Changing Times (5): Diversity
Posted on: Sep 15, 2018
Last month I quoted sociologist Corrie Edwards’ observations about systemic racism in so-called integrated churches. Such churches “. . . help perpetuate the very racial inequality they aim to abolish . . . . Mixed-race churches adhere strongly to white norms. African Americans in multiracial settings adapt their behavior to make white congregants comfortable . . . . To make interracial churches work, blacks must adjust their behavior to accommodate the predilections of whites. They conform to white expectations in church just as they do elsewhere.”
Most white Christians find it difficult to fully comprehend Dr. Edwards’ observations. We want to believe that we wouldn’t commit the kind of egregious behavior often reported by the media. And most of us probably wouldn’t. We do, however, make all kinds of assumptions and unconscious decisions that reflect and reinforce racist attitudes and values we have absorbed from our families and culture-at-large.
Church hymns offer a great example in how this process works. There’s nothing like a song to embed particular words in our minds. We much more easily recall words when we have sung them. And we commonly associate certain texts with particular melodies. This process doesn’t happen intentionally. We simply absorb tunes and texts and they become “normal” for us. Countless controversies have occurred in congregations when texts and/or tunes are changed from what we are comfortable singing.
The key word is in bold, and is at the heart of Dr. Edwards’ perception that “African Americans in multiracial settings adapt their behavior to make white congregants feel comfortable.
Truly engaging ourselves with others who look different from us requires that we move beyond our comfort zone. Key to such movement is the realization that what we experience as normal or ordinary results from those values and attitudes we unconsciously absorb from our families and our culture. Entering someone else’s “normal” often requires that we set aside what we’re comfortable with doing or saying.
Rev. John Paddock is rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Dayton, Ohio and is a contributor to the United Church of Christ study document
White Privilege: A Resource for Transformational Dialogue. He writes, “I . . . was driving from Dayton, Ohio to Kansas City on I-70 to attend a meeting . . . . Somewhere in western Indiana the thought flashed through my mind that I was white. I was driving a late model car down the interstate without a care in the world that the highway patrol would pull me over for anything but an egregious traffic violation . . . .
“For the first time I was able to see my life and being in a whole new light – through an entirely new lens, if you will. I, John Paddock, have race. By that I mean something far more than being conscious of my skin color when I’m with a group of blacks. In the same way that a tinted lens will color everything seen through it, seeing the world through the lens of race changed the way I see everything.
“Race belongs to me as much as it does to black, brown, yellow, and red people. Prior to that, to speak of a race problem meant that the problem belonged to someone else, because I didn’t see myself as having race. I was just the norm, which meant that I was oblivious to the implications and effects of my [white] racial identity.”
We cannot challenge systemic racism until we venture beyond the habits and values, priorities and privileges that are ours because we are white. The most accessible way to do this is to look at ourselves every day and ask ourselves, “Was I able to do this or that better or more easily because I am white?” We can do a similar exercise as we look at our own histories to identify instances when conversations and events demonstrated racism.
The Public Religion Research Institute documented in 2016 that only 43 percent of Americans self-identify as white and Protestant. In 40 years, the population of white Christians has dropped nearly in half. A 1976 General Social Survey found that 81 percent of Americans identified as white and Christian, and a majority – 55 percent – were white Protestants.
For the church to be the body of Christ, we need to examine ourselves and intentionally engage others who look different from us. This may not be easy. We will feel discomfort. God calls us, however, to live in community with everyone. Jesus didn’t teach, “Where two or three white people are gathered in my name . . . . ” God includes everyone. So must we.