#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen and the Power of Micropolitics by Dirk von der Horst

DirkIn 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.


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8 replies

  1. Thanks for this important post. I never heard of H. S. (initials suffice) until he appeared on FAR. Suffice it to say that his essay made me sick. There was an internal discussion among bloggers and founders of FAR at the time which raised many of the questions you raise here.

    On the larger question of separated and segregated conversations, thanks for not only raising the issue, but also for providing online resources that may help to remedy issues of “not knowing about.”


  2. I began reading and interacting with FAR after the H.S. essay, so I can’t respond to your discussion of that, Dirk. But I have to say that my experience of FAR has been — by and large — that it’s one of the most tolerant, even welcoming sites I’ve found. Of course, I’m a mostly heterosexual, white feminist and I know that I can be blind to racism and homophobia, although I continue to educate myself to make up for my lack of experience in those areas. But on FAR I love that feminist women and men from so many different religions, countries, sexual orientations, etc. interact here. We don’t always agree, but we interact with respect.


  3. Hi Dirk,
    Thank you for this very important post. Ignorance is a powerful, and destructive force. I remember when the H.S. piece came out, as I was using the blog in one of my classes at the time. One of my students was very upset about it; and I had to admit to myself when watching her reaction, though I commented on that blog, I was ignorant of the background related to the defense that was being given. This was very wrong.
    I read the piece you tagged above by T.F. Charlton. It is also a powerful piece. At one points she critiques H.S. and his supposed remorse noting that he was, “soft-pedaling this behavior as ‘what many addicts do.'” This really struck a chord with me. I spent many years participating in an abusive relationship with an individual who is an addict, partially attributing this individuals actions to the addiction and a mental disorder. I then spent several years connected to an individual with a severe mental illness who was also abusive, also often attributing this individual’s abuse to their condition. It was not until I really did my research on abuse and abusive behaviors that I was able to understand and own the idea that mental disease and addiction are not the reasons for abuse at all, rather, they are simply vehicles through which an abuser can minimize his or her abuse.
    When we participate in or buy into any kind of behavior that minimizes the abuse other people have experienced, we act unjustly.
    I greatly appreciate your strong reminder and demand here, Dirk, that it is essential that we engage voices different than our own. I use a book by Miguel de la Torre in my ethics classes called, “Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins,” in which he describes oppressors as those who ignore oppression, don’t care that it exists, don’t do anything about it, OR aren’t even aware of it, so exploit by default of their ignorance. He then states that a responsible ethic must give “epistemological privilege,” to the voices of the marginalized. For a person like myself, who has white, heterosexual privilege, I need to stop, listen and respond when I find that I am questioning a narrative of injustice that is outside of my experience. This moment of questioning and resultant defensiveness are my first signs that I may likely be dealing with an area of un-examined privilege.

    Thank you again Dirk. I think this is a very important piece. I am glad to have your voice as a part of this community.


  4. I would like to recommend a book here, which by subject matter maybe will seem odd, but let me explain, the title is: “Demeter and Persephone: Lessons from a Myth,” by Tamara Agha-Jaffar (2002). Agha-Jaffar transforms the Hymn to Demeter into the spiritual byways of contemporary, feminist activism, bonding and communication. There is a scene in the story, where four young sisters fetching water meet the earth goddess Demeter (disguised as an old woman, who says she has escaped from pirates) and is sitting at the town well, where the girls are fetching water, and they get into a dialog with the goddess and offer help. Here’s Agha-Jaffar commentary on this scene:

    “Women are particularly adept at empathizing and connecting with the suffering of others due to the nature of our socialization. This is a source of our strength. […] Furthermore our support does not have to come from women of our own generation. It can be cross-generational, as the daughters of Metaneira inform us. It is important to keep reminding ourselves of this fact because a particularly insidious impact of patriarchy manifests itself in our willingness to sever our connection with other women, and our complicity in sewing the seeds of distrust and suspicion between women, of different generations, different races and ethnicities, different sexual orientations and different economic classes.”

    FAR is about feminism and religion, so why not work more directly with the teachings of feminist or goddess spirituality and its lessons?


  5. Thanks Dirk. It’s so easy for white people (including myself) to retreat into the blinders of privilege, and it takes conscious effort to acknowledge our mistakes and try to learn from them.


  6. I’m glad to see FAR taking some responsibility here for the Hugo Schwyzer debacle and the role of people on this site in defending him and giving him a voice. I acknowledge that some Schwyzer’s most ardent supporters on other sites have been strangely quiet since his twitter confession. Still, I do not think this goes nearly far enough and I think the criticisms that were raised all along need to be acknowledged. It’s not just that many women of color were criticizing this man: they were criticizing with some valid points–particularly about white women giving white men cover and praise that is undeserved and potentially harmful. Also, I’d like to point out that radical feminists of all colors (even white) were suspicious and critical of the support Schwyzer was receiving, so this was also a silencing of radical women (who are more likely to be women of color). At the time criticism of Schwyzer was being dismissed, it was being dismissed with the justification that it was coming from radical feminists. The article by Cynthie Garrie-Bond on Redemption showed she had not seriously considered his critics. FAR needs to go farther. Saying “we need to be less ignorant of what women of color are saying” is not enough. What exactly were women of color (and lesbians!) saying about this man and the women who supported him?


  7. Thanks for this essay! I particularly like the personal encounter with the consequences of our ignorance and subsequent silence on certain moral issues. It becomes an antidote to not always feeling empowered to make the kinds of choices we pride ourselves on in other areas of our lives. So I like your honesty on that regarding women of color and feminist issues.

    I had to laugh still when this then turned into you being the one to recommend reading for others. I’m happy a particular book was informative FOR YOU.. but please, women of color have been writing for a long time. Don’t let us presume that a book you chanced upon, which was helpful, is representative of all the writings that we have been doing. It’s an important first step.

    Just a thought


  8. “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.”

    Glad you realized this. And though I agree with Amina Wadud’s point above about the books (and I think you actually referred to websites) that have been enlightening for you, I very much appreciate that you gave an action step and shared the links to get there.


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