On Believability, Oppression and Ferguson by Sara Frykenberg

Sara FrykenbergLast week, Amina Wadud wrote an important post,Justice for Mike Brown,” discussing Mike Brown’s death in light of Brown vs. The Board of Education, Plessy vs. Ferguson and the injustice faced by African American Communities, particularly in the US legal/ criminal justice system. She highlights the dehumanizing practices that lead us to criminalize black bodies, beginning in childhood.

Considering her post and many, many other articles and news reports over the past several months, and particularly this last week, since the Grand Jury failed to indict Darren Wilson, I felt compelled to speak about a certain quality of kyriarchal oppression: that of rendering the oppressed “unbelievable.” I will not recount the details of the case here (please see the link above for links to court documents through NPR), nor will I try to “speak for” African American communities– nor can I. However, I think it is important that we bloggers and readers at feminismandreligion.com continue to consider the recent verdict and the critical justice issues it raises, as well as remember the tragedy of Mike Brown’s death, and so many men and women like him.

Actor and activist Jessie Williams, who many know from the popular TV show Grey’s Anatomy, gave a passionate and salient interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” back in August after Michael Brown was killed. You can watch most of the interview with Williams, LZ Granderson and Tara Wall here; you can watch here for the clip I mention below.  Like Wadud, he too discusses the criminalization of black bodies, drawing from the everyday experience of Black men in the United States to make his case. At the end of the interview, Williams powerfully asserts, “We’re not making this up.”

“We’re not making this up.”

Not too long ago, my husband and I were talking about the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of kyriarchal economic oppression. Every time I come back to the question of ‘why’ I am reminded of exactly the point Williams is making here: some people really believe that ‘other’ (marginalized) people are making ‘it’ (their lived experience) up whether it be for attention, special treatment, sympathy or some other reason. This reality, the privilege, the ignorance and the total unwillingness to believe that a different experience than one’s own could possibly be true, is outrageous, frustrating and understandably enraging.

I am reminded here of the book Cunt by Inga Muscio. Muscio discusses the sexual education she received as a child, watching a video in which a “doctorly sounding male narrator,” “informed” her and a room full of female fourth graders that “any pain or discomfort we [women] might feel resided ‘in our heads,’ and had been collectively imagined by womankind for thousands of years.”[1]

Later in the book Muscio sarcastically feigns vindication when science ‘discovers’ that PMS is actually real—because, ‘you know, women couldn’t possibly be trusted to tell the truth of their own bodies.’ I use this example in many of my classes when discussing institutional sexism in medical science because it is highly relatable and somewhat ludicrous in contemporary US collegiate culture.

The propagation of ridiculous un-truth, however, hits close to home when we talk about rape culture and believability in my classes—particularly when considering studies (and lived experience) that show how women of color (particularly black women) are far less likely to be believed by police and judges when testifying to their rape than white women.[2]

The unwillingness to grant the right of testimony, the right of authority—an ability to authorize one’s own experience—is quintessential oppressive power. Examples of this preclusion and disbelief abound in our legal histories when we consider who (which race, which sex, which sexuality, which body) is admitted as a ‘reliable witnesses,’ who is allowed to testify, what is considered a crime, and against whom or what a particular crime is said to be against.

When particular bodies, like the Black male body, are deliberately criminalized and dehumanized, the issue of disbelief compounds and “others” are made into “monsters”[3] that can be ‘justifiably’ murdered, jailed, disbelieved, distrusted and disenfranchised.

Experiences of oppression are not “made up,” as Williams, Wadud and so many other writers, activists, bloggers, reporters, community leaders, religious authorities and historical figures have told us. Structural violence is well documented, and lived truth. Yet, the invisibility of privilege and the unwillingness to address privilege where it exists continues to ignore and obscure “other” realities through narratives of blame, shame and dehumanization.

What I have been reading lately, what I have been trying to pay close attention to, what I have been trying to think about are humanizing strategies: humanizing strategies that can battle the often unconscious internalization of deliberately dehumanizing narratives and that can create justice-making in places where injustice abounds.

Listening—that is, listening and believing is an important strategy for people of privilege like myself. Thank you to all of the people of color who have informed my knowledge for this post. I also find hope in Restorative Justice programs, like that in Oakland, CA. Restorative justice works to address the needs behind harms for victims and offenders, involving the whole community in a solution.

What are your humanizing strategies? What do you think can create justice-making from this place of injustice?

[1] Inga Muscio, Cunt, Seal Press, Berkley, CA: 2002,17

[2] Peitsch, Nicole. “’I’m Not That Kind of Girl:’ White Femininity, the Other, and the Legal/ Social Sanctioning of Sexual Violence Against Racialized Women.” Canadian Woman Studies; Fall 2009/ Winter 2010: 28, 1; Gender Watch pg. 136

[3] Darren Wilson testified that Brown looked like a “demon” to him, effectively making Brown into a monster.


 Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence.  In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.

Categories: Abuse of Power, Racism, Rape Culture


13 replies

  1. Thanks for this important post. What does it take to be able to recognize that other people’s experiences can be different from your own? And that “there by the grace of God” and other people you might be. And that even if you had it hard, some people might have it even harder?

    Over the past few days I have been watching a program introducing young white Australians with prejudice to the realities of Aboriginal lives today called “First Contact.” Interestingly enough the two with the most pre-judgment and who held on to it longest were two young white women who had experienced violence and alcohol abuse in their own families.They were the ones who kept saying “it’s a choice.” Gradually I understood that what they were saying is “I had it bad too, but I got out of it, why can’t you?” Why is it that many people are more likely to say that, rather than to say, “I had it bad, thank goodness someone helped me, and let’s see how to help you too?”

    Are we unwilling to face the fact that injustice exists in history and in our own worlds?


    • I don’t think it’s unwilling-ness, Carol. It’s privilege. And that privilege is compounded by our individualistic culture, which says each of us should do it for ourselves — something that flies in the face of oppression based in societal structures. If I’m white, I don’t have to know how bad an African-American has it. If I’m a man, I don’t have to know how difficult it is to be a woman. If I’m straight, I don’t have to understand LGBTQ experience. In fact, in each case, I have to go looking for that information.


      • Thank you Nancy and Carol,

        Carol, I think you ask some really important questions here. I actually do think some people are unwilling to face injustice; and I think it has a lot to do with fear, shame, fear of shame or alternatively, survival strategies that don’t serve us well when we are trying to thrive. I’ve had many of those. In the case you mention above, the first think I thought was: perhaps, those women are fearful that in admitting someone else’s struggle they might have to deny their own survival? I don’t know– but again, this is a good question.

        Nancy, I also agree that privilege is incredibly blinding– and even the reason we don’t see other people’s oppression most of the time. However, I do think that sometimes people look away willfully; and as I said to Carol, I suspect this has a lot to do with shame or even, alienation.

        Carter Heyward talks about the way that we become ‘smaller’ so to speak, in oppressive contexts— I think sometimes we feel so small, alienated from our “power in mutual relation” (Heyward) that we think if we let this small part of us feel threatened that we will be lost.

        I’ve said this before in posts (I think), but I often think of oppression as in some ways (not all ways), like abuse. Well, one strategy when working with people who abuse in therapy is working to get this person to confront shame– I have actually heard that this is essential (but I am not a therapist). I tend to think “white guilt” is sort of a misnomer because I define guilt and shame very differently. ‘White shame’– and the defense mechanism that springs forth when someone thinks “they are bad” instead of “they have done bad” is a big barrier for many people; a barrier from even doing the work of learning.


  2. In regard to prejudice there is a saying in Zen:

    “Just when you think the foreigner’s beard is red, there is a red-bearded foreigner.”

    There is prejudice and injustice involved obviously, but I also think that the use of guns is at the heart of the problem. In Great Britain, most police officers don’t carry firearms. What would have happened if the incident had occurred in England instead of Ferguson?


  3. You go to the heart of the matter. Violence and injustice are terrible in themselves. To be told you are making it up is crazy-making and generates such rage and despair that it is hard (sometimes impossible) to hear. Here is to all those who refuse to be silenced. Here is to all those who listen.


  4. Privilege overwhelms all aspects of our lives, to the point we harm ourselves and cause death around us, and yet believing the other person is crazy seems easier than acknowledging it. Thanks for sharing.


  5. Excellent blog. Brava! I learned a new word–kyriarchal–that describes what I see all around, not only in “real life,” but also in movies and on TV and no doubt in pop music (which I never listen to). I keep thinking the world is getting more and more dysfunctional; now I can also say it’s kyriarchal. And it is. We’re not making this up. You know what? It’s had to be optimistic and maintain a sense of humor. I keep trying, but it’s hard. Sigh.


  6. Thank you for teaching me a new word: “kyriarchy.” It expresses so succinctly the ills of our world.


  7. Amina’s dispassionate discussion of the structural realities of racism and your discussion of believability go a long way to analyze the racism in our culture. Here’s an article I think every white person should read in order to get a lived sense of how racism plays out, “My Vassar ID Makes Everything OK,” at http://gawker.com/my-vassar-college-faculty-id-makes-everything-ok-1664133077/all. I think of myself as well-informed, but that doesn’t cut it when we’re dealing with such a disparity of experience. Laymon’s essay brought home to me in a visceral way how hard it is to be an African-American man in AmeriKKKa.


  8. A wonderful post. Thank you. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what an essential tool truth is as we move forward to a more just, sustainable, peaceful, equitable world and your post illuminates how the “kyriarcal” (I love that word!) tries to take away the immeasurable power of truth from those who are oppressed by saying that they are “making up” their oppression. I’ve seen this so often in women’s circles – women who are greatly wounded find such healing and transformation when they speak about their experiences and are deeply listened to and believed by other women. What a powerful statement it is to simply believe one another.


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