It's Hard Out Here For a Woman

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Church Relevance – an organization aimed at…helping churches be relevant? – released their list of Top 200 Church Blogs, again. Not only are the criteria iffy – what counts a “church blog”? am I a church blog? – but the list had the same flaws it always has: it’s mostly white men. In fact, 93% white men (a friend and I did the math).This means, for many circles, that the face of Christian blogging is very white, and very male. The list is undoubtedly unbalanced. There are any number of things I could say on this and the critique could take any number of directions: representation for minorities is far more important than it is for privileged white men, that the criteria for deciding what is a “church blog” is clearly biased toward white men, that the “it’s the math” excuse doesn’t wash if you aren’t getting diverse results to start with, that a church lacking diversity is an unhealthy church, etc, etc. All good points, and all points I made to Kent Shaffer’s virtual face yesterday, via Twitter.

So he responded.

At about 8PM Tuesday night, I got a tweet – since deleted – from Shaffer, directed at me and several other women who had been involved a large discussion about diversity and this list. The tweet read simply, “This one’s for you” and directed all of us to this post, an “Open Letter to Christian Women Blogs.”*

And boy, what an exercise in how not to respond.

He opens by telling us that he understands how hard it must be to be a woman in the church, but then undermines his point by saying that the reactions to the list are coming from an emotional place. He talks about women who get depressed that they didn’t make the list, women who think they need to be on the list to “make it,” as though they are simply jealous and have disordered ambitions. He writes:

I imagine being a woman in ministry is like having a double bullseye of disadvantage on you. It is enough to create a powder keg of emotions for anyone, and it is doesn’t make it any easier that most women are wired to be more emotional tend to be more emotionally expressive and develop empathy better than men. That’s not meant as a sexist stereotype but as a reality that does have exceptions. Emotions are an incredible strength that society usually touts as a weakness. Yet well-harnessed emotions are what nurtures humanity to be more civilized. At the same time, emotions can sometimes be an Achille’s heel for the feeler causing self-doubt, depression, or unnecessary frustration at what sometimes are mere assumptions. [strikethrough and added links are his edits]

In doing this (and in directing the post via twitter to those of us discussing the problems of diversity), he categorizes the very legitimate complaints about the lack of diversity as jealous whining by depressed, emotional women. He draws no distinction between those who express legitimate criticism and those who simply whine that they didn’t make the list this year – an unfair generalization if there ever was one.

The number one problem here is that he presumes to understand us without actually listening to what we’re saying. If he truly understood our concerns about diversity, he wouldn’t write it off as “an emotional reaction” and worries about weakness.** He wouldn’t pity our position and say, “It must be so hard for you women!”

Telling us “it must be hard for you” and then failing to take action makes you no better than those who actively work against us.

Strong words, yes, but think of it this way: “It must be so hard for you” is faux-understanding. It is giving the illusion of understanding our position without actually making an effort to do so. It is placating. And it is insulting.

When I was about 12 years old, my parents switched to a new kind of parenting called “Love and Logic.” When dealing with small children (or pre-teens), it can be incredibly effective. The goal of it is to teach empathy to a child and make them think about how their actions affect others by asking questions and making them play a role in the consequences of their actions.

But the way it does so is somewhat sneaky: one says to a complaining child (say one who is complaining about a teacher being unfair and vindictive), “That must be so tough for you. What do you think you can do about it? What do you think would be a good plan?”

This technique only works if you say the first part, if you give the child some sense that you understand what’s happening, that you empathize with their plight. But, it is placating. Sometimes, as a parent, you do feel empathy. But I know, looking back, when my public school teacher parents listened to me complain about how bad a teacher was and replied in this way, that they didn’t actually believe that my complaint was that legitimate. They said they did because they knew it would make me feel more at peace, thinking that someone else understood.

That is what is happening here. “It must be tough for you” without any declaration of action is a form of placation. It is a technique that works best when the person complaining doesn’t actually have a legitimate complaint. It doesn’t work when someone has a legitimate argument that requires you to do some introspection and work on yourself.

When my friends who are racial minorities discuss systemic issues of racism, especially when they concern something I did and perpetuated (it happens – I have white privilege), it would never occur to me to respond with “it must be tough for you.” It is dismissive and doesn’t actually do anything to empathize. What they need from me is not sympathy or pity – it is outrage and actual understanding.

Outrage shows that you actually do understand, that you find our problems to be legitimate problems, and that the unfairness of the sexist, racist system bothers you. If you understand why it’s a problem that a list of 200 church blogs is mostly white men, you would not sit there saying “It’s tough to be a woman in the church.” You’d be outraged right alongside us.

“It must be hard for you” lays the problem at the feet of the oppressed. It allows the privileged to look like they understand when really they’re just trying to get us to shut up. It doesn’t actually address anything to show that real change needs to happen. And that is what is pitiful. Not women who legitimately have problems with the lack of diversity on a list of 200 blogs.

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*This, by the way, is a confusing array of adjectives, directed at … the blogs? Not the writers of said blogs? Do I not even get the dignity of owning my writing as a “blogger” not just a “blog”?

**For the record, emotions are not what causes self-doubt. People categorizing emotional reactions as weakness and illegitimate because they come from women – THAT is where self-doubt comes in. It’s called gaslighting. Google it.