church · multicultural · race relations

Desirability Politics in the Church

The paradigm for femininity in many majority culture churches is the model of the “white soft-spoken [meek] woman.” 

Kyle J. Howard

Fields of wildflowers, fresh honey, milk, and bread sitting on a rustic wooden table… A few of the things I dream about…add children and a husband, a few different pets and even some farm animals, and now you’re speaking my language. For me, domesticity is bliss. While I devote a substantial amount of energy to the pursuit of Justice, I am still human. I am a young woman, in college, I have hopes, dreams and desires. Many are or have come to fruition and the others I have yet to see manifested. Sometimes, however, those dreams seem to develop into nothing else… Those dreams stay dreams and don’t translate into reality. Don’t get me wrong, as an advocate for several causes, I support and honor women just as Jesus did and does, but some of my life plans are more “traditional” and not radically feminist. Sure, I want a career that fulfills me more than it drains me. I want financial independence and all of the accompanying things pertaining to gender equality, but at the end of the day I want a family of my own to come home to. Maybe I am a bit of a Negative Nancy, but sometimes I feel that dream is out of my reach. While I serve an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful and perfectly just God, that justness doesn’t always translate to right-now fairness. Believe you me, this is not a “When will my husband come?” type of blog post. I will be content whether I ever marry or not. I am a firm believer that romantic love is often overhyped and the other forms of love are overlooked or taken for granted. This post is about how I, and other Christian women of color, have felt disenfranchised in the church when it comes to dating and marriage. If you follow me on social media then you probably have realized that if there’s a topic I care about, I will bring light to it. One of my followers shrewdly remarked, “Vinciana doesn’t mince words.” It’s true. But there is one topic I have desired to cover for a while but had neither the strength nor the courage to write about and that is: desirability politics within a church context.

As I wrote on an Instagram post earlier this month about some experiences in the church, “… I’m not going to try to squash my Blackness to fit into a white supremacist version of the Gospel… It’s a very uncomfortable and often lonely journey and it makes me feel like I’m doing something wrong. I refuse to be a version of myself that’s appetizing to whiteness. I’m enough in my authenticity… I’ve been wrestling with this quite a lot lately. You never can quite measure up to their standards of femininity or Proverbs 31 womanness. You’ll never be quite Christian or marriageable enough. But I don’t live by their standards, I live by God’s. This stance is now pivotal to my faith and womanhood.” This post resonated with several young Christian Black women and while I didn’t feel so alone, it just felt really bad. On a post about singleness from Jackie Hill Perry, I came across this comment: “…Can we address the elephant in the room. Does God expect this more so for women of color, as it seems we are less likely to be seen as ‘marriage material’.”

What does it mean to be “worthy” as a woman in the church? We have seen how rampant sexism is in the church when it comes to leaders like Beth Moore stepping up to the leadership plate, and we have seen racism as many Black pastors leave the Southern Baptist denomination because of its commitment to whiteness, but what about the intersections of both sexism and racism and how that affects our perceptions about women of color?

I have recently been more invested in divesting from harmful standards and have been pushing back against unjust stereotypes such as the common “Strong Black Woman” trope. I have instead been reclaiming my softness, my sweetness, and allowing myself to appear vulnerable and human instead of impenetrable, invincible, cold or abrasive. Stereotypes never tell the whole story, but God gave me two hands and one mouth to tell His story and part of that story includes an autobiography of His daughter and servant— me. I get to tell the true story of my personhood.

But who is this they and what is this standard that I can never measure up to? I am referring to cultural Christianity that is centered around whiteness and has an active subculture of desirability politics. Let’s define 1) whiteness and 2) desirability politics.

Whiteness:

What is “whiteness”? According to the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), “Whiteness and white racialized identity refer to the way that white people, their customs, culture, and beliefs operate as the standard by which all other groups of are compared. Whiteness is also at the core of understanding race in America. Whiteness and the normalization of white racial identity throughout America’s history have created a culture where nonwhite persons are seen as inferior or abnormal. This white-dominant culture also operates as a social mechanism that grants advantages to white people, since they can navigate society both by feeling normal and being viewed as normal. Persons who identify as white rarely have to think about their racial identity because they live within a culture where whiteness has been normalized.”

Desirability Politics:

What are desirability politics? As I frequently explain on my Instagram account, colorism is often at play when it comes to feminine beauty standards as femininity is often associated with lighter skin and darker skin is often associated with lighter skin. Although colorism, which is defined as “prejudice or discrimination especially within a racial or ethnic group favoring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin.” is at play when it comes to beauty standards, it is like racism in that it is both systemic and punishes people based on their skin color. In fact, people with darker skin are more likely to be sentenced to prison than their lighter counterparts. You can read about that here.

From the website LipstickAndPolitics, “Desirability politics deal with the questions of how social ideals for attractiveness can have a pull, and how one can also pull back. It’s the idea that desire is political – both affected by and simultaneously shaping systems of power and oppression. Understanding this idea is a challenge to the concept of entirely inherent attractions, something that has been entrenched in so much of our education around desire. But oppressive systems have a way of entrenching themselves in our social education, and not even those of us doing social justice work are immune.”

Desirability politics refers to who we do or do not prefer as it is influenced by our society and what values that society attributes to certain kinds of people. From Urge.org, “The politics of desirability function in everyone’s daily life, so it is important to recognize when you are participating in these harmful stereotypes about who deserves to be loved.”

I know that I am worthy, it’s not about whether I lack confidence or faith, it is about facing the elephant in the room and confronting a topic we do not typically discuss. The other day wrecked me. I am embarrassed to say that I just felt defeated. Deflated. I felt deeply what it means to be considered “marginalized” as I was swept away by my tears and left stranded, adrift in the margins. This is not due to lack of confidence. No, I know who I am. I believe that this is what makes it extra difficult to process. It just seems so useless at times, like, why bother? Below are words from a brother and leader I admire that have helped me to process these feelings and return to the foot of the Cross often, “The paradigm for femininity in many majority culture churches is the model of the “white soft-spoken [meek] woman.” She has with her certain traits that are referred to as “marks of piety” when in reality they are simply elements of a white subcultural expression. It’s not that “soft-spokenness” is inherently “white” but the version of it that is expected to be expressed is often an idealized version of a white woman, typically akin to a white southern woman from the antebellum era. Non-white men are told that this is the kind of woman they are to pursue if they desire a godly woman and be considered relationally wise. Minority women are often told that this is what they must be and that they are godly to whatever degree they reflect this image and immature to whatever degree they don’t. If non-white women are opinionated, expressive, or independent thinking they are considered ungodly. This practice happens often, it is normative, and it is a form of colonization. What ends up happening in this scenario is that non-white women who have various personality types or cultural expressions that are contrary to this white paradigm are placed on the sidelines as being poor potential wives. They are considered to be “lacking femininity”. Non-white women (especially black) often end up rightfully feeling abandoned by non-white men (especially black). Ultimately, many minority women begin to feel inherently unattractive or spiritually inferior to white women as they are made to feel like they do not fit the biblical paradigm for womanhood. In reality, they are being judged according to a cultural standard, but they aren’t told this. This leads to deep trauma in the hearts and lives of black women and other women of color. Also, it is important to understand that this dynamic hurts all women. It hurts non-white women who are treated as inferior to white women based on personality & cultural expression and it hurts white women as non-white men end up pursuing them not out of a genuine romantic interest, but out of indoctrination and in an effort to be accepted by their white peers.

For various reasons that will remain unspoken, I decided to speak with this brother and investigate whether or not he had bought into this paradigm. I began asking him some questions. These were the final questions I asked him:

Me: Who would you consider more feminine, Taylor Swift or Lauryn Hill?
Him: Taylor Swift
Me: Who would you consider more feminine, the white antebellum southern woman with the soft and meek voice or the slave woman working in the field picking cotton in rags?
Him: The White Southern woman.

He immediately began to see what he was doing. It was a huge moment for him as he began to realize that he had been psychologically and theologically colonized to consider white cultural expressions superior.”

What Kyle describes as churches colonizing femininity is a part of what I am referring to as desirability politics in church culture. He writes, “As I have helped black women as well as women of color work through this; they have come to feel a great sense of freedom in recognizing that their cultural expressions and personality dynamics are not in and of themselves ungodly. Rather, they are unique qualities that God desires for his glory. God’s glory is displayed through diversity in feminine expression. The problem with many majority white culture churches is that they have a static concept of femininity and masculinity that is often built upon paradigms established more by their own predominant culture than biblical text.”

If you have a Twitter account, I highly recommend following Kyle J. Howard. He touches on a myriad of topics as they pertain to Christianity, culture, and love of God and love of neighbor. I especially appreciate how he honors women in true Jesus-like fashion. While I don’t imagine this blog post will change our church culture overnight, I do hope that I have not only expressed myself, but I also hope that I have managed to put a light on a little talked about topic. I also hope someone finds a glimmer of hope in my words and is inspired.

Beloved, you are known, you are heard, you are seen and you are cared for and loved more than you could ever know.

In resurrection power we stand.

I am very dark, but lovely, O daughters of Jerusalem, like the tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon.

Song of Solomon 1:5

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