My Brother’s Keeper’s ‘Oppression Olympics’

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Generally, as one of the youngest persons in the room in a culture that respects the gravitas of age, I am honored when provided the floor to speak. So, for an African American woman who grew up in one of the most dangerous communities on the south side of Chicago, to have earned a Ph. D, authored two books, edited one, managed two political campaigns, maintained a tenure-track teaching position, organized faith-based community action work, and now pastoring a local congregation while pursing a fourth degree, all before turning 36, I was satisfied in this conversation with just knowing I am signee #523. And yes, auto correct thought my first name was more accurately ended in “ie” rather than ‘y,’ and even changed my “signature” there.

PERSPECTIVE

However, all laurels aside, when we look at the growing number of 1,400-plus women from various walks of life, some whose names we can rattle off from Ebony, People, and US magazines chronicling their lives to others whose works speaks more volumes in an eight-block radius for the aid and comfort she provides to sexual assault survivors, I must stand up and declare: “Women of color community and faith-based leaders are not divided when it comes to the resounding critique of re-aligning the agenda of the president’s White House Initiative, My Brother’s Keeper” {MBK).

Thirty-plus women whose names may be popularly recognizable and heralded by staff of the White House, who tapped them to craft a letter of support a week after the original critique and request pales in response to the hundreds of women and men leaders who recognize the present and foreseeable detriment that MBK will have in our communities if carried forward without serious reconstruction.

From “high-level” positions, to on-the-ground community activists, nearly 2,000 women and men in our communities recognize how we will collectively suffer if girls and women of color are not included in MBK.

Let’s be clear, none in this number either believe or propose that President Barack Obama is incorrect in stating:

“The plain fact is there are some Americans who in the aggregate are consistently doing worse in our society, groups that have had the odds stacked against them in unique ways that require unique solutions, groups who’ve seen fewer opportunity that have spanned generations…We’ve become numb to the statistics. We’re not surprised by them, we take them as the norm. We just assume this is an inevitable part of American life instead of the outrage that it is.”

However, to purport that those aggregate numbers do not include women and girls of color who likewise systemically have the odds stacked against them and need unique solutions to bring them out of a normalized reality of despair in American society, is an erroneous failure from the presidential platform.

Such a failure leaves White House leadership playing the Oppression Olympics, inappropriately and egregiously arguing over who is more endangered than the next. This is a poor attempt to salvage a “good intentions narrative” as opposed to admitting that many roads to hell were paved with good intentions. I will not participate in the Oppression Olympics, but will present data that contextualizes the experiences of Black women in the United States.

To be clear on a second critical argument in this discussion, baited supporters of MBK argue that the president is not ignoring women and girls of color because they were ubiquitously included in The White House Council on Women and Girls. Yes, in 2014, women scholars and activists of color are still educating popular leadership on the definition and impact of intersectionality. I refuse to stand on a soapbox, but encourage people to do the research as the historical and present evidence remains: when initiatives particularly focus on females in general, White women are the primary benefactors (i.e. the Suffragist Movement, or gender equity in education and the workplace) leaving a trickle down effect for women and girls of color. Likewise, as we are witnessing in this moment, when initiatives have a racialized focus, males of color primarily benefit, leaving women of color to double their efforts for equitable restitution.

Throughout the public discourse around MBK and #Whywecantwait, the need to include girls and women of color, supporters of an exclusively male focus for MBK liken Black males to miner’s canaries sounding the alarm of danger for life in the mines. Fine, as one reads in our letter, the 1,400-plus signees do not argue with seeing Black males as canaries in this metaphor. What is a problem is to believe that if we focus on giving the canaries gasmasks (mentors) in order to better navigate the mines, then all will be fine.  Those of us who critique the current direction of MBK recognize that the real problem is the mine itself; we must come to the realization that the mine does not provide suitable and sustainable life for anyone, not just the metaphoric canaries.

Black males have been victimized by institutional structures of oppression, but their victimization happens along with Black female victimization—a victimization most often compounded by their male counterparts. Thus, to tell women of color to wait while initiatives are designed to save and redeem males of color is to keep playing a scratched and warped 45 record of men first that dates back to abolition, suffrage, worker’s compensation and unionization, to civil rights. This played out track of waiting is what has us collectively in disparaging structures of oppression today.

As stated earlier, not only am I scholar, but I am also a clergywoman. I state this not to be applauded, but to re-contextualize this media conversation that is problematically elevating some community and clergywomen, because they have more recognizable names. This pseudo “divide” leaves me reflecting on Martha’s misguided assessment of her sister Mary when Jesus came to stay with them. Martha, content with the cultural structure, cherished and took pride in her gendered role of holding down the domestic sphere while the men of the community were taught and trained in the ways of salvation. She, however, took issue and attempted to garner support from Jesus in condemning her sister Mary, who in that moment chose not to serve lentils and Challah while the men were intellectually and spiritually fed and cared for, but demanded the same care for herself.

As #523 among 1,400-plus, I stand with the Marys who demand to be in the salvation conversation that’s happening right now in our house, “for we have chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from [us]” (Luke 10:42).

Stephany Rose is author of Abolishing White Masculinity from Mark Twain to Hiphop. She is an assistant professor of Women’s and Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church of Colorado Springs.

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