Does egalitarian theology have anything to say to people of color? It’s a simple question with a complicated answer.
The myth that egalitarian theology has nothing to say to people of color is reinforced by the movement’s tendency to centralize white people. Many women of color have accused the woman's rights movement as a whole of being a white movement. Indeed, the feminist movement has often demonstrated a disregard for the needs of women of color. Although feminism and egalitarianism are distinct ideologies in many ways, both have struggled to affirm, include, and empower people of color.
In an article called “Race and Feminism: Women's March Recalls the Touchy History,” Karen Grigsby writes: “The fact that the feminist movement was so white for so long… is the reason so many women of color steered clear of it… women of color noticed when their interests and needs didn't get a full hearing.”
Unfortunately, I don't think egalitarianism has given women of color a “full hearing” either. Egalitarians believe in equality for people of all backgrounds, yet we have too often ignored the threat of racial inequality. Egalitarians can sometimes be quick to speak and slow to listen to the voices of people of color. We've bypassed racial righteousness easily to pursue other goals and failed to own our complicity in systemic racism. We've neglected and dishonored people of color, and we've too often spoken in generalities instead of truly seeing and dignifying people of color.
Ideally, egalitarian ministry would be multi-dimensional, intersectional, inclusive, and holistic. Jesus met people where they were at emotionally, physically, intellectually, and socially—not just spiritually. Jesus engaged Pharisees, scribes, and teachers of the law, but he also engaged the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the broken, the forsaken, and the forgotten. Jesus was concerned with the whole person. We must likewise see and dignify people in their social and cultural contexts.
So what would it look like for egalitarians to fully see and dignify people of color?
Make Sacred Space
I recently asked a fellow advocate how many friends of color she had. The answer was none, but she still felt entitled to speak on issues pertaining to people of color. This is the crux of it: many privileged people, and white people in particular, speak as experts on topics they have given no sacred space to in their hearts or their churches.
When the word selah appears in the Psalms, it is thought by some to indicate a pause for contemplation. As a faith community, we must selah. We must pause, contemplate the stories of women of color, and allow them to resonate deeply in our hearts.
Listen attentively to the stories of women of color. Make sacred space in your heart for narratives filled with racial injustice, pain, anger, separatism, and brokenness. Make sacred space in your church for the pain, victories, perseverance, and contributions of people of color.
Invest Visually in People and Communities of Color
Visuals matter. I am always confused and disheartened when I attend a church that claims to advocate for women but has only men serving communion, men in the pulpit, men leading worship, men in positions of leadership, and men on the elder board. I feel the same when people of color are not present at decision-making tables in the church. If we don’t image an investment in the leadership, ideas, and theology of people of color, our commitment to racial inclusion is a shallow one.
We’ve established that visuals matter immensely, but a desire to image people of color in leadership can sometimes manifest as tokenism. Don’t include women of color in leadership to meet a quota. Respect women of color for their unique gifts, callings, and experiences.
I was once told by a colleague that I was well-received as a leader of color because I was well-groomed. What am I? A dog? What did that thoughtless comment imply about my cultural heritage?
Whatever her intent, my coworker’s comment was racist and deeply insensitive. Thoughtless words like these just perpetuate racism.
When push comes to shove, we've tended to center and represent the narratives and priorities of white, middle-class or upper-class women in the fight for gender equality over the needs and perspectives of women of color. This is why many women of color feel overlooked or excluded within the broader feminist movement, and the same has too often happened within egalitarianism.
Language matters—and it goes far beyond linguistics. Language refers to our entire egalitarian narrative—how we frame and teach egalitarian theology; what and how we write and speak about it and other important theological issues; what we say in our churches, seminaries, Christian communities, and pulpits, and to and about each other. Language is about relationship, and it can be used to exclude or include, and to separate or unite. Language can create bridges of conversation or chasms of separation.
Language also carries strong emotions like anger in the face of injustice. We need to promote civil dialogues, redemptive narratives, and convicting debates on racial righteousness within the egalitarian movement. However, we also need to be careful that our righteous anger is neither easily dismissed nor is it the only tool in our advocate’s tool belt.
The Bible tells us that Jesus was angry at the money changers in the New Testament, and God was angry with Israel for their idolatry in the Old Testament. While anger has the potential to deplete our social capital and further marginalize us and our message, Jesus’ example proves that anger can also be necessary to burn away apathy and indifference. We should weigh our language carefully to make sure our anger is righteous and effective—like Jesus’ anger in the temple.
And more importantly, we must intentionally use inclusive, creative, and empathetic language when preaching egalitarian theology in a multi-cultural, multi-colored world.
Celebrate Women of Color
In a contribution to the Latina section of the Huffington Post titled “9 Blogs By Latinas To Empower Women Everywhere,” Carolina Moreno quoted Barbara Sotaita’s recent statement on the all-inclusive feminism she’d like to be able to celebrate:
I refuse to celebrate a white feminism that keeps women of color on the margins.
I refuse to celebrate a white feminism that alienates, subjugates and oppresses women of color. I don’t want to hear about the first Latina [insert public office title] or the first Asian [insert professional sports title]. I’m sick of women of color only being mentioned and deemed worthy when we are the ‘first,’ when we fit neatly into a box crafted by white women’s version of history.
There’s nothing wrong with celebrating women of color who are the “first” in their field or role. But should we only celebrate women of color for shattering ceilings? Or could we begin to celebrate women of color for serving, loving, leading, and walking humbly with Jesus? Could we celebrate women of color simply because they are made in the sacred image of the Creator?
We must ask ourselves if the egalitarian movement consistently welcomes and honors women of color. Maya Angelou once said, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” If women of color feel excluded and dishonored by white egalitarians, many will cease to engage with egalitarian theology. But white egalitarians can begin to establish a foundation of trust with women of color by consistently passing the microphone and celebrating their expertise and leadership.
Practice What We Preach
Egalitarians preach and believe in justice for all people, but we don’t always fight alongside people of color for racial justice. We must practice what we preach on racial righteousness. We must boldly and consistently live out our justice creed, so that our theology does, indeed, have something to say to people of color.