Progressive Christian Gatherings and the Problem of Whiteness
White supremacy is the foundational organizing principle of American public life, and for centuries has held the distinction of being the most consistent animating force in our national history. This reality affects every social institution, certainly including our most visible Christian gatherings. In the Christian tradition, we see this problem in both "multiethnic churches” and in more progressive Emergent circles to the point where people of color are actually emotionally hesitant to participate in these communities, or are sidelined when they do. Although the structural racism embedded in these spaces—whiteness—is an enormous stumbling block, relatively simple changes can be put into motion to make it less lethal at your progressive Christian gathering.
Even with diverse voices involved on some level in these spaces, white culture is frequently normalized in preaching, music, worship style, and even service length. Start conversations for racial change by giving leadership to people of color. Without serious, foundational changes to the way we do what we do, people of color will continue to experience marginalization. Recognize that it is a brave act for many people of color to come to an environment that caters to white cultural norms.
Police officers shot and killed Philando Castile and Alton Sterling this summer, the former at a gas station and the latter during a traffic stop. These events and others like them induce real fear in people of color when traveling by car, especially to more rural areas. This compounds more ordinary financial factors that would inhibit many people of color from coming to your event. Speakers (or attendees), for instance, may not be able to afford to take time off work and pay to travel, skewing attendance both older and whiter.
There is nothing wrong with sharing cultural artifacts, music, cuisines, and ideas across different people groups—these long-established histories of exchange are a gift. But when white people who claim they “don’t have a culture” and just want to sample others boast Tibetan prayer flags, hold African drum circles, teach and apply Indian Henna and Yoga, without any actual Tibetan, African, black, or Indian people present, these symbols become an especially potent reminder that our cultural products are welcome, but that we are not.
Friends are invited to spaces by friends—friends are often brought on board in an organizational capacity because, more often than not, a friend opens some door or otherwise persuades a newcomer that they are welcome. This is especially true in event-planning contexts that rely heavily on volunteer leadership. Sociologists have consistently demonstrated that our social networks in the United States are overwhelmingly intra-racial. That is, most Americans tend to stick with their own ethnic groups in terms of intimate and casual friendships. Social segregation along racial lines is especially heightened for whites. The very real consequence is that people of color are frequently excluded from non-tokenizing or non-ornamental roles.
What You Can Do
1) An organization I work with that serves the needs of the children of LGBTQ parents recently created a POC advisory board in order to be more intentionally formed by non-white and antiracist perspectives. There is no reason why you could not have such a group.
2) White people do need to learn about systemic and individual racism. But if you want to demonstrate that people of color are welcomed and valued, leadership should invest in the creation of intentional programming sessions and tracks for people of color in particular, to scheme, heal, and otherwise talk about race and racism in our contexts.
3) Set up a physical space or other “safe/sacred space” for people of color, featuring auxiliary programming and gathering opportunities specific to people of color written into the schedule. This could serve as a physical, formal marker of intentionally antiracist and positive movement.
4) Many people of color may be deeply afraid to even walk through the town where your event is held safely, out to restaurants, to stores, and back to hotels, particularly at night. This is a fear many white attendees rarely have to think about. I wonder what would it look like to have a white volunteer team be available to safely walk POC around town, especially at night. A “Safe Walks” program would also be a strong potential aid to women and sexual and gender minorities.
5) To simply say “all are welcome” without offering an explicit invitation to POC—in a physical location, cultural setting, and national context that is historically racist—is not enough. Indeed, because we live within a colonial context in a white supremacist social system, unless we are intentionally and actively trying to subvert this system with antiracism in our event planning, we will be re-creating racist structures and patterns. To explicitly name these trends is a powerful act in disrupting white supremacy.
6) Women of color live and die every day at the intersections of oppressions along the fault lines of both race and gender. Their specific labors need to be especially valued economically. This is a part of the conversation about offering women of color speaker honorariums. It feels to many POC speakers, in many ways, exploitative to invite us in without compensation. It must be understood that it’s not unfair to pay “some” and not others when there are racialized and gendered power dynamics at play.
7) In my experience, structural whiteness cannot exist as boldly alongside organic lament. For this reason, many dominant culture folks who identify with whiteness can be very uncomfortable with public expressions and spaces for grief. Don't give in to the fragile need to rush from lament to praise songs, twisting tears into forced dance. Be willing to sit in lament, and to create spaces for this to happen.
Why I’m Still Here
The whiteness of progressive Christian spaces is acutely painful to participate in. Authentic visibility is so often exchanged for tokenizing or partial representation. There are also electrifying conversations, holy coincidences, and special moments of worship, lament, joy, and fellowship that are just drenched with the animating, healing spirit of God. I have experienced moments of distinct Christian hope in these places, particularly when it comes to challenging all forces of dehumanization that the Gospel opposes, including racism. I sense incredible, redemptive movement even in the midst of racial disparities and am eagerly looking forward to more moments of growth. I want to see more, and to be more, in this journey together.