Racism Haunts Queer and Christian Communities

Racism continues to be one of those nagging problems that we must grapple with. As part of an ongoing dialogue that sometimes appears to get better, talks concerning race in America never succeed at making people of color feel secure or making the problem seem curable. That’s because every time the political tide changes, the racial gains made during one political season often are reconsidered if not reversed in the other.

Most Christian liberation movements in this country have either stalled, if not failed, because of how these movements have failed to factor in race and its complexities. And one of the causes of the failure of these movements — when it comes to churched feminists, churched LGBT people and churched people of color — is Christianity itself.

Racist Christian ideas started with American slavery, and they continue to divide Americans with our segregated churches. As a matter of fact, the most segregated hour in America, many will still argue, is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning. This is clearly a sign of our spiritual brokenness within the body of Christ.

Our spiritual brokenness within the body of Christ began when the all-white historic St. George Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia (the “City of Brotherly Love”) refused to allow African Americans to occupy seats on its main floor. Not wanting blacks and whites seated together in worship, the church demanded African-American worshipers sit in the church’s galleys, dubbed as the “nigger pews.”

Among those worshipers sent to the “nigger pews” was Richard Allen. In response to Christian racism, Allen – who was born in 1760 in Philadelphia, the former slave of a Quaker master — founded Mother Bethel African Methodist Church in Philadelphia in 1797. In 1816 Allen led African-American Methodists into a separate denomination: the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, which is the oldest black denomination in this country.

Most Christian liberation movements in this country have either stalled, if not failed, because of how these movements have failed to factor in race and its complexities.

With one of the roots of racism planted in American Christianity, LGBT Christian activists have an uphill battle when it comes to eradicating only the stain of racism from the LGBT movement. The inherit racism in both Christianity and the LGBT movement challenges all LGBT people, because whether we are Christians or not this nation is founded on Christian ideals.

Witness Our Welcome (WOW), the annual conference that took place in Philadelphia last weekend, decided to look at the interconnections between racism, Christianity and queerdom as it strived to be an inclusive movement.

In commenting about the inherit racism in both Christianity and the LGBT movement, Johari Jabir, an African-American gay male and recent graduate of the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif., wrote to the WOW planning committee, “The inherent racism within the queer movement collaborates with religion in supporting oppression. The very face of the queer movement reflects upper/middle-class gay white men. Just as individuals understand themselves to be authentically inclusive simply because they confess Christianity, the same occurs within the queer movement. Phrases [appear] such as ‘gay people are oppressed just like people of color?’ and ‘the queer movement was like the civil rights movement.’ Little if any attention is given to the ways in which white queer-owned establishments, queer media, and various queer facets practice racism while claiming to be oppressed ‘like’ the people they discriminate against.”

WOW is an ecumenical gathering of sexually and gender inclusive Christians from Canada and the U.S. who support the full inclusion of LGBT people in our congregations and ministries. WOW 2000 was the first-ever diverse assembly of Christians to address the concerns of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons and their families. Over 1,000 persons gathered in August 2000 outside Chicago for this historic event. For too long, the loudest Christian voices heard in our society have condemned LGBT people and their families and friends. WOW, on the other hand, is a grassroots movement that aims at combating homophobia and heterosexism.

WOW’s mission statement states, “We, God’s people, gathering at WOW 2003, commit: to invite, welcome and affirm every person of every sexual orientation and gender identity; to struggle to make a safe space, respecting people from all diverse backgrounds; to worship, study and play, opening ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit through transformation and justice; to add our voices to the Welcoming Church Movement, striving for justice and inclusion for ALL people within the Body of Christ.”

“The inherent racism within the queer movement collaborates with religion in supporting oppression. . . Just as individuals understand themselves to be authentically inclusive simply because they confess Christianity, the same occurs within the queer movement.”

In WOW’s effort to be inclusive of all people within the Body of Christ, it decided to confront the issue of racism by looking at itself. The Coordinating Committee put out this statement: “Over the course of the last two years, the WOW 2003 Coordinating Committee has been challenged in confronting racism. We confess that as a committee, we talked a lot about working on racism and maintaining our diversity as a committee, but there always seemed to be more urgent items on our agenda. In fact, it has only been in the past nine months that we began to deal with racism as a part of our committee work. We have learned a lot about ourselves and about our movement.”

One of the insights the Coordinating Committee learned from their time together about the complexities of racism is its moral imperative to be racially responsible as black and white Christians to themselves and to each other.

Because we talk about racism in a one-dimensional way — how whites exhibit racist behavior toward people of color — we too often overlook or dismiss how people of color exhibit internalized racist behavior toward each other.

For example, a male person of color on the Committee was asked by other people of color on the Committee to address how and why he is perceived as “white”; therefore, benefiting from “white skin privilege.” In initially refusing to address this issue he solicit my advice, which I wrote the following:

I know in the African-American community “colorism” is still a big issue. Sometimes when an African American is lodging this complaint about a person “being white” or “benefiting from white privilege” it can very well come from his or her place of brokenness on the issue and is now transferring the brokenness on someone else.

However, when people of color do make this charge it is important to listen because the points they make about a person “acting white,” or “benefiting from white privilege” should not go unnoticed.

Having no knowledge of you, these might be some questions to ponder: How has your light skin operate like white privilege among people of color? How have you used your light skin to pass as white in the dominant culture? How has your light skin has been used as a way to separate yourself from people of color? Do you use it to separate yourself from other people of color but not from people of your ethnic group? How does the collusion of your light skin and male privilege give people of color the impression that you are not in their camp, but only come to their camp when excommunicated from the dominant culture?

Because we talk about racism in a one-dimensional way — how whites exhibit racist behavior toward people of color — we too often overlook or dismiss how people of color exhibit internalized racist behavior toward each other.

I hear the indignities you incurred as a person of color and understand it in light of being an African-American women. However, because we find ourselves oppressed it does not preclude the reality that you might be oppressing other people of color due to your skin color and/or gender privilege. Not wanting to have these privileges is not the point here.

The point is this: the fact that you do have light skin privilege in this racialized society, and certainly male privilege, it is important to be racially responsible with it.

Often in our effort to right the wrongs in our lives, we fail to see the wrong we create in other people’s lives. Racism is the continuing moral dilemma we face as Americans, and it is a tragedy of biblical proportion.

As a nagging problem that seems to never go away, racism must be the issue we wrestle with in our attempts to do social justice work on behalf of all LGBT people — churched and unchurched, Christian and non-Christian.

But for LGBT Christian activists especially, it is important that in our proclamation to create the beloved community as depicted in the Gospel of John in the New Testament, we not fail at being inclusive — because the thorn of racism impinges on our movement.

Comments are closed.