By Angela Suico
This past Monday, Reverend Irene Monroe discussed how peoples’ lack of awareness regarding the varied sources of their own identities contribute to harmful racial stereotypes, such as the association of black people with homophobia. The reverend explained that in order to battle these and other stereotypes associated with minority groups, people must first acknowledge the intersection of different racial and gendered tendencies in themselves. Rev. Monroe, who blogs about religion for the Huffington Post and is a doctoral student at Harvard Divinity School, was invited to speak at Oberlin by the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life.
Two factors made the reverend’s lecture stand out from the usual cut-and-dry talks given in West Lecture Hall. The first factor was Rev. Monroe’s disclaimer that “a lot of us do operate—particularly in progressive institutions, like Oberlin—[with respect for] political correctness. I just want to say that, certainly in an educational environment, political correctness truncates all possibilities for learning. So please don’t feel that you need to be politically correct—I’m certainly not.” The second factor was the format of her lecture, which echoed the “call and response” sermons of black church traditions. She began, for example, by asking audience members to share what they remember of the O.J. Simpson trial.
Most of the responses, which focused on Simpson’s identity as a black man, rather than highlighting other aspects of the case, helped typify what Rev. Monroe called a “hierarchy of oppression” that characterizes the discussions of race, gender, and sexuality in America. Comparing the controversy surrounding Simpson’s trial with the injustice of the 1955 murder of Emmet Till, she acknowledged that, “there’s been a history in which black men have been accused of… murdering, raping, assaulting, [and] disrespecting white women. That’s a historical antecedent that’s certainly played here. Race was on trial, front and center, from beginning to end. But…issues around domestic violence certainly got ignored. What happens is that we set up a hierarchy of oppression, [when] we look at one and not look at the totality of the various factors that are playing.”
Rev. Monroe connected this concept of hierarchical oppression to discrimination against race and sexual orientation by comparing reactions to the 1998 murders of James Bird, a gay black man, and Matthew Shepard, a gay white college student. In the former case, “black people were up in arms about this,” said Rev. Monroe, “but the question was, where were the white folks? Where were the gay activists?” In the latter case, “all the white gay community jumped up. But where was the black community? Where were other groups of oppressed people addressing this issue?”
To further illustrate the tendency to overlook how our identities are intersections of various cultural factors, Rev. Monroe asked different audience members a series of thought-provoking questions. The first questions—“How are you white? And how white are you?”—she directed at the white members of the audience.
Responses included “people tell me I’m white,” “my family is white,” “it’s on my driver’s license,” and “my ancestors come from every single part of northern Europe, and I can’t stay in the sun for more than ten minutes without burning.” Many members also referenced their ancestors’ roots in countries such as Ireland, Italy, and Finland, prompting Rev. Monroe to point out the absence of ethnicity from discussions of “whiteness.” “Certain terminology belongs to certain groups of people,” she explained. “When we say ‘ethnicity,’ what happens is we think of people of color—[we think] that only people of color have certain ethnicities.”
Rev. Monroe asserted that this notion of selectively assigning ethnicity is problematic, because ignoring the existence of a “white ethnicity” leads to ignoring the “history of white people,” she said. “And when [white people] don’t know [their] history, [they] become dangerous, [because they pose questions like] ‘Why are black people so homophobic?’ As if we got a patent on homophobia! [You're] ignoring [people like] Ted Haggard! [Asking] stuff like ‘Why are black men rapists?’ ignores the history of slavery in this country!”
Continuing the evening’s theme of racial introspection, Monroe asked the audience members of color how they were white, to which some replied that they liked Starbucks, carried themselves in a certain way, and didn’t know the languages of their ancestors. But when Monroe asked the whole audience “How are you black?” few people responded.
“It’s very interesting,” said Rev. Monroe. “Folks can tell me how they’re white, for the most part, even black folks, but you can’t tell me how you’re black—especially white folks. And we’re always talking about how white folks appropriate black culture and use it. The appropriation of black culture is so pervasive as to be invisible—[that you] claim it as your own. As if you’re just white, with no interaction [with] black people.” Rev. Monroe later noted that hesitation to respond to this question could also stem from the desire to be sensitive to racial issues.
Her final question—“How are you gay?”—was directed toward the heterosexual members of the audience. When the audience did not readily volunteer any responses, Rev. Monroe observed that, “you came up with all these clear markers of how you were white. White folks can’t tell me how they’re black. Those of you who are not gay, it’s as if you don’t appropriate stuff that is…gender non-conforming. There’s something about you that is gender non-conforming. It’s something [in] all of us!” Responses to this final question included masculine clothing choice for one female student, and a lack of interest in sports for one male audience member.
Rev. Monroe explained that the purpose of these inquiries was to make people think about how their identities are formed from various cultural locations, as seeing beyond the racial and sexual stereotypes propagated by American culture and taking ownership of our personal histories are key to addressing problems like associating homophobia with black people. “You can’t look at black ministers just as if they’re monolithic [in terms of homophobia],” said Rev. Irene Monroe. “There are a lot of black ministers—whether they’re straight or gay—that are open and affirming. The point is it makes good news to do a broad stroke and say, well the black community is homophobic, the black community has a high incidence of crime, as if to say that [these assertions] operate without some factors that intentionally give rise to [them].”