05.07.20

Black Man in White Man’s Territory, 5: Prone to… Callousness?

A time comes when silence is betrayal.[1] This silence is often the result of a callousness towards another person or group of people. If you’re Black and have attended a predominantly White church for any period of time, chances are you’ve probably had an experience that made you wonder if your church is prone to callousness as it relates to race. You’ve probably reached the point where you said to yourself, or someone else, that you just don’t think you could stay. That unless you experienced some form of immediate relief, or even a miracle of God, you wouldn’t be able to survive your time in that church community. This point is often a cruel rite of passage for Black Christians in predominantly White churches. Many times, the worst experiences for Black males in predominantly White churches are triggered by callousness on behalf of their White counterparts. It’s one thing for their experiences to be overlooked, but to finally reach a point where they feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable about their experience as a Black male, and that vulnerability is met with a lack of interest or even hostility is a deeper level of pain altogether. The two themes that deal specifically with this callousness in response to the individual experiences of Black males in predominantly White churches are Racial Apathy and White Blindspots. These themes illuminate a few of the ways in which the Black experience is often perceived and responded to by those within predominantly White churches.

Racial Apathy

One constant among all respondents was their frustration with their churches lack of concern for current events that affected them as Black males and the Black community outside of church. Included in these events were police shootings, political moments and other incidents of racism and White Supremacy such as Charlottesville and Charleston. They each described a sense of isolation that came when these events were not acknowledged in their church community. Preston stated that he felt isolated from day one due to the current events that coincided with his attending. He began attending his predominantly White church a year before Trayvon Martin was shot and killed, he said. Therefore, his whole church experience coincided with the Black Lives Matter movement, high profile cases of police brutality and modern social justice movements. In his article documenting Lecrae’s departure from Evangelicalism, Ameen Hudson states that after such events, “many African Americans and other minorities within the church (especially in light of a long recent history of police brutality) are reminded of how systemic injustice and racism worked within multiple levels of society—especially within the judicial system.”[2] While attending his predominantly White church, Preston was often reminded of the levels of systemic injustice and racism both inside and outside of the church.

“I had grown up relying heavily on the church to help me get through the bad times in life and now I was relying on this [predominantly] White church to provide that [support]. I realized they had no understanding. I was crying because I pictured my sons as Michael Brown, Trayvon, or Alton Sterling and they could not empathize with that. I learned to separate what’s going on in my life in and outside of the church and depended on other spiritual mentors outside of the church to get me through.”

When speaking about the church’s potential response to current events, Kendrick said that individually, if his church would simply reach out or actively pray for a situation that affected him as a Black male, he would no longer feel that sense of total isolation. Instead, he would feel seen and included.

In response to the unrest in Ferguson in 2014, Pastor Anyabwile rightly questioned why his evangelical brethren were willing to change their profile pictures in solidarity with Christians across the world, but not “demonstrate their justification in practical acts of compassion for its beaten, robbed and left-for-dead ethnic-other neighbors in their own backyard?”[3] In its silence, Anyabwile said, Evangelicalism likens itself to the Pharisee who asks, ‘Who then is my neighbor?’ What is striking about that question is that Kendrick also asked the same question of his fellow church members in regard to their response to current events. “Who is your neighbor?” he asked. “If [speaking for his fellow church members] you affirm that all people are your neighbors, then you must love those people as such.” For Preston, he vividly remembered going to church after Charlottesville’s “Unite the Right” rally of White Supremacists. He arrived Sunday morning with a heavy weight on his shoulders that remained throughout the service, as his church didn’t offer prayer for those affected by the horrific actions of White Supremacists just a few days before. “There was no acknowledgment of anything,” he said, and remembered asking his wife after church, “did I just go to a place of worship and we did not offer prayer for a tragedy in our nation?” He told me that as a Black man, he sat there during service hoping someone would come to him and say, at the very least, “I see this is happening.” This, to him, would at least communicate an acknowledgement that he may be hurting, even if they may not completely understand. After this service, he automatically juxtaposed this Sunday morning with another service just a year earlier after 5 police officers were tragically shot and killed in Dallas. “We shut the whole service down and prayed for all of the servicemen and women,” Preston said. By pointing out the stark contrast of these two responses, Preston does not diminish the importance of praying for servicemen and women in that moment, nor did he disagree with them being prayed for during service. Preston’s declaration illuminates the reality of apathy in his predominantly White church that saw the shooting in Dallas as worthy to be prayed for, but not the deadly White Supremacist rally in Charlottesville. Kendrick and Pastor Anyabwile’s question, “Who is your neighbor?” holds an even greater weight when coupled with the disparity revealed through stories like Preston’s.

Dante also used Charlottesville as an example when discussing the apathy present in predominantly White churches towards issues that impact Black church goers.

“To ignore the deadly rally was almost as bad as marching through Charlottesville with TIKI torches yelling blood and soil. It is to ignore humans who have legitimate issues. To do that as a Christian bearing Christ’s name is unacceptable. Silence has historically been one of the most effective repressive tools.”

In a 2001 journal article for Christian Ethics Today, George Yancey, a Sociologist at Baylor University, describes his White students when he talks about race and ethnicity by referencing the “color-blind model.” In this model, individuals think that if they ignore race, then racism will disappear.[4] This is often the approach of choice for predominantly White churches as well. There is a belief that we only have a race problem because we continue to talk about it, therefore perpetuating the problem. But as stated by Tranby and Hartmann in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion,[5] the ideology of White Supremacy that existed during slavery and Jim Crow has evolved and prevails today. It is no longer as overt as it once was but has evolved into a more subtle justification of systematic racism and equates Whiteness with American civic identity.”[6] In light of this evolution, the predominantly White churches and White Christians that ignore racism do not assist in its disappearance. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. In their silence they perpetuate the inevitable growth of racism and White supremacy that digs its roots deep and wide throughout the church and our society under the guise of American patriotism and nationalism. Silence, however, is only a piece of predominantly White churches apathetic response to race. Many times, my respondents would also be recipients of dismissive comments in an attempt to downplay their experiences or opinions. When Preston would speak to members of his church community about his experiences being stopped by the police, it would be assumed that he was breaking the law instead of the victim of racial profiling. When he would speak about incidents of police brutality in the news, he would quickly be reminded that the victims should’ve stayed quiet or stopped resisting. Even when he and his wife garnered the courage to express that the examples used by the pastor in the sermons depicted the poor or disenfranchised only as people of color, or orphans only as African children they would be scoffed at for always talking about a race.

While Preston’s church was seemingly willing to speak about the poor, disenfranchised and the orphan, they were unwilling to speak about the one characteristic that was consistent in each of the examples they used, race. I have found this to also be true of many other predominantly White churches. It is often easy, as it should be, for them to speak on and create programing to urgently fight against personal and systemic evil such as pornography, addiction, or abortion. However, there is an unfortunate unwillingness to urgently speak on, fight against, or even categorize as sinful for that matter, the sin of individual and systemic racial apathy and racism. The inability to admit that racism is a potential personal struggle in the hearts of Christians may be the most powerful factor perpetuating the callousness towards race within predominantly White churches.

White Blindspots

The discomfort and skepticism, internal suppression and racial apathy that Black males experience in predominantly White churches is present because of an overall lack of understanding of the Black experience. Accompanying this lack of understanding are the subsequent blindspots that occur as a result. “It’s like we pursue Christ on two separate sides of the street, as opposed to doing it in stride with one another,” Lamont said. He believed the Black experience in predominantly White churches would be a lot different if those in the church were willing to walk down the street towards Christ together. Because, as he explained, if something happened to one of us the other person would feel it on an intimate level and even be affected by it themselves. Pursuing Christ on opposite sides of the street in predominantly White churches is almost always to the detriment of the Black male. While White individuals in this environment can easily continue in comfortable blindness, Black males are forced to carry these lived experiences with them without any relief.

On top of carrying the weight of their lived experiences, Black males in predominantly White churches often feel the burden of helping lead conversations about race in order to help their White counterparts identify these blindspots. “How can I blame them for something they don’t know?” asked Terrance. “If you haven’t built any relationships with African Americans, and if you don’t come from a context that has African Americans, you probably don’t even know how to start that conversation or how to address it in a way that is beneficial.” He regretted not saying something earlier and believed he could have done a better job by changing his approach in order to be a catalyst for change. It’s incredible that, even though Black males have been subject to a history of torment, isolation and terror at the hands of White individuals, they still feel a responsibility to help them. However admirable, this desire to help White individuals confront their blindspots has long been a source of burnout, frustration and spiritual and mental harm for Black males in predominantly White churches.

What subsequently becomes the norm in predominantly White churches as a result of these blindspots is the ultimate prioritization of Whiteness and the cultural norms of White Evangelicalism. This prioritization creates a potentially dangerous dichotomy for Black males in predominantly White churches due to the complexities of them conforming to either prioritization.

“What we are problematizing here is a whole set of norms and values that both reproduce and privilege whiteness in contemporary American culture. Racial minorities, in general, and African Americans, in particular, destabilize these social norms and values, not because of any economic or political threat but rather because their structural location makes it difficult to conform to White Evangelical expectations and norms and thus threatens to call the legitimacy and universality of these norms and values into question.”[7]

Many of the norms present in predominantly White churches are not naturally conformable for Black Christians. This reality helps create unrealistic expectations of Black males in predominantly White churches and makes them subject to potentially harmful pushback and exclusion. As Dante put it, “diversity has become the idea of having different kinds of people present, but even when you get to that point you can still be producing a white product.” He explained that, even though the song leader at his church leads songs as a Black man, he’s still executing White Evangelical cultural norms of worship through the style of worship he is leading. This reality led Dante to question, what cultures and what cultural norms get to have a voice in making the decision for the whole church? This question gets to the heart of the point Tranby and Hartmann make. Because American culture, therefore Evangelicalism, is built on a foundation of Whiteness, what is normal and viewed as right is neither fully inclusive or solely based on the teachings of the Bible. However, it is largely based on the cultural norms and values that are a result of, whether conscious or unconscious, White supremacy and the prioritization of Whiteness.

Apathy & Blindspots Amid COVID-19

The experiences of my respondents are likely a present reality for all racial minorities in predominantly White churches across the country as we face the current COVID-19 pandemic. As Asian Americans are facing anti-Asian racism, as Black Americans are contracting and dying from COVID at an alarming rate and as our indigenous, low-income, and rural communities face a higher risk of a deadly spread, how will the church respond? Will callousness towards people of color continue to prevail? Will predominantly White churches continue to prioritize Whiteness in their responses to this pandemic? God, let it not be so! In the midst of this pandemic all churches, especially Predominantly White churches, have a unique opportunity to use their voices and resources to stand in solidarity with racial minorities in the church by condemning anti-Asian racism, praying for communities of color who will be disproportionately impacted by the virus and supporting efforts to protect the most vulnerable in our country. Condemning racism may not change the heart of the racist, though God has certainly done so before, but it will remind our brothers and sisters that we see their hurting and stand with them. In this time, may the edification of the church universal be our anthem as we condemn racism and stand with the most vulnerable. May they cease to be overlooked.


Sources

[1]Martin Luther King, Jr., Beyond Vietnam, The King Institute, 04 April 1967,  https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/beyond-vietnam.

[2]Ameen Hudson, Same Rebel, New Level: Lecrae’s Departure from Evangelicalism,  The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, 03 November, 2017,  https://thewitnessbcc.com/new-level-lecrae-departure-evangelicalism/.

[3]Thabiti Anyabwile, Is It “Goodbye Evangelicalism” or “We Evangelicals Join You in Your Suffering?, The Gospel Coalition,  19 August  2014, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/thabiti-anyabwile/is-it-goodbye-evangelicalism-or-we-join-you-in-your-suffering/.

[4]George Yancey, Color Blindness, Political Correctness, or Racial Reconciliation: Christian Ethics and Race, Christian Ethics Today, August 2001,  http://pastarticles.christianethicstoday.com/cetart/index.cfm?fuseaction=Articles.main&ArtID=417.

[5]Eric Tranby & Douglas Hartmann, Critical Whiteness Theories and the Evangelical “Race Problem”: Extending Emerson & Smith’s Divided By Faith, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, September 2008, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20486928.

[6]Ibid.

[7]Ibid.

Tryce Prince
Tryce Prince is the husband of his wife Erin and the Executive Coordinator for the Carl Spain Center on Race Studies & Spiritual Action at Abilene Christian University. He is set to begin his work on a PhD in Sociology in the fall of 2020. You can reach him on Twitter @TrycePrince.

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