Gender, Race, Biblical Studies, and Constructing a Different ‘Table’

by Mitzi J. Smith

Africana and other nonwhite women are less than two percent of biblical scholars in the USA and globally. The implications and impact of this dearth of Africana and nonwhite women biblical scholars are significant. Too often nonwhite women are discouraged (or discourage themselves) from pursuing doctoral degrees in biblical studies largely out of the myth that white men are better equipped to master the languages and because of the dearth of nonwhite women biblical scholars, particularly Africana women. Women may not be welcomed at the table, but it does not mean we do not belong. I have met too many nonwhite scholars who have internalized this notion that only white men, a few white women, and an even smaller number of nonwhite women (and men) are capable of learning Greek, Hebrew and other languages necessary for doing doctoral work in biblical studies. Prior to my matriculation at Harvard University, about six Africana men had earned a doctorate in NT, but not one Africana woman. African American women who have voiced interest in pursuing a doctoral degree in biblical studies mentioned the fear of not mastering the languages as a major drawback. Thus first, I want to state what the low percentage of nonwhite women in biblical studies does not mean.  It does not mean that Africana and other nonwhite women are incapable of successfully completing doctoral programs. Those of us who have earned the doctoral degree are not some DuBoisian talented tenth.  It does not mean that Africana women cannot master the languages required to become a biblical scholar. All students, including white males, struggle and must put in the time and effort to learn the languages. One reason I actually love teaching biblical languages (and did teach both Greek and Hebrew the first four or five years of my career at Ashland) is the opportunity it afforded me to help students see how capable they are of putting in the hard work and learning the languages well; the teacher must believe the student can learn. From elementary school to graduate education, too many instructors operate with the bias of what they believe nonwhite and poor students cannot achieve and they teach toward that bias. In fact, for this reason, after taking one course in advanced Greek at Harvard Divinity, I chose to take my second advanced Greek course in the classics department in Harvard College reading Plato’s Protagoras because of the bias I experienced in the divinity school.

The dearth of Africana and nonwhite women, and women generally, and thus the dominance of white males in biblical studies means that white men will continue to be mentored in ways that nonwhite peoples will not. By this I mean that there is a mentoring that takes place by the mere presence of someone who looks like us. Most people can imagine doing a thing because they can see someone else do it and do it well. People can envision themselves doing something they’ve never done before when they can see others who look like them doing it, particularly when race and gender are a factor, and especially when the two intersect. For this very reason, theological education needs to invest in representative diversity and not tokenism, in equality and equity, rather than mere inclusion within the status quo. It was during my MDiv program at Howard University School of Divinity, a historically black school, where I took classes from Drs. Cain Hope Felder, Cheryl Sanders, and Kelly Brown Douglas that I began to imagine myself as a scholar and perhaps a biblical scholar.

When the white male body is the dominant one teaching in the biblical studies classroom and writing or translating the primary textbooks, students default to the white male body as the embodiment of authoritative normative teaching and interpretation. It is important that women, and particularly nonwhite women, committed to equality, equity, and justice are present as biblical studies teachers in seminary and divinity school classrooms and as authors and contributors to primary textbooks. Also, while other voices that represent God’s creation are missing from classrooms and textbooks, our education is deficient and biased as well, impacting how we view ourselves and others.

The white-male dominated biblical studies guild explicitly and implicitly (whether consciously or not) privileges Eurocentric and androcentric perspectives, values, contexts, and methods. As a womanist biblical scholar who privileges the perspectives, traditions, and artifacts of Africana women and contemporary justice issues when doing critical biblical interpretation, I see the need for more women, and especially women of color and Africana women in particular, in the field of biblical studies who engage in critical intersectional-type biblical interpretation that takes seriously the interconnection of gender, class, race, sexuality, and religion and who can speak and write experientially. Not all women will desire to disrupt the white male status quo that dominates the academy, but the more women, particularly nonwhite women, are mentored and enter the field, the greater chance for populating the field with women doing biblical interpretation in ways that open the field to diverse critical hermeneutical perspectives.  To accomplish this disruption of white male space, we need white allies in places of power and authority to intentionally create space for women already in the field doing critical intersectional-type biblical interpretation to mentor potential women doctoral students. We need institutions, both schools and publishing houses, to be intentional about diversifying and hiring nonwhite women who are doing critical biblical interpretation. Nonwhite women faculty members who dare to engage in nontraditional intersectional biblical interpretation need greater institutional support, especially approaching promotion and tenure.

It is difficult being the only nonwhite woman in any white dominated space, which is an experience most white people will never know. Some Africana and nonwhite women biblical scholars no longer hold faculty positions in seminaries and divinity schools due to the isolation they experienced, the lack of support from administration when white students demonstrate antagonism toward nonwhite female bodies as authoritative figures, and the absence of helpful, sustained mentoring. In my previous institution I was forced to appeal the decision to deny my tenure application, despite my previous promotions. Although the then seminary president and academic dean (who had taken over the promotion and tenure committee as chair because the then chair was also up for tenure) initially said the committee voted to deny my tenure, my then department chair and senior department member supported me at the appeal proceedings and the majority faculty vote to approve my tenure after the successful appeal.  This year I found that two other black women scholars, one of which is a well-published biblical scholar, also were denied tenure but successfully appealed. The experience is traumatic and requires valuable time healing from the wounds. Wounded people often find it difficult to trust and mentor others.

Not only do nonwhite women often face barriers to success which require extra time and emotional energy to overcome, but also because there are so few nonwhite women, we are spread thin. Many of us are asked to participate in projects in which we might be one of two or three nonwhite women of color represented, if not the only one. Like white men, women, including nonwhite women, can be territorial and embrace a hierarchy that prevents women from working collectively. The impact is greater on the nonwhite women as a group because of our smaller numbers. We need a critical mass of nonwhite women doing the work of liberative biblical studies, so that we can progress despite those among us who choose to embrace individualism and hierarchy and to ingratiate themselves to the status quo. Rather than fight for seats at a table set primarily for white men and a few submissive others, white and nonwhite women must insist on constructing a larger and different table by choosing to support, encourage, mentor, and advocate for one another and by embodying and insisting upon equity, justice, and equality in the academy, church, and society.

Dr. Smith is the J. Davison Philips Professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA. Her latest book is Toward Decentering the New Testament (Cascade, 2018).

Photo by Luke Chesser on Unsplash