In a local clinical pastoral education program, I experienced the director as racially insensitive. She talked about how if she were an African American mother and had an African American son, she wouldn’t know how to deal with what was happening today.
Then, she stated how the people who were rioting, looting, and burning things were not going about the issue the “right” way and how they learned to handle conflict from their home environment.
Two of my White colleagues offered input, I believe, based on recent discussions we’d had, in which I cited characteristics of systemic violence and oppression during the past five months in the program. The director refuted them with more racist comments. She talked about how the “wife” of George Floyd encouraged protestors not to loot, saying she modeled a “non-anxious presence.”
In her first attempt at moral instruction, I pointed out the slaves in the biblical texts she was using.I finally shared the need to be careful in defining the behavior of those who have been oppressed and referred back to what she considered “model” behavior of Floyd’s “wife,” who was actually his girlfriend, whose name is Courtney Ross.
There were more examples of systemic violence and oppression in this program, but this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Two days after that Tuesday didactic, I sent a letter to the director, her boss, and the alternate educator.
I wrote: “…I will not subject myself to any more systemic oppression in this organization and if the last two didactics are not canceled and replaced with something else, you can accept this letter as my letter of resignation and my employment with (the organization) will end on Friday, June 19, 2019 at 8:00 a.m.”
Over the course of several days, the director tried to engage with me concerning her personal difficulty and how she realized the director’s effort to teach had gotten off course, but she really wanted us to get the material she was trying to present regarding a “non-anxious presence.”
After the alternate educator asked me to give the director time to respond, I agreed and came in on Friday.
In her response, the director wrote: “…I realize now that any example drawn from the current racial issues was ill timed and involved topics far too raw to effectively serve as educational examples. For that, and for any insensitivity I may have shown, I truly apologize … while I hear and respect your request that the next two didactics be canceled and replaced, I cannot in good conscience agree to that request as I see that teaching responsibilities are necessary to maintain the integrity of the director position and [organization name] program …”
Unfortunately, this type of program is one of the major requirements for chaplain board certification. For me, it was violent and oppressive to my health and well being as an African American female.
I guess it seemed impossible for an African American female to be secure in who she is and to love and accept her Black heritage and to speak from her own perspective, using Black theology; Black feminist and womanist thought, theology and ethics. Throughout this program, I experienced the many forms of oppression, including manipulation, control and coercion, which I deemed as a violent and oppressive system.
Whenever I mentioned racism, oppression, or slavery, mum’s the word. Ironically, the educator who publicly said she neither identified as Black nor White, on one occasion, blurted out, “I’m Black!” when one of my colleagues expressed an issue of racism due to the educator not hearing two Black females.
I spoke up. I wrote four letters of concern. Among the results: the educator resigned, the second-year program, for which I was the only applicant, was shut down. The instruction continued to exclude voices of African American females. I resigned.
How to end systemic violence and oppression? The first step is to acknowledge it. Not until people in religious academia see how violence and oppression are built into the fabric of America’s systems, will we see an end to Black people being shot down by the system in the streets, education, housing, finances, health care and more.
Lisa M. Pettis, MDiv is a violence epidemiologist and is an advocate for the decolonization of systems and structures in America.