[Originally published in Unity Magazine May/Jun 2022 issue. Pic via iStock]
In a post last year I invited us to ponder, “Are We ALL Really Welcome Here?” I asked how uncomfortable are we willing to get in our churches and spiritual centers so that everyone truly feels comfortable. In case it wasn’t clear, “we” meant those of us who posses greater levels of privilege in a patriarchal, heteronormative, abelist, agiest society that still defaults to whiteness as the racial and cultural norm. Many of these norms are internalized and unconsciously influence us.
One example of an internalized white cultural/supremacy norm is policing the spaces that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, Person of Color) folx occupy. This usually manifests when a white person believes a person of color should not be doing whatever they are doing in the way they are doing it in a space they probably shouldn’t be doing it. Remember in 2018 when a white woman called the police because black people were barbecuing in a public park? Or when a white student at Yale University called campus police on a Black graduate student after she fell asleep in a common room in her dorm? How about the two Black men that were arrested in Philadelphia after white Starbucks employees called the police because the men were sitting peacefully, but not ordering anything as they waited for a friend to arrive.
You might think such extremes do not happen in spiritual communities. You would only be partly right. In a fascinatingly tone-deaf move, some churches have refused to let their congregants of color form affinity groups. To advance racial equity, there is work for white people and people of color to do together, and separately. Affinity groups (sometimes referred to as a “caucus”) provide spaces for people to work only with others from their race or ethnicity. Whether or not white bodies want to believe it, their very presence shifts the energy and power dynamics in the room. People of color feel safer to be themselves when they are by themselves.
White people often struggle with this. “We’re not being racist!” they might say. “In these already divisive times we can't have more division. Having groups separated by color only fuels more racism! We should all be working together on this!” The desire for togetherness is a false flag. There aren’t objections to other groups that divide along different lines: women’s groups, men’s groups, LGBTQ+ groups, millennials or seniors groups.
Another internalized white cultural/supremacy norm, which is intended to be a well-meaning reason for not having racial/ethnic affinity groups, is the thought that if white bodies aren’t in the room how will they know what to do about racism? “We need them (BIPOC) to tell us how to fix this, how to be antiracist! We also need them to hear how progressive we are, to hear how bad we feel for what they experience, to hear how angry we are on their behalf.” These are not just excuses for wanting to manage the space, but they also put extra burdens on people of color to help educate, validate, and provide comfort.
Regardless of the intention, the impact on BIPOC of not allowing and supporting racial/ethnic affinity groups is that their needs (and by extension, they themselves) are not worthy of consideration, or can’t be trusted, or can only be allowed if it doesn’t take away from the comfort of the white-bodied majority. It is not welcoming. So again I ask: How uncomfortable are we willing to get so that everyone truly feels comfortable?
[To learn more about Affinity groups visit projectsanctus.com/antiracism-affinity-groups]