The White Church, Purity Culture, and Ferguson

One of my favorite episodes of The West Wing involves President Bartlett calling the Butterball Turkey hotline, claiming to be a man from North Dakota with a question about what temperature to cook a turkey. In the same episode, CJ, the press secretary, finds two turkeys in her office and finds out it is her job to decide which turkey will go before the press to be pardoned. Hijinks ensue, as one might guess.

Despite existing in the fictional universe, the “pardon a turkey” part of the president’s work is actually a thing. Just before Thanksgiving this last week, President Obama stood with his two daughters and pardoned this year’s turkey. And his daughters reacted to the pomp and circumstance as any teen girl would – with eye rolls. While much of the Internet – at least the parts that I frequent – laughed at Sasha and Malia’s obvious annoyance, others were less than pleased. GOP staffer Elizabeth Lauten posted a status on Facebook asking the girls to “show some class” and to “dress for respect, not for a spot at a bar.”

It was this last that caught my eye. I’d not noticed anything particularly immodest about the Obama daughters’ clothing, so I did an image search and looked at them through the eyes of a white, conservative, probably Christian woman. Unfortunately, this isn’t a hard mode for me to slide into, as it’s something I’m well acquainted with. Instead of young teen girls dressed in fashions common to young ladies their age, I now saw short skirts, bare legs, and flattering tights. It also meant I aged them up in my mind to what I might see at a bar on a Friday night. In conservative white woman mode, the Obama daughters were no longer teen girls playfully annoyed with their father – they were adult women purposefully dressing to provoke and therefore “should know better.”

The Obama daughters at the turkey pardoning.

The Obama daughters at the turkey pardoning.

Being in White Woman Christian Conservative mode isn’t something I like to do, but bouncing back into that prejudice helps me to see and understand the underlying racism behind statements like Elizabeth Lauten’s. Such statements work because of a prejudice that refuses to see young black people as young – prejudice and racism requires that each black person exists as a fully formed, 20 something adult, someone who “should know better” when it comes to confrontations with police and other civil authorities. It is only in this world of magically matured black people that Lauten’s comments about a 13 year old’s clothing make any sense. Sasha Obama must be aged up, perceived as “beyond her years” in order for the lurid white gaze to make any sense.

We see this “aging up” of people of color happening throughout our justice system. When 14 year old Cherice Moralez, a young woman victimized by a teacher 40 years her senior, brought charges, the judge ruled in favor of a light sentence for her attacker. The judge’s reasoning? Moralez – a young latina girl – looked “older than her chronological age.” He aged her up in order to justify the crimes against her.

Purity and modesty culture exist within a racialized world, within this imposed maturation on people of color. My friend Tope, a black woman, wrote of her experience in white church culture in a piece for RH Reality Check last year:

I also remember our white pastor announcing before the entire church his suspicions that another Black girl in our congregation was having sex. I remember how church folks presented “godly” and “natural” femininity as chaste, quiet, and submissive, in the same breaths that they stereotyped Black girls and women as hypersexual, domineering, belligerent.

Purity culture has always had a racial component. As I’ve written before, purity culture is, itself, the result of white religious and cultural authorities fearing the growth of the sexual revolution and the Civil Rights Movements and its effect on white women in the church. The fear was that white women would adopt the “sinfulness” already assumed in communities of color – that free sexual agency meant that white women would be "at risk." Purity culture, despite its attempts at and proclamations toward a post-racial, colorblind view of the world, is deeply invested in protecting whiteness. And purity culture achieves this goal through the demonization and hypersexualization of black bodies – as seen in the microcosm of Lauten’s criticism of the Obama daughters.

But we also see purity culture’s aging effect at work in state violence upon black bodies. When questioned about shooting a 12 year old black boy in Ohio, the officer involved commented that he thought Tamir Rice looked 20 years old, not twelve. When 17 year old Trayvon Martin was gunned down by George Zimmerman, there was a substantial effort in white media to recast Martin not as a 17 year old high school student, but as a grown man who “should know better.” Mike Brown, too, was cast as something larger than himself, an older, less human kind of creature.

Black women, in particular, experience this imposed maturation starting very young. In discussions about street harassment, I continually see the black women on my feeds saying their first encounter with harassment started at 10, 11, 12. They are never really given a chance to be just children, because they are sexualized so young. These same justifications and excuses – “she tempted me with her overt sexuality” – that white slave owners used to rape their slaves with impunity are still alive and well in our supposedly “post-racial” world.

This aging up of people of color is not harmless. It is a dehumanizing force that allows white people excuses to justify their demonic and hateful behavior toward people of color – particularly women of color. It creates a narrative in which even a 12 year old child is responsible for his death at the hands of police because of his perceived maturity. It makes it that much harder to prosecute rape when the victim is seen as somehow at fault, simply because of the color of her skin. People of color are literally dying because the white church insists on preserving theologies from the era of slavery.

Women of color will never live up to the theology of purity culture, because their bodies are naturally impure. They never get the chance to be young and naïve and innocent, as I did. They are made deeply aware of their bodies and their perceived sexuality at earlier ages than I ever was. This, if nothing else, is reason enough to dismantle purity culture.

[Photo by Joshua Sinn, Flickr]