BY AMY BUTLER

 

I recently had an opportunity to share lunch and conversation with a group of female seminarians. Over the course of the conversation I heard several fascinating questions, but one has been floating on the edge of my consciousness ever since it was raised.

“In your view, what are the similarities between racism and sexism?”

Though my ethnicity and cultural identity is native Hawaiian, I experience all the advantages of being white in America. I can’t claim a personal understanding of racism in our country, and I’m not really convinced that anybody needs another white person opining on racism. But here’s what I’ve learned, especially in this year of raising consciousness about white supremacy and systemic racism in America:

Driving meticulously at the speed limit in a predominantly white neighborhood; a colleague asking if it would be okay if we switched places at lunch so the door wasn’t at his back; purses clutched in fear by passing women on the sidewalk: these experiences are real for many Americans. Every day.

On the issue of sexism, however, I’m just going to say here that I know a little bit about the topic. Those who enjoy all the benefits of being a man in American society may not fully appreciate the wearying threads of sexism that run through every part of society, and certainly the church.

In fact, I was writing just the other day about women in leadership and I had to stop and take a break. Recalling and reliving the stories I’ve collected just in my own lived experience began to do their spirit-crushing work all over again. While expressions of sexism are often involuntary, I can assure you that sexism is alive and well.

“In your view, what are the similarities between racism and sexism?”

You know, I still don’t think I can answer the question she asked. But I do know how both forms of social exclusion impact us in ways that are hard for us to fully comprehend or even recognize. For sure, exclusion wears on us, shapes us in conscious and unconscious ways, and can keep us from living fully into who God created us to be. And in both cases we begin relationships by assuming we experience the world exactly the same way.

Recently, a male colleague overheard a sexist and inappropriate comment, the kind women leaders hear often. My colleague pulled me aside and said, “I overheard what she said to you. I hear you talk about this sometimes, but I didn’t really know this actually happened: no one has ever said anything like that to me in a professional setting. Now I understand a little more the challenges you face.”

His words felt like a gift to me, and they reminded me that some common ground might be found when we start engaging with each other holding close the full awareness that there is no possible way I could ever understand what it feels like to live in your skin.

You’ve heard the saying: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” I think that might be a good place to start, while we keep working to actively dismantle systems that support and promote all kinds of discrimination. What might happen to our world if we always started from a default position of grace?


Rev. Dr. Amy Butler is the Senior Minister of The Riverside Church in New York City. Prior to this call, Pastor Amy served as Senior Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. Pastor Amy holds degrees from Baylor University (BA ‘91, MA ‘96); The International Baptist Theological Seminary (BDiv ‘95); and Wesley Theological Seminary (DMin ‘09).