11 Nov The Conversations that Come Before the Outrage
We’ve settled into a rhythm as a country where every other week a new episode becomes the expression of an ongoing controversy, such as violence toward black people, sexual assault among college students, or the death of another trans person. When this happens, members of oppressed communities grieve and raise their voices, often calling for change through outrage. And every time this happens, opposing voices cry for more “nuance” and encourage minority voices to calm down.
I’m thinking of the recent controversy over racism at Yale, but I’ll speak broadly about communities I’ve come from because I’m more familiar with those dynamics. There would be an incident that was blatantly racist or homophobic, and that incident was indicative of a broader campus climate that valued some students more than others because of the color of their skin, their gender, or sexual orientation. Inequality was on blast in personal spaces (disparaging remarks in dorms) and in structural ways (alarming lack of diversity in leadership). So the incident would cause what was always pulsing under the surface to erupt, and marginalized students would finally speak out about the injustice.
Because those calling for change in the system are viewed with suspicion, minority voices would deliberate about how to most effectively communicate their concerns. Is it best to drop the filter and scream about the mental, physical, and emotional toll the oppression takes on their bodies? Or is it more effective to stay calm, choose words carefully, and gently bring people along in hope that a slow shift might occur over time?
I’m a white person so this dilemma has not been nearly as traumatic for me as it’s been for black or Native American people, among others. But as a gay woman I can share how demoralizing the dilemma has felt for me personally. Imagine hearing on a regular basis—both explicitly and implicitly—that you are not valued as much as others in the community. And after another incident causes another eruption, as groups become polarized and your people are dismissed or demeaned, you want to be heard. So you pray, you vent to friends, and you suppress the rage that has yet to be transformed so you can tap into your sweetest tone of voice in hope that your words will be received by the people with power.
I’ve joined countless conversations like this with countless leaders in Christian organizations:
“I can only imagine how difficult it must be for you to field so many questions from donors and concerned parents,” we would say. “It must be so challenging for you to balance the responsibility of meeting the needs of vulnerable students while easing the concerns of constituents who take issue with people like us.”
Straining to be empathetic and gracious, someone would continue.
“I realize we need money to fund the incredible work happening here, which makes it difficult to take action that might jeapordize future funding, but aren’t these human beings worthy of love and support even if it comes at a cost? I feel like—I don’t know—maybe it’s worth it to put yourself out there, to risk losing some money in order to advocate for people made in God’s own image.”
Those in leadership tend to “welcome this feedback,” which means they meet with people, look them in the eye, jot down some notes, and then rarely make changes. These conversations become exhausting.
You strive to be patient and slow to speak. You know you’ll be more respected if you look and act as much like the broader community as possible, so you constantly temper your internal response and aim for a milder one. You speak in the terms others find acceptable, then you unpack those terms in a gracious attempt to bring people along in understanding.
Despite being there to receive an education or carry out a job, and despite the humiliation of being misunderstood and often maligned, you bear the burden of educating both your peers and leaders. You do it because you care about the community and hope to alleviate the suffering of others like yourself.
And nothing changes.
After all your patience and restraint—laboring with little support—the oppression continues. Your people are mocked in the locker room and excluded from leadership circles. You watch students paint their faces the color of your skin, laughing at parties at your expense when they’ve benefited from your oppression every single day of their lives, and you’re supposed to stay calm. You register your concerns with more people, carefully curbing your tone and vocabulary, and you’re assured, once again, that action will be taken to create a safer environment.
And nothing changes.
First you lose hope. Then you lose the will to channel your voice into one the broader community will trust. To be trusted and respected, you realize, means to sound a little bit whiter or a little bit straighter or a little more like a man (but in a sexy sort of way). You hear comments about the “angry black woman” or the “angry lesbian” when the people they point to are remarkably chill: humble and tender in their engagement. Eventually you realize your efforts to just stay calm are slowly killing you because the pain spews out in unexpected ways.
This is what we’re working with when we open our mouths to speak. There’s a range of views about how to raise awareness, and my personality tends toward peacemaking, but I am not about to criticize those who take a different approach. It would be encouraging if Christians would stop with the cautions and listen, understanding the personal and communal history leading up to the moment someone speaks from the margins. After all the disappointment from all the empty promises, many get to a place where they’re left with only one form of expression when it comes to public engagement: reasonable, understandable, justifiable outrage.