Elephant in the Dock: The White Male As Neutral and Objective

“I don’t know anything about truth but I know falsehood when I see it and it looks like this whole world you’ve made.” – “Elephant in the Dock”* by mewithoutYou


When I first registered for college classes, I declared a political science and communication studies double major. I had a dream of being a political pundit on CNN, which, for some reason, I thought was based out of Chicago. Then I went to church camp. During that time, I felt like God was calling me to do something different, to change lives not by becoming a pundit on CNN, but by delving into theology and learning all I could from it. I knew, then, that I should change my major to theology/philosophy.**

I called the school the Monday after I got home and switched my major.

Later that week, I was talking to a friend from high school – the son of the local Southern Baptist pastor (we only had one Southern Baptist church in the city at the time). He replied that I couldn’t go into ministry with that degree because I’m a woman.

As a woman inclined toward philosophy, theology, and social justice issues, I’ve had my share of being dismissed or questioned within those spheres. I’m expected to exist apart from and without my womanhood in order to participate in those abstract discussions.

Let me explain.

If I point out that we need to talk about Jesus’ maleness when we discuss theories of the Incarnation because his maleness has an impact on the time and place in which he became incarnate, I’m told that such theology is niche identity politics, too specialized to be applicable to general, abstract, objective discussions. By my very existence as a woman in theological studies, I insert gender into a discussion that has been previously dominated by a homogenous group of straight, white, cisgender men – men for whom questions of gender and patriarchy were not relevant or pressing in their lives. I, by the very act of being a woman existing in the theological realm, frequently bring to the table a different perspective that is colored by my gendered existence.

Unfortunately, by allowing this experience to play a part in how I approach theology, I am told that I am playing identity politics, that I am failing to participate in the abstract, that I am inserting subjectivity into a previously objective realm.

This is precisely what happened in the comment section of Jennifer Luitwieler’s post on male theology bloggers and the lack of women in their theology circles. The comments turned into a benevolently sexist discussion (and I quote the man, Alastair Roberts, directly here):

“…women just don’t participate as much in the sort of conversations that dominate male blogs, conversations that aren’t so firmly rooted in a particular context or identity. We don’t purposefully exclude women from our blog rolls at all: they just aren’t participating in the general conversation to the same degree. By not including them, we aren’t denying that they have value in their own place, just that they aren’t speaking into the conversations with which we are engaged.”

I don’t fault Alastair for repeating an argument that seems quite reasonable to him. But he is also blinded by his privilege as a white male person. Notice, first, his use of the word “we.” “We” is meant to be theology bloggers, but within the context, “we” quite clearly means white male theologians who speak about “abstractions.” There is no way for I, as a feminist theologian, to be included within his “we” because “abstract” here is a moving goal post. Inserting gendered ideas into a discussion means I am no longer functioning within the abstract. If I do not sublimate my womanhood so that I may talk as a man, I will forever be the Other in this discussion.

This is benevolent sexism. It is the sexism that says “it’s not that we don’t listen to women! It’s just that they don’t write the stuff we’re interested in!” It becomes dangerous when “the stuff we’re interested in” is labeled as “objective,” and “abstract” and that this objectivity and abstractness are held up as “good." We see this over and over again in media and in excuses given for why women aren't CEOs of more Fortune 500 companies or visibly participating in the sciences. Because minority groups are somehow, as a monolith, disinterested in "objectivity," white males pawn off the blame for lack of inclusiveness on the excluded groups.

We really like to think, especially in America, the country built on Enlightenment philosophy, that “objectivity” is a thing that can be grasped and held. But we do humanity a disservice when we believe that this means the discussions we have are rooted in some world of “abstract objectivity.”

Here’s the rub: “objectivity” isn’t a thing. It doesn’t exist.

No one – not even white men – can fully separate their identity from what they are talking about. So when a white man tells me that women are not participating in the “abstract” conversation that white men are having, what I hear is that women are not willing to set aside their womanliness in order to behave as men (and people say that’s what feminists want!).

Take this for an example: what does a heart attack look like?

If you said pain radiating in the left arm, constriction in the chest, rapid or irregular heartbeat, fainting, you’re basically right...if you're describing the symptoms for heart attacks in cis men. Women experience nausea, back and jaw pain, shortness of breath, and vomiting.

You would think heart attack symptoms would be an objective science. That’s the narrative we’ve received for years and years – because the narrative has been dominated by supposedly “objective” white men. And because women were kept out of the sciences for centuries, and only relatively recently started becoming specialized doctors, study of female heart attack symptoms never really mattered because the men in charge of the studying didn’t think of how it might be different.

This is the danger – literal and figurative – of equating a white, male dominated discourse with “objectivity” and “abstractness,” even if you’re not trying to set it up as a hierarchy. Because of the patriarchal strictures within which we live and move, equating maleness with objectivity (or implying so by saying that women simply aren’t “attracted” to these “objective” discussions) demands that minorities drop their identities at the door and learn how to converse and discuss as white men in order to participate in “objective” discussion.

It is not that white men are magically more interested in objectivity, but that white men seem interested in sharing ideas with those who look and act like them, with those who share the identifiers of “white” and “male.” If a woman refuses to drop her identification and take a new one upon herself, she is dismissed as “subjective” and “uninteresting” – because she doesn’t look, act, or talk like a white male.***

We are all speaking within cultural contexts. We are all speaking from specific life experiences. No one is capable of being “objective” or participating in the “abstract.” Not even white men. If you notice, white guys, that your “abstract, objective” discussion is lacking the opinions of women, it’s not because women are somehow uninterested or incapable of abstraction. It’s because women aren’t interested in hearing the dominating white male perspective again. Come to our table. Don’t ask us to lose our selves in order to join yours.

*This song is based on the story of Mary the Elephant, a circus elephant who was hanged after killing her trainer. Disturbing image at the link, just so you know.

**I realize for many of my readers think this is silly, and I don’t know that I believe God has such specific callings for people anymore, but at the time, this is what I was convinced of.

***Note that this is referring to cisgender men. Trans* people encounter this "burden" of proving objectivity as well.