Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Why We Should Care About All of the "Isms"

Emily Rowell Brown
Colonialism, heterosexism, racism, sexism, ableism…the list goes on and on. This plethora of terms for ways we oppress one another is one more indicator of how inequitable our world is, if recent events have not convinced us. How will we ever achieve justice?

I think most of us already have an impulse that we need somehow to respond to the tragedy in Ferguson, the unrest in the Middle East, and the trauma in Africa. After all, we pray each week in our liturgy for peace and healing, we look to Jesus as the ultimate example for how to treat one another with compassion and mercy, and we attempt to love boldly and inexhaustibly. Yet in spite of our call to help ensure that every human receives the opportunity to thrive, we can struggle to know how we figure into the problem and the solution. Addressing the hunger on the street corner next to the church building is one thing; determining what the capture of young girls in Nigeria and a shooting in Missouri have to do with us are entirely different beasts.

Oppression is not simple or clear-cut. All of us are involved somehow in either perpetuating or dismantling power structures, in either reinforcing or turning a blind eye (sometimes unwittingly) to exploitation, experiencing exploitation ourselves, or undermining exploitative practices. Since these systems of injustice are so embedded into the fabric of our society, it can be hard to see how we participate, which is why it is crucial that we be in conversation with people who are not exactly like us, people who can bring fresh perspectives to the table. The lone woman in an executive board meeting might point out that no one seriously entertained her ideas until another man in the room vocalized the same suggestions. A black friend from the gym might explain why he always changes into business attire before walking home in the evenings, never remaining in sweats as his white friend does. A parishioner from Central America might question her congregation’s efforts to champion Mary as the strong woman of the Christian tradition, wondering why Lady Guadalupe could not also have a place in the history.

Change begins with curiosity: a curiosity to know and understand all the ways our world is not yet egalitarian and kind and gracious. Places where the oppressors and the oppressed can come together in safety and mutual desire to bring change are rare (and it probably goes without saying that it can be intimidating to speak candidly if you are one who does not hold much power). Part of our job as a church is to create those environments and to seek out conversations that reveal to us how we abuse--and are abused by--power. But part of our job is also to continue seeking understanding. We can grapple with the “isms” so that we no longer ask what they have to do with us, so that we can begin to imagine a world where they are no more.

Titles that help unpack some of the “isms”:
The Gender Knot by Allan G. Johnson 
One sentence synopsis: Feminism is not a dirty word and not just for women.

Benign Bigotry by Kristin J. Anderson
One sentence synopsis: We all are prejudiced; it’s part of human existence. The trick is not to eliminate our prejudice (impossible) but to become more self-aware of our bias..

A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid
One sentence synopsis: The American/European/Western way is one way--not necessarily a better way or the only way.

Emily Rowell Brown enjoys black coffee, reading, and discussing personality types and dislikes sweet tea and attempting to summarize herself in one-sentence bios. She serves as Assistant to the Rector for Christian Formation at St. John’s, Georgetown and Episcopal Campus Minister at Georgetown University.