Ethics Before Ego

February 15, 2019
Wylin Wilson
Wylin D. Wilson, HDS Visiting Lecturer on Women’s Studies and African American Religions

Dr. Wylin Wilson, an HDS Women’s Studies in Religion Program research associate, is a robust scholar who is deeply concerned with the ethics of her research.

Wilson examines African American religions and women in the U.S., and her work often lends itself to curious intersections—illuminating links between faith-based institutions, economic development, low-income communities, and constructions of racial order. Her current project, “Bioethics on the Margins: Vulnerable Populations and Health Outcomes,” puts bioethics, theology, and the health of black women in conversation with each other.

Such research sometimes puts Wilson in vulnerable positions herself. While explaining her research to a group of incoming HDS students at the start of the academic year, she explained that, as a black woman, she could not explore certain areas of the U.S. South. Ethnographic research is simply less safe for marginalized people, because research does not happen outside the context of bodies. So how, then, do we balance the fact that marginalized people have eye-opening perspectives, while understanding that voicing these perspectives will put them at risk?

Wilson explained that researching in such situations is similar to work to that students perform every day, and she also realizes the necessity of such work in seminaries, where, she said: “The majority of leaders there are men, and when you think of gender roles and leadership there, you have to realize that in order to do the research, you have to tuck and hide parts of your identity.”

Such tucking and hiding often comes at the cost of a researcher’s ego. Though Wilson is impressively qualified—she earned a master of science in agricultural economics from Cornell University, a master of divinity from the Interdenominational Theological Center, and a PhD in religious social ethics from Emory University—she does not always flash these qualifications about. Although she shared an alma mater with a minister she worked with in her research, she never brought their shared school up. Doing so may have made it less likely for her to procure the information she came for. 

“As a researcher trying to get information to help black women,” Wilson explained, “I didn’t want anything to get in the way of doing that. It’s about the research. It’s about doing ethical work at the cost of your ego.”

That her research translates into ethical work is important to Wilson: “Where I come from, you have a duty to help, in major ways, the people around you. Sure, you have a responsibility to yourself to learn for the sake of learning, but the ultimate responsibility is to other people.”

Wilson views her current work on the persistent health crisis of black women in the U.S. South as a mark of dedication to her ancestors and a way of paying homage to her posterity. The vulnerable communities she looks at now arose, at least in part, from centuries of acute and structural violence—a violence she hopes to help heal.

Ultimately, Wilson recognizes the unquantifiable pain present and thus relishes in the potential for creating new social worlds. She engages the esoteric in order to approach the “lowbrow,” linking academic narrative to the lived body and paying attention to what really matters: the awe-inspiring power of ethical research as a form of caregiving for vulnerable peoples. 

by Sydney Moss, HDS correspondent