Note: On my blog site last week, I had committed to my readers to post a series of summaries of books on anti-racism and social justice. I noted that people who have previously been silent are now asking how to learn more about racism. Others are reaching out asking how to deal with their anger and disappointment over the repeated instances of unarmed Black people being killed by police. Others have asked how to even talk about race at work or with colleagues of different races. For the next four weeks, I plan to post summaries of books or movies that are instructive on race and racism, and may help get constructive conversations started. Readers of this blog or my FB and LinkedIn posts are primarily women who lead in corporations, small businesses, educational institutions, and faith-based organizations and have power to help change racist systems. This series shares ideas from social science and theology to increase our knowledge of the issues at hand and help prepare us to participate in changing, for the good of all, the systems in which we each lead.
For my first article, I decided to summarize a book by author Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes titled, I Bring the Voices of My People: A Womanist Vision for Racial Reconciliation, Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2019 (Kindle version).
Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes is a theologian and psychologist. She has served on the faculties of Mercer University, Shaw University, University of Florida, and University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
Dr. Walker-Barnes writes from a framework called womanist theology, which centers the voices, and experiences of women of color. The term “womanist” was first coined by Alice walker in her book, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose. Dr. Walker-Barnes describes womanist theology as beginning “its analysis by understanding the lived experiences of African American women, including the ways in which they experience oppression and the ways we find hope and exercise agency in the midst of oppression.” (loc 444). Womanist theology provides an analytic tool in addressing oppression that honors the sacred lives of Black people, provides an analysis that is multi-dimensional, as it forces us to address how systems of racism and sexism, for instance, jointly operate.
Dr. Walker-Barnes has added her very powerful voice to the racial reconciliation movement. For those not familiar with racial reconciliation, in the United States, racial reconciliation is a movement to end racism in the church and society. Ironically, Dr. Walker-Barnes shows that it has been largely framed as a movement aimed at obliterating racial barriers between African American and White men” (Loc 305). The largely male gaze has resulted in “a body of literature that examines race as a singular construct, ignoring the intersections between race, gender, and sexuality.” (loc 305). In her book, Dr. Walker-Barnes “aims to disrupt this male gaze by centering the experiences and perspectives of women of color in its understanding of race, racism and reconciliation.” (loc 305). Racial reconciliation is one movement aimed at addressing racism. Other terms some readers may be more familiar with are racial justice, racial equity. More recently, anti-racism has been added to our lexicon to speak of the active engagement of deconstructing racist ideas and dismantling racist structures.
Early on, the initial focus and definition of racism situated it as a spiritual issue or an interpersonal issue. The analyses lacked a structural focus that addressed the need to dismantle structural barriers as well as the need to develop systems and structures that ensure equality and equity.
There are many lessons to be drawn from Dr. Walker-Barnes in this book. I want to share a few terms as she has defined them for us that help us understand what we are dealing with.
- “White supremacy is a systematic way of ordering societal systems, ideologies, and relationships so that political, economic, cultural, and social dominance accrues to Whites. It exists independent of any individual person’s feelings toward people of other races. Because the term “White supremacy” has become identified with terrorist and hate groups, people rarely use it in discussing racism and reconciliation, instead opting to use the less harsh term, “White privilege.” But White privilege exists because of White supremacy. (loc 945)
- White privilege consists of the advantages inherent in being categorized as White in a society that views whiteness as superior.” (loc 945)
- Dr. Walker-Barnes employs an intersectional framework as the lens through which to understand and interpret how systems of power and oppression interconnect to shape the lives of African American women. In other words, it recognizes that the experiences of African American women are not simply the sum of their experiences as women and their experiences as African American. Identity (and barriers to opportunities based on that identity) is not just additive; it’s multiplicative. Dr. Walker-Barnes created an “algebraic equation” to capture Black women’s Identity and, hence, Black’s women’s experiences with racism and sexism:
- Yet, women of color are not the only ones with this multiplicative identity. White women’s identities can be seen as a product of their race plus their gender plus the intersection of their race and gender. And often white women’s “whiteness” and “white privilege” especially as it relates to doing gender equality work is often not noted or addressed. Consequently, voices of women of color are sometimes drowned out, ignored or absent from the broader discourse.
On Gendered Racism
- The type of framework for analysis that Dr. Walker-Barnes employs, will help to broaden both racial and gender justice work and provide a widened perspective on racial and gender equality. To that end, we need to understand gendered racism that is experienced frequently by Black women and other women of color but are largely ignored in discussions of race and racism. This type of framework helps to reveal the power dynamics in organizational relationships.
I highly recommend you read this book! Dr. Walker Barnes provides a rich historical perspective of patriarchy and the ways it has oppressed, limited and violated women. Dr. Walker-Barnes reminds us that women of color have been affected by a particularly virulent strain of oppression, “White supremacist patriarchy” (loc 427). To really address racist structures in our workplaces, for instance, we cannot be ahistorical. We have to seriously consider and incorporate into our work how patriarchy manifested differently for White women and Black women and Asian women and Latina women and Native women. The differences between the actions, laws and its effects between White women and Black women alone are astounding and organizations cannot ignore those roots.
Finally, it is important that we hold conversations about race with the aim of transforming systems. I know we can’t transform a system until we have been transformed. To that end, transforming our thinking, our understanding and our will to change is a first step. Dr. Walker-Barnes provides a powerful model for reconciliation from Alice Walker’s book, The Color Purple, showing how both those who have been privileged and those who have been oppressed are changed, yet in radically different ways. Reconciliation, justice, equity in our systems will not happen without the transformation of the people who hold power in the systems. It starts with you and me.
Based on the summary in this post, how does the above definition of racism challenge your thinking? What are the implications for applying this definition to your workplace? Your place of worship? Your community?
Dr. Walker-Barnes adds her framework to the racial reconciliation movement. How might the above concepts be applied to racial diversity, equity and inclusion work in your workplace?
Dr. Walker-Barnes provided an “algebraic equation” to describe the intersection of race and gender that make up our identities, as well as the constitutes the complex ways unjust systems affect us. If you are a woman of color, how does this formula capture your experiences with race and gender? If you are a white woman, how does this formula capture your experiences with race and gender?
Let’s start a conversation:
I’d love to discuss your thoughts on the book. Please comment below, or email them to me at DrJeanne@JeannePorterKing.com to help us get the conversation started. In addition, share this post with one or two other women with whom you can have a conversation about race.