Last week I mentioned I've been introduced to critical race theory, which I learned about through a seminar that fulfills my final legal writing requirement. I've attempted to translate this critique to the evangelical church context because I think white evangelicals could benefit from taking a closer look at the church's structures and established behaviors.
Sociologist and African-American studies professor Patricia Hill Collins produces truly challenging work in this field. While reading her analysis of black women sociologists' experiences in Learning from the Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought, I couldn't help but think of women (of all races) and people of color (of all genders) in the evangelical church.
(A quick clarification: when I mention that white male dominance in the church results in both racial and gender discrimination, I don't think a white woman experiences the same discrimination as a person of color, for example. I don't want my references to both race and gender to come across as equalizing all groups' experiences. Similarly, I don't want my references to "women and people of color" to render women of color invisible. Language can be a minefield sometimes!)
Collins describes the field of sociology as a community of practitioners. The "group insiders" have similar worldviews: they graduated from the same schools and have similar class, racial, and gender backgrounds (middle- to upper-class white males).
These men end up defining the group's values, behaviors, and culture. Their shared experience produces a "taken-for-granted knowledge," which becomes "thinking as usual" (27).
Deciphering the "unwritten grammar of conduct and nuances of cultural idiom" requires an immersion similar to what's required in cross-cultural immersion (26).
To become insiders, then, black women sociologists must assimilate to foreign views. White males are the dominant group, so of course the sociological worldview reflects white male concerns. But most white males have not intentionally kept out non-whites and non-males. Instead, their dominance is tacit or de facto. They simply follow natural patterns of behavior rather than engage in blatant racism or sexism.
As a result, outsiders are more likely to remain outsiders, because they don't want to simply assimilate to what the dominant insiders decide is most important. Outsiders begin to question the taken-for-granted thinking as usual. They point out what are labeled neutral observations or interpretations are actually influenced by white male subjectivity, and tend to place "the other" on the margins.
I appreciate Collins' emphasis on the de facto nature of dominance and that insiders are simply following natural patterns . I hope I've never made anyone feel this way, but perhaps white males get defensive or feel attacked by the critique that women and people of color are marginalized in the church.
My critique doesn't mean I think white Christian men are intentionally excluding non-whites and non-males (well, aside from complementarians who only allow male leadership, I suppose). Rather, I critique those natural impulses to congregate with, converse with, and read only white middle-class men, which then results in believing white, middle-class, male-centric values and behavior are the norm in the church. The challenge becomes unmasking this nuanced, unwritten grammar of conduct.
A common response, in the gender context, is that conference organizers and search committees can't find enough women to agree to speak, sit on a panel, or join their staff. That's understandable. However, the lack of qualified and willing women should sound the alarm that, institutionally and structurally, insiders have been tacitly unwelcoming to outsiders.
It goes beyond ensuring more women and people of color are in seminary and are encouraged to lead. Challenging "thinking as usual" requires us to carefully examine who we're reading, networking with, and allowing to shape our thinking. For example, I did a quick google search the other day after I re-read the parable of the talents, looking for commentary or interpretations of this text. All of the top search results produced commentaries exclusively by European or North American men, such as John Calvin and N.T. Wright.
We're missing out by not pushing against the white evangelical church's natural patterns and homogeneity. We have a wealth of resources in those we've relegated to the margins.
Rather than get defensive if an outsider questions the dominant worldview, why not look around to see if we've surrounded ourselves with only those who belong to our class, race, and gender? (Or, if we have welcomed outsiders, are we only "allowing them space" on our own terms?)
And perhaps many ideas about Scripture and church we've taken for granted are actually more a result of our shared insider status than anything else. Any thoughts?