I really love my seminary, the McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University. Faculty and staff there are committed to issues of justice and spiritual growth. It is also a place where only about 45% of the students are white. I want to support a place like that and more important, learn from the variety of perspectives and experiences of my classmates. It is a place where I can focus on issues important to me, like being a good ally by attending to my white privilege. I am convinced that my anti-racist work as a white Southern academic should also include theological and religious frameworks. I needed to get in touch with my Jesus.
Part of the institution’s commitment to spiritual formation is the annual faculty, staff, and student weekend retreat, which the founding faculty built into the design of the programs. We just recently had one at the Pinnacle Center in the North Georgia mountains, where we spend two days worshiping together and getting to know one another. We build deeper relationships as classmates at a setting like this, where we pray and take communion together. This year, the dean announced he had been working with friends in Union Point, Georgia, to plan a work day at a historic cemetery near the original location of Mercer University. Here’s what he said:
This summer I learned of a neglected African American cemetery located nearby the Penfield cemetery. I have partnered with African American activists and other leaders to help them with a clean-up effort on October 26. I would very much appreciate it if you would join me as we honor this sacred space and practice remembrance.
He noted that enslaved persons were buried there.
Here is what I wish I had thought: Does it make a difference that the dean is a straight, white, cis-male? Were faculty invited to discuss this topic, welcoming voices from faculty of color? Could groundwork have been laid so that the announcement would have had context for the benefit of the students, most of whom were African American? What is motivating me to want to participate?
What I actually did, though, was volunteer to clean up the cemetery.
A few days later, the dean sent a reminder and included additional information that a filmmaker friend and seminary grad would be filming for a documentary. A few days after that, I learned that a group of African American students had submitted a letter to the dean to express concerns about the project. I have not seen this letter, but the seminary grapevine is real. That was the day I discovered the “Savior Barbie” Instagram account. If you haven’t heard about it, below is a Huff Post article, along with 2 examples of Barbie’s posts.
White Savior Barbie pokes fun at people who suffer from “White Savior Complex,” the term used to describe the white Westerners who travel to third world countries and make the entire affair an exercise in self-congratulatory sacrifice. (Huff Post). The account owners, who remain anonymous, point out, “We have both struggled with our own realizations and are definitely not claiming innocence here.” “Barbie Savior, we hope, is an entertaining jumping off point for some very real discussions, debates, and resolves.” It isn’t that there is anything inherently wrong with doing volunteer work to help people. WSB targets the idea that Africa needs saving from itself and white people are the ones who can do it. Barbie Savior is there for a photo op, the ultimate selfie. This kind of thinking supported colonialism, conquest, and slavery. It is white supremacy.
Let me be clear: I am not suggesting for a minute that the McAfee dean is in error. I have no idea until and unless he discusses it what the process was for bringing this opportunity to the students. For all I know, he brought it to the faculty first for them to unpack together. The letter from students is said to contain references to a diversity strategic plan, which I imagine calls for voice and conversation and inclusion in initiative planning. I have no doubt he is prayerfully and profoundly considering what they have written and will respond appropriately. This is not about him; it is about my own complicity in maintaining racist systems in which the White Savior Complex operates.
So just what was I thinking? My first thought was what a great service project! As a Southern Christian who knows what “Decoration Day” is, I have cleaned old cemeteries for as long as I can remember. My second thought was about the historical significance of the place, for yes, I was in part motivated by it being a very, very old African American cemetery that was the final resting place of former enslaved persons.
My third thought was about my friend Edeltress in Baton Rouge, who had taken me on a detour to her ancestral cemetery one day while we were on a school visit for work. “Do you mind?” she asked me. “It’s been so long since I’ve been here. I was a little girl and my parents brought me.” So we drove to a countryside in Louisiana that I couldn’t find today if I had to. “Here it is,” she said. But looking around, I couldn’t see a graveyard. Just what looked like woods, undergrowth, weeds–way back, about a hundred feet off the side of the road. Edeltress laughed. “Oh, you’re looking for a white cemetery. This is how our cemeteries look.” We tramped around the site, being careful not to step on the graves, and on the way home, she told me stories about her father, who had driven an old broken-down truck so that his white neighbors would not recognize him for a landowner and successful farmer. My people were dangerous. So that is the image I got in my head when the dean asked for volunteers. I thought of paying tribute, in this small way, to my friend.
That is why I am going to acknowledge my white privilege, acknowledge the concerns of my classmates–for they hold us accountable for thinking of and processing these issues before complying–and then go clean up a grave yard. But you won’t see it on Facebook or Twitter. I will not take a selfie with a tombstone. Does this make me admirable? Is this sufficient acknowledgement, or am I assuaging my conscience? Am I asking the right questions? I don’t know, but it gives me something to ponder as I pull weeds.
White supremacy can look like skin heads carrying swastikas; it can look like angry white people wearing red hats. It can be masked by well intentioned white people who secretly voted for Trump. And it can be a white seminary student who fails to do the work of problematizing a workday over the graves of enslaved persons. There is another White Savior resource I find relevant here. White Savior: Racism in the American Church (2019). The film “explores the historic relationship between racism and American Christianity, the ongoing segregation of the church in the US, and the complexities of racial reconciliation” (imdb). I recommend it. The film closes with an African American minister from the Bronx discussing being an ally. “Being an ally,” he said, “means asking ‘What do you need? and sometimes that means just shut up and listen.”
At the end of the day, I believe in a place like McAfee. It exemplifies the complexity of racial reconciling and justice. The messiness of it. It is a place where we can make all the mistakes–and there are many–and learn that the sky doesn’t fall when we make them. It is a place where, sometimes, we can just shut up and listen.
for Jenny Nixon
Last weekend, I attended the National Gathering of the Southeast Conference of the United Church of Christ, a denomination with a history of social justice advocacy that dates back to colonial New England. The UCC has always, to my knowledge, ordained women ministers, and it is a space where I feel welcome to offer and develop my gifts of leadership. One evening at dinner, I gravitated to a woman dining alone and asked if I could join her. I didn’t join her because she was alone; I joined her because I had been in a previous session with her and heard some of her story. I remember she had said: I was in Alabama during the Civil Rights years, and the League of Women Voters kept me sane. I wanted to hear more.
Her name is Jenny Nixon, and she is a resident of the Uplands Retirement Community in Pleasant Hill, Tennessee, which, if you ask me, is one of the best kept secrets in retirement living. Jenny was hard to miss all weekend because of her booming voice, head of solid gray hair, piercing blue eyes, and the shape her body has decided to take as she got older, which required her to use a walker. Yes, I’d appreciate your company, she told me. I eat more slowly than most people these days. I fetched us a couple of pieces of strawberry short cake for us and sat down.
Jenny was born in Oregon in 1933 but had gone to college in California and lived for some time in Washington State. I’m a Westerner, she told me with a glint in her eye. What attracted me to her was that she had been a women’s rights activist in the 1960s and 1970s. It isn’t too often that I get to meet a feminist–a real feminist–from the “women’s lib” era. But that wasn’t the only reason I wanted to hear more of her story; our stories, as it turns out, had something in common: Alabama. Will you tell me more about your time in Alabama? I asked her. I think it’s important, and I know it’s interesting! That’s all it took. I will recreate her narrative here with only minimal interruptions of my interjections and comments.
My first husband was an aerospace engineer, and “Mr. Boeing” sent him to Huntsville, Alabama, where he worked on the rocket that sent us to the moon. It was 1964. Kennedy had been assassinated, but worked progressed on the space program. We lived in South Huntsville. Our kids eventually went to Chaffee Elementary School, White Middle, and Grissom High~~all named after the astronauts killed in the Apollo 1 fire at Cape Canaveral in 1967. Of course, that was my first husband. The only things we had in common were our kids–and bridge. We were an unbeatable bridge team! I am very proud that I always spoke well of him to my children. That was very important to me, that they kept a relationship with him. He was a good father.
In those days, the senior engineers had a choice of moving or not, and most of them chose not to. So there were communities of young families with young children. Before Boeing, before NASA, Huntsville was a cotton town; once we got there, it was a city of 20- and 30-somethings. I had young children, my husband was an engineer, I was college educated. I needed something to do because I couldn’t just stay at home. The League of Women Voters really did keep me sane. My husband didn’t really approve of the amount of time I spent working, but I did it anyway. I was president of the local chapter. In those days I could mimeograph flyers at my house. We met at my house over the years.
I was in Huntsville the year the President signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. We worked hard. One of our projects was a weekly bi-racial lunch, where we went to lunch as a group of Black women and white women–together–to a restaurant. In Alabama in the 1960s that was a radical act. You just didn’t do it. My husband’s job was integrated because it was the federal government, so they hired Black engineers. George Wallace was governor during that time, and it was not easy.
I used to tell my friends in the West that not everybody in Alabama was racist, that there were people there who worked for civil rights. I tried to bring my children up that way; of course, sometimes the teachers reported that they were being disrespectful. They didn’t say “ma’am.” But they turned out fine. Eventually, more of the women went to work outside the home, so there were fewer of us who could do volunteer work with the League. When my husband was transferred to Washington State, that was the end of my Alabama years.
By that time, we were finished with our shortcake. I’m keeping you, I said. Yes, I’d just as soon go home now, she replied mater-of-factly, as she asked me to dial her current husband George on my cell phone. George, this is Jenny. You can come and pick me up now in front of the cafeteria. Five minutes, yes. Goodbye. Spoken like a Westerner.
Last month, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed into law the harshest abortion bill in U.S. history. According to the Washington Post, only three women had a voice in the Alabama state senate, where all 25 votes cast in favor of the bill were from white, Republican men. This in a state where although 51% of the population is made up of women, only 15% of the legislature is–one of the worst ratios in the country (https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/05/15/typical-male-answer-only-women-had-voice-alabama-senate-men-passed-abortion-ban/?utm_term=.8fd84fe87878).
This morning, an opinion piece from the New York Times popped up in my news feed called Where Are the Socially Conservative Women in This Fight?
The American family needs defending and right now men are leading the charge. Written by Helen Andrews of the conservative Washington Examiner, a central them was a critique of the “Two Income Trap,” a term coined by Senator Elizabeth Warren in her book by the same name. Andrews opines:
Marriage simply no longer offers the financial security it once did. The consumer goods that singles buy have gotten cheaper, but the things that middle-aged parents spend the most money on — houses, education, health care — have gotten more expensive, while wages have stagnated. It has become difficult for a family with one breadwinner to afford a middle-class standard of living. “Mom’s paycheck has been pumped directly into the basic costs of keeping the children in the middle class,” Ms. Warren’s book “The Two-Income Trap” explained. The mass entry of women into the work force is one reason for this financial insecurity.
Look at that last sentence again. It’s important, as Andrews turns her argument for the emergence of conservative women toward women’s desire for marriageable men. She references the now-viral quote by Fox’s Tucker Carlson: “Study after study has shown that when men make less than women, women generally don’t want to marry them. Maybe they should want to marry them, but they don’t.” Andrews expounds:
As it happens, there is an abundance of data on Mr. Carlson’s side. Wendy Wang is the director of research at the Institute for Family Studies, and before that she worked at the Pew Research Center, where she co-wrote a report about unmarried Americans. “The number of employed men per 100 women dropped from 139 in 1960 to 91 in 2012” among never-married Americans 25 to 34, her report found. “In other words, if all never-married young women in 2012 wanted to find a young employed man who had also never been married, 9 percent of them would fail, simply because there are not enough men in the target group.”
Poor white men. No one wants to marry them. And why not? Because women have taken their jobs!
Here’s another jewel from Andrews, citing an MIT study: When women’s wages went down relative to men’s, marriage and fertility actually went up. I do not have to paint the phallic imagery here, do I?
So, rather than build an economy built on sustainable infrastructures, living wages, affordable health care and child care, paid leave for parents of all genders, tax payer funded college tuition, and jobs in a 21st century world–Alabama leads the rest of the country in this ignoble approach to economics, which, make no doubt about it, it is. Abortion legislation is not about morality or religion or the salvation of Alabama souls. It is political, for it will keep the good Christian people voting Republican–against their own financial and reproductive interests. And this, friends, will keep the Republican coffers full.
The Alabama bill, along with Andrews’s call for conservative women to take up the call to put women back at home rearing children while their men go off to work, is dangerous. Under the guise of fighting for our “right” to stay home and raise children–and do the majority of domestic labor without pay as part of the contractual obligation to which their marriageable men are entitled–women will be demanding to have our rights revoked. Rights that people like Jenny Nixon worked–from her home, while her children were at school–to make available to us. And, women like Governor Kay Ivey, who have the facade of power, do the bidding of male legislators. If you want to see what the world will look like when this retro-vision is enacted, look no further than the Alabama legislature. Or the list of Fortune 500 CEOs, or the U.S. Senate.
There’s another place you can look. Watch The Handmaids Tale, Seasons 1 & 2. It was not Commander Waterford who was the architect of Gilead. Rather, it was his wife, Serena Joy, who was the power and talent of the movement. In one chilling scene, which I’ve included below, Serena uses her charismatic speaking talent to turn a group of college student protesters to her conservative vision. Keep watching, though, to see how it turns out for her after she cedes her power. See how she lives in Gilead. The cost of equity and equality is high–we continue to pay it. But there is also a cost to maintain our liberty, and part of that cost is vigilance. Margaret Atwood noted in her book the wages of inattentiveness. Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.
Have you written your story down, recorded it somewhere, I asked Jenny. No, she said. I thought about it but haven’t. I still remember it, though. I pray that we will all remember, before we boil in a bathtub of our own making.
I know what I’ll be reading during semester break.
Rachel Held Evans