PWB: Preaching While Black! Ten Indicators of Racism in Predominantly White Church Bodies and What You Can Do To Address Them

Just as sure as a midsummer’s cool breeze can chill one’s skin without ever being seen, or a pungent smell can wrinkle one’s nostrils while never being detected by the radar of human sight, racism, a deliberately toxic blending of racial prejudice and institutional and social power and authority, is an element with a presence that often evades the visible realm yet not the lived experiences of Blacks and scores of other People of Color who work in predominantly White milieus.  While there are times when clumsily crafted racist references, jokes, and images can be read or heard within the corridors of institutional life in North America, racism and its offspring known as White Privilege, do most of their corrosive and nullifying damage through often subtle yet impactful executive and operational practices that confer institutional dignity and worth on White employees and volunteers while withholding these necessary components from Blacks and other People of Color who labor within organizations.

Racial Stereotypes and DWB: Driving While Black

People harboring racist views often assign an array of negative behavioral traits to the groups of people they feel are inferior to themselves.  These race-infused negative traits are called stereotypes and are often behaviors that have been amplified and taken out of context for the purposes of justifying harsh treatment of people within certain non-White races and cultures.  Racially prejudiced people who wield social and institutional power can easily employ racial stereotypes in their daily management and operational decision-making roles.  (They may do this knowingly and unknowingly.  Even so, the negative impact is the same.)

The phrase “Driving While Black” (DWB) was coined by Black motorists who complained of being stopped by White law enforcement personnel for no reason other than the officers’ determined beliefs that the Black motorists fit stereotypical behavioral profiles or loose descriptions of crime suspects who just happened to be Black.

When a DWB police encounter occurs, Black motorists essentially are treated as suspected criminals who must go well out of their way to prove their innocence.  Of course, questioning or protesting their unjust encounters with law enforcement has often been viewed as resisting arrest and exhibiting hostile behavior toward the officer (with the presumption being that White officer’s actions, descriptive narrative, and corroborating testimonies of other officers were always the “correct” procedures and versions of reality) and can cost Black motorists their freedom and with increasing frequency, their lives.  Thank God that more and more citizens with cameras on their smartphones (as well as officers with body cameras) are videotaping some of the encounters that Black citizens have with law enforcement personnel.  Such video often tells a vastly different story than what is indicated in official police reports.

The Unholy Union of Racism and Christianity

Racism and Christianity are no strangers to each other.  While no theologically and biblically alert and informed person of our day would dare to defend racism as a legitimate, holy expression of Christianity, it is important to note that United States church bodies were on both sides of the matter of the enslavement of Africans, with some “Christian” ministers and theologians taking the time to bend some biblical texts while remaining silent on others, in order to offer  heretical justification of the evil practice of slavery while crafting the doctrine of White supremacy and Black inferiority to provide a perverse platform on which it was placed.  Of course, segregation, discrimination, and White privilege as hallmarks of societal racism, were found in organized church bodies as well.  Several predominantly White church bodies continue to struggle with racism in both society and their organizational bodies.  Some have made defeating racism a priority, while other church organizations have gone so far as to call racism a sin and to issue apologies for their historic and contemporary silence and complicity with racist orientations, laws, and church practices.  Still, a large number of church bodies choose to remain silent on the matter perhaps while not realizing that this option actually emboldens racist practices.

When racism invades and infects the body of Christ, it can leave Blacks and other People of Color congregants and leaders confused, hurt, angry, as they observe White church officials operating out of a White supremacist world view that renders them more suited for roles as flesh-consuming zombies on the hit TV series, “The Walking Dead”, than for ministry posts intended to give life and advance God’s agenda of hope, justice, and redemptive love as made known through Jesus Christ.  Here is the confusing part:  In one church arena, White people sing and preach about love and unity in Christ, while in another arena, racial stereotypes and White privileged behavior devour, dishonor, and undermine Black leadership and service, and make it difficult for anyone to recognize the presence of Christ at all.  Sometimes the same people are involved in both arenas.

Racism in the church also leaves many Whites dazed as the absence of burning crosses and racist slogans, along with the placement of a few Blacks and other People of Color in visible leadership roles have made them believe that racism is undetectable and may no longer even exist.  Some may even ask, “Since we have visible diversity, what exactly is the problem?”

PWB:  Preaching While Black

Personally, I have spent 32 years “Preaching While Black” and otherwise giving leadership and service in predominantly White denominational circles.  Sixteen of those years were spent within regional and international settings where I was often one of a very few number of People of Color on board, and at times, the only one.  During my ministry, I have enjoyed more amazing, uplifting, and life-altering experiences than I ever dreamed.  By the grace of God, I have been mentored, taught, and supported by an array of people to include Blacks and Whites, as well as Latina/o, Asian, and Native American persons.  They celebrated my achievements, comforted me when I mourned, challenged me when I needed a boost, and picked me up when I was knocked down.  Truthfully, a rainbow village of people, one that most certainly included White people, has channeled God’s rich goodness, grace, and love to me, and I am quite thankful.

However, I must also admit, painfully so, that I have sustained more damaging treatment from small collections of White people dressed in clergy robes and holding church titles than any who paraded around in the robes, hoods, and leadership designations of the Ku Klux Klan!  I have had to accept that two-fold truth that while predominantly White church bodies can be supportive, loving, and caring, they can also exist as cold, stress producing, and unfaithful organizations with respect to inclusion of the presence, gifts, and cultural perspectives of Blacks and other People of Color, and their fair and just treatment in church life.  Thus, “Preaching While Black” (PWB) in a predominantly White church body is a real condition, one that warrants serious, prayerful, and just consideration by Blacks and other People of Color, as well as Whites who so very often maintain and serve in lead roles where they exert power in predominantly White church bodies.

As I think about the ways many predominantly White church bodies function, and the experiences of several Black and People of Color clergy and laity who have worked within their realms, including myself, I know that a good number of people, particularly White people who occupy executive offices, and/or sit on governing boards, decision-making bodies, human resources/personnel units, and staff teams often wonder if racism exists in their church organizations, and if so, how it might be detected.  These questions are important and timely as in an increasing number of contexts Blacks and other People of Color are giving service as executive staff in lead or senior capacities.  The presence of People of Color in high ranking posts in predominantly White church bodies provides convincing proof to some that racism does not exist in their organizations.

I thank God for the historic PWB professionals whose boldness, courage, and tenacity paved the way for all Blacks and PoC who work in predominantly White church bodies.  With respect to these pioneers, and appreciation for all Blacks and PoC who have worked in predominantly White church bodies and to those who are doing so at present, I offer “Ten Indicators of Racism in Predominantly White Church Bodies” as one way to tell part of our massive collective story.  In addition, I present this treatise and particularly the “What You Can Do to Address Them” component as an effort to offer assistance to those who possess hearts to sincerely seek to recognize and dismantle racism from their church structures while challenging others who think racism does not exist in their church organizations.  To be sure, I do not have the last word on how racism looks and feels in all predominantly White church settings.  Even so, trust me; I do know a few things about the subject!

As you read and process the Ten Indicators, be sure to pray for your church body and pray with People of Color you know and even those you have yet to meet.  By all means, avoid blaming and defending institutional turf and practices.  Be open to the not-always-linear leading of God as the Holy Spirit moves through you to transform your church body into a true anti-racist organization, or deepens any prior commitments to actively and intentionally work toward dismantling institutional racism and to build racially hospitable, healthy, and just places for Blacks and other People of Color to lead, work, worship, serve, and flourish, to the glory of God.

Ten Indicators of Racism in Predominantly White Church Bodies

1. Diversity with No Integrity: Racial/Ethnic diversity is important only for maintaining visible pleasantries and institutional auditing, but not for forging new organizational identities, sharing leadership, and sharing power in ways that honor and factor in perspectives and aspirations of Blacks and other People of Color (PoC).

Institutional Responses:  Rather than achieving diversity for the sake of meeting quotas (yes, they still exist), learn to view diversity as a sacred sign of the current or potential strength of your church organization.  Be intentional in receiving historical perspectives, values, and future goals of Blacks and other PoC.  Ask questions of PoC and supply educational resources that help to ensure the perspectives and worldviews of PoC are woven into the daily operational fabric of your church body.  Build transparent, accountable avenues through which directional/decision-making power is not limited to White people only.  Commit to ongoing anti-racism training.

 2. A White Church template (church orientation, values, customs, artwork, etc.) is viewed and accepted as standard for all churches and church ministries.  “It works for us, it should work for you!” is the attitude.

Institutional Responses:  Through research and development, identify methods through which Black and other PoC church bodies are succeeding in grasping a sense of God’s vision while joyfully and innovatively implementing it throughout their growing and impactful church bodies.  Tap into the deep, overcoming spirituality of the historic Black Church that possessed the theological, cultural, and social strength necessary to resist slavery, work for liberation, and dismantle Jim Crow segregation.  (That is the kind of spirituality declining White church bodies need in order to thrive and engage in life/systems-altering ministries when funds and numbers are low.)  Since much of the biblical story took place in North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, your church maps, artwork, and images of biblical characters must reflect this geography.  In other words, you need to post darker-skinned images of Jesus and biblical characters!  If color truly does not matter, as many will say, then go ahead and add the darker images!

3. The leadership template expresses an idolized view of White leadership and considers White orientations to leadership as standard.  No meaningful preparation for Black and other PoC leadership can be detected.

Institutional Responses:  If your church body hires or calls (preferred understanding) a Black person or another PoC leader, staff member, or volunteer, prepare for her or his arrival by engaging in ongoing anti-racism training before the PoC leader arrives, and WITH the new person after arrival.  Increase the number of books and resources by Blacks and PoC in your church library.  Joyfully anticipate and affirm the different style of leadership and preaching that the PoC leader will bring to your church body, and make room for those style differences at planning and decision-making tables.  Your PoC leader will likely understand church to be something different than what your church body has traditionally accepted.  This means new values and priorities will emerge through your PoC leader, so allow the Holy Spirit to open hearts and minds for the new, potentially refreshing direction.

4. Blacks and other PoC who are considered for inclusion and executive leadership roles must demonstrate that they can work and play well within White-led and White-designed structures.  Black and PoC leaders who are deemed as change agents may not be given consideration for top posts unless they internalize White ways of functioning.

Institutional Responses:  Study and appreciate the journey that Blacks and other PoC leaders had to experience just to have their credentials presented to your search and employment tables.  Understand that PoC leaders working in predominantly White structures must be amphibious (a concept I received from one of my doctoral mentors, the late Rev. Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor) meaning they must do well in their own cultural milieus as well as within White environments.  What this means is that folks will need to forget the sinister notion that Black and PoC leaders were called into service in predominantly White church bodies simply because of their race.  Your Black or PoC leader would not have been called to her or his leadership post without being extremely well qualifiedIn fact, Black and PoC leaders are very well qualified leaders within their own cultural settings as well as yours.  Your church body’s task is to recognize this reality.

5. White leaders and systems are not expected to have achieved cultural competence and meaningful track records with respect to working with Blacks and PoC in general, and Blacks and PoC with authoritative roles in particular.

Institutional Responses:  Make sure the people who are supposed to support and work with, alongside, and for PoC leaders have been vetted for their past experiences and successes in working with, alongside, and for PoC leaders in the United States and/or Canada.  Engage in mandatory ongoing anti-racism training that includes institutional power analyses.  Do not put Black and PoC leaders in the unfair position of frequently having to teach White folks about racial and cultural diversity, for unless that role is in their job description, it will become a completely new and time consuming task that will take away from the work they were called to do.  Moreover, do not ask Black and PoC leaders to go out and find more PoC to be on committees and boards.  That is your organization’s responsibility.

6. Managers of governance systems isolate, ignore, and scapegoat Blacks and PoC leadership, and thus create systems with invisible men and women whose unique needs and basic requirements for success go unacknowledged and unmet, their achievements overlooked, and their mistakes magnified.  PoC are never asked, “What’s it like to work here?”  Instead, the “one size fits all stance” of White officials is, “Shut up and be glad you have a job alongside us.”

Institutional Responses:  Guardians of the institution must ensure that supportive groups such as personnel teams, ministry help groups, and pastor-parish teams are assembled, healthy, are committed to anti-racism education, and actually and regularly meet and work with PoC leaders.  These teams must monitor the power sharing relationships between the PoC leader and governance leaders, particularly when the governance leaders are White.  PoC leaders must be put in direct communication with any parties that have concerns or complaints.  Personnel teams should be expected to take steps to lift up achievements, accomplishments, and important days pertaining to PoC leaders while faithfully working with them to creatively and justly address mistakes or shortcomings, perceived and real.

Take steps to ensure that PoC leaders are not scapegoated for institutional problems they inherited.  Also, do not allow unhealthy agendas and poor internal communication styles of others to sabotage or undermine Black and PoC leadership.  Unmask unjust decision-making and prevent the unethical placement of individuals who vied for the lead organizational role that the PoC leader now holds, into positions of authority over the PoC leader.

7. Cultural arrogance leads stewards of church systems to think they are prepared to work with Black and other PoC leaders simply because they had one day of Anti-Racism training, married a Black person or another PoC, had a best friend who was Black, can dance the Electric Slide or Wobble, or voted for President Obama.

Institutional Response:  Just showing up for work as White is not enough!  There are no shortcuts to cultural competence!  Cultural competence cannot be achieved during one isolated seminar; it is a life commitment that will require ongoing, non-negotiable institutional expectations that all staff, governance officials, and volunteers participate in continuous anti-racism training and team/group building experiences through which historical perspectives, values, and aspirations of different racial and cultural groups can be grasped, probed, and incorporated into operational stances.  This goes beyond types of food, dress, dance, and sports; it considers and honors the often unknown and trivialized stories of PoC.  Remember this startling reality:  many White citizens have never read a book or attended a class about and created by Blacks and other PoC.  Be sure that the Black Civil Rights struggle is probed by all staff and governance members through documentaries such as the PBS Eyes on the Prize series or movies such as “Malcolm X” and “Selma.”  Point out the often overlooked achievements and contributions of Blacks and other PoC to many fields (including religion and theological studies) beyond sports and entertainment.  Make continuous anti-racism education an expected part of ministerial preparedness, and the development of all leaders including and especially children and youth.

8. The church body accepts, condones, and endorses “institutional terrorism” where PoC leaders get phone calls from ranking church officials saying, “People are concerned about your work but they don’t want to talk with you or have their names disclosed because they don’t want to be viewed as racist”.  The Black or PoC leader is therefore tormented and left to contend with shadowy figures whose identities are withheld while they hide behind the church’s proverbial Grassy Knoll and assassinate the leadership of PoC.  This leads to a kind of denominational COINTELPRO designed to undercut and undermine Black and PoC leaders.

Institutional Responses:  If attempting to mediate a conflict, never enable White people or anybody to be anything else than direct in sharing their concerns or frustrations with PoC staff and leaders.  Build systems that are healthy, fair, and just, through which conflicts and tense moments end with transformative, win-win outcomes.  Work to keep a spark of concern from unnecessarily becoming a forest fire of anger that can consume PoC staff and leaders, and the organization itself.  Remember, communication and truth telling are not just one-way journeys; the truths, views, and experiences of of Black and PoC staff absolutely must be taken seriously as well.  The narrative of White people, often given automatic credibility because of numerical strength and racial familiarity and privilege, must be given no more weight than is given to the narrative of the PoC staff leader.  Remember that although Black or PoC persons may have lead roles, they may not have institutional power and authority or benefit from having numerical strength within the organization.  These facts point to an institutional power imbalance that must not be discounted.

9. Managers and guardians of the institution refuse to engage in anti-racist ways of diffusing or addressing real or perceived problems.  The “problem” is always linked to the PoC leaders, and the sentence is always death of character, death of position, death of job.

Institutional Responses:  Although many of us tend to avoid conflict and step away from thinking difficult thoughts about people we have known, loved, and worked alongside for years, we must accept the fact that some White people really do target and scapegoat Blacks and other PoC in church leadership roles.  Whenever a problem arises, the first thing some do is figure out a way to blame the Black or PoC leader.  Also, know that some Whites in leadership roles do not want to share leadership and power with PoC colleagues.  Perhaps these White leaders are skeptical about the preparation and abilities of the Black or PoC leader as compared to themselves, buy into stereotypical understandings or racist rumors and innuendo, or just find it easier to jump aboard the ship of blaming Black or PoC leaders for institutional problems instead of doing the hard work of self and institutional evaluation.

In my experience, five realities create fertile ground for scapegoating Black and PoC leaders:  1. Outdated organizational vision; 2. The absence of a compelling, energizing, and unifying mission; 3. Archaic, top-heavy internal structures that focus more on institutional management and maintenance than Christ’s mission; 4. Inadequate care for and relationship building with stakeholders; and 5. Dwindling financial resources.

Therefore, instead of blaming Black and PoC leaders for institutional woes, I think questions like these should be asked: 1. What were conditions like before and when the PoC leader arrived?”; 2. When was the governing board and institution were evaluated?; 3. How have the governing board, executive committee, and board chairperson actually helped the PoC leader to navigate through the organization, build key relationships with board members and stakeholders, understand the organizational culture, and make achievements that help the organization meet its goals?”; 4. “What commitments have governing board members made to address institutional issues and realities?”

10. There is no authoritative institutional mechanism or office where Black and PoC leaders can go to file a grievance or concern.  This means the church body lives less by the values inspired by its faith and more by “Right to Work” laws as well as the March 6, 1857 Dred Scott decision of the United States Supreme Court: Blacks were never citizens, were unfit to associate with the white race, and had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.  These church bodies function like many police departments whose internal investigations, heavily factoring in the “corroborating” testimonies of officers, always find that the shootings of unarmed Black and Brown people were justified.  Whites in racist church systems are very seldom held responsible for their racist performances as, of course, their actions were always justified, their narratives were always accepted as truthful, and Black or PoC leaders were always responsible for their poor treatment, denial of institutional support, or loss of job.

Institutional Response:  Consider it an abhorrent sin and grave injustice that any staff persons, particularly Black and PoC staff persons, would have no forums or commissions to which they may lodge formal complaints or grievances concerning ways their church body employers may have acted in racist and/or unjust ways regarding their employment, working conditions, and treatment.  If the church will not address perceived racial injustices within its own ranks, how can its priority of wholeness, justice, and love ever have credibility?  Church bodies must therefore assemble grievance teams staffed by people who are skilled in mediation and conflict resolution, while possessing growing commitments to Jesus Christ and becoming an anti-racist church.  Grievance teams should have authority to intervene, investigate, mediate, and issue statements of fact and judgments when necessary on behalf of PoC staff that the teams have determined have been mistreated by church bodies.

No One Wears Body Cameras At Board Meetings; You Must Use Your Privilege to Fix The Problem

As your predominantly White church body examines the thorny issue of racism, declare that addressing and dismantling racism is not the work of one committee or task force; it will become and must be the work of the whole church body.  Also, know that it is not the job of Blacks and PoC to fix the problem of racism; this is largely White folks’ work.  Remember, no one wears body cameras to church governance meetings where the worth, presence and character of Blacks and other PoC are debated and often discounted.  Meeting minutes do not always signal the ways racism and White privileged uses of power undermine the leadership of Blacks and PoC.

When participating in governance forums, personnel meetings, Sunday school classes, and even worship services where God’s presence is invoked and God’s word is preached, White Christians have to be willing to let go of anesthetizing notions of colorblindness and the conflict avoidance stance known as “all lives matter” in order to have frank and honest talks about race amongst themselves and with PoC.  As racism specifically trolls and targets Blacks and PoC, a “Black Lives Matter” stance will be required!  Moreover, Latina/o, Asian and Pacific Islander, and Native American lives, respectively, matter!  As the lives of People of Color matter to God who created us all, they must matter to God’s church, even the segments of it that are White.

We Have No Holy Right To Remain Silent

People who proclaim and depend on the love of God, that would be all of us in the church, do not have a holy right to remain silent on this matter.  White people must take the lead in acknowledging that racism is a sinful and wicked departure from the will of God, and that racism and White privilege exist within their church bodies and communities.  Furthermore, they must admit that although White privilege can be used to disrupt racism and support the lives and leadership of Blacks and PoC, it is often exercised at their expense.  This is a call for White Christians to acknowledge the systemic and personal pain of Blacks and People of Color that has been caused by institutional racism, and then commit themselves pastorally, administratively, programmatically, and prophetically to the necessary separate and cross cultural work that will be required if we will stand a chance of dislodging the evil presence of racism.

The work to defeat racism is sacred ministry; no Christian is exempt from it.  Know this: Inasmuch as our racial ball of yarn did not become tangled overnight, its difficult knots will not be resolved quickly.  Even so, the words of the late James Baldwin instruct and encourage us at this grave hour: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced”.  As sisters and brothers who rely on the liberating, redemptive love of God as made known through Jesus Christ; as people who call forth God’s vision to be lived on earth as in heaven every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer; and as women, men, youth and children who believe that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us, let us face the challenge of racism together, and in so doing, defeat it.  Amen

“But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.  We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”  II Corinthians 4:7-10 (NRSV)

©Jack Sullivan, Jr. 2015


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