What About the White Folks?

By T. Denise Anderson, 222nd General Assembly Co-moderator Candidate (with Jan Edmiston)

United Methodist Commission on Race.
Black Ministries and Latino/Hispanic Ministries – The Episcopal Church.
Council for Racial and Ethnic Ministries (COREM) – United Church of Christ.
Ethnic Specific and Multicultural Ministries – Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Racial Ethnic and Women’s Ministries – Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

These are a few examples of entities in American mainline denominations that are dedicated to minority witness and interests. Some are very specific in their focus and tell you which segment of the population is being heard and served, like the Episcopal Church’s Latino/Hispanic ministries. Others are more broad in their focus, using “racial” and “ethnic” as umbrella terms for all the denomination’s non-white constituents. These various names and entities communicate one thing clearly: in American mainline denominations, whiteness is centered.

What would it look like for our predominantly white denominations to take note of their centering of whiteness and ask not only what should be done about it, but what should be done with it?

I’m sure that comes as a shock to no one. The United States of America is, at least for now, predominantly white. American mainline (i.e., mainstream, or even normative) Protestant denominations reflect, even amplify those demographics in their ranks, as percentages of non-white mainline Protestants are significantly lower than percentages of non-white persons in the U.S. as a whole. Furthermore, these denominations have been some of the major promulgators of white supremacy in this country. For generations, hermeneutics that favored white people went unchallenged in our churches, and the effects persist in the 21st century, with mainline membership at around 90% white across the board.

Any dominant group will normalize and center its own experience, whether or not they do it intentionally or have any institutional memory of how things came to be the way they are. It is usually only through the advocacy of those outside of it that the dominant group comes to realize that it needs to make some space. Those outside of the dominant group are having a different experience and need to be nurtured, affirmed, and heard.

In order to make this necessary space, the denomination establishes “racial” or “ethnic” ministries. It is explicit as to whose voice and witness it wants to amplify: the non-white voice. The irony is that it aims to be explicit about this non-white witness by using coded language. All people are part of ethnic groups. All people are part of races. And yet, we use the language of race and ethnicity to refer specifically to those who are not white, which suggests that white people do not think of themselves in terms of race or ethnicity.

Of course, white people don’t think of themselves in terms of race; they don’t have to!

I recently participated in a conversation on race in which we were divided into small groups and asked the following question: “When was your first encounter with race?” An interesting trend emerged in that conversation: the white people in the group recalled their first encounters happening some time in their late teens or early twenties, usually after they’d started college, while the people of color had never not been aware of race. For us, we had always encountered the world with the understanding that we were “different,” that there was a separate set of rules by which we needed to abide, that this world wasn’t created for us. I knew it as young as four-years-old, when I noticed that none of the girls in the toy commercials looked like me.

Any dominant group will normalize and center its own experience, whether or not they do it intentionally or have any institutional memory of how things came to be the way they are.

When you don’t see anyone like you represented in the constant barrage of societal images you encounter, you can’t help but draw unhealthy conclusions about your place in society, even your inherent worth. We are taught growing up that we have to excel at everything we do, that we have to be twice as good to get half as far. We’re taught how to behave before police and authority figures because we don’t know if they may harbor prejudice against people like us. Race is always before us in a way that it’s not for our white counterparts, so I can’t say I’m surprised that whites tend to arrive at these realizations about race relatively late in life. Racial awareness isn’t necessary for survival for whites in the way that it is for people of color.

Let me be clear — I am not advocating for a name change for these entities in our denominations. One could argue their appropriateness or if they communicate what we hope they communicate, but I think that’s a separate discussion. Neither am I advocating that we get rid of these important fellowships of the church. I bring this up simply to illustrate how our denominations center whiteness. The experiences of white Presbyterians/Methodists/Lutherans/Congregationalists/Reformed Christians is viewed as normative. This is the way things are.

So, then, what do we do with that realization?

I think it’s probably aspirational – even naïve – to think we can de-center whiteness in our denominations. It’s too pervasive, too ingrained, too deep, and has too much history and structural power undergirding it. We are not likely to dismantle something that has existed for generations in our lifetime, if at all. But if it can’t or won’t be dismantled, can it be used constructively?

What would it look like for our predominantly white denominations to take note of their centering of whiteness and ask not only what should be done about it, but what should be done with it?

If whiteness is centered in our denomination, then it would stand to reason that diversity and anti-racism efforts should actively engage white people, rather than hoping or expecting these systems to be redeemed by the presence of people of color.

All of our denominations make earnest attempts at racial reconciliation, and one of the ways they attempt to do this is by trying to bring people to the table. “Make sure people of color have a say!” is a mantra we often hear because it’s the most apparent avenue to a more just and inclusive church. What seems to be less apparent is the need to recognize the inherent white supremacy in our denominations and engage the collective white privilege therein. For as many churches as I’ve seen lament the relative lack of diversity in their ranks, I haven’t seen nearly as many start to ideate ways to use the privilege they do have. Adding people of color to the mix is important, but it will not eradicate white supremacy, nor will it suddenly erase white privilege. Churches and denominations, in addition to creating spaces for inclusion, should start seeking out ways to put white privilege to work.

I’m thankful for white ministers who speak difficult and prophetic words to their white congregations about white supremacy and white privilege. I would like to see more of that.

What if denominations developed resources and systems of support to help its ministers do this? If whiteness is centered in our denomination (and that’s not going to change anytime soon), then it would stand to reason that diversity and anti-racism efforts should actively engage white people, rather than hoping or expecting these systems to be redeemed by the presence of people of color.

Acknowledging the witness of people of color and ensuring they are at the tables where important decisions are made is only part of any effective solution. If structural racism persists in a system, having people of color at the table often amounts to mere tokenism, no many how many brown bodies you are able to gather around it. In any space – religious or secular – white folks need to talk to white folks. White folks need to organize white folks. White folks need to challenge white folks. When that happens, the bastions of white supremacy and privilege begin to dissolve.

If we truly want a more just and inclusive church in a system in which whiteness is centered, the key is to engage white folks. I wonder what a “Whites for Dismantling White Supremacy” ministry would look like – and which of our denominations might be ready to start one?

About: The Reverend T. Denise Anderson is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Pastor of Unity Presbyterian Church in Temple Hills, Maryland. She’s a proud graduate of Howard University School of Divinity, where she developed her interests in social justice, liberation theology, and feminist/womanist religious thought. Denise blogs at SOULa Scriptura | To Be Young, Gifted, and Reformed on issues of theology, race, sex, and social justice.

The Center for Lifelong Learning has invited all of the 222nd General Assembly moderator candidates to submit original or previously published work to Columbia Connections.

The original version of this blog post can be found here: justiceunbound.org/carousel/what-about-the-white-folks/

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