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Can God Be A Black Woman?


Question & Answer

Q: By A Reader

Is God a Palestinian/Brazilian/Chilean/Russian/Khazak/…woman too?

A: By Christena Cleveland

This question was posed in immediate response to my assertion that God is a black woman.

Before we scurry on to other metaphors for the Divine, it is important to recognize how our theological imaginations have been poisoned and impeded by anti-blackness. Because we associate the Divine with whiteness and “light”, it is difficult for us to embrace God in black skin, especially God in black female skin. Black women, who exist near the bottom of the racial-gender hierarchy, are saddled with both the “foolishness/weakness of women” and “dirtiness of black people” prejudices. In fact, Malcolm X famously said, “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman.” As a result, black women are perceived as wholly unholy; unfit to represent God much less be God.

God as a black woman violates our expectations. Due to our conditioning, we expect God to be white and male. Social psychology research on expectations teaches us that when we encounter someone who violates our expectations, we feel threatened. In one study[1], participants interacted with a White or Latinx partner who described their family background as either high or low in socioeconomic status (SES). The researchers’ theorized that people are conditioned to expect white people to come from high SES backgrounds and Latinx people to come from low SES backgrounds. They predicted that when participants interacted with someone who violated those expectations, they would feel threatened and experience higher cardiovascular reactivity. Indeed, their hypothesis was correct. Participants who were paired with a relatively wealthy Latinx partner or a relatively poor White partner showed much higher levels of threat and cardiovascular reactivity than those who were paired with partners who met their expectations.

This social psychology insight is key to helping us dismantle the anti-black misogyny that infects our theological imaginations. For all of us who have been conditioned by anti-blackness and misogyny, the invitation is to linger with– rather than rid ourselves of- the discomfort, threat, and cardiovascular reactivity that God as a black woman might pose.

~ Christena Cleveland

This Q&A was originally published on Progressing Spirit – As a member of this online community, you’ll receive insightful weekly essays, access to all of the essay archives (including all of Bishop John Shelby Spong), and answers to your questions in our free weekly Q&A. Click here to see free sample essays.

About the Author
Christena Cleveland Ph.D. is a social psychologist, public theologian, author, and activist. She is the founder and director of the recently-launched Center for Justice + Renewal, a non-profit dedicated to helping justice advocates sharpen their understanding of the social realities that maintain injustice while also stimulating the soul’s enormous capacity to resist and transform those realities. Committed to leading both in scholarly settings and in the public square, Christena writes regularly, speaks widely, and consults with organizations.

Dr. Cleveland holds a Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of California Santa Barbara as well as an honorary doctorate from the Virginia Theological Seminary. She integrates psychology, theology, and art to stimulate our spiritual imaginations. An award-winning researcher and author, Christena has held faculty positions at several institutions of higher education — most recently at Duke University’s Divinity School, where she led a research team investigating self-compassion as a buffer to racial stress. She is currently working on her third book which examines the relationship among race, gender, and cultural perceptions of the Divine. Dr. Cleveland is based in North Carolina where she lives with her spouse, Jim.

[1] Mendes, WB; Blascovich, J; Hunter SB; Lickel, B & Jost, JT (2007). Threatened by the unexpected: physiological responses during social interactions with expectancy-violating partners. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 698-716.

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