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Angela N. Parker and Karri L. Whipple The Challenges of Feminist-Womanist-Queer Relationality
Drs. Angela N. Parker and Karri L. Whipple chronicle their journey from womanist and feminist Ph.D. students to professors modeling a committed womanist (Parker) and queer white feminist (Whipple) dialogical relationship. The following is their dialogue sharing the personal and scholarly benefits of their relationship as well as the numerous obstacles that have tried to thwart the partnership.
Developing Feminist-Womanist-Queer Relationality and Dialogue
Whipple: The story of how our relationship developed into six years of committed womanist-queer white feminist dialogue begins in our New Testament doctoral program. Our initial scholarly aims were not focused on womanist-feminist dialogue. Instead, crisis brought us together.
Parker: Conflict arose out of the 2012 Womanist Legends Conference that we both attended. As often happens in institutional settings, the intersection of institutional power and white feminism generates violence against black women. As women in the Union Theological Seminary (NYC) Ph.D. program, we experienced firsthand the toxicity of this intersection. We took leadership roles within the student body that led us to reflect on what social justice work meant in our institutional work. This experience then led us to transition the same principles and ideals into our scholarly work. Because of our roles in leadership, it became clear that we could not successfully complete our doctoral programs at that institution. Karri and I both transferred to other schools to our academic, personal, and financial detriment. This experience solidified our personal and academic relationship.
On an academic level, we sought out the other scholars who modeled the type of dialogical work that we desired to accomplish. We sought the counsel of Drs. Cheryl Kirk-Duggan and Tina Pippin. We engaged the work of Drs. Joanne Terrell and Traci West. We re-read the letters between Drs. Katie Cannon and Carter Heyward to engage the visions of the first generation of womanists and feminists. With the wisdom and guidance of these foremothers, we ventured into our intentional dialogues.
Whipple: These dialogues and our relationship would not have been possible without the mentorship of Drs. Cheryl Kirk-Duggan and Tina Pippin. After we both had left Union, we reached out to Drs. Kirk-Duggan and Pippin. We shared our story with them at a Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting and they lovingly placed us under their wings. They began to guide us not only in the process of womanist-feminist dialogue, but of true relationality.
Dr. Pippin warned us that the work we endeavored to do would be met with constant opposition. This opposition would not only come from institutions, but from other feminists and womanists because our relationship would be viewed as a threat. While growing in awareness of external challenges, she also called on us to interrogate our own power and positionality in our relationship. A particularly poignant moment for me was when Dr. Pippin turned to me and said: “Remember you are always the oppressor.” Regardless of our different positions in life and the academy, my whiteness would always produce access to power and resources not regularly afforded to my womanist friend and colleague. Relationships require this level of awareness and honesty about race, power, and privilege to grow.
Parker: In essence, we realized how the willingness to put our bodies on the line for one another brought us into relationality. It forged levels of trust that brought us together personally and developed our proclivity to do womanist and feminist dialogue that the academy desperately needs to advance scholarship. Trust issues continue to be obstacles against developing white feminists, womanists, and queer conversations in the academy. This work is not possible if we are not vulnerable with one another, do not trust one another, and refuse to have honest and hard conversations about race, power, and gender/sexuality with one another.
The Process of Creating Dialogues
Whipple: From the beginning, our process was a fully relational endeavor. It was not merely an academic exercise in which each person writes certain sections of a paper and then they are spliced together. Instead, it embraced the need for embodied, contextualized scholarly creativity.
Parker: For the first four years of our process, I lived on the West Coast and felt the pressure to get my body back to the East Coast. Since sitting in a room together was physically difficult, we would start a Google doc that would serve as a dumping ground for our ideas even if much of what landed in the Google doc did not land in our final product. While often having the best intention for collaborative writing via Google docs, we realized that the best process was for us to be present physically with one another in the writing process. What we find is that co-writing in one document while sitting in a shared space, becomes essential in our writing process.
Whipple: This process of co-writing requires openness and vulnerability – along with a lot of laughter. It insists that I do not hijack Angela’s emotions with white women’s tears and Angela does not dominate using cishet perspectives. While this process is sacred and generative, it is not one that is generally endorsed. In fact, at times, it is questioned or disrupted by the other communities we dialogue with in the academy.
Challenges to Dialogue and Relationality
Parker: One challenge to dialogue and relationality is the individualistic nature of the academy. Both womanists and white feminists can perpetuate the systems that uplift the need to fall neatly into lineages that wield access to power. These lineages tend to promote insular individualism that only supports the replication of the same old tired knowledge production. As scholars we tend to dialogue only with those who look and think as we do. If a scholar attempts to step outside of those marked conversational boundaries, there is suspicion and subtle disciplinary action to bring her back in line. For certain scholars who police the boundary lines, oftentimes junior academics are not perceived as “black” enough or “white” enough and thereby not performing their scholarship in “acceptable” ways.
Whipple: We also need to say a word about those in positions of institutional power. There is an issue of white male power that womanists and feminists of many origins have discussed at length. But the issue of white female abuses of power amongst those in leadership requires further attention. As white women move into more spaces of institutional authority, they tend to replicate white, patriarchal, cishet modes of wielding power and privilege. This leads to white women policing and exploiting black and brown women to bolster their own positionality and personal image. In essence, black and brown women have to be “safe” enough for inclusion in the power structures while remaining under the control of white women’s privilege and tears.
Parker: Acknowledging and working to disrupt these power structures influences our dialogical biblical interpretations. Our partnership is a reorientation of how interpretations are crafted. We have to move from the idea of the individual objective interpretation to a willingness to live in the tension of multiplicity in our interpretations.
Whipple: When we create interpretations, the aim is not to create one synthesized interpretation. Instead, we each maintain our own perspectives and bring them into conversation, allowing space for each to exist in their own right. This allows us to examine how our divergent interpretations can actually generate broader liberative possibilities within the text.
Parker: We do not seek a “kumbaya” moment. Instead, we hold our interpretations and see them as the biblical texts – living. We remain accountable to ourselves and our communities as well as to one another. Our commitments force our dialogues out of the ivory towers and into a variety of communities.
Whipple: Our dialogues become sites of resistance, liberation, and creativity. They seek to disrupt boundaries of traditional white feminist dialogical practices, to generate awareness of racially-based power dynamics, and encourage us to listen to one another and the world around us. Our experience with this work has taught us about our own limitations and the need to bring others into conversation with us. Our hope is that others join the dialogue.
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Angela N. Parker is Assistant Professor of New Testament and Greek at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Her research focuses on womanist biblical interpretation, the Gospel of Mark, and the inspiration of scripture in the age of #BlackLivesMatter.
Karri L. Whipple is Faculty Fellow of Global Works and Society at New York University Liberal Studies in New York, New York, USA. Her research focuses on queer feminist interpretation responding to violence, trauma, and the New Testament.
© Angela N. Parker and Karri L. Whipple, 2020, email@example.com, ISSN 1661-3317