In my last year of seminary, I experienced a crisis of faith that left me struggling for my theological voice for about ten years. Sure, there were basics I still affirmed, or wanted to affirm, but speaking my truths was a challenge. I found my voice again at the now defunct web community Street Prophets, the first place I’d found that combined interreligious dialogue and progressive activism in a way I’d been looking for for all of my adult life. From 2006-2009, it was home.
It took only one person to destroy that home. Well, one person and the many people who stood by and let that person attack the LGBT people on the site.
It was this experience that reminded me that I had some serious listening to do when the hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen erupted on Twitter on August 12. The originator of the hashtag, Mikki Kendall, explained her rationale in a Guardian article. The backstory had to do with women of color’s perspective on white, mainstream feminists’ preferential treatment of a white male participant in feminist organizations, Hugo Schwyzer, over the women of color who had been voicing their experience of abuse by him. From what I’ve read, this backstory is both secondary and essential context. It is secondary because the empowerment of womanists, mujeristas, and other feminists of color is the primary issue. Emi Koyama documented similar dynamics at a “Men Against Sexism” conference – the issue of men’s role in feminism and the targeting of women of color is broader than one person. Still, the Schwyzer backstory is essential because accountability is an indispensable part of the critical work white feminists have to do in forging genuinely mutual relations with women of color. (More perspectives on the backstory can be found here, here, and here.)
As I read through the tweets and links, I increasingly felt a need to interrogate my place here at Feminism and Religion, which had given Schwyzer a platform (in an article now deleted), as well as using him as an opportunity to ask about the nature of redemption.
When I initially read those two posts, I sensed something off about Schwyzer and followed Eleanor Roosevelt’s advice implicit in her maxim, “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.” I ignored both Schwyzer and talk about him. But when confronted with the tweets under the #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen hashtag, I had to ask how my silence condoned exclusions and how I benefit from such exclusions. After all, Feminism and Religion has graciously given me a platform to make my voice heard and to get public recognition, so the benefits are real.
In February 2012, the Nigerian-American queer feminist T. F. Charlton (aka Grace) had already taken this site to task in her article On Hugo Schwyzer, Accountability and Not Silencing Dissent. What I need to take responsibility for is not knowing for over a year that there was a strong critique by a woman of color of the site that gives me voice. The queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick points out in Epistemology of the Closet that not only is knowledge power – ignorance is power as well. Ignorance can give people the illusion of not being accountable for various exclusions. My ignorance of some important sites of black feminist/womanist thought meant I did not have to interrogate my role in a broader conversation. To rectify this, I recommend that every reader of Feminism and Religion make it a habit to visit Are Women Human?, Gradient Lair, and brownfemipower. More recently, the hashtag #SmartBlackWomenOfTwitter trended on Twitter, which is another place to find voices that need heeding.
Carter Heyward defines God as “our power in mutual relation.” This power is always a matter of the interconnection of our one-on-one relations and broader political dynamics. Attending to the details of how we listen to each other, what structures and assumptions silence voices, what racial microaggressions are at work in a given situation is always uncomfortable, revolutionary theological work.
Dirk von der Horst is a visiting scholar at Graduate Theological Union. He earned his doctorate from Claremont Graduate University in Theology, Ethics, and Culture. He is the co-editor of Voices of Feminist Liberation: Writings in Celebration of Rosemary Radford Ruether (Equinox Publishing, 2012). Dirk can be followed on Twitter @dirkvonderhorst.