Inspired by Nathan Kennedy’s fantastic blog post, “7 Reasons Why LGBTQ+ People Don’t Want to go to your LGBTQ+ Affirming Church.”
Many progressive churches speak out about their support for Black Lives Matter, they issue rebukes against racist and inhumane government policies such as the separation of children from their parents at the Mexican/American border, and they advocate for a more equitable and just social safety net.
Yet despite their advocacy, many progressive churches remain predominately white, heteronormative spaces. Many members and denominational leaders in mainline and progressive churches acknowledge that their churches are incredibly white and that to survive, more diversity is needed.
Yet those discussions have not led to any concrete results. Progressive churches may believe they are doing everything they can to attract people of color but the reality, many churches continue to be unsafe spaces for people of color.
Complaints with no action
I can not count the number of times I have had conversations with white progressives about racism within the institutional church. At first, I am left feeling buoyed and grateful that there are white people who understand that things need to change. But overtime, that joy and sense of belonging soon turns into betrayal as I realize that most white progressive Christians are interested in complaining but not doing the hard work of changing.
They have no qualms about me blasting the church for its adherence to white supremacy but when I begin to take action-they immediately pull back.
This often occurs in the context of hurt white feelings. When a person of color begins to actively challenging racist constructs in an attempt to move the conversation from talking to action-white people get their feelings hurt and when this happen, white progressives immediately begin to backtrack.
It’s not cultural-it’s racism
Many mainline churches have congregations in rural areas. These congregations are often small and struggling as poverty, opioid addiction, and numerous physical and mental illnesses ravage the community. These are very real and serious issues. Those in rural areas have unique challenges that differ from their non-rural counterparts.
Moreover, there are some differences between regions of the US. Calling soda, “pop” or “soda” or “coke” is one rather small and silly example of these differences. Yet to lay the blame on “cultural differences” when a black/brown person from a non-rural area, discusses their experiences of racism is a form of minimization.
It is a passive aggressive way of telling black and brown people that they are over-exaggerating to every perceived slight. Additionally, the “cultural” explanation ignores the vast amounts of black and brown people who do live in rural communities. When rural communities are discussed, the experiences of white people are centered.
White people will never understand
I study non-state and state violence yet no amount of academic research or interviews will allow me to actually experience the pain and suffering of those who have been injured by terrorist attacks, or seen family members killed by drone strikes.
Until I experience those events myself, I will never truly understand the trauma and sorrow that survivors and victims of state/non-state violence experience. That does not mean I should not continue my academic studies in this area, but it is a reminder that I cannot try to implement myself into their stories.
Likewise, white people will never understand the daily pain and trauma black and brown people experience on a daily basis. It doesn’t matter if you are married to a black/brown person. It doesn’t matter if you gave birth or adopted a black or brown child. It doesn’t matter if you work every day serving the black and brown community- you still benefit from white supremacy in ways that your spouse/child/clients do not. This is not saying that you do not experience pain or sorrow.
Of course, white people suffer from depression, addiction, poverty, injustice, state oppression, etc but there is a level of suffering and oppression that is unique to black and brown people that white people in the US do not experience. If a black or brown person is relaying an experience of racism, it is not helpful to claim, “well I know how that feels.” And then proceed to mention an instance where your feelings were hurt.
Again this is an example of white people centering their own feelings at the expense of black and brown people. Yet there is this resistance to openly acknowledge that perhaps, white people, no matter how progressive, do not know what it is like to be black and brown in America.
White supremacy is at the heart of White institutions even progressive ones
White supremacy is the belief that white people are better than non-white people and that white people and their needs are much more important than the lives and needs of black and brown people. Now, white progressive will understandably protest that they reject white supremacy. When they think of white supremacists they immediately think of Donald Trump, Richard Spencer, Breitbart News, etc.
However, while white supremacy and white nationalism can go together, it is possible to hold white supremacist views without being a white nationalist. White nationalists believe that the US is only for white Christians and all other people are at best second rate citizens.
Most progressive Christians are not white nationalists
But they continue to act in ways in which the consideration of white people-their feelings, their lives, their experiences, is of much more importance than the narratives of black and brown people.
For instance, many white progressives value white feelings more than they do the pain and suffering of black and brown bodies. White progressive Christians claim to advocate for social justice and have no qualms about calling out racism in politically and religiously conservative/fundamentalist circles, and sometimes they might be willing to say that other progressive churches struggle with racism, but when it comes to confronting their own racism, they get offended.
In fact, they become incredibly angry and defensive when a black/brown person points out that they are in fact, behaving in ways that are contrary to their so-called progressive Christian ideals.
Instead of changing, progressive institutions subject black and brown people to gaslighting-a form of abuse with the aim of minimizing or even flat out denying the lived experiences of black and brown people. My favorite tactic is when white progressives throw the issue back in the face of black and brown people and claim that we are unwilling to accept criticism or that we are not understanding the specific context of a particular church.
It is great when progressive Christians are willing to advocate against racist and oppressive state policies and they are willing to chant “Black Lives Matter” but that in and of itself does not mean that black and brown people will be comfortable attending predominantly white progressive churches, especially when our voices continue to be ignored or when we are police toned in order not to hurt white feelings.
Progressive congregations need to have frank conversations about the way they continue to benefit and uphold white supremacy.