Multiracial churches and black erasure: Why won't you say our names?
November 30, 2015 at 7:00 am
So here’s the deal: I’m a Christian and I’m also a black woman. Prior to college, I had been attending an predominantly (if not all) black church my entire life. When I went off to school, college now posed two questions most Christian young adults face:
- Will I compromise my faith as a result of my new-found freedom? To what extent?
- How do I find another church?
I chose to figure out the first later and pursue the second. Depending on where you go to school, the racial demographics and places of worship will vary. I attended a PWI, but in a very ethnically diverse urban city. The diversity didn’t make it any easier to find an all-black church. I hopped from one church to the next, none satisfying me. In one, I was the most dressed up while everyone else wore jeans or sweats (couldn’t get with it). In another, I was one of four black people and in another, we weren’t in a church at all. In every church I visited, I found myself unable to be spiritually moved, but I gave them all a fair chance of 4-8 services. I finally settled in a new church that was multiracial, ethnically diverse, and moved my heart with the worship the moment I stepped in. I found my new church home.
Here’s what I’ve learned from visiting various multiracial churches: everyone handles race differently, and that includes not handling it at all.
Depending on where you go, a multiracial church can be anywhere from a multicultural melting pot to a phrase that just sounds nice to visitors. Post-college after moving back home, I had been frequenting a multiracial church that was by far the most diverse I had ever been to; there were Italians, Jamaicans, Nigerians, Puerto Ricans, Chinese, Haitians, and the like. I was ready for a breakthrough in my search. At this time, the country was (and still is) in the thick of it’s “racial warfare” and as the preacher went on talking about how fallen our world is and all our current perils, he dutifully danced around the racial implications of the tragedies he was reporting. Police brutality became “accidents,” murder was suddenly “making difficult decisions,” and daily fear and mistrust of law enforcement was simply ignored in favor of “just trusting those who were meant to protect us.” I was taken aback. Somewhere so personal to me, a place I was attending to worship and commune with my Lord and other believers, had suddenly felt unwelcome. Even some of the jokes made at the pulpit, I knew would leave my fellow black brothers and sisters secretly cringing. I realized then that my culture would only be prioritized or even recognized when convenient or beneficial. Jemar Tisby summarizes it best:
“While there is nothing wrong with white cultural preferences, the dominance of white culture means that even multiracial churches tend to be more accommodating to whites than minorities. Simply attending a multiracial church does not ensure multiracial thinking. Members don’t put their deeply embedded cultural beliefs away when they sit beside people with different skin colors on Sunday morning.”
Tisby makes an important distinction between a church being multiracial and being “truly multicultural.” Racially offensive jokes and making light of racially motivated violence or trauma and establishing white culture as the standard effectively alienates an entire, and usually large, subset of the congregation. The church is a fundamental part of black history, sometimes the only place we could be our true selves, and other times the only place where we could survive. Many black churches, like the one I grew up in, preached not only “standard sermons,” but also discussed issues most salient to the black experience. We don’t have to explain the “being black in America” struggle, there’s an unspoken understanding and camaraderie that makes a congregation family, and this is important for us. Unfortunately, however, in many multiracial churches, “minorities end up sacrificing more for the sake of diversity than whites.”
WHAT CAN WE DO TO RECOGNIZE OUR MINORITIES?
In the churches where I felt most comfortable, both all-black and multiracial, the pastor in question was black and made it a point to validate me, my faith and my unique black issues. Although the preacher need not be black, it’s only right to shed light on or even recognize the unique experiences of the various identities represented in a congregation, even if just to say those experiences exist. Pastors need to know their church members and create genuine relationships with the people they hope to inspire and encourage every Sunday. It’s easier to acknowledge people you genuinely care for and this should be a priority. We can’t afford to drown out minorities in a sea of whiteness and white cultural dogma. In a place that celebrates not just tolerance, but embracing others, can we limit that as we see fit if we want to achieve true diversity united under one faith?