As our church has gone through a process of antiracism transformation, one of the things that I’ve heard our critics say is that our BIPOC leaders are engaging in “power grabbing.” They argue that if we try to elevate our voices and center our experiences, we are being selfish and unloving. While I understand that people with power feel the pain of sharing it with those with less power, it is not unloving to want to be dignified and honored. When we organize around the oppressor’s feelings instead of the experience of the oppressed, we further oppression.
Because we cannot wait for a voluntary relinquishing of power, and because centering our voices, means displacing other voices, people in charge will feel some discomfort when power is rearranged. Oppressed people aren’t looking for more power than what makes us whole, but because those who lord their power over us are so unwilling to divest from it, we end up in what seems like a power struggle.
One of the issues is that white people’s homeostasis has rarely been disrupted. Because white power is so ubiquitous, it is hard to see the power they hold (like it is for a fish to notice it’s wet), and it is hard for minorities not to bend their knee to that white supremacy. But when we become aware of the power hoarding of the dominators, it becomes clear that antiracist and antioppression work is about balancing the scales, about making the hills lower and filling the valleys.
I won’t suggest that it’s easy for those in power to do this, most of the time they don’t even know they have the power and are aghast at the idea that they might. Good Christian men in particular who have devoted themselves to service of our Lord think they’ve done the work. The idea that they have extra, unearned power is novel to them. They deny it, altogether. It takes an awakening to realize that we come pre-packaged with power we didn’t collect. Similarly, for BIPOC, it takes time for us to realize that the power we haven’t come pre-packaged with is oppressive. It is hard to know how we hold space in the world, and the oppressed will often some to that reality sooner than the oppressor.
How do we learn where we stand? How do we learn the world sees us? It’s paramount of BIPOC to listen to one another and hear our experiences. We can receive both revelation and validation from these interactions. And for white folks, specifically, they need to listen to our experiences and believe them too. I think it’s also helpful for white people to be conscious of history, especially in the U.S., about how our racism has been embedded into our country, and that the power they have over us is not their personal fault, or something, but rather a systemic reality that we need to work to change. When white people, especially the good liberal variety, think they are an exception, they further white exceptionalism and supremacy.
Coming to terms with how to divest from power will be uncomfortable, challenging, frustrating. It will feel almost as if you are being oppressed. It will feel like minorities are grabbing power, but we are just trying to stand up for our dignity.
It is incredibly difficult to muster up the courage to try to change how our churches, organizations, and families work, and when we hear defensive responses, or denial of these issues, altogether, it is hard to keep going. The abuse and trauma that I’ve been through doing this work, the gaslighting, and the blaming and name-calling, makes it hard to go on. At some point, without results, BIPOC will stop doing the work and will leave your church or your organization.
It is easier, and often healthier, for us to retreat; to go back to spaces where we don’t have to beg to be seen and understood. So while you have our voices, don’t diminish them, listen to them.
It takes confidence that oppressed people aren’t born with to be able to name that we are oppressed. And it takes humility for the oppressor to know that they may indeed be oppressive. None of these categories are easily sorted though, in each of our bodies, we have both of them, and the more we come to understand that, the better. The problem we often face is that our empowered parts want to make our disempowered parts supreme. In other words, whiteness might make a white woman name sexism as the prime oppression to pay attention to, and ignore LGBTQIA inclusion. Or a man of color’s maleness may elevate his experience as a racial minority as most important, and disregard sexism or ableism. But this sort of competition ends up benefiting the oppressor the most. As minorities, we need to come together at intersections in order for all of us to be liberated.
So let’s start with ourselves. Start with where you are. Get in touch with your pain and your power. Learn about the history of how you’ve been oppressed and how you’ve oppressed others. Approach it with confidence and humility. Learn and listen to others, pay attention to where you are defensive and let that be a clue to where you need to be humble. Pay attention to where you feel shame, and let that be a clue to where you need to be more confident. Let’s receive each other gently and with understanding. If we want to make the world a better place, we must be willing to make sacrifices that are hard and painful. White defensiveness and accusations of power grabbing do the exact opposite.