Tuesday, March 28, 2006

unmaking our dominance

Recently, a number of posts have raised the issue of racial and gender diversity within the emerging churches. In particular, white and male dominance have come under scrutiny. I have been thinking about how a global view could expand our perceptions not only of how we are enmeshed in relations of dominance, but how these can be turned into opportunities for liberating ourselves and others.

We can start by imagining ourselves somewhere within a number of concentric circles of dominance, which we objectively and subjectively help maintain. Our location within these relations of oppression are not always of our choosing; moving beyond them does require our active participation, though.

Obviously, if I was born as a male or as white, neither of these are options that I had any say over. But I do have control over how I act as a male towards women, for instance. My implicit support for comments other males make that denigrate women - or silence about such comments - contributes to structures of male dominance. By speaking out against patriarchalism I can contribute to unmaking male dominance. I can attempt to contribute to alternative occupational structures that prevent women from fulfilling their capabilities. Or, I can remain passive and so support the glass ceiling. In relational settings I can choose not to be dominant. I can encourage women who hold on to images of their own subordinance to let go of these self-perceptions.

I am talking here in systemic terms; we have to think about how we contribute to maintaining systems of dominance through our actions and perceptions. We need to see these systems as global, as closely linked to economic and political structures, but expressed in local ways. We also need to bear in mind that systems are constructed from the actions of individuals, and so can be deconstructed by the same actors. This insight prevents us from losing hope, and helps us recover a sense of our own power.

If I sound paternalistic, I apologize. My intention is rather to think through this for myself as I go along.

Let us look at a cultural example. Consider how Anglo cultural dominance affects other cultures within the US. This is effected by males and females, and their participation in political, economic, religious, and social systems. Then think about male dominance which stretches across perceived boundaries of race, and is kept in place by the underlying cultural systems. Reflect on how the US dominates the world in cultural terms (music, videos, dress, sports, speech codes), to say nothing of military terms.

Or think about our participation in global economic dominance. All who live in the the US
passively benefits from exploitative actions undertaken in "our" name, through the cheap prices obtained by "our" multinationals, for example. Obviously, through the manipulation of
the political system, the economic benefits do not extend equally to all, as much of these actions worsen the condition of those at the margins of society (read both Barbara Ehrenreich's detailed firsthand descriptions of life as a blue collar and as a white collar worker). But,
we all do benefit - regardless of ethnic identity, gender, or class - when we buy goods from companies that exploit their own employees, or get goods through "third world" sweatshops, or pollute their communities.

My point is that while one may be dominated within the US, from outside the US one would be viewed as part of those who globally subject others to their way of life.

I am not sure how we move beyond this. At each level, those who dominate have to "repent" (reverse actions and thoughts) towards those that they dominate. In part, the terms in which the dominant live out their repentance have to be set by the dominated, though, otherwise liberation does not occur.

To make it concrete, if I am white, how do I repent of my whiteness? Obviously, I cannot change my skin color.

But I can, first, acknowledge my own embeddedness in white dominance and the concrete ways in which this affects me and others. Second, I should express some regret towards those that I have directly affected (e.g. through racial slurs). Third, I must make some form of symbolic restitution towards those whom I have indirectly affected (contributing to an education fund for underprivileged students, for instance). Fourth, I must act and think differently about others over and against whom my social location have advantaged me. But then what? What if African Americans, or Native Americans, or women, continue to view me as part of the problem, despite my attempts to change? Or, what if they continue to see themselves as dominated?

This is where the terms of my repentance need to be set by others, and accepted by them. Otherwise, we are into an eternal destructive cycle, in which our objective repentance is undermined by others' subjective perceptions of who we are.

I guess this is a long-winded way of trying to think through how one could merge a theology of incarnation (identifying with the dominated), repentance (acting to undo the structures
of domination), and justification (accepting that what little one can do is not enough, but
awaits the acceptance of others over whom one has no control). Ultimately, our sense of
powerlessness forces us to acknowledge that this is a project that we cannot achieve by
ourselves. We need to be embedded in a community which helps us, particularly a community of those whom we dominate.

Of course, our actions of undoing need to address individuals and systems at the same time
-- not one or the other. This involves political, economic, social, and religious actions in which we participate with others across the globe. The undoing of apartheid in South Africa can serve as an example of what is required in practice in the undoing of a systemic evil.


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