“I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?” C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces
The problem of marginalization is fundamentally one of deception tied to power and allegiances. Biblically speaking, deception is frequently portrayed as a problem of the heart rather than merely buying into false premises. Ultimately, one buys into false premises about themselves and others because they want to. Applied to marginalization, one marginalizes another because at heart they have chosen to believe they ought to be superior and the other is or should be inferior. It is an issue of worship and idolatry as one elevates the self above the other who is made in God’s image, and in doing so also elevates themselves above the God of the cross in their life orientation.
It is easier to conceive of personal and historical evils as a mere “lack of knowledge” or education or perhaps merely having been tricked depending on how our given society has processed or not processed the events. However, the conception that something willful or decided happened in the chain of decision making or wanton disregard for the truth is far more disturbing the closer it hits to home. Most of us are now programmed to reject the plea that one was “just following orders” and know that otherwise “good citizens” cannot appeal “everyone was doing it” in the context of an event like the Holocaust. And the Holocaust is of course, a commonly accepted example of when we humans went too far (never mind everything leading up to it). But what about other contexts?
This impasse between recognizing willful deception and identifying something as mere ignorance arose recently when I was watching an old black and white movie with some folks and a “black face” routine came up. It was dismissed as “just something people did” in those days, sad and unacceptable now, but excusable then. They did not know any better. But at some deeper level, just almost brimming to the surface, is it true that they simply “did not know better?” I couldn’t help but ask this question.
At this period in time, the individuals participating in the making of this movie widely acknowledged they were dealing with “people” (and one is also liable for creating or accepting dehumanizing labels). Their movie even celebrated these people’s liberation from slavery. And yet, they thought they could portray these same people as: inherently ugly (black), stupid and entertainingly simple. Is that how one treats a person? I think of Mr. Rogers showing us how to be good neighbors as he cooled his feat in his “yard” alongside a person of color and declared his consistent message that he was a “neighbor” and other people were on this basis worth interacting with, investing in and being treated as equals. But in this other show, they did not portray themselves as neighbors, but as “liberators,” even permitting the “black faced” actors of subservient roles to sing of their liberation from slavery.
How disturbingly common it is for those who dehumanize, abuse or injure to think their targets should be grateful for the crumbs they throw.
And, why the blackface routine if they were the great liberators (or their ancestors had merely finally set part of a great wrong right)?
I believe they made “black face” simply because they could. Society had broadly come to this agreement on what was acceptable behavior towards these human beings and how they could be portrayed to match a larger narrative. Nearly everyone treated them according to this imposed script. But of course it is those pesky exceptions to the rule that condemn the rest of our behavior! In turn, the makers of this film were choosing to see their neighbors with this demeaning image and yet the existence of this false image flies in the face of their vision of themselves as the white liberators and veils the truth about who they are and who their neighbor is. How easily self-deceived illusions and rationalizations fall apart when one without the need to preserve a particular image walks in on the rouse. No, this particular group could more than afford to put on a smile and “nicely” demean the “other” in such a way that just so happens to make themselves appear superior in their mind’s eye. Doing otherwise was not expedient in the moment, and took up too much effort against societal trends to treat these people like full members of society with equal dignity. Sure, they were willing to put up a fight to let the colored actors of subservient roles sing of their liberation by white saviors (many of whose ancestors also enslaved them in the first place!) because this matched the narrative and did not fundamentally challenge the status quo. Further, it made them into saviors again with no fundamental shifting of perceived identity.
The mask of morally superior politeness and platitudes nearly always slips once one asks: what is lost and what is gained? Do you visibly increase by “helping” me or, am I permitted to come into myself and expand?
But the narrative of inferiority must stand because: If perhaps if it turned out that these people were and are not “black face,” then the pernicious behavior from their so-called saviors towards them is condemned. Suddenly one has treated an equal horrendously and unacceptably while declaring oneself pitifully their better.
What is Marginalization?
The Oxford Dictionary defines marginalization as the: “Treatment of a person, group, or concept as insignificant or peripheral.” It may be that one does not realize they are marginalizing a person or group now, but it is important to realize the darker reality at play here. Marginalizing is not merely convenient inaction. It involves “withholding,” bringing another “down,” or suppressing their person or agency. It is not recognizing their achievements, contributions or value as persons. It is withholding access to resources, social standing, their own identity, due praise or earned merit. It is communicating inferiority verbally, and non-verbaly in word, in deed and in subscribing to/enabling/approving of ideological frameworks that reinforce subservience or inferiority. These types of behaviors or tendencies may be easily identifiable to those on the outside looking in: “Why would you treat someone that way!?” but typically make perfect sense within the framework the participants operate in.
Those that marginalize often approach targets as though they are unacceptable, outsiders or merely “different.” Those targeted can be of a different age, educational background, ethnicity, culture, gender, or personality. It may be that they are otherwise undiscernable from others, their differences are artificially construed or they have qualities others envy. Once a person is targeted, marked or the environment has successfully distinguished them as an outsider, they will be perceived with a sort of overlay or pair of glasses that filter out favorable characteristics or characteristics that go against a particular narrative and accentuate ones that support it. This overlay can also outright distort the facts of behavior themselves so that a pleasant “hello” or offer to assist becomes an intolerable indiscretion or may even be erased from memory. Although marginalizing behavior might at times be deemed functionally “invisible” or subtle to those engaging in it, it is not in fact, unrecognizable or behavior that one could not point to, identify and unpack with context if they have not bought into the narrative.
In other words, at the end of the day it may take just one person saying the “emperor has no clothes.” And yet, imagine having to unpack and argue why he has no clothes to a group that truly does not want to believe this is the case or that they went along with something obviously evil or silly. Imagine having to do this if you are the person or group the behavior and narratives are directed against, which is typically what happens!
Put another way, say you are constantly having your ideas shot down or people are visibly irritated when you speak, receiving suspicious glances from people when you go up to talk to them, and no one wants to be alone with you. It has been years. Reinforced communication: you are a liability and we feel threatened when you try and engage us (happens frequently to women). What do you think will happen if you confront them about their behavior? What adaptations might you end up making to your interactions that would either confirm their narrative (maybe you get fed up with them and get super assertive) or in an attempt to dis-confirm it, attempt to make your behavior match someone deemed “not threatening”? More on this later.
A Problem of Ignorance or of the Heart?
The problem of marginalization is deeper than a mere need for education about another person or culture or realizing one ought not to exclude, make racists or sexist statements. On a fundamental level, we have a heart problem. In Christian terms, marginalization reveals one is hostile and disposed against the face of Christ in various forms. It is a refusal to be human. After all, “Why be a king when you can be a god?”
Humans were created to represent God in the world as his image bearers, as priests in his temple. We were called to rule together. But we saw the utility in choosing wisdom apart from God and exchanged truth for a lie. We functionally set ourselves in God’s place and set ourselves as betters over “the other.” And as we dehumanize the “other” we cease to be kings or priests, let alone gods. We have eyes, and yet we refuse to see the person right in front of us. We may place them out of sight and out of mind. We have ears, but cannot hear the call of our Crucified Messiah to carry our cross and follow him. Instead we act out of “self” interest when we do not put in the time to consider why we treat this or that person with fundamental disrespect, avoid them when we have clout or power, or make snap judgments about who they are and put up barriers to their thriving that we refuse to recognize as our own inventions.
We elevate ourselves above another. We do not love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. We do not love God more than we love ourselves. Even individuals who marginalize as part of “group think” are responsible for their behavior. They may no longer be conscious of why they in particular hate (and not all marginalization is hate) or become incensed at an individual or recognize that they are taking steps to “punish” or disempower them, but denial that leads to “deception” is still accountable to a higher power. Our Savior and judge has nail-pierced hands and a big sign over his head that reads “King of the Jews.”
In the words of Miroslav Volf, “We may believe in Jesus, but we do not believe in his ideas, at least not in his ideas about violence, truth and justice…We will follow him only from a safe distance, afraid of sharing in his terrible fate…The crucified Messiah is good for the inner world of our souls tormented by guilt and abandonment. He is the Savior who dies in our place to take away our sins and liberate our conscience; he is the fellow sufferer who holds our hands as we walk through the valley of tears. But for the outer world of our embodied selves, where interests clash with interests and power crosses sword with power, we feel we need a different kind of Messiah” (Exclusion and Embrace, 276). We believe yes, but do we worship? Do we have faith i.e. allegiance and a trust that steps out onto the water, rain or storm?
Of course, sometimes we are more ignorant. And when ignorance is the key problem it is easily corrected by simple education and our ability to realize we misjudged someone and treated them incorrectly based on that judgment (also why it pays off to simply attempt to be kind to everyone). For example, one might realize they took a gesture as disrespectful when in reality it was respectful within the confines of another set of cultural norms or we realize they expressed undeserved anger at us because their child died and/or experienced a slew of misfortunes. And upon realizing this, and upon approaching with a mentality that honors the perspectives of others and are willing to surrender ourselves to change out of love, we can display new found empathy.
One may have the gift of empathy, but empathy is selective. I recall reading in a Psych magazine that terrorists typically have average levels of empathy. They simply direct it towards their “in group.” A willingness to adapt and change and exercise empathy towards those deemed “other” begins with an exposure of the self so that the self can become and take form. The other choice is to become indignant and demand the other person change to suit us or decide they should have known better and deserved what they “got” from us. At the end of the day, it still takes self-knowledge, openness to others, and a willingness to adapt and change our behavior.
Of course, part of the uncomfortable reality of marginalization is that it is not simply just a single mishap, but a pattern of treatment aimed at bringing another down just as we so happen to feel or be elevated in the eyes of ourselves or others. And this reveals a shadow side of ourselves, if we are willing to see it, which must be converted and surrendered to the God who became low to change our very understanding of what it means to be “high” and “low.”
And, if we worship this crucified Messiah and have sworn to follow his example even to the cross (a shameful symbol of another’s power being exercised over us for the sake of love), we must ask the questions of ourselves: Am I marginalizing others? And if I am, why am I? How does this square with the God I claim to worship?
Are You Marginalizing Others Now?
“Invisible” or Deeply Ingrained?
Marginalizing behavior from individuals may stem from deep seeded personal or developmental issues or more generally, from deep seeded cultural or group norms whether corporate, church, national or other social norms. An individual may marginalize because they themselves have issues with control, power and abuse or because they have bought into group think. Sometimes one abusive individual’s need to marginalize and control can spiral (after deliberate action) into a group preoccupation with controlling the “problem” and mobbing behavior. Either way, in the case of an individual conforming to group norms, a kind of collective decision has been reached and acted upon and as part of this group an individual has bought into this behavior and now acts accordingly. This type of marginalizing behavior may be difficult to spot for those immersed in it.
The reason why marginalization is often deemed “invisible” is not because the behaviors are not otherwise obvious to an outsider looking in, but that each of us takes many, often times positive, social and cultural norms for granted. For example, when there is a line most of us in North America do not casually walk to the front and cut in front of everyone. When someone does, we all show our disapproval. Generally though, we are not conscious that we have “gotten in line” or returned a basic greeting. On the down side, if your “world” or group behaves in negative ways towards another, you are likely to take it for granted and be engaging in it subtly without ever realizing it. You simply “know” or saw yourself that this person is just “that” way and responded accordingly without thinking about it.
Also, if a person comes from a different culture with different norms, it is easy to judge them by one’s own without realizing it. These snap judgments can become marginalization when they are consciously or subconsciously enforced more broadly in ways that attempt to demote, punish, isolate or keep an individual or group on the margins for good, until they can “behave themselves,” or indefinitely while the rest of us do not have to think about how our behavior negatively represents or affects another person who is just as important as we are.
Probably those marginalizing sleep fairly well at night while creating hell for others.
Behavior Can Reveal Truth
What we do is the truth about us. In a nut shell, marginalizing behavior betrays darker impulses and thoughts within us and our social group that we may not be individually aware of. For example, if you continually reiterate basic information to a person, speak super slowly and change your tone to sound more childlike, it betrays that you do not see them as intelligent, competent adults, or perhaps merely wish they weren’t. This is something I have heard many individuals from Korea and China complain about regarding how people speak to them and it goes beyond merely speaking more slowly. Multiply this. Imagine always being spoken to like a child even if you are earning your doctorate in the United States!
You are a pastor and a woman has a private matter to discuss with you, you keep the door open, invite your wife to the meeting, refuse to even ride in a taxi with her if on your way to a conference, and make sure you are always a very good distance away from her. You are showing that you see her as a liability and potential threat (and fyi there are other ways and policy changes can be made to protect others and not marginalize). Similarly, you keep calling on men when they raise their hands in a classroom or Bible study and complimenting their questions without noticing the women in the room (if you even have any). You are showing that you value the contributions and intellect of males over females. Have an educated man (pastor) lead the men’s Bible study and perhaps his wife (with no special training?) lead the women’s and you show that you think men and women need to be kept separate and that you value the theological education of men over women. Then you wonder why men have more nuanced interests in theology.
More basic: You are a new child at school and when you go to an empty seat another kid puts his books there. You go to the next seat and the person turns away slightly with a scowl. Communication: “You do not belong here. We do not want you.” At a work meeting you always get disapproving glares, sucked in breath and people constantly do not “hear” you, recognize your achievements or they talk over you. Communication: “Your ideas and person are not valuable and you are not welcome here.”
Sometimes general marginalizing behavior is accompanied by compensating behavior attempting to avoid the truth about the behavior that is problematic by occasionally being inclusive or “nice” in superficial ways without doing a 180 away from the marginalizing. Sometimes this behavior comes off across as patronizing or “fatherly.” The key power dynamic does not change though. One feels they are superior or more entitled over another and so they condescend to “help” or be “nice” without bringing about a fundamental shift or change in the power dynamics. They are not looking to empower another to not need their help. They are keeping them in a state of dependency—perhaps because they feel sorry for the other person, but will not take on the risk to go deeper into risk. Or, perhaps they feel guilty or worried at times that they will appear less than inclusive (to say it mildly) to either themselves or others and so they occasionally act with human decency or inclusion and feel good about themselves for it, but then continue the larger dynamic of marginalization perhaps rationalizing that they “did all they could.”
That ______ should be grateful.
In what follows I have listed some things to look for in yourself when considering whether you may be marginalizing others. Some are possible indicators and some are overt excluding and marginalizing behaviors. Consider the points now and remember one or two as you are actually interact with others. But note that your behavior is likely being reinforced by a larger group think and may not be immediately obvious to you if you are marginalizing someone or a group of people. Meaning: Your behavior and mindset may be highly ingrained and you have received subtle social rewards or approval for participating in the marginalization or experienced discouragement if you have gone against it. You are likely not pained by guilt or aware of what you are doing at this time, and if you are then you feel some cognitive dissonance or internal pressure (good) to change.
And remember, it is not just about what you feel (though these may be indicators), but what you do in every day moments. And, you are usually part of something larger. All of these subtle behaviors add up collectively hence being asked “where you are from” over and over again if you look different from others will have a different effect than if only one or two people asked you (of course, context is always important). Also note, all of these categories overlap. Hence “cutting off access or opportunities” or “identity warping” connect to “elevating the self above the other.”
Here are some specific behaviors that may be considered examples of marginalization depending on context. Of course, some are less open to contextual interpretation and some are by nature marginalizing. Some overlap with other categories such as abuse, racism or gender discrimination…etc.
Elevating the Self Above the “Other”
· You become indignant or incensed when someone does not properly “greet” or show you the perceived deference or respect due even though you do not do the same to them. You are also part of a social majority group in numbers or power (i.e. they are the odd person out).
· You feel threatened, angry or offended when they make themselves more prominent, succeed or highlight their own value or when others do.
· You have someone who is handicapped on your team, but just so happen to keep scheduling team bonding activities that involve running or going places they cannot access. I.e. you do not consider they are important enough to pick something they can participate in.
· You believe they are indebted to you after you treated them with respect or dignity or didn’t do X horrible or unethical thing to them or did the “right” thing towards them at X time.
· You feel especially proud of yourself when you do X nice thing or act politely towards them (something culturally basic you do towards other peers, or people serving with or under you).
· You routinely leave another coworker or fellow volunteer out of the loop on activities the entire team or community participates in whether formal or informal. I.e. they are not told of a group photo, given the same training as other members in the same position formally or informally, told of key system changes…etc. This can be because they are not “thought of” or deliberately left out.
· You have engaged in or generated a series of minor group moves aimed at stripping another person of basic agency, decision making, or group visibility for whatever rationalization. Generally, you will feel wronged, but your actual behavior and reasoning may appear petty to outsiders looking in. Some examples: you make complaints to leadership about their choices, demand the removal of X without being able to indicate why it is inappropriate or make other excuses, attempt to get them censored publicly, in meetings, group discussions, or events.
· Uneven behavior standards are applied for you and your group vs them. Ex) Your group ran event X for years until it stopped and the marginalized person is selected to pick event Y. You are angry that the marginalized person is always “calling the shots” (when they seldom do if we were really counting). You attempt to get the event dissolved or replaced. Maybe you just express your “concerns” to those in power.
· You fail to make basic accommodations or provide resources for those who were injured doing say, public services, and instead make their injury whether physical, mental or emotional “their problem” or “their failure” conveniently downplaying their life-risking service. Example: homelessness and unemployment for military veterans. You do not choose to see them as valuable enough to invest time and money in (goes for many other individuals and groups as well) except for times it is convenient.
Note that merely informing a volunteer, church member, worker or other individual that these marginalizing behaviors are unacceptable (good) is not enough. The root issue is one of power. They see or wish to see (for whatever reason) that the other person is inferior, the “problem,” existential threat, lacking or beneath them in some way. They will probably not treat others in this negative way (except for that last person we all conveniently forgot about), and will single this or that particular person or group out.
Do not instruct the person they think ought to be “beneath” them to act in diminutive ways or meet them “half way.” Do not approach analysis of the other person assuming the narrative that they are different or inappropriate in some way, especially if the accusor has made some sort of declaration that the other person is inferior. And, such a declaration in the context of abuse of various stripes is a huge red flag for continued abuse especially if couched in religious, national or ideological language. They feel entitled and justified in their behavior.
· You tend to think that what they “really need” is to lay down their pride, show some humility, behave themselves or accept their role when they insist they have been treated wrongly, show very basic agency, or disagree.
· You tend to wonder why they are so “angry” all the time and are making a big deal out of “nothing,” or over something that was in the past. Is it possible they must suffer effects you do not have to think about everyday?
· You tend towards extremes in interpreting their words and behaviors. If they make a mistake it is because they are incompetent. If they disagree, push back, or question something it is because they are aggressive, up to something, disagreeable or disordered. If they are a little frustrated it is because they are just the “angry black man” or “angry, man-hating feminist.” Odd how so many historically mistreated people are thought irrational or “angry.”
· You explain away or de-emphasize their successes. If they are successful, you believe they just got it because of their race, ethnicity, gender, or favoritism. If they are smart it is because “Chinese people are just smart/good at math” or you think they must have gotten it because they are ruthless or sneaky or as a handout, anything but their own hard work & merit.
· You are consistently mistaking them for someone who does menial tasks, jobs, or assigning them things below their pay grade while you give the more involved projects to someone who “looks the part.” You hand them your trash, dirty dishes…etc. Expect them to do all the cleaning, cooking and physical labor while you relax at home even though they also have a full time job.
· You limit their opportunities or knowledge of X and then get angry, annoyed or disgruntled when they do not do X or know of X. Their absence of action or knowledge then reinforces your vision of them being a problem, untrustworthy or incompetent. The gist is that you generate a problem or force them to make X moves and then blame them for that problem and then this functions to reinforce your narrative about them and yourself.
Cutting Off Access & Opportunities
· Obvious and similar to the last point: You legally do not allow them have access to the same public services as everyone else. This may be done overtly or by creating physical/functional obstacles that will only widely affect their particular participation.
· You underplay or fail to publicly recognize their key accomplishments when you do so for others. I.e. You praise her for her cooking & “soulfulness” but not landing a major account. You praise your employee’s willingness to file, but not their major contributions, you assume she should be helping you while you feel indebted to a man who does. You are actively generating an impression in others, your target and yourself that they do not make any major contributions beyond a very narrowly assigned box or role.
· You conveniently schedule community activities at times when you know they are unavailable (even though you readily change plans for everyone else) because you feel uncomfortable around them, think they will just make things more difficult, you want “unity” or “peace.” Or, similar to a previous point, you do not consider they are important enough to think of or offer to reschedule for and as the marginalized person they will be looked down upon for insisting you reschedule.
· You functionally limit their access by making them uncomfortable i.e. following them around the store, giving them dirty looks at restaurants or public places, allowing their abuser to gate keep social outings/events, treat them with disdain in group gatherings or allow others to verbally or non-verbally, happen to have lots of “scheduling” conflicts that affect them in various ways, legally disallow housing to be built that they can afford in X neighborhood.
· You allow others to belittle and undermine them in public and perhaps do it yourself overtly or covertly/passive aggressively. You make public concessions to an abuser or group who is marginalizing/undermining another’s basic agency or choice. You then shrug when the minority is widely seen as the problem.
· You find ways to disqualify person X from getting a promotion or position they are equally or more than qualified for. Maybe you do this by telling others to apply for it, but not them or even bar them from applying lest their superior qualities or training become more apparent. Perhaps they just don’t “seem” like the right fit and your preferred applicant just so happens to share your gender, ethnicity or other quality.
· You hint that they are unreasonable, inappropriate, or unprofessional for making reasonable requests for civil rights? a disability? in response to harassment/Abuse/Misconduct? A promotion? A raise? Or, you give them an unusual amount of “praise” for diminutive behavior after they have “crossed the line” previously. Your rationalizations will appear odd to those outside the situation, but you will know that the person is entitled, up to something, greedy, just finding loopholes…etc.
· In work situations it is not unusual for someone who is being harassed or mobbed to be moved to an isolated or discrete location, somewhere where they can be kept either out of sight or an “eye on” or be asked to adjust their communication so they can be better monitored rather than putting these stipulations only on the instigator or harasser. Sometimes unintentionally, it is treating the receiver of evil and/or illegal behavior as the problem rather than the person doing the actions. It is also actively disempowering the person who needs community support by taking away their agency.
· You generally withhold resources the other person needs to do their job, misrepresent their actions, routinely persuade others to act against them for the good of everyone or out of concern or your own well being.
Tribalism/Us vs Them
The essence of this one is the tendency to “otherize” or identify another person as primarily outside of the circle rather than perceiving them as someone who corresponds to you. Much of this is context dependent as well. One size does not fit all.
· You just met them and you are preoccupied with “where they are from” and keep asking them this after they tell you what state or city they are from.
· You engage in gossip about, ice out, or keep at arms-length a person or people group because they “deserve it,” “are a liability,” “threatening to you,” your friend or group doesn’t like them, they are not worth your time, you are jealous, you are sexually attracted to them & believe you are being a good “Christian” by treating them like crap, want to feel superior, they “make you mad” by existing, you did something and feel guilty.
· You take the “high road” and figure: “we ought to be nice to people who are different.”
· When there is an altercation, harassment/abuse incident the first things you cycle through is how their personality, dress, or communication style is partly to blame and you circle around and protect the organization or perp’s reputation. You are undermining or minimizing their experience and by implication acting as though something is wrong with them while simultaneously valuing the perp. You are encouraging them to slink into the shadows and keep quiet & opening them up for more abuse.
· They have a different ideology than you and so you don’t listen to the content of what they have to say or cut them off/silence them because you just know they are: stupid/brain-washed/hypocritical religious people, self-deceived/immoral atheists, lazy, disordered, thin-skinned, bigoted, privileged, repressed…take your pick.
· You are constantly publicly highlighting their differences from you whether cultural, biological, visible or internal qualities. This might take the form of a joke or tokenism. Or, this might include labeling them as “evil” or otherworldly. It might also mean you put a verbal label or material symbol on them in order to physically or spiritually mark them as “other.”
· Tied to the last point, you have put a label or mark on the other person or group (i.e. the Jewish Star) to signify they are undesirable, contaminated or dangerous to your group identity in some way. This can also take the form of conceptually putting a mark on a person through visual imagery, narrative or likening them to something nonhuman (i.e. they are “cockroaches”).
· You have bought into the label, mark or signifier of the group or person and mock or harass the person, exclude them or generally treat them in a way consistent with that label: Hence if someone is “incompetent,” “small-minded” or “delicate” you will speak to them very slowly like a child and refrain from speaking of any serious subject matter. If they are “evil and manipulative” or a “liability” you will put excessive boundaries up between them and you and distance yourself, you will be short with them in speech. If they are “thin-skinned” or “easily offended,” you will walk on egg shells around or patronize them. If they are an “outsider” or “less than you,” you will not believe you need their approval and you will mock them and treat them disrespectfully.
You are both letting yourself be influenced by a false image of the other and generating it yourself.
· You over exaggerate physical characteristics or make them up for a group of people to make them less or undesirable in some way: big noses, “black face,” excessively slanted eyes..etc and when you see that person that is how they look or “should” look in your eyes.
· You interpret them and their “place” in rigid ways and attempt to make the environment around the person conform to this new identity you are assigning them: Maybe you keep having them do the cooking, cleaning, physical labor or childcare even when they indicate they want to change careers. You explode over their insubordination when you are not their boss and you do not treat other people like that. You say X class of people are not allowed to do this or that by divine decree or biological destiny. You convince others to treat the person in undesirable ways so as to make them behave in undesirable ways (see below in next section).
· You put down their contributions, ideas or questions in subtle or not so subtle ways making them appear deficient by emphasizing the problems without their merits, silencing, rolling your eyes or being accusatory. You are attempting to communicate to the person and the group that they are incompetent, pushy or not worth listening to and should be quiet. You are using power to do it and attempting to force them into acting the part you or your group have created for them. Perhaps after they are avoidant and quiet you will use it as evidence that they are further undesirable in some way, conveniently forgetting that you created this desired effect.
You like it when they are deficient even if on the surface you are “irritated.”
· You group them into and evaluate them based off of stereotypes in ways that are patronizing, demeaning, or tokenizing: “You are the smartest woman I know!” “Our Black Academic Dean!” “We need an X to fill this slot and so we will pick you without your qualifications in mind & limit your role and ability to do your job.” “You’re good at this for a _________.” Or maybe you just bring up irrelevant information to the task i.e. complimenting them for their beauty after they gave a sermon, closed a deal or gave an academic paper.
· You are very happy to have someone who is a minority on your faculty who fills a very narrow “ethnic” niche, but despite having superior job qualifications, background and requisite academic qualifications you refuse to promote them, give them tenure or the position they were qualified to fill because they are “difficult” to work with. Yet, you gave the position to someone else less qualified who was also notoriously difficult to work with. You also value others for their potential yet they must be over qualified to make it on your radar.
How Your Sin Is Damaging & Altering The Behavior of Other People?
Human beings do not do well when their core identities, character, gifting, ability to contribute and be a part of the whole is systematically destroyed, deconstructed or marred beyond recognition. For a while they may fight against the tidal wave of marginalization, but after a while it will wear away at them. Their mannerisms and thinking patterns will adapt to survive an environment that is predisposed against them. Probably, these behaviors will be taken to be proof that they were X all along or simply want to be “separate” from the rest of us. It is easier to believe they wanted to be “separate” from us all along because then we have not sinned and don’t have to do anything about it. Or, maybe it reinforces the narrative about them that we have already accepted (confirmation bias).
But when you break down the messages and behavior done towards a marginalized person or group their inevitable response behaviors make sense.
For example, someone who is consistently belittled, called names, made to feel unwelcome or uncomfortable in public will probably end up avoiding those places and individuals. If a group of people are consistently barred from social clubs, activities or made to sit in the back, probably they will develop their own social clubs and activities. If someone is physically assaulted, or otherwise threatened whenever they try to stand up for themselves they will probably end up adopting diminutive behaviors (making themselves look small, avoiding eye contact, being quiet and not speaking up) in order to survive or conversely act threatened or defensive when someone counters them. Women will regularly be perceived as aggressive, interrupting or pushy when they are mildly assertive and so after getting smashed down many times whenever they want to be heard they will start to be more quiet, use qualifiers in their rhetoric, or apologize for sharing a different opinion. Telling them they just need to be more assertive or learn to interrupt will not help them in the long run if the context will keep punishing them so long as they keep being assertive.
Worse, individuals who have been abused may have learned to “love” and extol their abusers and might have come to believe they can’t live without them (especially if the abusive person has forced them to depend on them). Why? Because it is more dangerous for them to oppose an abuser (enforced subservience mixed with Stockholm syndrome?) and an added level of confusion is added if the abusive individual is a parent, spouse, family member or someone who was supposed to protect and love them. Interestingly, on many psych exams administrators are cautioned that several characters might present more positively, too positively, than normal, such as psychopaths. But, so will minorities. They must. And yet, even after a superior presentation (according to a testing instrument) they are often still perceived more negatively.
Racial minorities may feel uncomfortable after getting positions they rightfully earned because it puts them in the spot light and previously or currently the spotlight is dangerous for them because people perceive their actions differently and judge them more negatively by different standards. Workers who are being bullied will eventually become more “snappy” or on edge because they are more worn out, sleep deprived and have fewer internal resources. Their work will also start to diminish to some degree as their attention is divided, stress related illnesses take hold, or they are told they are incompetent and threatening over and over again (defending against this or living in an environment forcing these messages on you takes a ton of mental and emotional energy). Communities that have been systematically torn down, had people killed for speaking up, forced to eat foods that were not good for them and stripped of their identities may struggle with alcoholism and crime.
Are We Equal? A Case for Equity
The above also evidences why there is not what one might upon first glance perceive as an “even standard” applied to someone from a majority vs minority group when interpreting behaviors in isolation. It does not appear fair on first glance to treat two, what appear to be identical behaviors the same, only if one does not account for all of the behaviors directed against a particular individual or group leading to behavioral changes that are necessary for survival or are simply how humans generally respond after being broken down for years.
But really we do not think this way in other cases where we allow for more nuance. For example, legally we distinguish between someone else killing another in self-defense, different degrees of murder or manslaughter. We do not say merely that someone has been killed hence it is all the same. And, insisting an individual who continuously experiences hostility or undermining only needs to behave in X way may miss what is actually going on and will only be minimally helpful if it misunderstands the root issue or misplaces the problem onto the marginalized individual.
Hence it is not the same when someone from a majority group avoids or refuses to greet someone from a minority than if they do not do so. Context matters. On the surface it may appear an unequal standard is being applied (i.e. neither of us said hello or waved hence we are both equally rude), but this is not necessarily the case. It is more that the ice berg under the surface is being accounted for. Has this person been constantly socially penalized for trying to associate with someone of higher “status”? Someone of the main group is in a position of power and inclusion, their refusal to acknowledge may come from a different place of not seeing the other as worthy of recognition, entitlement, or wanting to avoid the sole person who makes the entire group uncomfortable which breaks down another dynamic at play. Additionally, one must recognize the different between becoming easily “offended” because one is inherently thin-skinned, have an underdeveloped ego, or entitled vs they have been visciously attacked in bizarre and specific ways in the past and used to this pattern are interpreting a single act or word in this context. Hence when someone is offended or reactionary and it seems disproportionate it is always worthwhile (minority status or not) to find out “why” rather than snap judge their character and person.
And, a single individual refusing to greet one individual or who displays other hostile or minimizing tendencies towards someone may not have much effect on a person, but an entire group or nation that a person must interact with on a daily basis will have an enormous affect. A single “mean” person is just that (not speaking of abuse here). A single mean person with the force of the group behind them is an entirely different matter since one will be made to care if they do not already. The group or someone with physical or social power will have the power to mangle and warp a person’s identity and make them behave in ways consistent with their assignment or suffer the consequences (physical assault, withdrawing of other resources, outing, generating a stress disorder within them from constant threat to name a few). One can experience trauma depending on the group tactics used and the degree of isolation enforced since the person must continue existing in a space that is constantly making them the outsider, giving them a mask to wear and saying this is who they are and punishing them when they do not wear the mask. Of course, wearing the mask also has undesirable consequences and threatens to also change a person.
For example, I heard a story from my dad about a business trip he once took with Uncle Mike. They soon discovered that Uncle Mike kept getting dirty looks from everyone for not opening the door for my dad. Other black men would even come up and chastise him since his “misconduct” reflected poorly on them. At first they laughed it off but the more time spent in that state the more the discomfort and pressure built for Uncle Mike to take this simple subservient action that communicated to him and affirmed with the “world” that my dad was superior to him.
The marginalized person has two choices: they can resist the narrative at personal risk (health, future, security, sometimes safety) and perhaps confirm it or they can go along with it or slowly get worn down or traumatized so they are unable to put in the constant effort and end up fitting the picture the narrative is leading them towards fitting. I.e. If you are “supposed” to be stupid or ungifted at X I might keep punishing you for displaying gifting or intelligence. I will portray that you are “insolent,” or inappropriate in some way. If there are enough of us or I am in a leadership role I will make your life a living hell so that you cannot ignore me. Eventually you can shut your mouth, get worn down by my constant attacks and barajes so that you start slipping up or stuttering or forgetting things and confirm you are stupid (making me look good by comparison in my mind) or you can keep trying to stand up straight until I get you eliminated or your health catches up to you. Or, for the time being, you can be insolent and as such have opportunities and resources cut off from you.
Now imagine my Uncle did not open the door for another man. Reaction? Likely “how dare you!” Uncle Mike might say, “Well, you did not open the door for me…” What might my Uncle be signaling if he had made that move and quip? Although knowing him, he would have come up with something far more clever than I did just now and they would have never known what hit them! Is he being rude in an equal way or is something else going on? Perhaps he would be pushing to also be treated with respect and in a context where it is dangerous to do so (typically dirty looks in themselves are not the extent to where the social “punishments” end). From a theological perspective he would not merely be insisting on his own humanity or standing up for his rights, but also calling the other person to become more human defined in the context of the imago Dei.
Most of us will typically become angry when we feel slighted, including when our perceived inferior or one we believe ought to be or act inferior to us does not “behave” in the proper way and we will back rationalize it with a slew of justifications. Our responses and rationalizations can be very subtle when applied to minorities where overt racisms is not tolerated or when there are church members or employees that our group does not want to acknowledge the existence of in some way. But, in the end, we reveal that we do not honor God since we in actual practice do not honor the one who holds his image and is called to represent him. Biblically speaking, how we treat the least (perceived), matters the most. One of the distinguishing features of Judaism and Christianity (unlike other Near Eastern religions that saw the King or leaders only as the image of God and worthy of respect and dignity) has been that every human is an image bearer. Each person is entitled to respect and agency as image bearers, not only the elite—or people who just think they are the elite.
In essence, by marginalizing a person or group you have taken the imago Dei and smashed it or distorted it beyond recognition in your desperate attempt to remain a god. Their calling is to rule alongside you: to have dignity, value, agency and to affect the world alongside you. You have barred them from this call and made them out to be something else so that you could maintain a false image of yourself.
This is about worship and power. You are not superior. You are not God. Any gift you have is derivative anyway and God has given them gifts too (many have the same gifts as you). Ironically, by distorting their image you have destroyed your own. Your “face” is deformed. You are not living out your calling. You are rebelling against God.
The good news? Just as Eve was deceived and yet metaphorically “pregnant” with Messiah, so there is also the hope of salvation for you yet. But first:
The best person to expose that the “emperor has no clothes” is not the person being marginalized. It is the rest of us. People who are marginalized have in fact overcome impossible odds and helped tear down oppressed systems and have helped to change hearts and minds through blood and sacrifice because the rest of us did nothing or even participated. Time to start acting human and not continuing to force those being harmed to shoulder the rest of our behavior.
How to Stop Marginalizing & Take Steps Towards Becoming “Human” Again
Jesus said, that in order to follow him we must “pick up our crosses.” Now, the lesson we should not be taking away is that those who are marginalized are those crosses we must “bear.” No. The material consequences for pledging our allegiance (i.e. our faith) in Christ is what is being referred to. We serve a different God than the world, one that flipped what it means to be powerful on its head and even opened the doors wide open to embrace people like us, some of whom once marginalized, hurt and destroyed others. To sin is not human. Jesus was fully human and came to show us how to be human by uniting himself with those who were abused, marginalized and on the receiving end of inverted power symbols. He died with the label of “cursed” attached to his person. He demonstrated and preached God’s peace and yet was killed as an obstacle to peace (Roman defined of course). He died precisely because he would not stop uniting himself with the “little people” and calling out the powers that be, unmasking their evil behavior and becoming a threat to their perceived power. He told the person who had the “power” to crucify him that he did not in fact have the power and preached a conception of power that ran contrary to the “power” of Caesar.
Scripture is more than preoccupied with changing our life orientations toward power. To be Christian, to worship the God of the Bible, is to worship the Crucified Savior. It is to make your life orientation one that seeks to loosen your grip on power and self-preservation at the expense of the other. It is to run towards brutal and dehumanizing treatment if it is for the sake of God’s love revealed in Christ. And I am not talking to targets of crimes here. I am talking to the so-called bystander. Jesus stepped in front of those being crushed and in so doing showed himself to be fulfilling what it means to be human and what it truly means to be God. A.M. Ramsey rightly says, "the importance of the confession 'Jesus is Lord' is not only that Jesus is divine but that God is Christlike." God has revealed his person and heart to those called to image him. He does not wish to hear our excessive excuses or rationalizations. He is tired of them.
Contrary to popular belief, God does not listen to all prayers.
“Quit your worship charades.
I can’t stand your trivial religious games:
Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings—
meetings, meetings, meetings—I can’t stand one more!
Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them!
You’ve worn me out!
I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion,
while you go right on sinning.
When you put on your next prayer-performance,
I’ll be looking the other way.
No matter how long or loud or often you pray,
I’ll not be listening.
And do you know why? Because you’ve been tearing
people to pieces, and your hands are bloody.
Go home and wash up.
Clean up your act.
Sweep your lives clean of your evil doings
so I don’t have to look at them any longer.
Say no to wrong.
Learn to do good.
Work for justice.
Help the down-and-out.
Stand up for the homeless.
Go to bat for the defenseless.
-Sincerely, God (Isa 1:13-17)
P.S. I came down there yesterday and showed you how to do your job. No excuses.
To image God in the world (to rule in a way that is shared), is what a human is supposed to do. It is what Christ did as the perfect and natural image of God. Time for us to do it.
Now that we have covered what marginalization looks like it is time to turn to some ways that marginalization and can be counteracted for my perspective (and my perspective will by definition be limited and requires your insight in tandem). But first: STOP MARGINALIZING. STOP IT. There.
Once you have already questioned yourself and are able to see the value in others or that you ought to value others and perhaps have not done so in actual practice (an ongoing process for all of us without exception), it is time to delve deeper into changing one’s internal script, unmasking in the moment and engaging others as image bearers. There is a way they should be treated and the Bible is full of examples and perhaps I will write a post on this one. But for now, even the Good Samaritan parable is meant to spell it out and not even from the vantage point where you can feel superior for being human since you are required to look up to the one you marginalize as an example for what you ought to be.
But what about those instances that are so subtle and you are not sure about what to do in the moment? It is not sufficient to just overtly “not marginalize.” And, our silence often times serves as permission or participation. Here are three examples to illustrate the difference:
Scenario 1: In a meeting a team member or person of superior rank interrupts, shoots down, down plays or “corrects” a good idea put on the table by a marginalized team member. This might be in the form of “volunteering” information that has no bearing on what they are saying or only casting their suggestion in a negative light without acknowledging the merits. You are either in charge or another team member. You decide to:
1. Permissive: Say nothing. Let the put down stick. I.e. not represent God.
2. Overtly Participatory: Nod your head in agreement with the put down or agree with the person doing the put down that they are correct without qualification or acknowledgement of the merits of the other idea. Worse: if you are in charge you decide to chastise them subtly for interjecting.
3. Counteracting Marginalization: Whether you ultimately agree or not acknowledge the merits of the suggestion: “That is a great idea _______” Perhaps reiterate what was said and entertain it for a brief moment. If you are in charge you can follow by stating whether you think it is something that can be done, not done in this instance or something to further consider at another time. I had a supervisor do this for me once, made a world of a difference!
What you are doing in the latter possibility: Rewiring the accepted norms towards the marginalized person in ways a marginalized person is unable to typically do themselves even if they have taken the risk and are being outspoken such as in this instance. By acknowledging their speech and its merits, you are communicating that this is a person worth respect and that their ideas have merit & value to the group. You have acknowledge them as a peer or valued member of a team and simultaneously corrected the communication that they are an unwelcome intruder. If you are in charge and you do this consistently, eventually the marginalized person may end up participating more and benefiting the organization and others will subconsciously pick up that they are someone worthy of respect and change their speech patterns towards them (mirror neurons for the win!).
Scenario 2: You are leading a Bible study and notice none of the women are raising their hands or giving their thoughts or asking questions when the men are happily doing so. You have called on one or two in the past and they on ocassion look down and say they “don’t know.” You also noticed that when they would pause in their answers for a moment one of the men in the class would interject and answer for them. You have a situation where they are removing themselves from participation in order to avoid the subtle group pressure and chastisement geared toward making them remove themselves (note group think is not the same as what each individual thinks in the moment when they act against a marginalized person).
1. Permissive: Say nothing. They are adults let them deal with it on their own. Problem: This assumes they are simply being quiet (no reason) or have personal/developmental failings or slightly more positive that they have full agency rather than the potential that there is an “ice berg” of reinforced rewards and penalties for speaking below the surface that must be dismantled so that they can stand upright again.
2. Overtly Participatory: You keep calling on the men since they seem most engaged and you will feel uncomfortable having to in your mind needlessly limit their participation or take the time and discomfort on yourself to draw the others into conversing freely. When a woman is interrupted you let it happen and recognize the merit of what the interrupter brought to the table rather than politely say you would like to hear what so and so has to say first and acknowledging her contribution. Or, worse maybe you interrupt them and shoot down any and all of their contributions when they are made. Maybe you hold to a theology that tells you women should be quiet and participate less anyway.
3. Counteracting Marginalization: Keep bringing it back to the women. Ask them what they think as much as you ask the men. When the men interject politely tell them someone else was speaking and to wait their turn. If the continue, try a more sharp approach. I will never forget when my old mentor Dr. Joel Green raged “YOU will NOT interrupt!” After a guy kept interrupting me in class while I was responding to his critique of my paper (and conveniently did not give me his points ahead of time like everyone else did to their peers). Counter communication: Respect your peer. Disrespect will not be tolerated.
And what if you have engaged in marginalization? I am not sure what you should do to try and make it right. It depends on what you did or refused to do. I do know that God died for people like you and me and that he cares about your heart expressed in a faith that steps out of the lines our society creates. Apologize in a way that takes responsibility, expresses remorse and is vulnerable. Divinity revealed its face in vulnerable love and so should we.
If you have stolen something return it or pay for as much as you can if it is no longer available. If you have abused someone admit the truth about yourself and about them and seek help without requiring they “return” to you. Pay for their medical bills if you physically injured them. If you failed to help them when they needed you most, try to help them now. In a similar way, if you marginalized someone or helped it happen, seek to restore their agency, the visibility of their true identity, be friendly with them as though they were an equal if they will permit it, and step down from positions you stole if you took them this way. If the marginalization has been participated in but was started by generations past, generate new opportunities aimed at empowering without dependency. Bind yourself to a power outside of yourself if you keep wanting to hurt them or pin your problems and insecurities on them.
The good news is that if you begin worshiping the Crucified Messiah and ask him for help without your rationalizations and excessive insincere gestures, he will help and forgive you. You will hurt for a while and may recoil in horror at your image. But in time you will start to see something else emerge and grow. New skin and a self you did not realize was there within you will also come forward. The same fear you felt before will be reset in the context of the one you truly love and are willing to give everything for. The Spirit will reach deep inside of you and bring out something stunning. You will open your eyes and be able to see the face of God in Christ because you will have the eyes to see him.
And the rest is a marvelous journey on the other side of resurrection. See you there. :)