I grew up a conservative Southern girl who knew her place.
My family and my church were not bad; I knew I was accepted and affirmed. Within limits. I knew I had opportunities and possibilities. Up to a point. No one intentionally held me back or put me down or kept me out. No one limited me in order to be hateful or mean; everyone was very nice about it. I call it benevolent sexism, a patronizing attitude shared by the people in my life that kept me in my place. But it was the Systemic Sexism of my world that blinded all of us to the deep damage we were doing by limiting the full humanity of half the people on the planet.
It was the questions that saved me. Questioning why things should be the way they were. Wondering what sense it made that males should have advantages that females didn’t have. Challenging the status quo that kept some people in “a place” just because that designation made other people feel more comfortable.
And it was the questions that opened up my world. Once I understood that my place should not be defined by other people’s expectations but rather by my own internal sense of who I am and what I am called to be and do, then my world grew larger than I ever imagined. And once I stepped out of “my place” and into a larger world, I was able to see the experiences of other people through a radically different lens.
My Black sisters and brothers for example. Growing up, even though I was nice about it, I still assumed they too had a “place.” Benevolent Racism. Like a fish in water, I couldn’t recognize that I was swimming in a culture of embedded injustice; that I was breathing the air of a world permeated by inequity. Systemic Racism.
Our nation is grounded in the soil of slavery and racism is part of our DNA. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised at the systemic racism that has been pervasive in America since our very beginnings; America is congenitally racist. And some of the attitudes we are seeing in these days are anything but benevolent; hatred and cruelty are all too common.
But much of the divide we currently experience is from invisible assumptions (often hidden even from ourselves) that there are some Americans who are stepping out of their “place.” We may not be unkind; we probably don’t mean to be hurtful. But whenever we unwittingly duplicate the patronizing values of the system; whenever we uncritically assume that white or male is the norm; whenever we criticize anyone who challenges the status quo of power and privilege – then we participate in limiting the full humanity of a good portion of the people on this planet. Benevolent Racism is still racism.
Maybe it will be the questions that save us. Questioning why some people should live with unearned advantage while others are at a constant disadvantage. Wondering why sharing power with more people makes some other people uncomfortable. What are we afraid of?
My own journey has been relatively uneventful; awareness and change unfolded until I was able to take a leap into the larger world that has, for the most part, fully accepted and affirmed my choices. However the experiences of my Black sisters continue to be limited and the lives of my Black brothers continue to be in danger every time they walk out their doors.
If America is finally going to move beyond sexism and racism – no matter how benevolent people’s intentions may be – we must remove our blinders and begin to see and celebrate our world in all of its multi-colored, many textured reality. It is this reality that can be our salvation: each of us in the place where we can become all that we are meant to be. All of us in the place where we are creating that world together.
Charlotte Vaughan Coyle 2014
Charlotte Vaughan Coyle is an ordained minister within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pursuing a Doctorate of Ministry at Brite Divinity School (TCU) in Ft. Worth TX. She is a volunteer at Coffee Party USA and contributes articles regularly to the Coffee Party Facebook page.