Complicity and Silence: How Lament Could Lead Us Toward a Better Place

by Valerie Ranee Landfair | September 05, 2020

Our lived experiences will always tint the lenses through which we each see and name injustice. Womanist scholars examine the lived experiences of Black women as the starting place for theology. Black women experience the injustices of today’s world on multiple structural levels, including communal and personal. Therefore, her focus is family-oriented because she’s concerned about Black men, Black children, and the Black community. Thus, womanist scholars have developed methodologies for addressing Black women’s ongoing daily oppressions due to the systems and structures of discrimination because of gender, race, and class.

In 1989 Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality as a way to describe threefold discrimination from gender, race, and class. While acknowledging the ongoing oppression of white women and the double discrimination of poor white women, the threefold oppressions of gender, race, and class are the everyday experiences of women of color. Crenshaw states, “all inequality is not created equal.”1 The silence of white women who primarily focus on gender and equality leaves them shaking their heads regarding white privilege and white supremacy. Why can’t we focus on gender inequality within the sacred and secular?

All inequalities are not created equal. For instance, white women are right to protest being paid 79 cents for every dollar paid to white men. The angry protest is met with silence when Black women are upset that they are paid 62 cents for every dollar paid to white men and 17 cents less than white women. Native American women make 57 cents for every dollar paid to white men and 22 cents less than white women, and Latinas make 54 cents and 5 cents, respectively.2  The COVID-19 pandemic also has revealed racial, gender, and class disparities in our society once again. The higher mortality rates for African Americans have yet to be fully explained, but data confirms the reality of medical and environmental racism.3 

These historical and contemporary inequalities have me, a womanist theologian, lamenting to God, seeking an answer as to why it seems that God has forsaken Black people. Why has the white evangelical church abstained from a communal lament regarding the devastations from the compounding effects of sexism, poverty, and racism for Black people? And when some white Christians finally did speak out, why did it take so long? Why is it that some white feminists feel the luxury to select which aspect of Black women’s crises they will trumpet and which grave structural realities they will pretend do not exist in the Black community? Why must Black women fight against gender discrimination from white and Black men and racial discrimination from white women and white men?

Silence is the weaponized tool of preference for ignoring the three-part plights of sexism, racism, and classism within the majority of white Christian communities. In this essay, I want to explore how white evangelical women continue to be complicit with white supremacy. I believe that the failure of many white evangelical women in denouncing the sin of racism perpetuates the ongoing oppression of women of color. While you call out white men for their gender discrimination, you are using their systems of oppression in silent support of racialized discrimination of Black women, Native Americans, and Latinas. I argue that silence was one way by which many white evangelical women dealt with and deal with their longstanding racial fears. Finally, I want to assert that communal lament is the right first step toward working together.

Complicit Silence

Womanist theologies seek to address both the historical and everyday experiences of women of color, especially Black women, and to interrogate the historical and contemporary engagements of white women in Black communities. The protection of white womanhood by white men from 1619 through the Civil War was aroused due to the racist belief that enslaved Africans might do the very same sexually perverted acts to white women as their Christian white slave owners did to enslaved African girls and women. Therefore, the fear of the possibility of being raped by enslaved African and African American men allowed a historical embrace of silence regarding the rape of enslaved African and African American women, men, girls, and boys. White womanhood afforded her comfort, and her silence affirmed the ongoing terrorization and trauma of Black people.

White womanhood has also allowed for historical silence regarding the fact that many Christian white women were just as cruel as their white Christian husbands during the 250 years of slavery in the United States.4   A contemporary understanding of the ongoing effect and tension from the gulf of silence embedded within the cult of white womanhood affirms, “While it is true that white women were similarly circumscribed on the basis of their sex, they do not share in the exponentially charged experience of interstructured oppression with black women, and in fact, are signal contributories, along with white children and men, in the oppression of black children, women, and men.”5

White women, even those who are ready to protest and speak against sexual abuse and discrimination, tend to be slower to speak against injustices related to race. This disconnect causes me to question the authenticity of the white feminists’ stated agenda. As a recent example, the Women’s March was a worldwide protest in 2017 against anti-women sentiments. This anger did not fully erupt until a white woman became the object of derogatory comments.6  White supremacy seems to thrive because of white feminists’ silence in the face of dehumanizing and demeaning comments targeting those with disabilities and those in Hispanic and Black communities. Filomina Chioma Steady states, “The issues of racism can become threatening, for it identifies white feminists as possible participants in the oppression of blacks.”7 The privilege of white womanhood allows white evangelical women to oppress Black women and feel justified in being the oppressors because whiteness affords comfort and privilege. 

Silence can easily be interpreted as a mode of conscious and unconscious support of white supremacy and, by extension, Black women’s oppression and, subsequently, the oppression of Black communities. Several recent and egregious examples of white women remaining generally silent about overt racist violence comes to mind, even when clear and detailed video is widely available. There was an odd initial (and sometimes prolonged) silence when twenty-five-year-old Ahmaud Arbery was chased and shot down like a dog; when Elijah Tufono, a fourteen-year-old Black boy, was abused by a white cop because he asked a stranger to purchase a cigar; when Marvia Gray, a sixty-eight-year-old lady, was beaten down by officers who wrongly accused Gray and her forty-three-year-old son of stealing a television; when George Floyd was killed by an officer who was unrelentingly kneeling on his neck. All of these incidents had detailed, clear, and concise videos, and yet, Black communities had to march, file petitions, and garner support from white Evangelicals, and we still await justice.  

Historically, Black people have been accused of being angry through the arrogance and ignorance of white privilege that fails to demonstrate remorse, repentance, and atonement for the sins of enslavement, murder, rape, and oppression of people of color, simply for the color of their skin. And yet in my musings on this subject, I realized that I am an Angry Black Woman. I am angry because we are still fighting the same fights of our great-great grandmothers and grandfathers. I am angry because of the silence, and thus complicity, of many white evangelical women in the historical and contemporary exploitation and oppression of Black women.

Learning to Lament with Black Women

How can we have fruitful discussions on becoming allies if one side is focused on centering themselves and securing power from white men, while not securing the full liberation of women of color? Can Black women continue to hope for the dismantling of racism and classism in addition to sexism? 

For white women (and men), I offer that a first step is to intentionally reflect on the various ways you have been socially shaped to support white supremacy. What are the contemporary implications of white womanhood? Yes, the racist tendencies that some white evangelical women exhibit are different from those of your foremothers and forefathers during slavery; however, they are still racist tendencies. Please, hear my heart! Being a racist does not mean that you are a terrible person. Racism has nothing to do with your feelings and emotions toward Black people. The Cambridge Dictionary defines racism as the “policies, behaviors, rules, etc. that result in a continued unfair advantage” to Black women based on race.8  Racism encompasses policies, laws, rules and behaviors—including silence. Racism is a sin because Scripture reminds us that God loves all humans and we are not to show partiality based on race (Jas. 2:9). How can you fight against prejudice and bias based on gender and remain silent when you see policies and laws that differ based on race?

Black women take their trauma, anger, fear, and grief to God in laments. Lament creates a sacred space where they can freely allow their sorrow to find expressions in tears, groans, words, and silence. Human masks of all pretenses are removed, urgency is employed, and the state of desperation causes her to seek God in a manner and language native to marginalized communities that are often invisible and powerless within the dominant society. Black women’s lived experiences have taught them that God hears their laments concerning policies, laws, rules, and behaviors of discrimination. Scripture states that “if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law” (Jas. 2:9, NLT). “God does not show favoritism” (Rom. 2:11, NLT). God made one nation—humanity. Prayers of lament allow the expressions of pain to fill the gaps between the promises embedded within Scripture for both genders and every race and the lived realities of Black women. Black women have inherited a rich prayer legacy that allows them to face their pain in the form of prayers of lament. Lament to God and hope in God serve to make sense of that which continues to baffle the Black community—our desire to eradicate gender inequality and racial inequality.

I offer that before white evangelical women write that next article, sermon, Facebook post, or tweet about some outrageous white patriarchal comment (which should be addressed), they should have the courage to ask themselves these questions: How have you contributed to eradicating the policies, laws, rules, and behaviors that result in the ongoing oppression of women of color, and pertaining to this article, specifically Black women? How are you complicit in the oppression of Black women? How might prayers of lament enable us to change policies, behaviors, rules, etc., that result in the continued generational trauma of Black women? How might our communal laments transform the power inequality between white women and women of color?


Notes

1. Katy Steinmetz, “She Coined the Term ‘Intersectionality’ Over 30 Years Ago. Here’s What It Means To Her Today,” Time online, https://time.com/5786710/kimberle-crenshaw-intersectionality/.

2. “Quantifying America’s Gender Wage Gap by Race/Ethnicity,” March 2020, https://www.nationalpartnership.org/our-work/resources/economic-justice/fair-pay/quantifying-americas-gender-wage-gap.pdf.

3. Benjamin Chavis defines environmental racism as racial discrimination in “environmental policy-making, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberating targeting of communities of color for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of color from leadership of the ecology movements.” Peter Beech, “What is Environmental Racism?,” July 31, 2020, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/07/what-is-environmental-racism-pollution-covid-systemic/. See also Sacoby M. Wilson, “Roundtable on the Pandemics of Racism, Environmental Injustice, and COVID-19 in America,” Environmental Justice, vol. 13, no 3, June 16, 2020, https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/ENV.2020.0019. 

4. See this reality documented by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019).

5. Mitzi J. Smith, ed., I Found God in Me: A Womanist Biblical Hermeneutics Reader (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015), 94.

6.“Transcript: Donald Trump’s Taped Comments About Women,” The New York Times, October 8, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/08/us/donald-trump-tape-transcript.html.

7. Filomina Chioma Steady, “African Feminism: A Worldwide Perspective,” in Women in Africa and the African Diaspora, ed. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn and Andrea Benton Rushing (Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1996), 3.

8. Cambridge Dictionary, s.v. “racism,” accessed August 11, 2020, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/racism.