HEAVY DISCLAIMER: I don’t like talking about race. I have previously mentioned how much I dislike the widely accepted terminology for racial groups. In my opinion, there is nothing dignified about calling a person with a lot of melanin “black” and a person with a lack of it “white.” North America literally has black-and-white thinking, alienating millions of other ethnic groups from this important conversation. Please bear with my awkward attempts to minimize my use of these terms I so deeply despise as I share my perspective on a very complex and sensitive topic. Please do not read any further if you are uninterested in talking about race relations between “black” and “white” people.
I first heard the term “racial trauma” a few years ago. The first time I heard it, I rolled my eyes because the speaker didn’t bother to explain it. This is just more of the victim-blaming mindset rearing its ugly head in African-American culture, I thought to myself. The second time I heard it, Professor Esau McCaully took the time to define it. After he did that, I had to agree that this is, in fact, a thing.
This is how racial trauma works in modern-day America. A POC (person of color) learns about a highly publicized act of violence and/or non-physical aggression against another POC. Psychologically, this takes you back to the not-so-distant past when this was not only acceptable but sanctioned by our government. You become naturally uneasy, if not, blatantly afraid of Anglo people in positions of authority. When you get pulled over for a valid reason, you are flustered and incoherent. The police officer looks at you like you might have a psychiatric illness or like you might be on drugs. He lets you go with a warning.
Then you begin to unpack your personal racial trauma because if you’re a POC in this country, you have experienced it on some level. This then adds a layer of distrust to your feelings about all Anglos in general. Now you have this hypersensitive race filter clouding your vision and your judgment. You scrutinize every interaction with Anglos through this filter and drive yourself bonkers trying to figure out if the reason you are so bothered by certain encounters has to do with unintended racial bias. Now that you have considered that possibility, you can’t unthink it or “unconsider” it. You have no idea how to address these concerns because you don't want to be viewed as one of those minorities who turns every issue into a race issue. So, you just get quiet and wrestle with whether to just let it go or to stop showing up because this environment or relationship no longer feels safe. If you are a POC in an Anglo-dominant space, you have experienced this kind of psychological warfare whether you care to admit it or not.
How do u seamlessly go from lynching and Jim Crow to a fair and equitable society in a matter of decades? The answer is you don’t. The word seamless has no place in the conversation. I applaud my ancestors for abolishing unjust laws and creating the many opportunities I enjoy today. But after three decades of accommodating to the Anglo-Saxon normative, I am bone tired. The more successful you become as a POC, the paler the spaces in your life tend to become—your neighborhood, your workplace, your church.
It gets tiresome repeatedly adjusting my cultural thermostat to just the right amount of “blackness” to make the dominant culture feel relevant but still in control. It’s exhausting to get placed in positions of leadership only to be told that my methods of approaching problems head-on and holding people to standards I didn’t create in the first place are harsh and unreasonable. I’m frustrated that the preferred role for me in predominantly Anglo spaces is one of silent visibility--like a Victorian-era child I’m to be seen and not heard. I relive the moments when my so-called diverse church gradually became a CCM ballad-loving, seeker-sensitive haven for the financially affluent people of the MD/DC metro. We looked around one day and nearly all the POCs had left. No one bothered to ask why other than us.
Not to mention the many times in residency when my every action was heavily scrutinized, and I was told to my face on multiple occasions that I was incapable of becoming a decent doctor. These judgments were rendered within hours of meeting me. Every single one of those faces who were so convinced of my ineptitude belonged to a person with Anglo-Saxon features. This is why I bust my tail in Anglo spaces, often, without realizing that I’m doing it. I spent my life outcompeting Anglos, Asians, Indians, and other Black people just to earn a seat at the table only to be told that I’m too much or not enough. So, yeah, racial trauma is a thing.
If you consider yourself a “white person,” this paragraph is for you: The occasional discomfort you might feel when the topic of race comes up is what most of us POCs feel 24/7. Yes, BLM can be over the top and in no way resembles the church-led civil rights movement of the 1960s. Yes, efforts towards diversity and inclusion can come across as pushy and inauthentic. In this current climate, embracing the politicized versions of wokeness and/or CRT either labels you a champion for social justice or a Marxist. But here's the deal, elite Anglo-Saxons built the wealth of this country by pillaging the Native Americans and enslaving Africans. No amount of arguing about political terminology and Confederate statues is going to change those facts.
People who look like me have been playing by the rules of a system that was initially built to oppress them. Those blatant shackles of oppression have been removed but it’s still not a system designed to help the average POC succeed. And so many of us play the game, following the rules set forth by our founding fathers. When played “well,” this game will cost us pieces of our identity and will distance us from our cultural counterparts. As I approach my middle years of life, I am becoming less tolerant of these unwritten rules and expectations.
I don’t want to be just token Black people at our church. I appreciate that my Pastor has a heart for “racial reconciliation” but I’m also terrified that it will look a lot like ethnic lip service. Attracting people of color is one thing, getting them to stay is quite another. We eventually notice if our only purpose is to be visible but silent, lending the appearance of diversity but without performing the function of diversifying the climate. It’s nice that my family is featured in a photograph on the website but that’s not the only contribution we want to make to our local church body.
We don’t just want our presence to be tolerated; we want our unique skills, attributes, and cultural offerings to be welcomed and valued. Maybe the reason many Anglos don’t recognize their norms and preferences as a particular culture is because it’s always minorities who are expected to conform to them. In other words, what feels right and normal to my Anglo brothers and sisters is really just a form of cultural colonization. If the music, preaching, or environment starts to feel too ethnic, then the Anglos and their big bank accounts up and leave. I’m just keeping it real. Many of us are silent on these matters because we don’t want to be viewed as troublemakers or "the wrong type of Black people."
In my daily life and, especially in my Anglo-dominant church, I make a conscious decision not to dial down my expression of my Afro-Caribbean heritage to make others comfortable. I can never be sure if this has cost me in some way, but I am well past the point of taking pains to stand out less.
I will be assisting with song worship for an upcoming event, something I have not done in several years. I have submitted to the leadership of an incredibly talented worship leader who is far more skilled and experienced than I am. But I gave gentle pushback regarding some of the song choices that simply don’t resonate with me. I sing harmony where it feels right even though it means that my voice will stand out even more than if I just sing in unison (Yikes, how I hate drawing attention to myself). If we want other POCs to feel at home in our church, then it’s important for those of us who remain not to dial ourselves all the way down during corporate worship to match everyone else’s energy. This will not be comfortable or easy.
Our pastor has expressed a desire to start a racial reconciliation ministry. I admit to having mixed feelings about it. It seems prudent to partner with the handful of colored people in our congregation who make the choice to show up Sunday after Sunday, significantly outnumbered, and accommodating to the majority culture's preferred worship atmosphere. I say this with as much delicacy as I can muster. Having a "black" daughter, sister, or friend doesn’t make you an expert, and "blackness" is not some monolithic expression that can be easily contained or explained. American blackness is very different from the dozens of African, Caribbean, and Latino expressions of blackness. As many before me have pointed out, reconciliation implies that the relationship was right at some point in history. History tells us that every time European culture encountered “black” culture, their instinct was to suppress it, distort it, and/or demean it. It matters who leads/represents this effort and how they do it. Are we a problem to be fixed or brothers and sisters with whom you want to build cultural bridges? No, reconciliation isn't what's needed. Healing is. In the brilliant words of Esau McCaulley, “When this body is raised, it will be a Black body.” Yes, I am first and foremost a child of the Most High. But He made me this way on purpose. He knit together my physical features in my mother’s womb and then attached them to my particular Afro-Caribbean culture. All the bodies that were shackled, sold, whipped, lynched, raped, marginalized, impoverished, denied work, denied loans, wrongfully imprisoned, and otherwise devalued as a lower species of human will be raised as “Black” bodies. Sin doesn’t get the final word. The love of Jesus does. What could possibly be offensive about that?
In New Jerusalem, all the nations will present their best gifts offerings to the Lord. He will not eliminate our differences. We will be unified and yet distinct from one another—just like the Holy Trinity. What a miracle that will be!
If you are seeking or if you are even thinking about having more diversity in a particular area of your life, ask yourself if you’re also ready to accept other people's cultural and historical baggage. Understand that you might represent or at least remind them of an instance of past racial trauma. Get comfortable with being made uncomfortable. Embrace not having all of the answers and expecting to always have the cultural upper hand. If you weather this hardship then you will have the beginnings of a culturally harmonious environment. And please invite me and Rev/Dr. King because we will want to visit.
Stay Thoughtful, Friends.
-Jayma Anne M