Black Man in White Man’s Territory 4: The Black Experience
The physical and spiritual intersection of race and religion creates a unique lived experience for Black males in predominantly White Evangelical churches. The uncovering of these lived experiences offers our churches, church leaders and congregants a special opportunity to humbly explore, affirm, and lament the painful experiences of racial minorities in predominantly White churches. After analyzing the interviews of the respondents from my study, I identified four major themes in the experiences of Black males in predominantly White churches. In this post, we cover the first two themes. Discomfort and Skepticism and Internal Suppression of Identity are specific to the individual experiences of Black Males in predominantly White churches.
Discomfort & Skepticism
Warmly welcoming visitors and unbelievers is a vital step in helping to make all church goers feel welcome. However, for many racial minorities attending predominantly White churches feeling welcomed into the church is not the same as being fully accepted. Many predominantly White churches may find it relatively easy to welcome racial minorities into a worship service on Sunday mornings, while fully accepting racial minorities into the church community may prove to be a different story with a different set of criteria. Unfortunately, more often than not, racism often lies at the heart of this criteria. It judges racial minorities’ ability to gain full acceptance in the church community based on their racial identity or culture, rather than the righteousness of Christ. Those in the church who benefit from this judgement, or are completely blind to it, claim racial minorities who push back on this reality have no business interfering in the first place. For Black males, acceptance into the church community is often one of the most important determining factors impacting their level of comfort in their predominantly White church. And while many Black males can feel welcomed into predominantly White churches, it is often understood, or learned through experience, that acceptance into such a church often comes with strings attached. The difference between welcome and acceptance was explained to me by Kendrick, one of my respondents. Although Kendrick felt well received in his predominantly White church, he found that in order to gain full acceptance he needed to display or affirm certain things. It wasn’t until the church leadership and elders heard him preach that he felt like he was accepted by them. He felt this acceptance was largely due to the biblical and theological knowledge he displayed when he spoke.
Black males in predominantly White churches commonly experience the prerequisites for acceptance that Kendrick mentioned. The tests are there whether instilled consciously or unconsciously into a church’s culture. Black individuals begin to realize that in order to be truly accepted one either (a) must prove their worth intellectually or (b) unwaveringly affirm the culture and beliefs of the church, even when the culture or beliefs may have more to do with tribal affiliation than biblical fidelity. This culture of conditional acceptance can be particularly uncomfortable for Black males who, already being a racial minority, risk becoming social outcasts as well if not accepted. Kendrick’s time at his church, the first predominantly White church he attended, revealed to him just how racially divided the church often is. He believed his church did not recognize or understand the things that were not, either physically or culturally, predominantly White themselves. When he tried to explain the black experience to an all white congregation it suddenly became, in his own words, “the black experience versus Christianity.” This reality led Kendrick to believe that as long as he attended his church and as long as that church was predominantly white he would never feel fully accepted.
Often coupled with this discomfort is skepticism. Another respondent, Lamont, spoke of a “scarring from a previous [predominantly White] church.” Lamont was skeptical when he first began attending his predominantly White church. That skepticism grew even as he became more comfortable with the members and pastors individually. He began to realize he didn’t have much in common with those around him. When he spoke of other church members approaching him, he said he found himself questioning if the hospitality he was receiving was a part of the culture of the church or simply because he was the only Black person around. The new church Lamont attended was not at fault for his past experiences. However, he skeptically carried those experiences with him as an indictment of the culture of White Evangelicalism that, for generations, has psychologically scarred many Black males.
It is important, however, that such psychological scarring not be used to guilt or shame predominantly White churches and White Christians, but to serve as a reminder of the experiences that racial minorities in predominantly White churches carry with them and the vital importance of being mindful of these experiences. As a result of these experiences, Black males like Kendrick and Lamont are forced to ask themselves where African Americans fit in the overwhelmingly White Evangelical church?Iis there even room for them in the first place?
Possibly the best, and most tragic, example of the coupling of discomfort and skepticism came from Preston, another respondent in my study whose scarring forced him into social isolation within his predominantly White church. Recalling his experience, Preston identified the high profile cases of police brutality and White supremacy in the United States as defining moments. Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, and the Mother Emanuel church massacre in Charleston were all unique identifiers in his mind that coincided with particular experiences of discomfort in the church. He recalled a period of about six months where he did not attend church, or when he sat in the auditorium but walk around completely disengaged. He felt he could not connect spiritually with his church community but felt trapped there because his wife, who is bi-racial, and kids were being fed spiritually. Preston likened his experience to having a mental breakdown. Later in the interview he spoke of the same period of time and described the lack of help he from his congregation.
There wasn’t any true help in the church to overcome what I was going through. I would see people at the local grocery store and they would ask me ‘how did you like church?’ and I would say I haven’t been to church in three weeks.
These experiences of discomfort lead Black males, like Preston, to become skeptical of predominantly White churches and believe what Dante, another respondent, expressed to me based on his experience in a predominantly White church: “I didn’t believe that the relationships that I had could survive my blackness.” In other words, he would have to give up a part of himself in order to gain acceptance into his church community.
Internal Suppression of Self Identity
In a speech at Fuller Theological Seminary, Anthea Butler stated that as a Black Christian, “most of the time to be an Evangelical you have to give up a part of who you are culturally, [and] the things that make you you, [due to the] expectations Evangelicals have about how you are supposed to behave.” The interesting thing about this so-called “giving up” is that, for many Black Christians, the aspects of one’s individual and racial identity are never completely given up; they are suppressed. For many Black Christians, these integral aspects of identity are never let go of. Cross-cultural code-switching is often a required tactic for Black male survival in predominantly White churches.
At the time of my study, one of my respondents named Terrance had recently worked for a political candidate’s campaign while attending his predominantly White church. He said he knew, as a Black man in a white Evangelical church, that unless he said something or did something that rubbed someone the wrong way, he most likely was not going to get any push back while attending his church. If he went with the flow and did what everyone was doing he would be able to exist in his predominantly White church without any problems. But he knew that once he did or said something that upset someone or made someone nervous that would be the time he would see the underlying problems within the church. Ultimately, that time came. In response to his involvement with the particular candidate’s campaign, members of this church, that often included prayer for government officials in their service, called into question Terrance’s entire profession of faith. Instead of being applauded for political engagement motivated by his faith, his faith was called into question altogether. Certain members in the church disagreed with his politics, and Terrance knew that if he chose to express any opinions differing from the majority opinion it would “rock the boat” and make other church members uncomfortable. This is a great example of what Jarvis Williams calls “cultural colonization.”
Cultural colonization happens when members of majority cultures compel minority cultures to conform to acceptable cultural norms of whiteness. This conformity can be seen when minority black and brown cultures identify with cultural whiteness and dissociate from aspects of their black and brown cultures to assimilate within the white, majority, cultural, Christian group.
Restricting oneself in order to conform to white dominated spaces is a common practice for Black males in predominantly White Evangelical churches. For Dante, he didn’t always realize he was putting this type of individual restriction on himself when he entered those spaces. But after ten years in predominantly White spaces, he identified it as a wall that he put up unconsciously. After identifying this restriction, he was left with a choice, to be alone and be black or to conform and smother his Blackness.
This restriction is not limited to just the respondents who are uncomfortable in predominantly White spaces. Even the respondents who felt very comfortable in predominantly White churches described a type of restriction that took place internally. Willard, even after growing up in the Black church, admitted he had evolved into a chameleon once he began attending predominantly White churches. He called the Black church home for 26 years, but, at the time of our interview, he had all but forgotten his experiences due to the internal suppression experienced in predominantly White churches for about ten years. During our interview, Willard reminisced about his time spent in the Black church. He had a passion for music and it was obvious that one of his best memories was being a part of the choir. He believed there was something special about worship in the Black church and longed for the ability to once again be able to freely express himself through song in his predominantly White church. But as he tried to recall the music he once sang, he couldn’t. After years of choir rehearsals and singing Sunday after Sunday, the music he once found freeing had been replaced with the chorus of his predominantly White church. Discouraged by his inability to recall what were once such important songs to him, he lamented, “Perhaps the chameleon in me was too adaptive to certain things.” In all of his years spent developing a foundation in the Black church, it took less than half that time for it to be wiped away by attending a predominantly White church.
In addition to internal suppression, forced conformity can also produce an internalized self-hatred towards one’s own identity. A catalyst for this self-hatred is often the ways in which predominantly White churches respond to non-White Christian expressions. This was true for Kendrick, whose predominantly White church had a tendency of separating theology along the lines of race. Some members even went as far as labeling Black theology “crazy African American theology.” As a result of this perception of Black theology, Kendrick questioned whether or not he would ever gain full acceptance in his church community as long as his theology was defined by his racial or ethnic background. Micro-aggressions like these can be harmful to the psyche of Black males in predominantly White churches and, without a strong foundation, deeply damaging to their perceptions of themselves and their own community.
Dante, Willard, and Kendrick’s experiences point to the vital role the Black Christian expression plays in the lives of Black Christians, even in predominantly White churches. For Black Christians, the Black Christian expression helps to build up and maintain one’s self-esteem in the midst of demands for conformity and self-hatred. It acts as a shield to fight against the historical and contemporary pictures, notions, and claims that negatively portray Black Christianity. I found that, even though many are critical of the Black Christian expression, it serves as a vital lifeline for the survival of Black males’ in predominantly White churches.