I live in Cleveland, and I am writing at the end of the World Series. I don’t know how it will conclude, but like most of the people in my city, I’m holding my breath. As I write, I literally just left the cardiac ward of one of the Cleveland Clinic hospitals, where patients’ lives actually seemed to hang in the balance of the game, according to one of the nurses who was monitoring heart rates from a central station in the hallway.
I, who never cared about baseball and avoided Cleveland sports, am more than a little surprised at myself. For, I have grown to care about the outcome of these games. Why so, I ask myself. Why am I sitting with my mom in the hospital, watching a game, when she’s ill, and neither of us has ever cared about sports? I’ve been thinking about this recently, and believe I have landed on the right answer.
You see, when you are from Cleveland, it is not uncommon to have this precise conversation or some permutation thereof:
Stranger: Hello there. Nice to meet you.
Self: Where are you from?
Self: Denver is a lovely city. I visited for my friend’s wedding once.
Stranger: Yes. We love it out there. Great weather; friendly people. What about you… where are you from?
Stranger: (chuckling) I’m sorry. Mistake on the Lake. River’s on Fire. Etc.
Clevelanders are made to feel shame about our city, whereas, by contrast, Chicago is heralded for its architecture, food, and skyline, and so one. Now, I have lived in Chicago. It is beautiful and all that, and, more importantly, Chicago is not what I am writing about. What I have come to observe about myself is that I actually love Cleveland for what it has to offer, which primarily includes people. Hard workers, brilliantly talented musicians, artists, actors, educators, physicians, architects, and more.
I have grown to appreciate the people and stories that built the city’s heritage, culture, ethnic churches, diverse neighborhoods, beautified lakefront, museums, international airports, colleges and universities, rivers, parks, gardens, and on and on. There is persistent and nearly inevitable derision that is glibly tossed our way here in the Two-One-Six. I realize, it has worn me down over the years.
And, especially when I travel for academic conferences and chat over drinks at the receptions, I am tired of playing Justin Martyr to the city, in large measure to defend my own merit as a scholar and educator.
You might be asking right about now, what this has to do with feminism and religion, but I assure you there is a through line. And it is this… my experience as a Clevelander has given me insight into the insidious world of micro-aggressions. Conduct, language, persistent jabbing jests, minor insults played off as jokes… it adds up, becomes a weight, and makes one feel a certain burden of guilty-until-you-prove-yourself-justified. It jelled when I recently traveled for professional meetings, where my colleagues from other cities (and notably not from Chicago) were actively rooting for the Cubs.
I had experienced an eerily familiar misplacement among similar colleagues a few months earlier when they were aggressively lobbying for a Golden State routing of the Cavs. It wasn’t that they had a team preference that was the problem. It was wailing and lamentation, directed at me, when any Cleveland advance occurred. I couldn’t help feeling a particular “in-your-face” attitude that reminded me of contests on the grade school play yards in which I stood in the minority. I felt compelled to explain to them what they were doing. But, they didn’t seem to get it.
Then, I realized, they didn’t get it either when in conversation some were discussing discriminatory language and behavior among professional academics. Everyone was in agreement in general, but I noticed when I mentioned a couple of my own experiences with esteemed members of the Academy, there was a deafening silence. Ah, I thought, here is where you shut up, Natalie. Keep it general.
Everyone wants to feel good about having the right attitudes and opinions, but it is disruptive to confront particulars, persons, and in this case, me, in my personal/professional history, my voice. It is disruptive to see the honorable or venerable de-pedastalized. But, colored as I was by C-Town rust, I realized that I was willing to transgress the limits of the polite public praxis of feminism.
Feeling a few times the pariah because I had dared to speak, I learned an important lesson. It is possible, and frankly typical, to speak and act under the guise of a woman-affirmative, socially progressive veneer while maintaining below the true colors of privilege and position. Minor yet steady reminders serve to enforce the acceptable limits of inclusion and demarcate where that inclusion ends.
This subtle turn is in ways even more insidious than outright discrimination because it manages to cloak and entrench true attitudes of sexism and other modes of exclusionary thought and action. It operates on the pay-to-play paradigm… you pay a certain tariff in the form of self-adjustment, tempering, and rhetoric in order to participate. Break the rules, and find yourself somehow shamed, alone, untruthful, or deluded. It feels an awful lot like trying to convince your chortling colleagues from so-called “first tier” cities why Cleveland is good place to live.
It would not be fitting to conclude this little essay without an acknowledgement that there is ambiguity abounding here. Everyone is tainted by the problem. The Indians, for example, have a name and image problem (although I learned that the name was actually a team-selected name in 1915 in honor of a Native American ball player named Louis Sockalexis, who was with club from 1897-99), which is received by many as a form of intolerable discrimination. For others, it is a name, rooted in a century old sports team with a colorful and dramatic historical narrative. Even fans who hate the image of Chief Wahoo continue to cheer for the players.
In terms of battling micro-aggressions, there is the perennial issue of the best “time and place” to speak as an advocate of self and others. It feels morally troubling to have to be strategic about culture change, but one may also experience greater efficacy by doing so. And, finally, there may not be a clear course beyond pay-to-play, until the unlikely players can overturn their odds and the widespread, deeply ingrained, and errantly held attitudes that it is ok for those in the majority, even subtly, to box, exclude, or deny the minority space and respect.
I can’t solve it. I am just beginning to understand it. But, I know what I know, and I know that, at least for now, it remains, “Us against the World.”
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie’s most recent book is Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.