I recently attended an excellent talk organized by the Center of Inquiry of Northeast Ohio. It was by Mandisa Thomas, the founder of Black Nonbelievers, and she provided a concise history of the troubled relationship between the black community and Christianity. After being forced to adopt Christianity while they were enslaved, the church then became a focal point of black life after Emancipation and Reconstruction, providing leadership and refuge during the era of Jim Crow and the civil rights struggle.
But the churches were also largely a patriarchal system that elevated the usually male preachers to an exalted status that resulted in many of them abusing their parishioners both physically and by taking their money and using it for their own enrichment and not putting it back into the community in the form of services. She said that currently the role of Christianity in the black churches is a negative one but that it is hard for black people to disavow religion, so many still pay lip service to it and attend church without voicing the criticisms it deserves.
In a piece for CNN, she wrote about the difficulty of being a black atheist.
It can be extremely difficult to discuss religion objectively in the black community. Many have social, emotional and financial stakes invested in this institution, so for one to even say they have doubts is like committing treason.
To openly identify as an atheist in the midst of heavy religious influence can be next to impossible, and good luck finding other blacks who also don’t believe. It is very important to note however, that the Internet has made it easier for black atheists to find each other, and there is a large community of us online.
I recall reading an article some time ago by a young black man who said it was harder for him to come out to his mother as an atheist that it was to tell her he was gay.
In the course of her talk, she gave a list of do’s and don’ts for those who consider themselves allies of black nonbelievers. Unfortunately, I did not take notes but there are two that stuck in my mind. One is not to say things like “I don’t see color” because of course we do. (On his old show, Stephen Colbert would parody this by always telling black guests that he did not see color.) Another is her saying that allies should remember that when black people share their experiences, that is not a prompt for allies to tell their own story about how they became ‘enlightened” about their own past racism. They may feel the urge to do this because they feel the need to defend themselves against a possible insinuation that they are also responsible, at least partly, for the history of oppression of the black community. But as Thomas said, “It is not about you”.
Soon after, I came across this article by Liz Rose that makes the same point in the context of reactions of some Jews when they hear about the awful treatment of Palestinians by Israel.
I remembered Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb talking many years ago about this sort of thing at a Jewish congregation in Chicago. “Stop talking to Palestinians about your journey,” she said. “They’re the ones living under occupation. Save it for other Jews.” This plea is similar to the anti-racism workshops I’ve done with other white people. The deep racial identity work that whites are required to do doesn’t need to be a burden on people of color, who are already living racialized lives. There’s a time and place for interracial work, too, which I’ve facilitated, but white people having epiphanies about their power and privilege isn’t necessarily one of them.
I think that all of us are at risk of this kind of reaction when we hear the experiences of people who have been marginalized in any way. We feel the need to strongly disassociate ourselves from the actions of other members of our group who have behaved badly. But that may not be the time or place to tell our personal story, however engrossing the story may seem to us. We must learn to bite our tongues and remember that it is not about us.