This November the United States will be having its Presidential election. Here, each candidate for President chooses a running mate who potentially would become the next Vice President. Although technically there are more than the Democratic and Republican parties, realistically the next President will belong to one of these two groups. Donald Trump is the incumbent and his Vice President is Mike Pence. Joe Biden is the presumptive Democratic nominee and he has yet to pick a running mate. Stacey Abrams has made it known that she wants the job.
In 2018 she ran for Governor of Georgia. In her bid to become the first Black female governor of any state, she narrowly lost (by 1.5%) to the man whose office ran the state’s election. That feat is already amazing, but it is even more awesome considering that the state hasn’t had a governor from her party in the past 44 years. Her amazing race and momentous organizational efforts against voting disenfranchisement has cemented her visibility on the national stage. And she is hoping to parlay that popularity into being chosen as the Vice Presidential candidate and, eventually, elected President of the United States. She has not been shy about her aspirations.
That’s unusual though. No matter what nation you are from, chances are you are familiar with the subtlety of politics. Backroom deals are made quietly out of public view. Ambitions are implied but rarely stated forthrightly, so as not to tip one’s hand. This system seems to have worked in the favor of many past politicians. It’s not coincidental that 44 of the past 45 US Presidents and all of the Vice Presidents share the demographics of a group for whom the strategy of subtlety works well. But as Ms. Abrams, a 46 year old Black woman noted, such strategies are not often advantageous for individuals – like herself – who don’t fit that mold. In a recent interview she flatly stated, "As a woman of color, as a black woman, as a person of color, I cannot be shy about my response, because any hint that I don't think I'm qualified, that I don't think we can is used as a justification for saying that we can't."
What Ms. Abrams explains is really the double-edged sword of being a woman – and particularly a woman of color. We extol humility as a virtue – as well we should. This is especially common in Christian communities. We often talk about the evils of pride. We discourage it by quoting Proverbs 16:8 that “pride comes before the destruction.” We recount how Lucifer’s pride and jealousy were the causes of the discord and eventual war in Heaven. Pride obviously has no place in the heart of a Christian. But “pride” can mean “haughtiness” and “pride” can also mean recognizing your worth. Rarely do we make the distinction between being “stuck up” and being certain. Sometimes in our effort to discourage the first we also extinguish the second. And it appears that women are often the ones who get penalized for our collective inability to tell the difference.
We preach that Christians are to use their talents (Luke 19:11-27), express their spiritual gifts (I Corinthians 12), and remember that they are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14) in the Image of God (Genesis 1:27). Yet if women overtly recognize any of these things within themselves, we chastise them for not exercising meekness. Women who know, think, or desire to be externally attractive are often chided for not understanding that beauty comes from the heart. The truth is there’s no sin in accentuating both. And if God gives us skills to be used, it’s ok to acknowledge that we have those skills. It’s fine to raise your hand to say that you’re in possession of knowledge or expertise that can be valuable.
Right about now, someone may quote Proverbs 27:2 stating that we ought to let others do that acknowledgement for us. Folks may contend that our gifts will make room for us. And for some demographics of people, it’s perfectly fine to simply wait to be noticed. However for women, especially women of color, silence often means getting ignored or passed over altogether.
There is a fine line. After all, being a self assured man comes off as confident. Being a self assured woman is arrogant. So speaking up and making herself known can potentially sound cocky. But presenting as demure can be perceived as uncertain. Women are trained to “make themselves smaller” so others won’t be intimidated or uncomfortable. They can diminish themselves to the point of invisibility. With these two dichotomies, it seems like a no-win situation.
Even in situations where she may know more, women are often expected to defer to others. I read “Meek”’s account of her interaction with a history professor at Andrews with a tremendous amount of empathy. Already being in the role of student during a disagreement can be intimidating. So being truly heard during this conversation was already going to be a challenge. But this was compounded by being a woman of color, whose voices are often dismissed. Although I wasn’t there, based on my familiarity with this particular professor from my time as an undergrad, the account of the interaction rings true. And her struggle to have her valid point about race relations be heard and understood was always going to be an uphill battle. It’s difficult to explain the existence of this constant pushback to those who, not only may never experience it themselves, but who may unknowingly be the source of much of it towards others.
Not long ago, in a discussion about health disparities, a pastoral colleague noted that he disagreed with me based on his “extensive” anecdotes gathered talking to people during his side gig as an Uber driver. The fact that I actually conducted professional scientific research on this subject was entirely inconsequential. He suggested I “humble” myself to learn from his perspective (yes, those were his actual words). The idea that the work, points of view, and lived experiences of some groups are frequently trivialized is the result of implicit biases that permeate the culture – even Christian culture. Pointing this out often sets off a defensive bristle. There may be a desire to spiritualize and dismiss these points. But it is simply reality that the voices of some are often drowned out. And when they speak up to be noticed over the fray, they are told that they are being too loud.
While it’s appropriate to emphasize the example of Christ’s humility, let us also note that Christ did not deny Who He was. Again and again He asserted that He was the Son of God because He knew it was true. The leaders of His day clearly didn’t enjoy hearing those claims. And they were enraged that Christ had the audacity to state what was factual (John 8:48-59). But Christ knew the truth, knew His identity, and refused to shy away from that certainty to make others feel less uncomfortable. In our communities – especially our faith communities – we need to let women of all ethnic backgrounds know that it’s acceptable to speak up and that their voices will be listened to (they may just know what they’re talking about). We want them to use their talents and to let it be known when they are qualified for the job. It’s fine to assert themselves and it’s ok to take up space and not diminish themselves or feign uncertainty to make others more comfortable. In essence, it’s alright to be proud.
Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD is a clinical psychologist and ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found at:
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