Monday, January 7, 2013

How to Be an Ally: Church Edition

Being in a community of faith should feel safe and welcoming.
It should ask you to build your skills, to learn to be in community, and to grow as a spiritual being.

It should not ask you to put up with racism.
I was in a training for worship leaders the other day, which was thick with unspoken messages. I think one way I can be a good ally is to speak those messages out loud, in hopes that this will start conversation. We can't end racism as allies, but we can name it when we see it.

Spoken message: Presenters should wear "solid colors," because "patterns are distracting."
Underlying cultural message: People in sari's or First Nation or African dress or loud suits would be quite uncommon in the pulpit, except as an exotic touch, an exception to the rule. If you want approval when you speak, dress as white, older people dress when they go to church.

Spoken message: "Diction is very important if you want to be heard."
Underlying cultural message: If you have an accent I understand easily, I will be comfortable. If you don't, I may get angry or ill-at-ease as I have to strain to understand you. Unsurprisingly, there were no people of color with strong accents in the training -- nobody with an accent had been asked or chosen for the worship team, because accents are (exact words) "a problem." (If you haven't put the work in to lose your "accent," how could you possibly have the commitment it takes to be a worship leader!?) This purposeful exclusion, in plain language, means: Despite the fact that English is spoken in many places, in many different intonations, there are right ways and wrong ways to speak English, and we know what they are! Since we all know a spoken word always has some accent, we must ask ourselves ...Which ones do we consider acceptable? South African or British is okay, but the way they speak in Nigeria or India or Latin America doesn't work for us? Issues of ethnicity/nationality but also class come up here as well. The white upper-class listener's comfort is the priority. Leadership opportunities for people with a non-approved accent, which could include a leader of color, must take a back seat.

Spoken message: "Silence is how you show respect. Clapping is what an audience does at a performance, and church is not a performance."
Underlying cultural message: Rules of decorum are universal. Silence is proper. People who shout, clap, or talk in church or in worship don't fit here. Also could be translated as: "I have never read Ann Pellegrini or gender theory and am not familiar with the idea that in fact church and life might all have an element of performance."

Spoken message: "Well, yes, perhaps if you're talking about a Southern Baptist church, but also that's clapping an act of worship, not clapping in response to a performed piece."
Underlying cultural message: We don't expect someone to come here who comes from a Baptist background, where they also do crazy things like dancing, hooting and hollering. White, middle-class people don't worship that way. We are concerned about having people disrupt our services with noise, and we need you to agree not to do that or encourage anyone else to do that. However people feel the spirit is fine, as long as they do it in their seats, silently. Also, could be translated as "I have never been to a Southern Baptist church."

"Spiritual growth" should not have to mean, for anyone, putting on a brave face through a crisis of faith as they are faced with pervasive assumptions from their "beloved community" about who they are, what they are capable of, how they celebrate in "their tradition," how they ought to speak or present, or what they ought to wear to be respectful in church.

From where I sit, "Being in Community" does not mean someone should have to put up with white folks mistaking you for another person in the congregation roughly the same skin tone as you are. That is not a place where "practicing patience" should be the issue, but "removing ignorance." (See microaggressions.)

In my world, "Belonging" doesn't mean that everyone but you gets to say exactly what they think, about your clothes or your accent or your presentation, while you keep your experience to yourself because it would indict the others in the room who don't understand your background, your traditions.

As a white person seeing this happen, I am not going to be patient with it.
Another person's ignorance is running roughshod in the space where a soul ought to feel safe, and when that soul cries out, it is not allowed to speak, because (!) it might hurt someone's feelings.

Intent does not equal impact. It never has. So, is now the time? Can we start acknowledging the impact of our actions in beloved community rather than wearing our intent as a shield?

Doing church must mean cultural competence, and race/class/gender awareness, or we are missing the whole damn point.