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Are White Christians ready for Black women’s voices?

Black women in theological and ecclesial spaces are what sociologist Patricia Hill Collins refers to as “the outsider within.” These spaces were not built for our leadership. They were designed to be organized and controlled by men, often White men in particular. Black women exist within these spaces but often never fully as insiders.

“How’d the meeting go?” my mother asks. I know what she’s really asking.

“I said something,” I sigh.

“No!” she cries. “You were supposed to
keep quiet.”

As I left the house that morning, I had pledged to remain silent during that afternoon’s meeting. I was tired of being the outlier, tired of raising issues that no one else seemed to consider, tired of offering a divergent perspective. I was especially tired of arguing. So I promised myself that this time, I would be quiet. It did not work. It hardly ever does.

The outsider within

Data from the U.S. Department of Education reveals that for this 2021-2022 academic year, Black women make up approximately 3% of all faculty at four-year public and private nonprofit colleges and universities. The numbers are even more dismal when rank and tenure are considered. Black women, for example, make up 2% of tenured faculty across all disciplines. Within theological education specifically, in 2020, there were 105 Black women faculty across the 275 U.S. and Canadian member schools of the Association of Theological Schools; of those, only 51 were at the associate or full professor rank.

On a practical level, what this means is that most Black women in theological education spend our careers in spaces where we are isolated. This has certainly been true of my 18-year academic career. Before this year, I was always either the first, the only or – at best – one of two Black women faculty in my division. That was true even when I worked at a historically Black theological institution.

It has been true in ecclesial spaces as well, whether it is the leadership team of a multiracial congregation, a denominational committee or a parachurch organization. Despite rapid growth in Black women’s enrollment in theological schools and our disproportionately high levels of involvement in congregational life, we are woefully underrepresented in church and denominational leadership.

Black women in theological and ecclesial spaces are what sociologist Patricia Hill Collins refers to as “the outsider within.” These spaces were not built for our leadership. They were designed to be organized and controlled by men, often White men in particular. Black women exist within these spaces but often never fully as insiders.

Ten years ago, I joined the faculty of a predominantly White, moderate Baptist seminary, the first Black woman hired in any capacity in the school’s history. As faculty, I certainly had some insider status. I was highly educated, after all, and was in charge in my classroom. I served on committees and sat in meetings where decisions were made. I had input into those decisions, more than students or non-administrative staff had.

Pretty soon, it became clear that I was still an outsider. With the exception of myself and my Black male counterpart, all of my colleagues were White and were members of the same Baptist denomination. Most of them had either studied or taught at the same seminary, and they frequently dropped the names of their former professors in our meetings. In my second year, when a colleague casually mentioned that I “could never become dean” since I was not Baptist, I was not surprised. Over time, though, I realized that being White and Baptist were criteria for every administrative position. After a faculty meeting, a colleague flatly stated, “Well, of course, we couldn’t hire an African American for the admissions director position.”

In her 1991 book Black Feminist Thought, Collins points out that Black women’s outsider-within status has long historical roots that impact how our voices are received in predominantly White spaces today. Our historical roles as domestics for middle- and upper-class White families – cooking and cleaning, nursing and rearing White children, caring for White elders – have given Black women access to White people’s most intimate spaces. Collins notes that one consequence of this access is that Black women have seen “white power demystified.” That is, we have witnessed firsthand that Whites are no more intelligent, talented or human than Blacks, and that any advantages accrued by Whites in society are largely due to structural racism.

At the same time, Black women domestics were perpetual outsiders to White families, no matter how much those families claimed to love us. Black women’s belonging in these contexts was contingent upon acquiescing to the power structure. We were to be seen barely and heard almost never. We were to be silent and invisible unless we were directly asked to do or say otherwise. We were to be voiceless.

Mammy was never here

Black women’s relationships with White colleagues are often constrained by their expectations of our voicelessness. The segregated nature of many White people’s lives means that they have little contact with Black women that is not stratified by occupational and economic privilege. For many White clergy and theological educators, seminary may have been the first time that they interacted with Black classmates on more than a superficial level. And the paucity of Black women in the professoriate means that we are probably the first Black woman professor that any of our students have had. It is the first time that our students have had to recognize and submit to Black female authority.

Black women have written extensively about how this shapes student expectations and interactions. In her 1994 book Teaching to Transgress, for example, bell hooks asserts that White students often view Black female faculty through the lens of the “mammy” stereotype, expecting Black women to be caretakers who cater to their needs and who do not challenge their views. The contributors to Presumed Incompetent, a 2012 collection of essays by women of color in higher education, share multiple narratives confirming hooks’s assertion. For example, in her essay “They Forgot Mammy Had a Brain,” Sherrée Wilson presents the case of a “Professor Andra,” who says that her students saw her as a mammy figure whose job was to take care of and entertain them. “Some nasty things have happened in the classroom. You’re supposed to always be chuckling and nurturing no matter what they do. You’re not supposed to demand the same level of performance. ‘You’s the mammy.’”

It is not just students. Some students, after all, become faculty; and unfortunately, their views of Black women do not change along the way. Again, Professor Andra shares her experience in Wilson’s essay:

“There was a faculty meeting, and I was making comments, and it would be pretty much ignored. A white male would then make the same comment, and then everybody heard it — oh, isn’t that brilliant. So those kinds of things would happen quite frequently. You’re not heard, and myself and two other African American women faculty colleagues, we made the most noise, but people would literally not hear what we said, and then we would have a white faculty member repeat it, and they would react as if it was the second coming.”

Ignoring and minimizing Black women’s voices is one way that predominantly White institutions maintain and reinforce our outsider status. Despite how frequently our colleagues proclaim, “We need your voice,” they are not ready for what our voices have to say. They want us to be the docile, subservient mammy who is seen but rarely heard, and whose voice is used only to affirm what they want to believe about themselves. But mammy was never here. She was always a figment of the White imagination.

Speaking for more than ourselves

In 1989, Black feminist legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to describe how multiple forms of oppression interact to impact Black women’s identities, experiences and needs. Black women are targeted not by just racism and sexism; we are targeted by gendered racism and racialized sexism. And that’s just the baseline for all Black women. Many of us are further impacted by classism, heterosexism, ableism and xenophobia. Our intersectional existence is not just a burden. It can also gift us with a unique lens through which to view the dynamics of privilege and oppression. It not only gifts us with unique voices; it predisposes us to use our voices in ways that other people do not.

As outsiders within, Black women in academic and congregational leadership occupy different stances than do White women or cisgender Black men, who embody more complex and sometimes contradictory relationships to power and oppression. White women are often unwilling to use their voices in ways that jeopardize their relationships with other White people. Cisgender Black men often speak up only to the degree that doing so does not risk their access to the “good ol’ boy” networks that are controlled by White men. And Black men broadly are uniquely constrained when White women are the authority figures, having to walk the tightrope between male privilege and racial oppression.

The intersectional existence of Black women means that even our educational and economic privilege does not give us access to the full power of insider status. Black women are often assumed to be of a lower class, no matter what our socioeconomic status. I recall a conversation with my seminary field education supervisor, a White male pastor, about an African American woman whose son was enrolled in the church’s after-school and summer programs. When I mentioned that both she and her spouse were professors, he responded, “Oh, I assumed she was lower-class.” It’s an assumption that even fame and fortune cannot protect us from, as Oprah Winfrey experienced in 2013 when a Swiss boutique employee refused to show her a $38,000 handbag, claiming that it was too expensive for the billionaire celebrity.

Even when our credentials are known, they are often dismissed as being unearned and illegitimate, as U.S. Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) suggested when he said in a January 2022 radio interview that any Black woman nominated by President Joe Biden as a Supreme Court justice would be a beneficiary of “affirmative racial discrimination.”

With these assumptions constraining us at every turn, Black women are more likely than other racial-gender groups to recognize that our silence will neither protect nor benefit us. The racial-gender glass ceiling means that we have less to gain by being silent, but also less to lose by speaking truth to power. Indeed, many of us infiltrate predominantly White spaces so that our voices will be used to benefit and hopefully protect others whose access to institutional power is even more distant than our own: students, congregants and support staff from marginalized and underrepresented groups. This sense of collective responsibility is central to womanists. As Alice Walker defined the term in her 1983 book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose: “Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people … Traditionally capable, as in: ‘Mama, I’m walking to Canada and I’m taking you and a bunch of other slaves with me.’ Reply: ‘It wouldn’t be the first time.’” When womanists speak, it is not only for ourselves.

We don’t need your silent allyship

The synergy between the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements has greatly increased the demand for Black women as leaders in academic and ecclesial spaces. At least in theory, administrators and colleagues recognize the value of diverse voices in organizations that are culturally homogeneous. Our intersectional identities and our commitments to justice, inclusion and equity help us to see problems and possibilities that others do not. Since we are often “last hired,” we rarely have the tenure in organizations that would wed us tightly to tradition. Our views are not as entrenched. We are also more likely to have experience in different types of institutions, academic and ecclesial, thus expanding our visions of how things could be.

These are qualities valuable to institutions that are serious about change. But even among willing participants, change is difficult. Rarely are our White colleagues prepared for the increased discomfort that our voices bring. They are not ready for us to point out the problems we see in their long-cherished traditions and procedures — the inherent cultural biases and assumptions, the patterns of exclusion and privilege, and the gaps between what the institution claims to value and what it actually practices. They are not ready for what we say, how we say it or the fact that we say it at all. Our divergence is read as disruptive. Our voices are seen as threats to interpersonal relationships and institutional power.

I once sat through a particularly tense meeting where I was the lone faculty person objecting to a new policy being proposed by the dean. Having served at a wider range of institutions than most of my colleagues, I had some clear ideas about the drawbacks of his proposal, and I said so. My open disagreement was a departure from the institution’s Southern White culture, with its deference to authority, indirect communication and passive-aggressive approach to conflict. The discomfort of my White colleagues was visceral as the dean and I verbally sparred. One male colleague even tried to downplay my critique, saying that I actually agreed with the proposal but was pointing out ways it could be improved. I quickly retorted that was not the case and that I had, in fact, “said what I said.”

After the meeting ended and the dean left the room, a White female colleague asked if we needed someone to intervene to repair the breach in our relationship. While I did not think our difference of opinion represented a breach, I walked directly to the dean’s office. “Hey, I just want to make sure we’re okay. I know I was tough on you in there, but it was because I knew you’re a straight shooter and you can take it.”

He laughed: “One thing that I know about you is that if I tell you an idea that you dislike, you’ll let me know on the spot. I don’t have to guess what you think. Your colleagues, though, will smile and nod, letting me think I’m on the right track. Then three days later, they’ll send a five-page email telling me why they disagree. Meanwhile, I’ve been wasting my time pushing forward something that won’t work.” We agreed that we would keep sparring, and we would let one another know if it crossed the line.

Ironically, in the days that followed, multiple colleagues approached to let me know that they agreed with my critique of the proposal and were glad that I spoke up.

This is the most maddening aspect of all: the silent pseudo-allyship of White colleagues who rely upon us to voice the perspectives that they are unwilling to speak, despite having the institutional and interpersonal power to do so. Repeatedly, they leave Black women out on a ledge, even when they have promised to accompany us. After watching from a distance as we bear the brunt of being the solo voice, they sidle up surreptitiously like Nicodemus in the night, happy to reap the benefits of our risk-taking. “Thank you for speaking up. I agree with everything you said.” It is a scene that plays out again and again, at least until, weary of being the sacrificial lamb, we commit ourselves to silence.

“Today,” I said to my mother, “I am not going to say anything.”

And yet I did.