Donate to RNS

A call to conscience for white Christian women

As protests raged this weekend, I saw many women of color choke on tear gas, but I have to squint to see women who look like me in the crowds.

Demonstrators pray during a march May 31, 2020, in Atlanta. Protests spread across the United States after the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

(RNS) — White Christian women are overdue for some soul searching. We need to reread our Scriptures. We need to take responsibility for the ways our everyday lives perpetuate racism. We need to listen to women of color and follow their lead.

The gospel teaches us that we follow a God who hears the cries of oppressed people and demands freedom. Yet white Christian women have been marching to the beat of a different God.

As protesters in cities like Minneapolis and communities nationwide cry out for justice for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, I see many women of color choke on tear gas, but I have to squint to see women who look like me in the crowds.

This bears out the same troubling dynamic that swung the 2016 elections. A plurality of white women cast their vote for Trump, and two-thirds of white evangelical women voted for him, despite his extensive record of overt bigotry. Meanwhile, 98% of black women and two-thirds of Latina women voted against him.

These discrepancies should cut us to the quick and cause us to examine our hearts and souls. Time and time again, why do white women disconnect from women of color?

White women benefit from the oppression of women of color. We get better health care, higher salaries, greater job security and deference from police. We don’t fear that our children will be targeted or killed by police or immigration enforcement agents. We are spared women of color’s everyday experiences of dismissal, distrust and discrimination. I’m so grateful to the black, Latina, Native and Asian women in my life who help me see this. I’m still learning and always will be.

God demands that we see through the eyes of our oppressed neighbors. The preamble to the Sinai commandments reads loud and clear: Remember you were once slaves and I freed you. All the law is based on this. Jesus echoes this in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 4, when he states his mission: I have come to bring good news to the poor and liberation to the oppressed.

What white women don’t see is that the United States has never really acted upon these commands. Slavery was not replaced by freedom. It morphed into lynch law, Jim Crow, constant economic discrimination and a criminal justice system designed to subjugate black and brown people rather than serve and protect them.

We see it in Minneapolis as a policeman kneels on the neck of George Floyd, slowly suffocating him despite bystander cries for mercy. We see it exposed in the disproportionate impact the pandemic is having on communities of color serving at the front lines as essential workers while deprived of protection and healthcare.

We see it in the video of a woman in New York’s Central Park threatening to call 911 on a bird-watching black man and “tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.” I was horrified by how easily an everyday spat about an unleashed dog was escalated into a racist death threat.

White women, we have much for which to atone. We have been taught many lies that get us to vote against our sisters of color. We must listen and do our own work of self-examination about our privilege and power. Too often we turn to women of color to do this emotional labor for us. What we unconsciously want is to feel better about ourselves.

We cannot merely think that because we aren’t overt bigots, we are anti-racist. If we are truly doing the work, we will observe our defensiveness without being paralyzed by it. When we learn to receive accountability as prophecy rather than hostility, we are starting to heed God’s call.

We can only eliminate racism by letting go of the power and benefits of whiteness. We need to yield leadership to women of color rather than take more for ourselves. We will need to be convicted by the fact that our neighborhoods, organizations, schools and congregations economically benefit from 21st-century segregation.

While our children go to “good schools” and can walk safely through a park with a hoodie, children of color suffer. And unless we are working to dismantle this, we are racist and part of the problem.

Historically multi-racial coalitions have set out to dismantle white supremacy and yet have failed to see it through. When it came to abolitionism, women’s suffrage and civil rights, often white women failed to see the full humanity of black women. Such efforts propelled the nation forward but left deep wounds and fissures that prevent us from ultimately eradicating the roots of racism.

The Rev. Jennifer Butler. Courtesy photo

My Christian faith teaches me to hear the cries of injustice, examine my own sin and act. Today white Christian women must pledge to hear the challenge to our whiteness posed by women of color, knowing that this is how God will lead us forward into a new vision of how to live together. Only then will America become a true democracy.

(The Rev. Jennifer Butler is CEO of Faith in Public Life, a network of 50,000 faith leaders united in the pursuit of justice and human dignity. She was chair of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in the Obama administration. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

Donate to Support Independent Journalism!

Donate Now!