When Churches Colonize Femininity

By: Kyle J. Howard Topic: Ethnic Conciliation/Reconciliation

I’ve had a decent amount of conversations recently with men and women of color who are members of majority white churches. These men and women are deeply discouraged in their contexts and feel like they do not truly belong. Many majority white culture churches have a serious issue when it comes to caring for minorities in their congregations. There is a tendency in these churches of discipling minorities into white cultural expressions. This practice is most clearly seen in regards to how minorities, in white churches, are discipled into concepts of femininity and masculinity. For this article, I’d like to focus on how this issue primarily affects women of color. The paradigm for femininity in most (if not all) majority culture churches is the model of the “white soft-spoken woman.” She has with her certain traits that are referred to as marks of piety when in reality they are elements white culture. It’s not that “soft-spokenness” is inherently “white” but the version of it that is expected to expressed is often an idealized version of a white woman, typically akin to a white southern woman from the antebellum era. Men of color are told that this is the kind of woman they are to pursue if they desire a godly woman and be considered relationally wise. Women of color are told that this is what they must be and that they are godly to whatever degree they reflect this image and immature to whatever degree they don’t. If they are opinionated, they are considered ungodly. Expressive or “loud”, ungodly. The list just goes on and on.

What ends up happening in this scenario is that women of color who have various personality types or cultural expressions that are contrary to this white paradigm are placed on the sidelines as being poor potential wives. They are considered to be lacking femininity. Men of color, in their desire to fit into the majority culture context, pursue white women who fit the paradigm. The problem is that they pursue only white women and view white women as the standard that they are to compare all women to. Women of color (especially black) feel abandoned by their men and ultimately begin to feel inherently ugly and spiritually inferior as they are made to feel like they do not fit the biblical paradigm for womanhood. In reality, they are being judged according to a cultural standard, but they aren’t told this. This leads to deep trauma in the hearts and lives of women of color. [see my YouTube lecture on Racialized Trauma and the church for more on this, link below]

Now, I do not want you to misunderstand my words. I am not criticizing interracial marriages. My grandmother and grandfather were an interracial couple who sacrificed and risked everything together, and I am tremendously thankful for my multi-ethnic heritage. I am simply critiquing certain motivations behind certain marital pursuits that ultimately lead to extremely challenging marriages in the future if not dealt with early on. There are absolutely black and white couples who are abounding in love and do not fit the structure that I am presenting here. I am not talking about those people. I am sure that there will be people who will seek to misrepresent my words but nonetheless, I want to make my critique clear. Again, I praise God for interracial marriages. I fully support interracial marriages. I believe interracial marriages are a wonderful way to demonstrate the beauty of the Gospel. What I am criticizing is the paradigm that people of color are forced to adopt in many white church contexts that cause them to consider themselves and their own cultural expressions as inferior. I am speaking to A paradigm that all women are often forced into that is deeply crippling and hurtful for those that don’t measure up.

I spoke to a young man recently who I know personally and have invested years into discipling. He is a godly younger brother who I love deeply and treasure as a friend. I noticed that this young man had a tendency of only pursuing white women ever since he joined a majority culture church context. For various reasons that will remain unspoken, I decided to speak with this brother and investigate whether or not he had bought into this paradigm. I began asking him some questions. These were the final questions I asked him:

Me: Who would you consider more feminine, Taylor Swift or Lauryn Hill?
Him: Taylor Swift
Me: Who would you consider more feminine, the white antebellum southern woman with the soft and meek voice or the slave woman working in the field picking cotton in rags?
Him: The White Southern woman.

He immediately began to see what he was doing. It was a huge moment for him as he began to realize that he had been psychologically and theologically colonized to consider white superior. Specifically, white expressions of femininity superior to feminine qualities expressed by women of color. Even though his own mother and sisters were women of color. As I have helped women of color work through this; they come to feel a great sense of freedom in recognizing that their cultural expressions and personality dynamics are not in and of themselves ungodly. Rather, they are unique qualities that God desires for his glory. God’s glory is displayed through diversity in feminine expression. The problem with many majority white culture churches is that they have a static concept of femininity and masculinity that is often built upon paradigms established more by their own predominant culture than biblical text.

For example: many churches consider Football to be inherently masculine. Football is not inherently masculine; it is a sport that can be played by women without them compromising their femininity and so the sport is not inherently masculine. The problem is that churches are filtering masculinity through a cultural lens. Here is another example. For many churches, being nurturing and gentle are considered feminine traits. How can these be feminine traits when Jesus and Paul both refer to themselves as nurturing (Matthew 23:37, I Thessalonians 2:7) and gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit?
The colonization of femininity and masculinity are only a few of many examples of Internalized racialization and how it can be traumatic for people of color. For women of color, it can leave them deeply discouraged in their singleness and also feeling like they can never measure up to the Bible’s expectation of piety when in actuality, they are being compared to a cultural paradigm and not a biblical one. Of course this doesn’t just affect singles but married sisters as well. For men of color; it cultivates in them a deeply entrenched feeling of self-rejection. They feel like they need whiteness in order to belong and since whiteness is not inherent with them, they pursue it through marriage. When I do pre-marriage counseling, this is an issue I absolutely discuss with an interracial couple to make sure motivations are correct. This dynamic being present does not mean a couple shouldn’t get married. It’s quite possible for one of the members in the couple struggles with this and yet still be deeply in love. This issue may just be an issue that needs to be worked through on a deep level as they pursue marriage and before they enter into a covenant.

This issue is one of the reasons why it is so critical for churches to have men of color in the pastorate who do not primarily identify with the majority culture. A pastor of color who has embraced the majority culture will often not recognize the distinctions necessary to discern whether or not a sister of color is in need of gracious correction or zealous encouragement. He may also lack understanding regarding cultural dynamics of minority men in the congregation and can assume that cultural differences are actually issues of sin rather than cultural or ethnic expression. He will lack a grasp of ethnic cultures and likely have a category of femininity that is less Bible and more the prioritization of whiteness which he has adopted. In other words, If a black pastor primarily identifies with the majority culture, he will likely have the same white paradigm for discerning femininity that white pastors have. With that, he will hurt and devastate a lot of godly women who simply don’t measure up to an unbiblical standard. Due to him being himself a person of color, the hurt can be a lot deeper. In my view, having a minority pastor who identifies with the majority culture can be more harmful to a diverse body than having none at all. Ethnic representation does not exist in eldership unless there is cultural representation and not just a diversity of skin color.

There are also white women in churches who don’t measure up to this feminine paradigm who also struggle deeply. Sisters who feel unwanted and spiritually inferior to other white women. These women are women my wife and I have personally discipled and have had to encourage. The issue was that they didn’t fit into the majority culture’s perceptions of femininity and so they were seen as immature or lacking femininity despite them being solid women of God. Overall, I have met with black, Hispanic (Colombian, Mexican, Dominican, etc.), Asian (Korean, Vietnamese, etc.), Eastern European, the Caribbean, white, and middle eastern men and women regarding this issue. All of these people, from all kinds of different backgrounds, have expressed the same struggle. They just haven’t been able to put their finger on what it is they don’t measure up to. With that said, and from my experience, black women are the ones who have experienced the intensity of feminine bias the worst. God intends for his church to reflect his glory through the beauty of unity in diversity. We do not do God any favors when we seek to dumb down the complexity of His bride. God is pleased with with the the diversity of feminine and masculine expression that exists within his Body. He also receives glory in the ways that both of these categories are static. Faithful Christians must search the scriptures and not their culture as they seek to develop understanding concerning Biblical manhood and womanhood. Searching the culture answers on these things will not yield conformity to Christ, but rather conformity to the image with the most power and influence.

 

You can follow me on Twitter @KyleJamesHoward. Also, check out my podcast “Coram Deo Podcast” which focuses on issues concerning Biblical Counseling and Practical Theology. You can search for podcast on any major podcast catcher, listen on the web here, follow updates @CoramDeoPodcast, or just click the artwork below.

Kyle J. Howard Kyle J. Howard currently serves the church as a biblical counselor. He is a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he received his associate degree in biblical/theological studies and a bachelor’s degree in biblical counseling. He is finishing a graduate degree in Historical Theology and is preparing to plant and pastor a transcultural church.

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