By now most, if not all, readers of FAR have read or watched the disturbing YouTube video of University of Oklahoma Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) Fraternity sing their racist chant. The two male SAE members who led the “song” were swiftly expelled by President David Boren, with the National Chapter of SAE shutting down the OU chapter of SAE. Student outcry denouncing the racist behavior ranged from hurt and anger from white students to how are you surprised by black students. At the very minimum the incident was and is occasion for important race dialogue on all college campuses.
The level of comfort and familiarity with the lyrics sung by those on the bus horrified me. The students, both male and female, were dressed in formal attire on their way to an unspecified date function. I flipped between MSNBC and CNN commentaries as the video replayed and the subsequent fallouts unfolded. Yet what I missed was commentary on the complicit nature of acceptance by the other students on that bus; and for the purpose of this post, the young women who gleefully followed along.
I immediately reflected on the writings of Mary Daly and her seminal work, Gyn-Ecology: The MetaEthics of Radical Feminism in which Daly challenges the multiple manifestations of patriarchy’s far-reach on the lives of women as well as female complicity in patriarchy. Daly identifies the practice of Indian Suttee or female foot-binding as one of many examples of Sado-Ritual Syndrome in which she argues, “The history of the footbound women of China provides us with a vivid and accurate image of the way in which women have been coerced into ‘participating’ in the phallocratic processions. The footbound daughter was bound to repeat the same procedure of mutilation upon her own daughter, and the daughter upon her daughter” (41-42). While the literal practice of food-binding has been erased, Daly reminds us patriarchy continues with “insidious forms of mindbinding and spiritbinding in every nation of this colonized planet”(42).
The culpability of the young women (and men) and their Sin of Silence brought swift judgment from me. How I thought, could they so easily participate in something so wrong? Then the related YouTube surfaced of University of Oklahoma SAE House Mom rapping the N-word in the same unconscionable manner as the SAE fraternity’s use of the N-word. I basked in my indignation until I recalled a not-so-distant time when I remained silent in the face of what Daly might call the phallocratic mutilation of women.
The occasion was the appearance of comedian Bill Maher on the campus of Loyola Marymount University during the presidential campaign of the 2008 election. As a political pundit I expected Maher’s material to cover the upcoming election as well as the candidates, one of which was Hilary Clinton. From the start Maher used abusive verbiage associated with female genitalia as a means of contesting her politics. When speaking of the male candidates, his insults/jokes were framed around the substance of their platform and not their bodies. The distinction was not lost on me, or the roar of laughter from the predominately student body.
I recall turning to my female co-workers repeating, “This is wrong, this is not funny! We need to walk-out right now!” “What?” they responded, “Walk out on Maher, you know he’ll make a mockery of us and our bodies if we do such a thing.” They were right. I sat in complete fear trying to find the courage to match my moral outrage with the action of walking out. I recall imagining what horrible names related to the female anatomy he would hurl at me, affirming my deepest body-image sensitivities. So like so many other women when confronted with the repercussions of ugly misogyny I remained silent and in my seat, seething with shame and disappointment by my in-action.
At the time I did not have Daly’s language of female complicity in patriarchy, although this is exactly what occurred. While I self-identified as a feminist, I did not understand the repercussions and reach of a patriarchal system that so easily silences women to their own demise. The seductive nature of this complicity takes form whenever I/we remain silent to its deceptive and phallocratic ways. But speaking up is risky and dare I say, exhausting when you are the lone voice who objects to the tentacles of misogyny, especially when the pushback comes from other women. I have discovered once you leave the safety of your feminist tribe and speak out against misogyny or speak in favor of women from a feminist stance, you are open game for all kinds of insults–with many coming from other women. During these encounters I find my voice softening to a safe whisper. I know my silence can be complicity in and with patriarchy, but the alternative engagement outside of academia leaves me with battle fatigue.
While I continue to hold those on the University of Oklahoma SAE bus accountable for participating in the racist rant, I wonder how the binding of the daughters by the bound mothers facilitated the participation in the phallocratic processions.
Cynthia Garrity-Bond is a feminist theologian and social ethicist, is completing her doctorate at Claremont Graduate University in women studies in religion with a secondary focus in theology, ethics and culture. For the past six years Cynthia has been teaching in the department of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University where she completed both her BA and MA in Theology. Her research interests includes feminist sexual theology, historical theology with particular emphasis on religious movements of women, agency and resistance to ecclesial authority, embodiment, Mariology and transnational feminisms. Having recently returned from Southern Africa, Cynthia is researching the decriminalization of prostitution from a theological perspective.