I have served in ministry in some form since 2003, and mostly in youth ministry. If women youth pastors are rare, black women youth pastors are unicorns. I know that we exist, but I have yet to see one in the flesh.
Several years ago, I moved to a new city for a youth ministry position. My senior pastor’s wife gave me the name and phone number of a woman youth pastor in our city whom she met by chance at a conference. When my pastor’s wife mentioned that they had just hired me, the other woman youth pastor said that she was excited to connect. We got together for coffee sometime after that.
Meeting another woman who is in ministry and has the same values and outlook as you is rare. So when you find one another, there is an instant, deep connection. When I met Amanda*, it was no different. We were the same age, graduated from college the same year, and had many of the same horrific experiences with misogyny in the church. But as we continued to talk, I realized that while we shared experiences, Amanda (a white woman) had very different experiences than me.
Amanda’s experiences with patriarchy and misogyny center around her male colleagues’ perception of her level of competency and their sexualization of her existence. In other words, they don’t think that she can do her job and is trying to sleep with them.
In contrast, my experiences with patriarchy and misogyny center on my male colleagues’ failure to see my womanhood and their need to assert their dominance over me. I often inhabit the paradoxical space of being masculinized and ‘put in my place.’
This isn’t to say that Amanda and I don’t have the same experiences, because we most certainly do. This isn’t to try to medal in the Oppression Olympics. Oppression isn’t a competition, but it would be disingenuous to pretend that women of color and white women experience patriarchy and misogyny in the same ways.
I have experienced sexualization, but my male colleagues most often do not treat me the same as they treat white women because they do not immediately perceive me as a threat to their sexual purity. The most overt sexualization that I have experienced has been from white women policing or accusing me.
My white female colleagues experience demonstrations of male dominance, but the assumptions behind those expressions are different. When white men assert their dominance over white women, it is in an effort to reinforce white gender norms. When white male dominance is asserted over women of color, it is both racial and gender dominance.
When gender dominance is asserted, it often looks like being ignored or talked over. The underlying message is that men have all knowledge and need to teach women what they know.
When racial dominance is asserted, it also looks like being ignored or talked over, but there can be an undercurrent of suspicion or mistrust. The underlying message of racial dominance is white men have all knowledge and that people of color need to show that they can keep up.
As a black woman, I must prove that I am worthy to be ‘taught’ by white men. When white men mansplain to white women, the underlying assumption is that they simply do not know. When white men white mansplain to women of color, it often comes with the implication that they might not be able to understand.
When white women assert themselves and prove that they are competent, they are labeled as being ‘shrill’ or a ‘b—-h.’ Black women are labeled angry and uncooperative. We are more readily labeled as insubordinate.
Another difference is that white women’s feelings and emotions must be protected at all times. White male misogyny is about reinforcing white culture’s idealized gender roles in which white women are a prize that is to be protected. Misogynoir is about asserting dominance over black women. White men do not see us as full women and so we do not need to be cherished and protected.
Thankfully, both Amanda and I have had male mentors who have seen us for who we are and didn’t allow our gender to affect their appraisal of our intelligence and abilities. Working with men who are truly egalitarian, who truly see you as an equal, doesn’t seem to happen often in supposedly egalitarian circles. I treasure the men who have treated me as a sister and/or a daughter. I doubly treasure the white men who have given me the requisite space to be an unapologetically black woman.
Ultimately, being egalitarian does not shield women in ministry from experiencing patriarchy and misogyny. Women of color have the added challenge of overcoming racism in addition to misogyny.
[*Not her real name]
Ally Henny is a full-time wife, mother, and student. She is pursing her Master of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary with an emphasis in Race, Cultural Identity, and Reconciliation. She aspires to pastor a thriving multiethnic church where she can preach and teach the Word of God to sinner and saint alike. She has a passion for racial healing and justice and seeks to heal our nation’s racial divide through truth-telling, education, and compassion.