When Churches Colonize Femininity

Topic: Biblical Counseling, Practical Theology, Soul Care, Love, Ethnic Conciliation/Reconciliation, Race Relations

This is an older article that has been edited and republished due to the times.

I’ve had a decent amount of conversations over the years with non-white men and women 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 have left their majority white church in pursuit of a new community that actually values them and grants them dignity as image bearers. Many majority white 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 of faith and life. One of the many ways this practice can be clearly seen is in how minorities are “discipled” into white conceptions of Biblical femininity and masculinity. The paradigm for femininity in many majority culture churches is the model of the “white soft-spoken [meek] woman.” She has with her certain traits that are referred to as “marks of piety” when in reality they are simply elements of a white subcultural expression. It’s not that “soft-spokenness” is inherently “white” but the version of it that is expected to be expressed is often an idealized version of a white woman, typically akin to a white southern woman from the antebellum era. Non-white men are told that this is the kind of woman they are to pursue if they desire a godly woman and be considered relationally wise. Minority women are often 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 non-white women are opinionated, expressive, or independent thinking they are considered ungodly. This practice happens often, it is normative, and it is a form of colonization.

What ends up happening in this scenario is that non-white women 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”. Non-white men, in their desire to fit into the majority culture context, often then pursue white women who fit the paradigm and in exchange are considered “safe” and “wise”. There are many problems with this but two primary ones are that they begin to pursue only white women and they begin to view a specific type of white woman as the paradigm that they are to compare all non-white women too. Non-white women (especially black) often end up rightfully feeling abandoned by non-white men (especially black). Ultimately, many minority women begin to feel inherently unattractive or spiritually inferior to white women 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 black women and other women of color. Also, it is important to understand that this dynamic hurts all women. It hurts non-white women who are treated as inferior to white women based on personality & cultural expression and it hurts white women as non-white men end up pursuing them not out of a genuine romantic interest, but out of indoctrination and in an effort to be accepted by their white peers.

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 non-white people 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 and for those who are pinned against their sisters as well as used to colonize others.

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 cultural expressions superior. As I have helped black women as well as women of color work through this; they have 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 non-white people. For women, 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 women as well. For non-white men; 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 within 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 is quite possible for one of the members in the couple to struggle 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. These are definitely some of the hardest conversations to have in pre-marriage counseling but it saves a tremendous amount of heartache later. Another hard conversation is helping white men and non-white women work through issues of exoticism, but I’ll save that for another article. Suffice it to say, you can be a white-supremacist or racist and have a non-white wife.

Moving back to the original issue of this article, one of the reasons why it is so critical for churches to have minority men in the pastorate who do not primarily identify with the majority culture. A black or POC pastor who has embraced the majority culture will often not recognize the distinctions necessary to discern whether or not a non-white sister 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. A white culturally assimilated pastor will lack a grasp of other ethnic cultures and likely have a category of femininity and masculinity that is less Bible and more the prioritization of whiteness which he has adopted. In other words, if a minority 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 being black or POC, the hurt he causes can run a lot deeper. In my view, having a minority pastor who has been assimilated into 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 non-white men and women from all over the world who have struggled with these issues as they have been deeply involved in white evangelical culture. 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 or why their preferences have morphed. With that said, and from my experience, black women are the ones who have experienced this reality 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 the diversity of feminine and masculine expression that exists within his Body. Faithful Christians must search the scriptures and not their culture as they seek to develop an understanding concerning Biblical manhood and womanhood. Searching the culture for answers on these things will not yield conformity to Christ, but rather conformity to the culture and people with the most power and influence. Interracial marriage can be a beautiful thing, I am in an interracial marriage and I beyond grateful for my wife who was born in Vietnam. However, when the church colonizes femininity, it wounds the people of God and it treats the wisdom of man as being greater than the wisdom of God who treasures the diversity of feminine expression within his female image bearers.

You can follow me on Twitter @KyleJamesHoward.