Sunday, February 17, 2008

The "Woman" or the "African American"

I remember a conversation I had several years ago with a fellow seminary student. Actually, she had graduated and was awaiting a call. She had her name given to one nearby congregation. She told me that they declined to interview her because, as she related it, "they had a woman once and it didn't work out, so we aren't interested in interviewing another woman."

If you think that's a justifiable statement, consider this one: "We had a male pastor once, and it didn't work out, so I guess we won't have a male pastor again."

I remember visiting with an older woman in the neighborhood when I first moved here. She was tangentially connected with our congregation (which is to say, not very). She started talking about the changes in the community in the past few years, particularly with regard to race and ethnic background, and not in a positive way. She must have sensed some dismay on my part, because she noted: "I didn't used to be prejudiced, but I got my purse snatched by a black man once, and now I don't trust them."

I sympathized with her situation, understood exactly how she felt, until I applied the same rule as above, and changed the sentence to: "I got my purse stolen by a white man once, and now I don't trust them." Hmmmm. Doesn't quite work the same, does it?

Fairly or unfairly, women and minorities are often looked upon as representatives of their gender or their race, at least in certain areas. So, Hillary Clinton is "the woman" candidate, and Barack Obama is "the African American" candidate. In some areas, there is the expectation that people will vote for them or WON'T vote for them simply on the basis of their gender or their race, as if their policies or their personal story or their particular strengths or particular weaknesses don't matter.

This is the politics of identity, and if it sometimes seems to be a good card to play (You have to support the woman candidate, or you have to support the African-American), it is a double-edged sword. While I celebrate how far women of accomplishment have come, I don't have to agree with the policies of every woman in public service.

There is the possibility that in November of 2008, we will make history. Perhaps we will elect the first woman president; perhaps we will elect the first African American President.

As for me, I'm waiting for the day when we will all be judged by the content of our character (however imperfect or flawed), when I won't be the "lady preacher" but simply the pastor, when my failures won't reflect on every other woman who attempts to come after me, when "my purse was stolen by a black man and now I don't trust them" will be seen for the absurdity it is.


Chris said...

Well written. Thank you.

The Unlikely Conversationalist: said...

We dream of the day when we can measure people by, "...the content of their character."

Maybe the way to start is to listen to the man who shared this dream. Dr. King was a prophet. He saw things change in a way that only the eyes of faith can see; but he also saw the ugly things that he named for this nation to see. Prophets have this tough dual calling to see the hope and the struggle that lays in the way.

Changing out culture will take prophetic voices who challenge the absurd fears and the callous indifference of our time. We need prophets who teach us to measure people one at a time and not as a group.

dust bunny said...

Good words.

Barbara B. said...

well stated!

LoieJ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
P.S. an after-thought said...

Would you vote for a white man who bought a large house in our state, moved in, legally speaking, for the required number of days, then ran for Senate, in spite of the fact that there could be a million people in the state wanting to run, got elected because of who he was but also because of who he had married, and then ran for president?

Rhetorical question only. I haven't made up my mind.

Chorus said...

Well said - thanks Diane

Mrs. M said...

I agree, diane. In fact, I've been saying for months that to vote for someone *just because* she's a woman is every bit as sexist as it is to vote against her because of gender. Ditto a vote for someone's ethnicity.

"PS" (a.k.a. purple) said...

One of my seminary professors taught a portion of our class on white we perceive ourselves as white. It was fascinating and really opened my eyes to how the words used, in common stories/interactions can be biased.

Jiff said...

This is so well written.

Rev SS said...

Amen Diane .. and Unlikely Conversationalist!

Grandmère Mimi said...

I long for the day when we will judge and be judged by character. When we were searching for a rector, I was told by a member of the search committee that no woman candidate would be seriously considered, because it would be setting her up for failure. That made me very sad, and I told the person that.

I suppose the search committee had decided that the congregation would not support a woman. I'm not sure that's the case at all.

Diane said...

I wonder what "setting her up for failure" means? Does it mean that we can't possibly imagine a woman doing a good job, or the congregation wouldn't be able to see a woman doing a good job? just wondering.

gartenfische said...


I had an economics professor once who said when somebody starts denigrating a whole group of people (ie. Blacks, women), tell them to be specific, to "name one." In other words, make it personal. Call Frank or Sue lazy or stupid, instead of their "group"---that's different, isn't it?

I also have a problem with people who say they won't vote for Hillary because she "can't be elected"---well, sure she can't be elected if you won't vote for her.

I lean toward Hillary at the moment, not because she's a woman, but because of her experience, intelligence and skill. But I keep changing my mind. . . .

Grandmère Mimi said...

Diane, I don't know. I didn't pursue it, because I have something of a troublemaker reputation already, and I knew that, in the end, it would do no good. We had a couple of good women who were interested.

I also mentioned to the committee member that I felt personally insulted by that attitude.

P.S. an after-thought said...

I was on the last two call committees for our church, about 15 and about 3 years ago. The first time I don't remember any conversations about women candidates and we weren't given any women's names. But I did know that within 50 miles there were several women pastors. Our congregation had a woman president about 25 years ago.

This last time around, the call committee was give the names of two women and one man. Their gender wasn't an issue in discussing their pastoral strengths and weaknesses and our first impressions of each was very good. But our congregational president said, "I think our congregation is ready for a woman pastor."

Interestingly, "despite" her gender (just kidding) she is probably the most focused and competent pastor we've had in 30 years. She had some experience running an NGO that has gone a long way to help her with the administrative aspects of the church.

Diane said...

She sounds like an interesting person!

FranIAm said...

I am very late to this post given all the comments, but what a post.

Brilliant Diane, really brilliant.