Social Issues

bounds of their habitation: a request for guest posts

racism

It was our first pre-marital counseling session, and I was nervous. I wasn’t thrilled with being forced to do this, but John* wanted his pastor to marry us, and that meant going through at least four separate counseling sessions. However, both of us were in a different state than his pastor, so the only option I had was going to a pastor that made me . . . uncomfortable. I already was struggling with trusting this man. He’d exercised church discipline against a woman who dared to express a different view than him without seeking the approval of the church body first. When I was being attacked and lied about by one of the church’s young men, he had dismissed my concerns as “hysterical” and “humorless.”

As I sat in his office, on a sofa I felt like I might slide off of at any moment, I struggled to be in that moment, and not dwell on the past. I just needed to get through this– and then do it three more times.

“Well, first things first.” He opened. “There’s some questions to get out of the way. I know I’m not marrying you, but it’s my responsibility to make sure that you both are ready and qualified for marriage. I don’t want to do wrong by the pastor that is marrying you.”

We nodded. That seemed sensible.

“There are a few things that I have stood by my entire ministry. There are some couples I just won’t marry, because I think that it’s unbiblical. So, first off, have either one of you been married before?”

My laugh was a half-strangled twitter. “No.” John* echoed me.

“And you’re both of the same faith? You agree on matters of salvation, on standards? That’s part of what it means to be equally yoked, you know.”

We told him that we were– and the questions continued for another 20, maybe 30 minutes. Most of them were fairly easy to answer, and fairly obvious. Toward the end of our session, the atmosphere had lighted up a bit. John seemed comfortable, and the pastor was leaning back in his chair, fingers clasped over his stomach.

“Well, you two passed with flying colors,” he laughed, “so no worries there. And there’s other questions I don’t even have to bother to ask you, of course. Don’t get me wrong, but I can’t in good conscience marry mixed-race couples.”

I struggled to keep my mouth from dropping open. He what?

“I realize there are plenty of folks who are willing to do that, and I’m totally alright with that, to each their own and all that. But, to me, the Bible is pretty clear on the subject. The children of God aren’t supposed to inter-marry. It’s all over the place– if they do, they’re bound to a cursed and shameful life, and they’ll never receive God’s fullest blessings. Now, I can’t say this in front of my congregation, it would step on too many toes, but I just feel that this is right. God confirmed it in the New Testament, in Acts, when he said that even though we’re all of one blood, we have the ‘bounds of our habitation‘ and we need to stick to that.”

I was silent for the entire 20-minute drive home.

I waited for my mother to come home from the grocery store, and immediately pulled her into her bedroom and shut the door. I explained to her what the pastor had said, and watched her become more and more horrified.

“He actually said that?”

“Yes, Mom, he did. I’m never going back to that church.” It took everything I had not to cry.

That 45-minute conversation with that pastor was the last nail in the coffin of my faith.  I didn’t come back to it for another four years.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I’ve talked about the completely horrific racism I was exposed to— and that I participated in— a few times before. Growing up in Christian fundamentalism only exacerbated the fact that I was also growing up in the Deep South, in a tiny town controlled and dominated by the KKK and by systematic racism from every source– newspapers, radio, television, the polls  . . . I was completely inundated by a culture that had never grown into the ideas of the Civil Rights movement. I spent almost twelve years of my life in a place where Christian schools were created in order to avoid desegregation laws. I’ve been to churches where people of color weren’t allowed to walk through the doors. I’ve listened to racist rants cloaked by “common sense.” I’ve uttered ideas I knew were racist and then dared to follow them with “and if that makes me racist” and a shrug. I’ve said the words “stereotypes exist because stereotypes exist.”

Leaving fundamentalism behind and trying to grow out of it has been a painful process for me, because it has meant that I had to open my eyes to my privilege, to the ways I had benefited from and contributed to systemic racism.

I’ve done that with the help of incredible, amazing, women and men. There have been some articles I’ve read that have been a knife-stab deep in my gut and my conscience. There have been some pieces that were powerful and illuminating, and helped me see the world in a completely different way. I’m grateful to all of these people who have helped me move past what I was taught as a child.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned through this process is that there is only one way that we’re going to be able grow past racism, and it’s by listening to those who have been affected by it. Get on twitter and follow amazing people like @graceishuman and @msloola and @detoursfromhome and @cscleve– read what they write, listen to them respond to a world that ignores and silences them. Follow their blogs, if they have one. Keep track of where they’re writing.

And that brings me to this: racism is endemic to evangelicalism. It’s especially severe in Christian fundamentalism.

But, as a white woman, I am completely lacking the experience to talk about this. I can shout from the rooftops what I’ve personally witnessed, but I am only that: a witness, and nothing more. However, what I do have is a blog. And amazing readers. And facebook likes, and twitter followers. Not very many– we’re a small community here, and I love that– but it’s within my ability to help amplify the experiences and stories that I can’t personally share.

I would like to begin another guest post series, with your help. I want to set aside space here for men and women to tell their stories of what it is like to be a person of color in Christianity today. This can be stories, or responses to particular events or articles, or it could even take the form of an interview.

I’m passing the mic.

Pass it with me?

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  • I am very thankful that you’re doing this. I love the idea.

  • I have written about my own experiences with racism, in and outside of the South as one half of a mixed race couple. I also wrote for the PBS series Race in America during the last Presidential Election. If you like, I will provide you links to some of these posts, you may decide from there if you would like a guest post from me. I can provide these privately or here as a link.

  • sheila0405

    My brother is married to a Filipino, and one of my sisters is married to an Indonesian. The hostility they encountered is amazing. Both of the spouses are Americans; the Indonesian naturalized, the Filipino born here. It isn’t just blacks who face discrimination: it’s anyone of color. Looking forward to the guest posts!

    • Do you think they might be willing to share some of their experiences here?

  • S.

    I am so glad about this series! I would like to point out to everyone that racism is not just casual comments. Structural racism hurts people’s lives through employment discrimination, special college scholarships or admission for children of alumni and school funding through local property taxes.

    As white people, my grandparents benefited financially by buying a house in the 1950s in California, in a neighborhood that African-Americans could not buy homes in. That house was cheap back in the 1950s and was worth millions when my parents sold it in 2009.

    There have been huge transfers of wealth through real estate in the 80s-2000s that African-Americans missed out on because they couldn’t buy homes in those neighborhoods in the 50s and 60s.

  • S.

    This would be a great guest post! By a professor at Wheaton College about his experiences living in the Chicago suburbs.

    https://www.facebook.com/notes/shawn-e-okpebholo/has-your-9-month-old-child-been-called-nigger/571778739532243

  • S.

    There are some great books about racial injustice in the USA. I was shocked when I read these – I thought, “Why did I never learn this in school?” I’d love it if we could discuss the books on this blog! Like you are doing with CTBHHM. Some of the books are:

    The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
    The Shame of the Nation by Jonathan Kozol

  • I’d like to ask a question, but I’m afraid of being misunderstood. So I guess I will preface it with saying I am utterly sincere, and any offense is entirely unintended (and I don’t think what I have to say is offensive, but I’m not certain because…well, you’ll see).

    How do you combat accidental and totally unintended and unwanted racism in yourself and in loved ones? Allow me to elaborate…

    I grew up in Montana. Twenty years ago, when I was a grade school kid and homeschooled, I had never seen a black person in real life (only in movies, and let’s face it – in the 80’s and 90’s, that’s not a very good way to gain exposure to other cultures or ethnic groups), had never met anyone of Hispanic or Latino descent (and didn’t know there was a difference until I was in my 20’s, to my shame), and while I had met many Native Americans, my exposure to them was always brief, and almost totally contained to either passing contact through very racist adults (related to me, and not) and “events” like “pow wows” and museum visits. In other words, I grew up surrounded by other caucasians, with my sole or main exposure to other ethnic groups coming from movies and Christian historical romance novels set in the “wild west”, or A Beka home school books about the pilgrims, etc.

    How this translates to my adulthood, and to my question…

    My adult exposure to other ethnic groups has still been somewhat limited, as I now live in northern Illinois, in a small town that’s predominately white, and far enough from major cities that I only encounter other ethnic groups in very casual passing, like at Walmart or the mall, for the most part. The only significant time I’ve spent with anyone of color was in my 2nd year of college, on the Oregon coast, when I worked closely with 2 other students, who happened to be black. We were friends, and I remember finally relaxing when I discovered that we weren’t all that different from each other (their definition of poverty was my definition of abundance, but otherwise, no difference that I ever saw). And now, one of the families in our church has a daughter they adopted from Zambia, who is about 12 or 13, who I see there every week, and interact with whenever she comes over to talk to my toddler.

    SO… Here’s the deal (and the part where I cringe and ask you to see that I’m sincere, and NOT trying to be offensive – I’m open to constructive thoughts. Please note that some of what I say might be triggering to those who have faced racism, for which I am truly sorry):

    I sometimes find myself thinking totally random and inappropriate things about people of color. I hate HATE it when that happens, because I feel like a horrible person, and don’t know where the thoughts are coming from. Since I know racist thoughts run a wide (and horrible) spectrum, here’s a common thought that might run through my head…

    I was sitting in the church nursery, and my daughter was playing with the girl I mentioned who is Zambian American. I wasn’t thinking anything specific, just letting my mind wander since I was stuck in nursery (my daughter flipped out whenever I tried to leave), and suddenly I realized that I had noted the contrast between my redhead’s fair skin and this little girl’s almost jet black skin, and that my mind had run off down a trail about her skin, how beautiful it was, and how it looked like the 85% cocoa chocolate that I love, and then (the horrible thought that made me realize what I was thinking) to wonder if it was soft “like everyone else”. I don’t know where that falls on the scale of racist thoughts, but I know it’s on there somewhere (to be surprised at or wonder if someone of color’s skin would be soft like a white person’s skin). It was just…inappropriate, and made me feel very ashamed of myself.

    Racism crops up around me all the time, from people who would be absolutely shocked at the idea that their thoughts were racist. A grandma who says “negro”; an uncle who asserts that hispanics are all drunks (said with actual compassion, at the plight of their “drug wars riddled” country – “what else can we expect?”); a coworker (photography studio) who told me to lighten black skin tones until they were super light, because “they prefer it that way, it makes them feel more normal – besides, you can’t see their features, which is why they all look alike, haha”. HORRIBLE! Inexcusable. Said without any intentional thought to harm. And are my random, stupid thoughts any better?

    So my question is ——> How do we – I – combat racism that stems from lack of exposure, bad media input, and old racist ideas that are so ingrained that good and loving people perpetuate them with no clue as to how damaging they are (excluding the coworker – she was a jerk), and perpetuate instead (in myself, and in my child, especially, but also my community)…whatever the opposite of racism is? And what is that, anyway?

    (((If I have offended anyone with this comment, I am EXTREMELY SORRY, and am more than willing to have the comment removed, if necessary. This has been really bothering me for a while, and I thought maybe this would be a safe place to get feedback.)))

    • That’s a really, really good question with no good answers.

      For me, the best thing has been what I think is called “normalizing,” but I’m not sure. I’ve been lucky because my husband grew up in an incredibly diverse community and I spent my childhood as a military dependent… So I had friends of many races/ethnicities, and so did Handsome.

      Didn’t stop me from turning into a racist once I lived in an openly racist hostile community, tho.

      But, as an adult, it gets easier when I read, listen, and watch any person of color– and I concentrate in listening to them. Really listening. Attentiveness helps me be more aware of their personhood and less aware of my stereotypes.

      • Ráichéal Silverkiss

        One thing I wonder (as a pastypalewhitegirl – although if I were to get a tan, I might look Hispanic) is if it’s okay for me to think non-white skin is Beautiful. Seriously. I go to church with all the Indian (and I do mean from India) brothers and sisters, and I think “those are gorgeous people.” I look at my FB feed with black and Hispanic friends, and I think “wow, that is lovely.” I see a girl I like, and the first thing I think is that I want to hold her hand, to see the contrast of tones.

        Am I wrong? Am I a racist for that? I *think* I’m just reveling in the rainbow that Father-Mother God created, but is that white privilege speaking? I don’t know. And that bothers me.

  • S.

    Alena, your questions are very good! I would not blame yourself for thoughts you have. A good analogy is to think about air pollution. If we grew up in a smoggy city, we would have polluted air in our lungs. Likewise, because we have grown up in the USA, we have unconciously absorbed racist images through TV, movies, the news, our friends and relatives, etc. Nobody can say, “I’m not prejudiced.” We all have unconcious prejudices. (This analogy is taken from the book “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria And Other Questions About Race.”)

    As far as how to change your thoughts, I would say the best way is to replace them with positive images.

    I’d suggest reading Sojourners – http://sojo.net/ – there is a lot of good stuff about race here. I’d also suggest reading some biographies of notable people of color, such as Cesar Chavez, Maya Angelou, Gordon Parks, and Madame C.J. Walker.

    There are some great multicultural books you can buy or get from the library for your daughter. A list is at http://www.shelfari.com/groups/10553/lists/read

    I also like the list at http://www.rageagainsttheminivan.com/search?q=kids+race+books&x=0&y=0.

    Also, I would suggest buying some black and Hispanic baby dolls for your daughter. And suggest your church put some in the nursery! It would be good for the self-image of the girl who was adopted from Zambia. You can get a good selection at http://www.pattycakedoll.com/black_dolls

    Is there a college nearby that would have events for Black History Month in February or Latino Heritage Month in September? My town doesn’t have many events, but I travel to a nearby town to see events such as dance groups from Haiti and the Philippines.

    Lastly, since you live in Illinois, I’d recommend the book “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism” by James Loewen. This book talks a lot about small towns in Illinois during the 1900s.