites us.

But telling someone “there is no longer Jew nor Greek” does not lift the Roman boot sandal from the necks of the oppressed. Saying “there is no longer slave nor free” does nothing to change the fact that “Abraham’s offspring” is still held in the violence of slavery. Saying “there is no longer male nor female” does not erase the ways in which women are oppressed, othered and systematically devalued. Telling each of these “I don’t give credence to this class division” means that you don’t take seriously the ways in which the members of each class are oppressed.

Likewise, “There is no longer gay nor straight, there is no longer trans nor cis” doesn’t erase the experiences of the queer person whose life is at risk for simply being who they are. They cannot simply say “I’m not gay, I belong to Christ” and suddenly have the reality of their oppression disappeared.

The tendency amongst some to say that in Christ we move past our (previous) identities creates room to erase the experience of the oppressed and hides the need to work on the racism, sexism, heterosexism, transphobia that is at the root of the exclusion of many from having a voice in the Body of Christ. When straight, cis, white men appeal to “There is no longer,” then they run the risk of furthering violence against those who still are.

Paul can be read here as preaching the other side of Jesus’ first recorded sermon in Luke 4:18-19. Walter Brueggemann writes in The Prophetic Imagination (p. 84):

In Luke 4:18-19 he announces that a new age was beginning, but that announcement carries within it a harsh criticism of all those powers and agents of the present order. His message was to the poor, but others kept them poor and benefitted from their poverty. He addressed the captives (which means bonded slaves), but others surely wanted that arrangement unchanged. He named the oppressed, but there are never oppressed without oppressors.

His ministry carried out the threat implicit in these two fundamental announcements. The ministry of Jesus is, of course, criticism that leads to radical dismantling.

If he came to “let the oppressed go free” then he has also come to oppose the oppressor. If Jesus is setting the tone of his entire ministry by speaking to the oppressed, then Paul is speaking to those in the oppressing classes of their participation in the Kingdom of God. Paul is removing the ability of the oppressors to other the oppressed.

The voice of Paul here must be directed at the oppressor, not the oppressed. He must be saying to the men that they can no longer exclude and other women. He must be saying to the slave owner that the category of slave cannot exist in Christ, for if he is speaking to the oppressed, then he is simply allowing for the erasure of their oppression in the eyes of their oppressors. When straight or cis people say “I don’t see you as gay, I see you as my sister. I don’t see you as trans, I see you as my brother,” they don’t do anything to stand with the oppressed, rather they erase the oppressed, saying “The way you fit into my framework is more important than your lived experience.” If Paul is telling the slave “You are no longer a slave,” and not addressing the reality that this offspring of Abraham is held as property of another human, then Paul is not preaching a gospel of freedom for the oppressed, but a perverted gospel that ignores cries for freedom.