Tuesday, October 11, 2005

What Can You Say?

Bill Bennett's recent racist remarks and Leonard Pitts' column this morning in response have given me some good fuel for reflection. Pitts own experiences of racism directed toward his family in particular gave his remarks a deeper level of credibility. In short, his race (African American) seems to have played a role in the integrity of his remarks. If I were to make similar observations, would my race (European American) somehow detract from them?

Can a white person speak on behalf of a black person? Can a straight person speak out against homophobia? Can a rich person advocate on behalf of the poor? Can a man take a stand against sexism? Can a person who lives in a three-story suburban home and owns two cars be an environmentalist? And so on ...

A seminary friend of mine was rather notorious for speaking on behalf of others whose particular context she did not share. I remember her asking one time, "How does this assignment affect those who do not necessarily believe in the divinity of Jesus?" Since I happened to know that she was 100% in tune with the divinity of Jesus, I was puzzled as to for whom in the room she had chosen to speak this time, and whether or not that person had granted her the authority to do so. It seemed to me that she had crossed a boundary with that one.

Another example: my good friend Roger was in the first Gulf War. I wasn't. We are just about the same age, so it would have been quite possible for me to be there with him. But I wasn't. Now, Roger and I find ourselves of a similar mind with regard to the war in Iraq - both of us are strongly opposed to it. But it just sounds different when Roger speaks out against it than when I do. He was there - I wasn't.

When does advocacy cross the boundary into condescension?

What cause can I (white, male, straight, mainline protestant, rich) honestly claim to advocate without risking hypocritical status?

How much legitimacy does one's own identity lend one's opinions?

Craving Feedback,
Andy B.


Micah said...

Andy--> You won't get off that easy. Don't EVER even begin down the path of saying "I'm too much of an oppressor to do anything about the oppressed." Ask yourself this question, "How many members of Congress that voted to pass the 19th Amendment (which for those of us who are not Constitution geeks, guarantees women the right to vote) were men?" That's right. ALL OF THEM. Those of us who have privileged positions have an obligation to use our power to lift up those who have less. What would the status of our wives be today if it were not for those men who believed that they had both the right and the obligation to stand up for the rights of those different than themselves.

There are some who believe that we should give up our privileged positions in solidarity with the oppressed. I disagree. The privileged positions we share as straight white males (the right to be trusted, to make contracts, to marry, etc.) ought to be extened to all people. The problem is not that we are treated better, but that others are treated so much worse. The golden rule goes, "... as you would have done unto you." Never forget that.

As for your classmate who wonders about those who don't believe in Jesus... no offense meant, Andy, but I can practically guarantee that she is a better evangelist than you. It is important that you reach out to people where they are. And that means wondering about where they are.

As for Roger... I am glad that he has made the decision he has, and I honor him for the difficulty in making it. But one does not have to have been to war to oppose it. Do you have to have beaten your wife and children to oppose domestic violence?

A better question might be, "to whom do I have a right to speak?" That's more interesting. It may well be true that you don't have much standing to criticize a black person's race politics. And Roger may have better results speaking to soldiers about the ethics of war than you. But you will never, never, never be released from your obligation to "establish justice in the gate" for everyone, and at all times.

Poppy said...

And, Just to follow up on Micah's post, never forget it was none other than Jesus unto whom all power is given, who spoke on behalf of the poor, the marginalized and the imprisoned.

Moreover the offer of a cup of cold water is, itself, an act to which no motive need be ascribed. Such things are done under the command of the Christ.

Anonymous said...

You have no choice. You have to be true to yourself and your calling. Otherwise you won't be able to live with yourself. Politically, it might be smart to not speak up for the oppressed. Some people won't like it whenb you do. But - you have no choice. Mom

David said...

Micah, I agree with you. Mostly.

Be careful, though, not to "oppress by sympathy." I would much rather use my position of power to encourage, enable, and empower an oppressed person to speak on her own behalf, than to gallop in on my white horse and feel good about my social progressivism.

(Not that I'm always entirely successful in living out my ideals, of course....)

"There are many ways to victimize people. The most insidious is to convince them that they're victims."
--Tom Robbins

Dave Wood said...

Wow. I think you've narrowed down a little too far. Can a white person speak out about racism? Absolutely. Can a straight person address homophobia? Certainly. I believe the boundry gets crossed when we start telling other people we know about being black or gay or a vet, when we are none of those things. Just because we're white, middle-class males, doesn't mean we're uninformed. But being informed doesn't give us license either. Of course your friend Roger "sounds" different when he talks about war. He may be against the war for different reasons than you but that doesn't make you a hypocrite for being against the war. If you went around opposing the war as if you were there, that would be hypocritical. If rich people want to define and defend poor people, they do so at the risk of sounding insincere and condescending. But if a rich person says, "I have means and I see a need and I want to help", what's wrong with that? I think one's identity and experiences DO lend to legitimacy. If you are speaking of things you know about, in my book, you're legite.

Elizabeth said...

Andy, great post. I agree with some of the responses that of course we still have a responsibility even if we are not directly the group/people/etc. that are oppressed by a certain issues. But you raise good questions about where that line is. It isn't always clear.