Bitterness, Balls-Busting, and Seminary.

1525368_2532026305289_7201001417806567651_n“To what extent are we all afraid of angering people?”

She was talking about the fear to broach the race question in church. Fears that when white pastors tell their old white parishioners (who give a collection-tin full of money) that their old ways are plain old-fashioned racist, that collection-tin will disappear. Fears to disrupt the white-code,  the code that says  when we (the royal, White We, the we presumed but never explicitly stated) are all in the same room it’s finally okay to bash Affirmative Action, make dialect jokes, microaggresions that aren’t so micro.

Fears as clergypeople that aren’t necessarily rooted in worries about a comfortably paycheck found in those tins – fears that a paycheck will come at all, fears that the church doors will not stay open. Fears that wonder how we can be pastors to even the most racist, sexist, homophobic, and prejudiced of people.

My husband often gently reminds me – when i’ve gone off again on Hobby Lobby and whiteboys and how it’s all a conspiracy to disempower anyone who isn’t white and male and hetero and wealthy – that everybody hurts.

I’ve been walking this line of anger – and how much of it to show – for as long as i was being told girls couldn’t do all that boys could. My friend Erin has written an incredible piece on the spiritual power of bitterness. She writes about uncompromising anger, the anger that does not flinch the way Christian discipline and Christian guilt may teach us to doubt. But there’s the double-edged sword of bitterness for us Christian feminists:

“Bitterness, I’ve been told, is to be avoided by Christian feminists who must wrest themselves from the reputation of both angry activists and fuming fundamentalists.”

I live this in the classrooms where i’m one of three womyn, when i feel my own internal pressure to speak so that it’s not an all male voices, but worry that once again speaking as a feminist will be met with more  grimaces and eyes rolls. It’s fear of letting down my own internal riot-grrl-engine (which, yes, i’m also quick to trace to its capitalist feminist individualism) and fear of being That Girl (which is also maddening, because i’m a woman and not a child).

As Erin writes, bitterness can also be another word for heartache.

Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman spoke briefly during our Divinity School orientation, primarily to explain why we are required to take a course in Black Church Studies. “We are not the black church because we chose to be,” she stated. “We are the black church because we had to be.”

The intersections of race and gender are complex, and the more i assert my stance as a feminist/womanist in classes where only 35% of us are womyn, the more i understand what she meant within my own social location. The culture shock of coming from a school full of gender minorities to an institution that has historically been (and still is) hostile to womyn has run deep in me these first few weeks. No matter how much i celebrate the feminist hermeneutics we read, no matter how grateful i am for friends who are also womyn’s college alums, it is exhausting to work day in and day out assert your right to be where you are and think what you think.*

And the balance of anger and bitterness, heartache and peace-seeking, it’s this impossible walk i’ve never really learned. Because on the one hand, as a feminist, i want to be authentic and true and unapologetically assertive. A woman who fights impostor syndrome, who knows my own value and ability and right to ask the first question or push back against the accepted way of thinking.

But on the other, i’m supposed to be walking this walk in the humility of knowing my own humanity, and its fallibility, and that even the most conservative white cisgenered heterosexual man is still created by God.

(I really do actually sort of know that last part; my husband is from Wilson, North Carolina. He still has to remind me that i know this.)

My mother calls it the “Divinity-School-Shakedown.” The peeling open, scrambling around, and puking out all you know and all you think, a jenga-puzzle game of identity and call. So today, still thumbing through scattered notes on bitterness and heartache, my professor asks us this question:

“To what extent are we all afraid of angering people?”

I still don’t have an answer.


*(I also feel it pertinent to mention here that it’s still the first month, and all us ickle firsties are in various forms of culture shock, and anyone who says they aren’t still adjusting is slurping down that liar soup)

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5 thoughts on “Bitterness, Balls-Busting, and Seminary.

  1. Leah Eve says:

    Beautifully written, thoughtful, and thought-provoking. Thanks for sharing these experiences, because I do not share them and it’s valuable to hear your reflections.

    I’m wondering why you choose to describe yourself as a womanist. My understanding of the history behind that word is that womanism emerged as a movement led by and for Women of Color that centered their experiences, voices, and needs, particularly in response to the racism that is still present in mainstream feminism. I certainly feel that it is important for me as a white feminist to read and listen to womanist thinkers. But I also think that the word “womanism” does not belong to me and that I cannot claim it or even claim to fully understand it, because I will never live the experiences of Women of Color.

    • elizabeth mcmanus says:

      Thanks for your comment Leah! And you’re spot-on about the history of womanism; it was a term first birthed by Alice Walker in the 1970s because of this history of racial exclusion by white feminists you directly described. Recent scholarship, however, by people like Monica Coleman in her books The Dinah Project and in Ain’t I a Womanist Too? Third-Wave Womanist Religious Thought argues that the term womanist has grown wider in academic discourse, while the term feminist has been somewhat corrupted by mainstream (and not always actually feminist) media. She argues that people of any gender and race can claim the identity of womanist, if indeed they uphold the principles first laid out by Alice Walker.

      I’m conflicted about the use of this term for myself, because a few books by a few womyn of color doesn’t stand for an entire history and experience of race i don’t encounter by virtue of my white privilege. But i also really, really care about bringing womanism to the Christian feminist conversation – it is largely absent in a mostly-white, mostly-moderate conversation. And then again, i care about womanism BECAUSE i want to use my privilege to disrupt structures of oppression … and so does my white voice talking about womanism perpetuate or disrupt? I seriously think about this all the time. If you have any feedback, i’m totally open to it. Because right now i mostly just talk and talk about why discussions of gender and race matter to my Christian peers – and while a strong contingent are at the point of debating terms and discussing intersectionality, many have just jumped on the train that says womyn can be ordained as ministers.

      The long-winded answer to your (very very good!) question, then, is that i consider myself a womanist ally/student and a feminist, the kind of feminist who is deeply committed to intersectionality with ALL marginalized identitied in my life and work, and i’ve not found a semantic way to make that all fit neatly into my writing, but then again isn’t all writing “Structure” a masculinist construction, so … at a loss.

      Thanks again!

      • Leah Eve says:

        Just wrote a long response and then my internet went out and I lost it, so I will try to recapture what I said… Thanks for your thoughtful response! That helps clarify some of your thought process.

        I understand your desire to bring womanism into Christian theological conversations and I can see how vitally important this is and how challenging it must be, given the broad range of views and perspectives you described. I didn’t know about the more recent womanist scholarship that says that anyone can identify as a womanist, so I’m glad you brought that up and I will do more reading on that. Feminist theology is definitely your area of expertise more than mine! I do think, though, that it’s a bit presumptuous do refer to yourself as a womanist, or to tag something you’ve written as womanist, because you don’t have the qualifications to determine whether or not that is true. Namely, you are not a Black woman. I think as a white feminist, the best semantic solution I have come up with is to call myself a feminist who strives to be anti-racist. Womanism was created by Black women and I think should be preserved for Black women’s voices, concerns, and experiences. In my opinion, white people have a habit of destroying everything we get our hands on, and I worry that if we start identifying as womanists, we’ll ruin that too.

      • Leah Eve says:

        Thinking about this more…

        I feel uncomfortable about the fact that I just put myself in the position of determining who womanism is and isn’t for. That is absolutely not up to me to decide. If you say that womanist scholars have argued that anyone can identify as a womanist regardless of race or gender, then that is not for me to argue with.

        So. Also at a bit of a loss.

      • elizabeth mcmanus says:

        Yeah, it’s a tricky one! I think what Monica Coleman is arguing (her clearest argument is in the introduction of Ain’t I a Womanist Too? if you want to look!) comes from a very Christian community perspective that functions on inclusivity vs. exclusivity, and that womanism extending its arms but with a decidedly educative, holding-accountable, see-racism-for-what-it-is stance will spread more within communities that might otherwise be hostile to discourse on race and gender. And in a tradition of evangelism, and a desire to talk about race in all communities (not just the liberal ones more willing to talk about it) this argument makes a lot of sense to me. It’s about building bridges first, then holding accountable … which did not sit well with me while at MHC, but having seen that something like 70% of churches in America are still theologically and politically conservative, i think a movement that can seem to accommodate conservative theology but then insidiously/eventually overtly challenge such theology might actually really change contemporary Christianity. In a lot of ways, it’s that old argument of: is it better to work within or outside the system? And i think Coleman is trying to do both.

        Womanism has always been theological, and most contemporary womanist scholars work in seminaries and have ties to established religions (mostly Christian, but with a sizeable Muslim population as well). So i think it’s crucial in this framework to engage the conversation of race/gender/class/ability/etc with a theological lens. Coleman says the conversation has to be internal because of the shared faith across races/genders/etc.

        And then again, though, just because Coleman argues this doesn’t mean all womanist scholars in Christian theological settings (Eboni Marshall Turman, Emilie Townes, etc) say the same thing.

        So mostly what i try to do is read as much as i can, take as many courses in my conservative seminary with womanists as i can, and when i write about myself/my theology use “feminist” but rely most heavily on womanist resources. That way, i’m trying to open myself and listen before responding. I try to rely on womanism most of all because i think it is the most intersectional discipline/identity in my field of Christian theology and ethics, and in tagging things as womanist i’m trying to draw attention to an underrepresented field utilizing the privilege i have of writing a somewhat well-read blog among my (often more conservative) peers. But that line of white privilege dismantling power vs. upholding it is one i really struggle with the nuances of … so i’m learning, and i make a lot of mistakes, and i try to be as open as possible to criticism.

        This has been such a good conversation to make me think! Missing Mount Holyoke and tea time!

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