Wednesday, June 09, 2010

the low point: commenting on "mixed marriage"

One of the low points--other than my unHappy Meal encounter--was hearing not one but two joking references to "mixed marriage" while in Nashville. The first came through a mike, immediately preceding a prayer. And, while it did occur to me at the time that it was tasteless and grossly inappropriate (especially since I had, just a few minutes before, from my vantage point at a corner table, been struck by the fact that I could count the number of black faces in the room on one hand and still have fingers left over), it didn't outrage me nearly as much as it should have. It just sort of washed past me, an enduring legacy of having grown up in the South. It wasn't until the next day, when I heard it forthrightly named as racist by someone who was paying more attention than I was, that I realized the full depth of what it means to casually joke about "mixed marriages."

The next day, I heard another joke about while standing in the middle of church. This second time, it reverberated in all of its unintentional overtones. And the nervous wry bark of a laugh with which I responded to the first reference was replaced by simply a deep sadness, without any tinge of judgment, because I too had had to learn belatedly that this is nothing to laugh about.

Once in high school I heard a pillar of our church tell a joke, standing in the center aisle of the auditorium, with a punchline that ended with the n-word. Not even tempted to laugh nervously, I just stared in confusion. We can recognize racism in our midst when it comes packaged in blatant and socially unacceptable forms. But what's the difference between a joke with the n-word and a joke about "mixed marriage"? In the end, both rely on the same categorical racism--without it, they are incoherent.

This adds a new dimension to the discussion from the Dating Jesus session at CSC 2010 about the relationship of theology and justice. I suspect--as does my bro Robert Foster, whose comment was very insightful--that dismantling injustice in one context is a gateway to becoming cognizant of the need for social justice in other contexts as well. But one problem is, many people simply don't seem to see that there's anything unjust about the role or status of women in our churches. How could that possibly be? I dimly remember not being outraged by it, but I can no longer recapture the logic of that former point of view--I can no longer remember how it feels to not be bothered by this. This leaves me with the necessity of constructing some kind of coherent intellectual explanation for what seems now to be an inexplicable blindness to justice matters.

There are surely multiple factors in this, but here is the one that seems the strongest to me right now. Men and women are supposed to be ontologically distinct--this is the crux of "hierarchical complementarianism" just as much as it is straight-up patriarchalism. (To borrow a phrase from another CSC session, hierarchical complementarianism seems to me to be the theological construct justifying "benevolent sexism." Perhaps a post for another time, there.) So it's no biggie that men do X and women do Y; they are just essentially different kinds of human beings and therefore women could never do Y and it's stupid to get angry over it.

Like the logic of "mixed marriage," the concept of hierarchical complementarianism doesn't make sense without assuming categorical difference. And if we are still, as a church, joking and laughing about mixed marriage--demonstrating that on some level we still are not questioning the working assumption that white people and black people are essentially different kinds of people--no wonder we're not able to question the same logic when it shows up with regard to gender. These two things are linked at a deep conceptual level. We cannot have gender justice without racial justice. And maybe we're banging our heads against a brick wall with some people about gender justice because we've never adequately dealt with the generations-old sin of racism that still permeates our vision of the world, even as we bow our heads to pray and stand in the middle of our churches.

4 comments:

Indie said...

"...on some level we still are not questioning the working assumption that white people and black people are essentially different kinds of people..."

This statement jumped out at me. I started a new job recently as a breastfeeding counselor and have been training under a very experienced counselor who is black. She showed me two versions of a breastfeeding booklet she received from the government. One is just a guide to breastfeeding and the other is an African American guide to breastfeeding. They are virtually the same save pictures of black people in the AA booklet and pictures of white people in the "regular" version and a short section in the AA version about historically low BFing rates in the AA community.

The counselor who I'm working under expressed her frustration that black people were for some reason getting a "special" version of the booklet and she explained how awkward it was when she had to give them out because she had run out of the others. Your phrase jumped out at me because it does seem that those government pamphlets are somehow, probably unintentionally, giving the idea that white and black people are so different that somehow instructions about their bodily functions should be differentiated. Its pretty disturbing when I really think about it.

Hope said...

You are hitting all my pet peeves this month.

My husband suffers from the mid-south stereotype that he is white because he is half white and half korean. His friends and coworkers all refer to him as white. My friends refer to him as white. He tired of trying to explain that he is, in fact, biracial and does not have to be part AA to be biracial. The admitting counselor at his university expected an AA man and was semi-outraged that he checked biracial on his application.

People pat me on the shoulder in their socially retarded way and tell me that it isn't as if I married a black man and that I would not feel so racially liberated if my child were to bring home an AA date. I am appalled at such thinking.

Well, you've got me sufficiently outraged for the day...Rawr!

Hope said...

My husband is biracial. He is half caucasian and half korean. He is outraged when people say he is as good as white. He is tired of explaining that one does not have to be part AA in order to be biracial.

The admitting counselor at his school was mystified when he checked biracial on his application to college. They were explaining an AA man.

People in this old-fashioned world of mine tell me that it isn't as if I married a black man in their hushed Southern voices andd that I wouldn't feel so liberated if my child brought home a black date. I am constantly appalled by racial ignorance.

Thank you for getting me worked up again. RAWR!

Susan said...

Amen, Sister. The whole idea of pretending that men do thus and women do thus and never the twain shall meet is just an excuse for foisting the patriarchy on the next generation. (You said all this better. I'm just chiming in here.) I was struck, too, by the lack of faces-other-than-white-ones in Nashville, and when I asked a couple of people about that, they pointed to the handful of African Americans as if to say "See?" See? See what? That the church is awfully white? Yeah. I see that.