Sunday, November 5, 2023

Living as a Racial Minority

Growing up in North Miami, I couldn't help but know that I was one of the few white kids in the neighborhood. My parents bought a house they could afford, in an area that was experiencing the tail end of a white flight, and, to their credit, they decided to stay there for over fifteen years and raise their kids there. The education I got at North Miami Senior High (Go Pioneers!) included a lot more than Trigonometry and English Lit. I learned how to navigate the world without the safety net of being in the majority everywhere I went.

I was reminded of my childhood the other day, listening to an episode of the podcast Pass the Mic with Tyler Burns and Jemar Tisby. They did an interview with Michael O. Emerson, author of several books on Christianity and race, including Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. I'm constantly challenged by the Pass the Mic podcast, which tackles controversial issues pertaining to both American society and the Christian Church, but this episode hit home a little more than most. Emerson talked about how he, as a white man, came to some of the conclusions he has about race in America. He said that as a relatively new father, he felt called by God to live as a racial minority. He believed, literally, that God wanted him to uproot his family and seek out a neighborhood, church, and school where he and his children would be some of the very few white folks in the area.

At hearing about his decision, people around him said he was crazy, maybe self-righteous. They questioned whether this was safe, really betraying their views of non-white people. But in the end, he maintains that living as a racial minority gave him and his children a perspective on racial issues that they couldn't have gotten otherwise. 

It reminded me a lot of how I grew up. I don't know if my parents' decision was spiritual, or political, or just economic, but it had the same results. What seemed normal to me growing up - the experiences of my friends, classmates, and neighbors, the languages and other ways of communicating - gave me a sort of inoculation to the things I heard on the news and other media. I remember very clearly hearing Sean Hannity putting President Obama on blast for allowing a "gangster rapper" to perform at the White House. Because this sounded so absurd to me, I looked into it, only to find out he was talking about Common, the least gangster of all rappers in the entire hip-hop history. I could never hear Hannity's voice again without having my guard up, knowing that he would lie to defame anyone not on his side, and all because of the music I listened to growing up. 

I resonated so much with Emerson's experience and his discussion of race and the church that I picked up Divided by Faith and read it. By "read it," of course, I mean I listened to it in the gym and while driving, like I do with pretty much all nonfiction books. In chapter seven, "The Organization of Religion," Emerson tells the story of an African-American pastor in Seattle with a vision for a truly multiracial congregation. Because he wanted to plant this church with forethought and intentionality, he partnered with local pastors of either majority white or Black churches to pitch his idea and call out members willing to charter this new congregation. At first, when the church held its first service, the staff as well as the congregation was split pretty evenly between white and Black folks. Then, as Emerson describes it, "as the church grew, something happened to its mixed-race nature - it disappeared, and the congregation became nearly all African-American" (147). Emerson goes into the reasons why this shift happened, using some very technical social science language, but the gist of it is this: to most white people, a church that is fifty percent Black is a Black church, and they don't want to attend a Black church. The only new members joining the church were Black, and as the balance tipped from the halvsies that the white charter members signed up for, they left. Ironically, the reasons they gave for leaving were mostly that they no longer felt heard or seen, or that they felt the church had lost its vision of diversity. To me, this seems like a really diplomatic way of saying that they wanted to be in a diverse church, only so long as the diversity was kept to a comfortable minimum.

I call this ironic because the thing the white families cited for leaving is the default setting for Black folks in most neighborhoods, churches, or schools. People of color have to navigate spaces of racial and cultural minority all the time, and have learned enough survival skills in that arena to fill volumes. But, generally, the example of this church, among others, the history of white flight in America, and the current hysteria over immigration all show that white folks simply refuse to remain in spaces where they are not the majority, where most of the faces they see reflect their own back at them. And even then, whenever Black folks carve out spaces for themselves, little enclaves where they can experience the majority existence that white folks take for granted, they are met with suspicion and derision. The new thing is to call these spaces and organizations racist, or reverse racist, or whatever, whether they are HBCU's, Black caucuses in politics, or other Black organizations.

I would have loved to hear the exit interviews of those white charter members of that Seattle church. Reportedly, all those families went to majority-white churches. I'm sure the pastor was a good and wise man, and certainly hopeful and well-meaning for embarking on such a difficult vision. I'm sure he listened to all the concerns and complaints of the white families leaving his church, all the talk of not feeling heard, being pushed to the margins and out of the loop. I'm sure he looked them in the eye and told them that while he wished they would stay, he prays nothing but the best for them, and made one request. I'm sure he asked them to remember how the last few months or years felt, the feeling of being a minority, of being a little late to the party or left out of the inside jokes. I'm sure he asked them to take that feeling to their new church, and look out for the handful of Black members there, since that's probably their exact situation, as long as they want to be the "diversity" in so-called diverse churches.