Freedom is about the elimination of systems and structures that privilege some and penalize others.
Not too long ago, my son asked me how people who knew what it felt like to be denied justice, could deny others justice. It did not make sense, he said, for various minority groups to be at odds and not support one another in the struggle for equal treatment. I agreed with him. But I also knew that solidarity amongst oppressed people was easier said than done.
Growing up, I always made friends with the kids who were teased, bullied and just did not seem to fit in because of who they were, or because of who they were not. I hung out with the kids who were bused into my middle-class black elementary school to achieve class diversity. I made friends with the boys who were called “sissies” because they did not like to play sports, and were not as “rough” as the other boys. I ate lunch with the girls who were teased because their hair was too short and their skin was too dark. It seemed so easy then. But, really it wasn’t. I still wanted to fit in. So, while I did not tell the jokes, do the teasing, or call the names, I did stand silent when the jokes were told, the teasing was done and the names were called. I hung out with the kids who were ridiculed and rejected, but I did not always stand up for them, especially when they were not there. I did not know then that in my silence, I was claiming my privilege to be a part of the in crowd.
As I have claimed my womanist voice, I have realized not only the need to name the ways in which various oppressive systems, structures and ideologies intersect and interact to deny me certain privileges, but also the ways in which I am able to claim privilege. Thus, while I may be penalized because of my race and gender by racist and patriarchal constructs of power, my education or sexual identity are potential sources of privilege. To be a member of an oppressed group does not exempt me from being an oppressor. The temptation to be a part of the “in crowd” is always there. The desire to enjoy certain privileges, be they cultural, social, political, economic, is especially strong for those of us who have been systematically denied such privileges. Yet, freedom is not about undeserved privilege, that privilege which comes at the expense of others. Freedom is about the elimination of systems and structures that privilege some and penalize others. As Patricia Hill Collins reminds us in her work, privilege is always defined in relation to others. It is the authority to define and dominate a space, be it a cultural, social, political or even discursive space of knowledge. Thus, instead of claiming unjust privilege, I as a womanist am called to denounce and fight against systems and narratives that in any way penalize people for who they are, or who they are not. I am further called by my very Christian identity.
Central to the Christian claim that God became incarnate in Jesus is the notion of kenosis—that Jesus emptied himself of his divinity even to the point of his death on the cross. What this signifies for me is that Jesus divested himself of anything that would obstruct his complete solidarity with the most oppressed and least of these in his society. Essentially, he denounced his claims to patriarchal, ethnic or even religious privilege.
It is not easy to give up privilege. But a just and equitable world requires that we do. This means that even as we recognize the ways in which we have been oppressed, we must also name the ways in which we oppress. We must name the ways in which we are complicit, especially through our silences, in the oppression of others. As Audre Lorde reminds us, our silence will not protect us—it will not free us.
My son was right—it doesn’t make sense for oppressed peoples not to support one another. It is time, therefore, for us to stand up for the ridiculed and rejected even when it is not easy!
Kelly Brown Douglas is Professor and Director of the Religion Program at Goucher College where she has held the Elizabeth Conolly Todd Distinguished Professorship. She was recently awarded The Goucher College Caroline Doebler Bruckerl Award for outstanding faculty achievement. Kelly is a leading voice in the development of a womanist theology, Essence magazine counts Douglas “among this country’s most distinguished religious thinkers, teachers, ministers, and counselors.” She has published numerous essays and articles in national publications, and her books include The Black Christ, Sexuality and the Black Church, What’s Faith Got to Do With It?: Black Bodies/Christian Soul. Black Bodies and the Black Church: A Blues Slant is her most recently released book (Palgrave Macmillan, Fall 2012). Kelly is also a priest in the Episcopal Church and has served as Associate Priest at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. for over 20 years.