Examining whiteness begins by looking within, for me. Let’s take a look at my family’s church, the third-whitest major religious organization in the United States: the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS).
This sect does not have whiteness as a official requirement for entry, but when your membership is 95% white, you effectively have a racist doctrine. Similarly, if the leadership of your university, or any other institution, such as your U.S. Congress, is majority white in a country that is actually a lot more diverse, you have racism in effect.
Aspiration to a white, middle-class lifestyle as a form of protection against certain ways racism works out in everyday life is not new. Increased class status does have an insulating effect (though not entirely). But what’s interesting to me at the moment is how whiteness is sold to white people, or how whiteness and middle- or upper-class status are used to mark religious status among white people. Whiteness is sold here to women as a way of embellishing the middle-class attractions of “traditional” marriage and motherhood, staying home with the children, cooking and cleaning and consuming, owning no property and earning no income.
When we talk about intersectionality, we don’t often mention religious group membership (other than Jewishness) as a marker of privilege, domination, and oppression, although it functions that way and intersects with other categories. Yet Judaism and Islam, not to mention older or other indigenous religions, have been and continue to be ways of marking off boundaries beyond which whiteness does not pass. Protestantism (such as Lutheranism) is a primary marker of Anglo-Saxon identity in the U.S. LCMS pastors are not allowed to be in fellowship with those of other faiths, even other Protestants.
I’ve heard various comments from LCMS pulpits recently . . . a 1970s vision of feminism and a “feminized” society as the root of all ill today. It is surreal to hear Midwestern American society described as “feminized” or “feminist.” I have no idea what these people would make of a society that was actually matrilineal, matrifocal, or matriarchal, let alone feminist. A pastor glossed universities as hotbeds of evil and falsehood where Christians are persecuted and forced out (that one was particularly difficult to hear, as I am a university professor who believes in the value of higher education and critical thinking). Evil means questioning anything.
The LCMS is creationist, strongly opposed to women’s medical rights, super-conservative in political and economic terms, and patriarchal. Women are not allowed to hold leadership roles.
Anyway, recently, two pastoral wives from this 2.2 million-member sect decided to publish a manifesto entitled Lady Like detailing all their objections to social advances women have made in the last century. Everything in it is sloppy, nonspecific, anti-intellectual, small-minded, short-sighted, petulant, prideful, and uncharitable, but I’ll focus on a chapter entitled “Was Jesus a Feminist?”
Now, there are powerful and valid critiques of European/U.S. feminism on class, sexuality, gender, and race bases, among others. This is not one of those. It whets its white knife on a white stone.
Feminism is a movement that today is concerned with equality for all people (including those of different geographical origins, citizenship status, sexual orientation, etc.). It is not solely concerned with women’s equality with men. That is the first error of the authors in their constricted, binary thinking. They are incapable of understanding that feminism might focus on intersectional oppression. This is what happens when people who actually know nothing about feminism today attempt to scapegoat it.
There is a phrase for what these women have done: internalized oppression. They have found reasons to join in with the oppressor and keep themselves and other women disempowered, financially and socially.
Let me address some specific “points” they “raise”:
“Feminism is a social movement conceived in the early twentieth century” (138).
That’s just factually incorrect. Nineteenth century, and earlier if you count Mary Wollstonecraft, Aemilia Lanyer, Christine de Pizan, Hypatia of Alexandria . . .
“Jesus did not end discrimination between men and women. He discriminated between them Himself [sic]. He did not choose a single woman as one of the Twelve, which can hardly have been an accident. . . . He never appointed a woman to a position of authority or a public office” (138).
It is not really odd that these women are leaving out the Gnostic Gospels entirely from their discussion, because their church refuses to acknowledge the existence of other scripture, but any educated person today is aware that the books in the Bible today were chosen on no particular divinely inspired or objectively logical grounds. The authors also cleverly elide Old Testament female leaders.
“Jesus came to serve and to give His [sic] life as a ransom for many, not to create job opportunities and even things out and give women the recognition of which they’ve supposedly been robbed for all these centuries” (140).
The LCMS Jesus and the Jewish-nationalist messiah are pretty different, huh?
“When Peter’s mother-in-law begins to wait on the people present after she is raised from her sickbed, Jesus doesn’t tell her to take it easy and that they’ll find their own cheese and crackers. He doesn’t offer that sharp Syro-Phoenician lady a professorship” (141).
Well, god forbid a woman gets a professorship.
“When the myrrh-bearers report the resurrection to the cowardly disciples, Jesus doesn’t show up, depose the guys, and promote the deserving ladies to the apostolic positions instead” (141).
Unforced error! Seriously, however, this says much more about the sociocultural context of the times than a divine mercy.
“For some reason, the women who knew Him loved Him [sic, sic] and freely chose to serve Him [sic] anyway. Maybe they could see things two thousand years of growing human ingratitude have blurred” (141).
I thought feminism was only a little over a century old? An early-twentieth-century movement?
It’s that word “ingratitude” that really exposes a nerve. This is the core complaint of straight white male power to others demanding equality. Women, why aren’t you grateful for men who run your lives? Black, brown, and other people, why aren’t you grateful for white civilization running your lives and decimating your culture and exploiting your resources? Why aren’t you grateful to have a job at all? Why must you complain and push back and challenge the existing balance of power? Aren’t you scared?
Can’t you live a quiet life where you never have conflict with powerful white men?
It’s inside me, too, this white phantom of submission. But I believe — I truly believe — that life can change you. You can start to sit up and push back and speak out. Even against your own oppression. Even against your own privilege.