On white womanhood: an apology

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Guys. We need to talk about white womanhood.

Last week, Ivanka Trump endorsed her father for president, calling him “color-blind and gender-neutral“; a man who sees the potential in others and goes to bat for them. This is Donald Trump we are talking about—obviously this is not true. Taylor Swift trended on Twitter with #KimExposedTaylorParty, firing up the conversation about white feminism and the ways Taylor has used her white womanhood to paint herself as a “victim”. Melania Trump’s plagiarism of a speech originally from Michelle Obama pointed out the ways that white women have profited from the work of black women.

If it was easy to blame racism and bigotry on white men, it is much harder to do that now. White women have brought their fair share of turmoil to the black community. We just do it “nicely”, with soft voices and a smile on our faces.

It’s true, I am familiar with some systemic oppression. My keys have left marks on my fingers from gripping them too tightly as I walk through a parking lot. When I was 16, I was harrassed by two middle-school boys while my best friend and I were sitting on top of my car, watching the sunset. I am familiar with not being at the top of the food chain, but I’m pretty high up. To equal the plight of white women with the pain of black women would be a gross misrepresentation of history and the abuse and disregard for black women in our culture today.

Being a woman does not make me any less white.

White women have branded our own kind of poison: taking without thanking, climbing without helping others up, naming ourselves “victims” of the system without a glance behind us. Just oppressed enough to garner sympathy, but not low enough on the food chain to deserve it. Being a white woman means Gone With the Wind, “white girls sleep while black girls fan them with peacock feather fans“, racism. White woman racist means Taylor Swift garners sympathy while Leslie Jones is forced to leave Twitter. White woman racism is Ivanka Trump, with a pretty smile, going above and beyond to endorse her father when she was not obligated to.

But for many white women, our racism is in our silence rather than our voices.

In a journal from the U.S. Department of Education titled “When White Women Cry: How White Women’s Tears Oppress Women of Color“, Mamta Motwani Accapadi writes,

While White women have been depicted to be the foundation of purity, chastity, and virtue, Women of Color have historically been caricaturized by the negative stereotypes and the historical lower status position associated with their racial communities in American society. Additionally, as Palmer states, “the problem for White women is that their privilege is based on accepting the image of goodness, which is powerlessness”. This powerlessness informs the nature of White womanhood. Put in simple terms, male privilege positions the nature of womanhood, while White privilege through history positions a White woman’s reality as the universal norm of womanhood, leaving a woman of color defined by two layers of oppression.

It’s time for white women to celebrate and honor black women, who are some of America’s strongest culture builders, while white people borrow words from black culture like “woke” and “salty”. (White people do not have the right to label other white people as “woke”, but that’s a blog post for another day.) It’s time to honor the culture-builders, and ask for permission to share their art instead of stealing from them with such disregard for the creators. We can do better.

So, to the black or brown or just non-white people reading this: I’m sorry. We, white women, have not taken ownership of our participation in racism in this country.

Because of a white woman’s silence, Emmett Till died in 1955.

Because of white women’s silence, Dylann Roof shot and killed 9 black people at Bible study, saying, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country.”

Because of white women, the hashtag #WhiteGirlsDoItBetter went viral in July 2015.

I refuse to remain silent in the face of racism. I refuse to turn a blind eye to the role that my whiteness has played in my inability to stand in solidarity with other women. I recognize and repent of the ways that I have continued to allow racism to exist, both personally and systemically, and I commit to using my resources and opportunities to draw attention to your voices.

And to my fellow white women: let’s start speaking up and doing our work.

 

Love is: building a safe space

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For being a person who is pretty open about my opinions, I surprise myself by how private I am. When people ask me about Logan, I can feel all my muscles tighten. It’s like asking about intimate details of your friendship with your best friend—why is it “small talk” for so many people to ask about your significant other?—but I’m learning to roll with the punches.

There are plenty of things I will get on a soapbox for, but marriage relationships are not one of them. Maybe it’s because I’m so deeply skeptical that a one-size-fits-all exists? Maybe it’s because I don’t feel qualified because I’m not even 25 years old? But I’ve been asked by several people in the last few weeks to talk about relationships, particularly about Logan, so I’m going to do it the way I know best—a conversation. Consider this the first of many talks about love.

• • • • •

I tend to think of all relationships as a literal, physical space. From the moment you become friends, you lay the cornerstone, and from there you build. Some relationships are further along in the building than others, but they’re all spaces nevertheless.

Logan and I often say to each other, “this is a safe space.” We say it to remind the other person, and sometimes to remind ourselves of what our relationship is all about: creating a space to know and be known, a space that’s ultimately bound by knowing that the other person is invested and is gonna keep showing up. That kind of safety is built over time, as the walls become more secure and the ceiling holds itself up.

Sometimes those words are a reprimand. I will never forget when, almost a year ago, I confessed to Logan that I had lied about something totally irrelevant because I worried that it would jeopardize his self-confidence. The first thing he said to me was, “I thought this was a safe space.” Those words haunt me still.

Because safe space means that lying is not allowed. Passive-aggressive behavior is childish when you could just grow up and tell the truth about how you’re feeling. Safe space means the other person’s feelings have inherent value and worth, because that person has value and worth. Safe space means practicing a teachable spirit and showing up to do the work. Safe space means that you are ultimately for the other person, their #1 fan, their teammate and coach and best friend. And safe space means that when the other person fails you, you are there to remind them that if it only took one thing to kick them out then it wasn’t a safe space to begin with.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t fight. When you have two people together as stubborn as Logan and I, fighting is going to happen. But we know that at the end of the day, we are for each other and one little fight doesn’t jeopardize that. We built a strong foundation, and we intend for it to last.

Safe space is the other person respecting you enough to call you on your bull****. (The danger of being a writer is that I don’t get called on my B.S. enough—thankfully Logan does that for me.) Safe space is telling the other person if you were hurt, and safe space is choosing to respond with “tell me more” instead of becoming defensive.

The only way to establish this kind of safety is to be willing to walk the tightrope of risk. This is what Brené Brown calls “vulnerability”. Because what if he’s not safe? What if the other shoe drops? The key here—and the key to any healthy relationship—is to love and respect yourself first. Because if you do, and the other person doesn’t prove to be safe, you’ll know that you owe it to yourself to find someone who is. You’ll know that it’s not worth the temporary (and shallow) sense of security. When it’s that early and you haven’t laid a foundation, it is good to walk away. I repeat: it is good to walk away. But if the other person proves to be trustworthy, these little risks land like bricks, building your sanctuary.

If you want a safe space, you have to be willing to go first. Be willing to be the first one to say I love you; be willing to be the first one invested in commitment. (It’s really hard to build a safe space when each person is trying to appear less interested than the other.)
Be willing to give up the façade of “chill”. I have zero chill. It’s very freeing. Be the first one to admit you’re wrong, and that you’re sorry. Remove the stigma of admitting failure: when it’s not a battle to be won, there’s no satisfaction in having the last word.

Building a safe space is hard. work. But there’s a reason why I chose “sanctuary” as a synonym: these spaces are sacred. There is a holiness to all relationships, romantic or platonic, that reflects the Trinity. Relationship should be a verb, because it is an action, not a thing. It is a practice, it is a liturgy, and it is a discipline.

Logan and I are not perfect. At my best I am inquisitive and teachable, and at my worst I am stubborn, uncooperative, and argumentative. I react much more quickly than I wish I did, and I am much more fearful than I want to be. But being honest about my flaws makes space to learn and grow. And Logan and I will always be practicing this discipline—the art of building a safe space.

The day after I Do: A love letter to my for-real future husband

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Dear Logan,

Today was a hard day. Maybe it was because I started going to counseling again, maybe it was how overwhelmed I feel with this semester, plus fundraising for my trip to Lebanon this summer, plus, you know, getting engaged last week. Whatever it was, it left me an emotional wreck all day. I had been running at an unsustainable pace, and it finally caught up with me.

You know this, because after a series of very emotional texts you met me in the science building at 11pm. I talked a little, I cried a little, but mostly you held me together and reminded me to be gentle to myself.

I told you how grateful I am that you are a thoughtful, emotionally intelligent man, to which you replied with a laugh, you taught me well. But my words don’t amount to your teachable spirit and eagerness to dive deeper with me these last two years. And as I walked away, I had a moment of clarity: I am marrying the right man. And that truth spread over me, warming my toes with the cozy feeling relief brings.

In that moment, I said my second yes to marrying you. And I plan to keep saying yes, through the fights and wedding mishaps and when we wake up the morning after we said I do, bleary-eyed and shocked that there’s a life for us on the other side of the curtain.

I will say yes in the unemployment, in the miscarriages, in the postpartum depression and the 7-year itch. I want to do the work. I want to keep leaning in and asking questions. Because if there’s anything I believe about the beauty of marriage, it’s that I have the privilege of knowing you better than anyone else. And there is nothing I find more beautiful than the act of knowing and being known.

You ask for conversations at Taylor about men advocating for women, and you tweet about male privilege, and you’re learning how to say tell me more, and I tear up every time because there’s nothing sexier than a man who advocates for women. And I know it all comes from that place in your heart that pushes you to show up and be on my team.

So I will plan the flowers, the colors, the dresses, the food. And you will agonize with me over invitations and websites and caterers, and you’ll make me laugh until I cry (as you always do). But know that my eyes are on the day after I do: when we lay the first stone for our life together. I’m waiting for the infinitely more important moments that will come long after the wedding dress, the cake or our first dance.

I said yes to a life with you. And in case you didn’t know, I’m really glad you asked.

A reflection on white people in Africa

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Kigali, Rwanda.

I am standing inside the Rwandan Genocide Memorial. In front of me are photos, telling the stories of genocides that have come before. Stories of Africa that have been long forgotten by the Western world.

Next to me is a young man, only a few years older than me. Rwanda runs through his veins and paints his skin a rich brown. He tells me he does not know whether he is Hutu or Tutsi, because his family is so afraid of the power the knowledge might hold, that the power of seeing difference could rekindle the hatred.

After the Belgians took present-day Rwanda from the Germans at the end of World War I, the previously unified people were divided when the Belgians preferred the Tutsis over the Hutus for having lighter skin. The Tutsis were given the power and weapons to rule. The Hutus overthrew the Tutsis in 1961, but the resentment and tensions that resulted would only continue to rise until they climaxed in 1994, wiping out approximately 800,000 people.

I look back to the wall. In front of me is a painting of the Herero and Nama Genocide. Taking place around 1905, the Germans overpowered the tribes in modern-day Namibia, coming into rule and making the native peoples slave to the desires of the Germans. Approximately 100,000 native people were killed, primarily from starvation and the poison Germans put in their wells.

I glance up at him. His face unreadable. “Europeans have brought a lot of pain to Africa,” I said slowly. “I wonder if Africa would be a less wounded place if we had never come.”

He ponders for a moment. “Even if Europeans had never come, sin would still exist in Africa.”

I nod, and we return to silence once more. But I still wonder, how can you not be furious about what we’ve done? How can you not resent me, coming here like a tourist to learn about the realities you cannot escape? How much blood has been poured out on this soil in the name of developing civilization?

We’ve killed millions of people to bring Western civilization to the new world, and we think we’ve done you a favor.

• • • • • • • • • •

Kampala, Uganda.

Kids walk up to us and drag a finger across our skin, looking to see if the white will wipe off. Some of the neighborhood children run up and hop in our arms unabashedly, while others hang back shyly. For some of the kids, we are the first time they have ever seen white people. Trash lines the streets, in sewers and at the bottom of ditches. Some of the kids do not own a pair of clothes that will cover their entire body.

I am embarrassed. Some of the people in our group are taking pictures of the kids, little strangers whose parents we do not know. This would be illegal in America, I think to myself. I am so haunted by this that I only take one picture, a little girl who hops on Logan’s back like a monkey and clings to him, grinning from ear to ear.

We leave an hour later, piling the 15 of us back into a van to bump down the dirt path back to the main road. I try to remind myself that some people must bear witness to the suffering of the world, that this is my calling, so we can work toward a world where people aren’t forced to live this way. It sounds hollow to my ears.

All I can hear is my heart, whispering poverty for one is a direct result of the abuse of power by someone else. And I know that we are the ones who should be found guilty for our crimes.

• • • • • • • • • •

Jinja, Uganda.

I am visiting my friend Erin. We sit on the porch swing, watching the kids run around the playground. She tells me that a high school group came earlier in the week as a part of their missions trip. Their trip consisted of four days touring Ugandan slums, and four days on a safari.

I know a girl in America who thought Africa was a country.

My lunch does flips in my stomach.

• • • • • • • • • •

Musanze, Rwanda.

I have been asked to give a sermon at a church. I agreed two weeks ago, but as I lay in bed the night before, my mind continues to hamster wheel. Who am I, an American university student, to tell them how to live well in Rwanda? Like I have it figured it out because I was born in America? My privilege tastes bitter in my mouth.

Earlier in the week, Jéan-Baptiste tells me that the Prosperity Gospel runs rampant through Rwanda. Most believe that God has blessed America because we call ourselves a Christian nation.

Every young Rwandan I meet tells me of their plans of coming to America. They ask me if it is easy to live here, and I swallow, not sure how to tell them that it will be so much harder for them than it ever was for me. That they will be forced to prove themselves in ways that I never had to for being American-born and white. I stumble over my words as I try to explain to my 26-year-old bus driver that few people in America will care that he is Rwandan, because he will be black first, African second, Rwandan last.

• • • • • • • • • •

If all I return with is thankfulness for what I have and to “never take what I have for granted”, I will have failed. I knew this before I left.

So instead, the questions I return laden with are much heavier ones: in a restored earth as God intended, what does distribution of wealth look like? How can I, one single individual, make steps toward bringing that vision to earth? What does it look like for me to steward my power well?

These are not questions I will find simple answers for. But I will have failed every person I met on my journey if I don’t try.

• • • • • • • • • •

I closed my sermon with a prayer, and when I finished I opened my eyes and scanned the room. In a moment of conviction, I put away the bullet points and spoke with every ounce of my being.

“I promise you that before I die, I will answer to all of you for how I chose to spend my wealth while I was here on earth.”

I promise that I try to do you justice.

I promise that I will try not to let you down, you who are the very least of these.

Whoever is last shall be first in the kingdom of heaven.

These are the promises I made in that little church in Musanze, Rwanda. These are the promises that I will spend the rest of my life trying to keep.

4 Reasons Why Christian Feminists Should Watch the Hunchback of Notre Dame

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To say my love for Hunchback of Notre Dame has been deep and abiding would be an understatement. Esmerelda’s face graced my 3rd birthday cake, and my relationship with my Quasimodo finger puppet was unbreakable (until I lost it at my grandparents house sometime around Christmas 1999). HND was my first true pop-culture love.

Some might say it was inappropriate for me to watch as a 3-year-old, but my parents weren’t concerned. Any dark themes or sexual innuendos went waaay over my head until, years later, I revisited the movie at age 16. It was just as beautiful as I remembered, and the movie remains one of my favorites to this day.

Many of my peers shy away from HND, still haunted by memories of mobs and hellfire, but I believe that HND’s themes brought up important conversations ahead of its time. Here’s why HND is a must-watch for Christian feminists everywhere:

1. Nuanced conversations about the church.

Almost the entire movie takes place on the grounds of one of the most famous cathedrals in the world—Notre Dame—and the culture surrounding the church in 19th century Paris. Judge Claude Frollo, the villain, has spent his life praying all the right prayers and is considered “godly” by society’s terms, and yet his actions are motivated ultimately from a place of selfishness, hate and fear. His legalism is ultimately what drives him to the brink of insanity, causing him to attempt to take out Quasimodo and an unconscious Esmerelda.

And yet, even more important than Frollo’s legalism is the frank conversation about the gypsies and their exclusion from the church. In Esmerelda’s God Help the Outcasts, she sings, Yes I know I’m just an outcast/I shouldn’t speak to You/Still I see Your face and wonder/Were You once an outcast too? HND raises the idea of a Jesus that is from the outskirts, a Jesus that considers the outsiders his people and seeks them out in his community. Esmerelda voices her doubt of a faith that excludes minorities, and her sinner’s plea contrasts deeply with the “Pharisees” prayers shown during the song.

 

2. Representation of diverse women and their sexuality.

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Okay, “diverse” is a little extreme since there’s really only one female character in this story, but she’s a woman of color and is a member of a people group ostracized by society. That was pretty unusual for ’90s Disney, to say the least. Esmerelda isn’t portrayed as some kind of whore, but she’s also not the innocent virgin with doe eyes (*cough* ARIEL *cough*). She is nuanced. She’s smart and has a great sense of humor, and yet she doesn’t take any handouts. She’s outspoken. She’s sexually confident. To see that in a Disney movie is pretty much unheard of. And yet when Frollo makes sexual advances, the message the writers send is that she was not asking for it. Which leads me to point #3. . .

3. Open conversations on consensual relationships.

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Frollo: You think you’ve outwitted me. But I’m a patient man. And gypsies don’t do well inside stone walls.

*Frollo inhales her hair*

Esmerelda: What are you doing?

Frollo: I was just imagining a rope around that beautiful neck.

Esmerelda: I know what you were imagining.

Frollo: Such a clever witch. So typical of your kind to twist the truth to cloud the mind with unholy thoughts.

It’s pretty subtle, and yet the language is still clearly there. The unwanted sexual approach of a man with more power, a man who has painted her to be the one seducing him. It has all the hallmark signs of rape culture. In his mind she is the one seducing him, rather than the reality—the unwanted advances of a man who doesn’t like to hear “no”.

This would have been such an easy scene to leave out of the story, but I think it portrays something important about both characters: Esmerelda’s temporary helplessness and Frollo’s physical display of dominance over her sends chills down my spine every time.

The misinterpretation of Esmerelda’s sexuality is not unique to Frollo, however; Quasimodo also assumes her warmth towards him is something more. So when Esmerelda chooses the blonde, winsome Phoebus over Quasimodo, his shock and grief are understandable. But he doesn’t try to change her mind. He doesn’t decide he’s going to force her to do whatever he wants. You know what he does? HE ACCEPTS HER “NO”, AND HE MOVES FORWARD WITH HIS LIFE. Quasimodo is the biggest person in this story, because he stomachs the rejection with dignity, choosing to care for both her and Phoebus as their lives are placed in jeopardy. Being the hero doesn’t always mean you get the girl, and Quasimodo ultimately understands that being a nice guy does not make Esmerelda owe him anything.

4. Justice and compassion as important qualities.

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Frollo: How dare you defy me?

Esmerelda: You mistreat this poor boy the same way you mistreat my people. You speak of justice, yet you are cruel to those most in need of your help.

Frollo: Silence!

Esmerelda: Justice!

Religious genocide runs rampant in the Parisian community as Frollo searches the city for gypsies. When Esmerelda frees Quasimodo at the Feast of Fools, she speaks up for her people in a crucial setup for the witch hunts that occur later in the movie. She is advocating for her people, for the people who do not have the platform or power to speak up. It is the woman in the story who leads the rest of the characters in caring for those who are less-than. It is she who moves towards reconciliation in the last scene, when Quasimodo is welcomed into the city and finally feels a sense of belonging. Ultimately, Esmerelda is the pivotal character in this story and its messages: it matters to speak up when we are told to remain silent. There is room for all of us. We are all worthy of love and belonging. That is what makes the magic of HND so unique, and so invaluable.

It ends with us: the toxicity of gender roles

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Whether you’re male or female, you received messages growing up about gender. Maybe they were spoken out loud, like being told that “women want love and men want respect”, or maybe they were more subtle, like the way you were supposed to dress or whether your boyfriend had to ask your dad permission to take you on a date. Messages about our manhood or womanhood deeply shape who we perceive ourselves to be and our confidence in our interactions with the opposite gender.

To write this article, I posted a Facebook status asking what messages people received about gender. Here are a few of their responses:

For women:

  • “Don’t be too successful or don’t share your opinions too freely or else you will scare men away.”
  • “I was warned against ever making the first move or pursuing a man; it’s the woman’s role to wait patiently and passively and the man’s to pursue. If you, a woman, go after a guy, you are a slut, and you don’t know how to wait on the Lord. (Also, men don’t like it and won’t date you.) I kissed him first. There were no objections.”
  • “Men want respect; women want affection.” . . . Being told that as a woman I didn’t want to be respected was actually very hurtful (and a little insulting).”
  • “Only guys have strong sexual drives and struggle with sexual sin.”

For men:

  • “You should have more friends who are boys, otherwise you’ll start acting like a girl.”
  • “‘If you like romcoms, you’re probably gay.’ Good romcoms are pretty amazing. Sue me.”
  • “Always beware of sexual sin, which amounted to, be afraid of the woman you love at all times. I have since chilled out after realizing that being afraid of my girlfriend wasn’t loving to her or to me and was no way to live.”
  • “The idea that young men and women can’t be friends seems to have led at least a few young men in my life to be completely unable to have a female friend without either developing romantic feelings for her, or developing delusions about said friend having romantic feelings for him.”

You or I may not have experienced all of these messages, but they all have one thing in common: the restrictive boxes that exist around gender in our Christian community hurt more people than they help. When we tighten our grip on definitions of manhood and womanhood, we make people who deserve to belong in society—a 30-something single, a full-time working mom, a guy who doesn’t like sports—feel like untouchables instead of equally valuable members of our church community.

The only party that benefits from suffocating gender roles is the fear inside of all of us; fear that society will change if we relinquish the rules we’ve clung to for hundreds of years.

And these messages are passed down from generation, to generation, to generation. Do you know how they’re being spread? By the generation that came before them. You’d think we would learn, having been wounded by the same messages, but somehow we keep repeating them instead of nipping them at the bud.

It needs to end with us. Let’s make this the last generation that ever has to deal with that crap, because it really doesn’t do anything to positively benefit society. Why inflict the same pain on your future kid that you experienced now? I am convinced that in order for the next generation to be better off than we are, we must intentionally work to rewrite the narratives that we receive—if we don’t, we will unintentionally pass them on. Because apathy is not a neutral attitude; it positively benefits the structures that already exist in society.

And maybe, one day, we will wake up in a world that has taken another step toward loving others better.

Wearing the Word Brave: a guest post on Mudroom Blog

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It’s dark in here, I told him, but all the lights in the room are on. It’s the first thing I can think of to explain my knees bouncing and my teeth chattering, even though I’m not cold.

I am out of control.

I am helpless, at the mercy of my brain.

I am utterly terrified.

I used to run from the fear. But it followed me from church to church, friendship to friendship, argument to argument. I would fall asleep gripped with terror, clinging to anything in reach until I learned to cling to myself, to cling to the hope that joy comes in the morning.

I used to fight the fear. I would bare my teeth and roar, but the cold would still seep into my bones and I’d still find myself shivering. Fear was the great archenemy of my soul, and so I took on every battle and sought everything I could to eradicate the terror like it was a cancer.

I used to outlearn the fear. If I just knew enough, if I read enough books and conducted enough research and found words to explain the panic, it would go away like breaking a magic spell. So I studied history, psychology, sociology, poetry, art, whatever I could to understand the mystery of the human condition. Knowledge is power, I would say, tattooing the word brave on my neck and going on coffee dates with strangers and giving speeches.

You are fearless, they would say in awe. I wish I were as strong as you. And I used to let them say it and not correct them, because it felt nice and I craved their admiration. But if I could go back, I would have stopped them. I would have said, Thank you very much, but I’m afraid you’re wrong.

Read the rest over here.