The Consistency of Discrimination

Discrimination is a remarkably consistent phenomenon.

In the area of racial discrimination, history shows that blacks were tolerated as long as they stayed “in their place.” Because of the assumed second-class citizenship of African-Americans, whites felt justified in treating them as such, even though many said they “loved” their “nigras.”‘ Nobody, however, wanted an “uppity” Negro; blacks couldn’t hide who they were by virtue of the color of their skin, so they had no choice but to learn how to survive and “stay in their place.”

For gays and lesbians, and indeed people of the LGBT community in general, there has been, again, a feeling that “they” are all right as long as they stay in their place. In the black church, that “place” has historically been in the role of musician – either choir director or accompanist or both. People in these positions might be noticeably gay, but no person in the church would say anything; they were “in their place,” and therefore, tolerable.

But let a member of the LGBT community try to step out of that prescriptive place, and, say, try to work as Director of Christian Education, or perhaps as a Sunday School teacher, deep protest, borne out of deep bias against gays and lesbians, would rise like a phoenix out of the ashes of scriptural righteousness. All of a sudden, “what was right was wrong,” meaning, it was all right for a gay person to be an amazing musician, but it was blasphemous and unconscionable that a person might want to do anything else.

Women in the black church have always had their “place.” Though the majority of membership of most churches tends to be female, the church is still a bastion of male supremacy…and so a woman might be a “deaconess” or she might be relegated to teaching Sunday School or changing the flowers on the altar, but preaching and being a pastor was a no-no. Such a woman had …stepped out of her place.

Older people have their “place.” Employers, too many of them, will look at a person’s age and without even thinking about it, discard him or her as a viable new employee. Old people are OK if they (we!) stay in their place, and their place, apparently, is out of sight, out of mind. Age discrimination is rampant, but we really don’t want to talk about it.

As the comments, commentaries and conversations have escalated since President Obama made his statement in support of gay marriage, I began to think about how successful discrimination depends not only upon the beliefs and determination of another’s status of those who oppress but upon acceptance of that relegation on the part of the oppressed. Discrimination is rather cowardly; it bullies people, but the bullying stops or abates when those being bullied say “enough.”

In the instance of African-Americans and women, the discrimination and relegation to the “back of the bus” has eased up some because people in those groups have pushed back. They have refused to stay “in their place.”  Women and members of the LGBT community, I think, learned much about how to push back against discrimination by watching African-Americans fight for their rights and thus, the feminist and womanist movements changed the lives of women, and the movement for LGBT rights is changing not only the lives of people of that community but also lives of people who have nestled in and taken comfort in their ability to discriminate.

Stepping out of one’s “place”  is risky and painful; power concedes nothing without a struggle and the power that has always been fights against the power that is fighting “to be.” But once someone realizes that the place someone else has relegated to him or her is not all there is and does not have to be permanent if one realizes his or her own worth, in spite of what the common opinion is, the mere urge for a new life and a new reality creates a power that cannot be stopped.

I am guilty of being an idealist; I wish we as humans did not have the capacity to discriminate against each other so easily, but discrimination is not going to end. Perhaps, though, if we understand how consistent are the principles that feed discriminatory behavior, there might be less of it as time goes on, leaving room for people to be who God created them to be, without all the drama.

A candid observation…