Gender and Race/Ethnicity in Theological Education
Presentations at the Women in Leadership Seminar October 17 - 19, 2003 by Marcia Y. Riggs, Columbia Theological Seminary
There is a movie, The Associate, that I use to introduce students to social construction of difference theory. In the movie, The Associate, Laurel, a black female executive finds her white male counterpart, Frank, promoted over her, although she has seniority (in fact, Frank is someone she has trained and for whom her research has been instrumental in his ability to close deals). This denial of promotion leads Laurel to decide to leave the company and found her own. No longer employed by an established firm, Laurel is unable to get appointments with prospective clients, even when they find the prospectus that she sends to them interesting. She is repeatedly dismissed by being told that there are partners to be consulted before any decision on hiring her firm can be reached. When she finally does get a face-to-face with a potential client, a white male president of a company, he admits that he was expecting a man. Desperate not to lose this opportunity, Laurel decides to deceive this potential client by saying that she does have a male partner. From that moment forward, Laurel creates Robert S. Cutty, a white male executive who is the mastermind behind the Laurel Ayers firm. The rest of the movie is the story of what it takes to maintain this deception and what happens when the deception is finally exposed.
I begin my presentation today referring to that movie because it prompts me to ask these three questions as we consider the connections between gender and race/ethnicity in theological education:
- To what extent are persons whose gender and race not male, heterosexual, white-EuroAmerican still being asked to re-make themselves in the image of the white EuroAmerican heterosexual male in order to be (fully?) accepted as interlocutors of theological traditions?
- How do we individually and corporately perpetuate a culture of deception connecting race/ethnicity and gender?
- How can we individually and corporately begin to relinquish complicity in this culture of deception?
These three questions and a recent experience thus form the backdrop for my remarks.
Recently, a colleague asked me to give the charge to the professor at his service of inauguration at the seminary. This colleague is a senior scholar in his field, and he is Ghanaian and Methodist. As an African American, African Methodist who has been a member of the faculty at this particular Presbyterian (USA) seminary for the past twelve years, I opened my remarks saying, "I speak to you tonight as an insider/outsider to an insider/outsider." From that point of departure, I told him that I needed to frame my charge to him from this vantage point-not as an indictment of the seminary-but because it was the way that I could speak honestly and forthrightly to him from insights borne of my experience. I spoke to him about how sitting at the faculty table affords him insider status at the same time that his racial-ethnic, cultural, and ecclesial heritage earmarked him as an outsider. I then offered these three insights regarding life as an insider/outsider at the seminary:
- Remember to be patient with both the institution and yourself-not to be long-suffering, but to acknowledge the institutional reality that change happens slowly, incrementally, and sometimes not at all. Also, being patient with yourself means that your personal integrity is not in question should you choose not to take a prophetic stand on some contentious issue of the seminary's common life. I charged him to establish and maintain boundaries for his mental, emotional, and physical health's sake.
- I encouraged him to stay connected to the African cosmology that undergirded indigenous traditions of healing and spirituality that stress holism, for the sake of sustaining his authenticity and for the sake of energizing the spiritual and moral life of the seminary.
- I reminded him that God in God's wisdom had led him and his family to the seminary at this time, that bearing faithful witness was his charge to keep, and that in the face of frustrating times at the seminary, simply affirm that he is God's insider.
The colleague who asked me to give the charge and many others in the seminary community expressed appreciation for my words. However, there was an obvious dis-ease with my words from a senior white male colleague. As I reflected on his response, it became clearer to me the source of his dis-ease. My words to the listening ears of my white male colleague struck at (if not, down) the heart of a long-standing ideal of faculty life: collegiality.
African American theologian M. Shawn Copeland in an essay entitled "Collegiality as a Moral and Ethical Practice," offers significant insights into why I felt compelled to frame the charge as I had and why my white male colleague was disturbed by it. My white male colleague spoke often of the need for greater collegiality among the faculty and (I feel certain) that he did what he thought needful to include junior women and racial-ethnic members of the faculty. However, my experience at the seminary was frequently of a place where (in Copeland's words) "the biased practice of collegiality" was normative. Indeed, these conditions for the biased practice of collegiality were present: tokenization and erasure. That is, as a racial-ethnic woman, I experienced being (again quoting Copeland) "erased doubly-as a professional and as a human person" when, for example, my "contributions to faculty meetings are received with polite tolerance or condescension, only to be ignored."1 Thus, there is a social mythology that grounds the profession and fosters a culture of deception in institutional life. One of the social myths driving the culture of deception connecting gender and race/ethnicity in theological education is this: All we have to do is be collegial.
A biased practice of collegiality presumes (actually expects) that persons who are not white, male, heterosexual function as symbolic white men in the institutional context. There is, according to Copeland, no "critical attentiveness" to whiteness and gender, for such attentiveness would expose the "subtle violence of the hegemony of what has come to be considered normal, average, ideal-namely, whiteness [and maleness]."2 Importantly, as Copeland's words point out, the mechanism by which the social myth of collegiality is perpetuated is "subtle violence." Of course, I assume that what Copeland refers to as subtle is the covert practice(s) of this violence rather than its effect upon those who are objectified by its expression. For, this violence assaults our personhood (harms our spirits) and consequently, affects our performance as scholars and teachers.
In an essay entitled, "Theological Education and Scholarship as Struggle: The Life of Racial/Ethnic Minorities in the Profession," Fernando Segovia, (a Hispanic New Testament scholar) adds further depth to our understanding of the nature of the subtle violence practiced in the culture of deception. Within the culture of deception connecting gender and race/ethnicity in theological education, as Professor Segovia poignantly asserts, granting access is confused with conferring power. Persons who are not white, male, heterosexual are hired (are granted access), but by controlling the number of such persons who will be in an institution (preventing a critical mass), power to effect institutional change is either non-existent or elusive.3
In the culture of deception, both discursive and institutional practices tend to conceal the hierarchical relationships that exist between social groups based on gender and race/ethnicity. For example, in theological education talk about the equality of being created in the image of God becomes a basis of a call to recognize our similarities rather focus on our differences or even affirmation of the transcendence of God can become strangely implicated in a call to transcend the particularities of gender and race/ethnicity. Also, rhetoric about consensus building can be a signifier that the practices of institutional life are actually being organized around norms of conflict management, and such norms tend to undergird practices of exclusion rather than solicit and take into account multiple voices and needs. This is the case because conflict management is about problem-solving, and solving the "problem" of race/ethnicity and gender diversity means seeking a certain telos, such as reconciliation," long before we have truly grappled with the tensions of conflict that diversity creates. Thus, another social myth driving a culture of deception connecting gender and race/ethnicity in theological education is this: All we have to do is focus on our similarities rather than our differences.
Now, some of you are probably thinking, where's she been? These two social myths are too simplistic to be what's driving a culture of deception in theological education. Well, before you dismiss me, consider this: although I have articulated these myths in simple terms, I do recognize that these myths are grounded upon two complex, interrelated fears. On one hand, there is fear concerned with loss: loss of power, loss of status, loss of privilege. On the other hand, there is fear concerned with devaluation: fear of being objectified, fear of being dismissed, fear of being silenced, fear of being misperceived. Fears of loss and fears of devaluation are the crux of complicity in the culture of deception. These fears must be relinquished individually and corporately in order to break complicity in the culture of deception that connects gender and race/ethnicity and stunts the development of all of us in the profession.
These fears also point to the values that are cultivated in the culture of deception. Two are primary: Silence and Repression. Participants in a culture of deception must not speak about the harms being committed relationally and institutionally either at all or at least not too often. And, if you do break silence, if you do act counter culturally, then you must do so without anger or hurt in your voice. Thus, the second value, repression. Participants in the culture of deception are to repress anger because "everyone knows" that anger is counterproductive; it will alienate the very persons in the institution with power from you and "the cause" of inclusivity, diversity-(what some of us call) justice-that is sought. Expressing hurt is equally problematic because you become vulnerable to perceptions and/or accusations of being unable to engage in rational (objective) discourse and/or of psychological/emotional weakness. Likewise, seemingly innocuous practices- faculty lunches for fellowship when there is a lack of institutional respect for the work and traditions of racial/ethnic faculty-and flimsy institutional gestures of support--the appointment of racial/ethnic and women faculty to leadership positions, but without any real authority to carry out their task- are mechanisms by which a façade of acceptance is constructed and maintained in the profession.
Thus, this is how life together in the profession begets a culture of deception. In the culture of deception, life is about survival. Everyone sustains the culture by swallowing their anger and repressing their hurts in order to survive.
In order to flourish rather than simply survive in the profession, we must therefore acknowledge the destructive power of some of the social mythology grounding the profession, relinquish fears of loss and devaluation, and effect processes that will counter the values of silence and repression. We must remember that institutions are defined simply as patterns that structure our life together, as such we can re-imagine the patterns. Re-imagining, however, requires moral courage, a way of being and doing as moral agents whereby we face our fears and conflicts because we are compelled by a quest for holism (interdependency and interaction) and wholeness (healing). The task is thus to engender a culture of moral courage. What will nurture individual and corporate moral courage? I have two suggestions.
First, we must be engaged in dialogue that fosters self-criticism and mutual criticism. This means that we will be engaged in exposing our fears and embracing our differences. My experience of the work of the Committee on Race and Ethnicity (CORE) of the ATS during the past two years is an example of this, particularly the workshops for racial/ethnic administrators and faculty in predominantly white institutions and the workshop on Hispanic/Black dialogue. These two workshops enacted the need to be intentional about creating spaces for dialogue that foster honesty by discarding euphemisms for our differences, such as "underrepresented minorities," and living into the conflict that can arise when we are explicit about what's at stake for whom and why.
Second, we must commit to moral postures individually and ethical stances corporately that have non-violence as a core value. This means that we must recognize the harms done to the personhood of individuals and to our common life when we seek to transcend and reconcile our differences out of fear rather than embrace those differences through empathy. When non-violence is a core value, empathy is a practice of cross-cultural communication that begins with the assumption that difference requires the imaginative intellectual and emotional participation in another person's or group's experience from the perspective of that person or group, rather than assuming such similarity between you and another person or group that you can put yourself in the other's place.4 When a culture of moral courage displaces the culture of deception connecting gender and race/ethnicity, conflicts arising from embracing our differences will no longer need to be managed because such will be considered opportunities for moral growth and development. When our lives in the profession are no longer governed by a norm of conflict management, we will enhance our capacities for creative moral community as our captivity to values of silence and repression will diminish.
In sum, making the connections between gender and race in theological education is about unmasking ourselves individually and corporately, thus living into the tensions of diversity. This means we must transform conflict into dialogue that may lead us into new patterns of relationship and institutional life that cannot be imagined in advance.
- M. Shawn Copeland, "Collegiality as a Moral and Ethical Practice" in Practice What You Preach edited by James F. Keenan, S.J. and Joseph Kotva, Jr. (Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 1999), 317.
- Ibid., 327.
- Fernando Segovia, "Theological Education and Scholarship as Struggle: The Life of Racial/Ethnic Minorities in the Profession," Journal of Hispanic/Latino Theology 2:2 (November 1994), 14-15.
- Milton J. Bennett, "Overcoming the Golden Rule: Sympathy and Empathy" in Basic Concepts of Intercultural Communication: Selected Readings (Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 1998), 203ff.
© Marcia Y. Riggs