Theology Christian Living Relationships/Family Identity

Are Ethnic Minorities Emotionally Safe in White Christian Spaces?

Jarvis Williams

The multi-ethnic church movement has captivated many Christians. In my capacity as a NT scholar and a preacher, I’m privileged to lecture and preach throughout the country in many multi-ethnic spaces, and in spaces that aspire to be multi-ethnic. I also regularly talk to many Christians who deeply ache for a multi-ethnic church experience. Unfortunately, however, some brothers and sisters who ache for a multi-ethnic church experience live in communities where there is either virtually no or very little ethnic diversity or they attend mono-ethnic churches that are out of touch with their multi-ethnic communities.

Mono-ethnic majority communities with few or very little minorities in them will inevitably have churches with a small number or zero minority representation in the congregation. And there are also those minorities that willingly choose to place themselves in a mono-ethnic, majority-cultural church context in their communities for the purpose of helping that church go forward in the work of reconciliation.

Their commitment to the work of reconciliation will cause these minorities to lose much ethnic capital in their own ethnic communities. They also will suffer from racial reconciliation exhaustion as they seek to help the white majority culture see that racial reconciliation is a gospel issue.

A question that minorities who are partners with and members of majority white churches will have to answer at some point is: are ethnic minorities emotionally safe in ethnically majority white Christian spaces? My answer is simple: it totally depends on the white spaces.

White “Church” Privilege

Mono-ethnic white churches with very little or zero ethnic diversity will be filled with brothers and sisters who seldom think about their race. As the majority culture, white culture is often prioritized and viewed as normal in U.S. society, while non-white culture is often labeled as “ethnic” or “raced.” This normalizing of whiteness is certainly true in mono-ethnic white churches. This normalizing of whiteness can blind white brothers and sisters to their own ethnic privileges.

From the images of a white Jesus on the walls of the church and to the pictures of white disciples in the children’s curriculum, whiteness is clearly prioritized in some mono-ethnic white churches. This prioritization and normalizing of whiteness serves as a barrier for all non-white people who are members of the congregation or who visit the church. Thus, if mono-ethnic white churches are unwilling to sacrifice white church privilege for the sake of including in leadership and fellowship the cultures of non-white members, then those white churches will not be emotionally safe spaces for non-white people.

The Preacher’s Micro-Aggressive Sermons and the Members’ Micro-Aggressive Words

A micro-aggression refers to “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental, indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” Minorities are accustomed to hearing micro-aggressive speech on a daily basis. Too often, we also hear this kind of racist speech from white pulpits in majority white churches.

For example, I once heard a white pastor say to his predominately white congregation that they should eat at “ethnic” restaurants to meet “ethnic” people, as he attempted to exhort them to be involved in the work of racial reconciliation.

The above statement is fraught with problems. First, the statement assumes white people are normal, but everyone else is “ethnic.” Second, the statement suggests ethnic minorities “only” eat at “ethnic” minority restaurants. This sort of racist ignorance simply reinforces the stereotypes that certain white Christians have about minorities.

On another occasion, I heard a white Sunday school teacher jokingly sing a song during his lesson about the old racist south (“I wish I could go back to the land of cotton”), while an old African-American female saint, who lived through and experienced segregation, sat in the front row of his class and while I sat in the back. The white teacher probably did not know (at least I hope he didn’t) about the racist origins of this song and how white racists performed it during the popular blackface minstrels in the 19th century.

The above comments, and many more like these, often made in majority cultural church contexts might not seem problematic to certain folks within the majority culture who never share spaces with marginalized, minority groups. But these comments are barriers to reconciliation. If white pastors of mono-ethnic churches and white Christians regularly commit the above micro-aggressions without repentance, these predominately white spaces will not be emotionally safe spaces for ethnic minorities.

Minorities as Trespassers into White Christian Spaces

Predominately white Christians who never enter into predominately non-white spaces do NOT understand how difficult it is for minorities to enter into predominately white sacred spaces, especially churches.

As an African-American Southern Baptist with a multi-ethnic heritage and a multi-ethnic family, the chances are that whenever I visit any Southern Baptist Church to preach or teach, my family and I will be the only (or one of few) brown skinned people in the congregation, because the Southern Baptist Convention (though more diverse today than in 1845) is still a predominately white denomination. Yet, I proudly confess that I’ve seen the Lord do great things in matters of racial reconciliation in majority white Christian spaces, and especially in majority white Christian churches, in the Southern Baptist Convention and beyond.

For example, I was the first person of color to join my Southern Baptist church in 1996 in a small town in eastern Kentucky, and my uncle became the second in 1997. The Lord did great things related to racial reconciliation in that church. The Lord has used predominately white Southern Baptist Churches and institutions to care for my family spiritually, academically, and financially. The Lord is also doing a great work of racial reconciliation in the PCA, another predominately white denomination! Praise God for how far Christians have come!

But far too often, in certain predominately white Christian spaces, minorities often feel the stare and the sting of white eyes burning through their non-white skin as they enter into sacred white church space. Or there have been those awkward occasions when minorities in certain predominately white spaces have been forthrightly asked by white members “Why are you here?” Or they have been told by white members “I think you’ll feel more comfortable at the black church.”

In moments like these, minorities can begin to feel like trespassers. Predominately white churches that make minorities feel like trespassers by how they treat them, interact with them, or do not interact with them will be emotionally difficult spaces for ethnic minorities.


Are minorities emotionally safe in predominately white Christian spaces? It depends on the white Christian spaces. Churches unwilling to see their mono-cultural biases, to talk about race, and to live in reconciled community with those who do not share their cultural postures stand no chance at providing emotionally safe spaces for ethnic minorities.

But churches willing to ask questions about race, read about race, learn from minorities, listen to (and not only talk to) different ethnic groups, and churches willing to repent when they prioritize whiteness over the gospel will succeed in working toward providing emotionally safe spaces for ethnic minorities when they enter into their white Christian spaces. It is my view, however, that the more minority led, multi-ethnic churches that exist in our communities, the more emotionally safe spaces and options ethnic minorities will have in sacred, Christian spaces.

19 thoughts on “Are Ethnic Minorities Emotionally Safe in White Christian Spaces?

  1. Randell Bugett

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  2. Rhonda Olsson

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  4. Robert Scarpati

    Please all, hear me out. It’s natural for the flesh to speak in manners that lead to polarization. Oftentimes there is truth on both ends, and a twisted truth on both ends. I’m a white believer who does have a burden for white people, particularly white believers, to have a greater awareness of the reality of discrimination that AA’s have gone through. At the same time, there is also the reality of a progressive agenda, part of which utilizes unique terminology to subtlety manipulate and altar the thinking of the masses. Terms like “white privilege”, safe spaces”, and micro-aggression” seem to be among such terms. At the same time, I acknowledge that there are grains of truth that the twisted, liberal (aka antichrist) agenda bases its strategy on. I truly believe that there is legitimacy to the claim that, generally speaking, white believers can use some education on how their minority brethren might perceive things. In 1 Corinthians 8 & 10 and Romans 14 it teaches how love takes into consideration the perception of others (on conscience issues). But we must be aware of the great attack by liberalism that is currently gaining ground in the profession church, even among those considered to be conservatives. The above -mentioned terminology seems to be a very significant part of the corruption taking place. So, my counsel to my white brethren (I don’t really even want to make a distinction among the brethren, but because of the subject matter I am doing so now ) is that you do not being dismissive about the reality of the discrimination that are minority brethren have experienced. I do think that an awareness of this and a desire to seek to promote love is what we should pursue. But I also advise my African-American brethren and who seek to address this issue to not make light of the liberal agenda and to not play into its hands. Perhaps education in these matters can continue without using the liberal terms. Perhaps it would be better to simply educate your white brethren with some specific examples about some things they may unknowingly do that might be a stumbling block to their minority bretheren. I’m not against that at all – I’m for it. But when we utilize the language and methodology of the liberals in approaching such topics we can actually be furthering the divide within the church.

  5. Anonymous


  6. Barry Lillie

    With all due respect, I fear the author has been lending his ear to the politically-correct zeitgeist with too great a frequency. The problem with his position is that it is but another protestation that the Black man cannot deal with his situation without the white man’s help. It perpetuate’s the lie that the black man is still dependent on white man and is incapable of helping himself.
    The fact is that minorities can participate in all institutions without aid. Will those already in place take a while to warm up to you? Probably. That seems to be a universal fact of anthropology. Will it help the minority person to nurture their resentments when they are not understood? No, it wil hold them back. Will letting “micro-aggressions” go unaddressed enhance one’s chances of acceptance and inclusion? You bet it will.
    In any case, if you are rejected, shake the dust off your sandals and move on…

  7. Anonymous

    Yes, Jared, your breakdown definitely makes sense. Thank you. And I do agree with his point, that there has been a normalization of white ethnicity where there has not been, of black ethnicity. So, your answer is helpful for the first part of my question.

    I would be really interested in hearing a response to the last 3 paragraphs of my question – maybe that is where I am really struggling. I would genuinely like to know the answer to the question I pose in my 4th paragraph. As well some thoughtful response to my question/thought in paragraph 5. Neither of those questions are by any means meant to be derogatory, but as I earnestly try to understand how my black brothers and sisters feel, I want to feel that they are in turn trying to understand where I am coming from too. It may seem like a place of ignorance, and, maybe it is! But I am sincerely trying to understand…I just want to know that they are willing to address what my concerns and questions too.

    Anyway, all that to say, I do appreciate your thoughtful response, Jared. It was helpful and gracious.

    Thank you!

  8. Justin Runyan

    Thank you for this article, and the time you devoted to it. As a pastor of a diverse, multi-ethnic congregation, I want my church to grow in our understanding of our diversity so that we can truly appreciate God’s glory in it. As you suggest, that requires talking, listening, learning, repenting, and staying committed to one another, even in hard conversations. Through this article, you’ve helped me better pastor my church. Thank you!

    I was struck, however, by this particular line, “This sort of racist ignorance simply reinforces the stereotypes that certain white Christians have about minorities.” The phrase “racist ignorance” in particular was jarring. I agree that he exhibited race-based ignorance, but to label it “racist” seems a bit harsh (especially since that was probably the very opposite of his intention).

    Just as comments like the one referenced by the white pastor are barriers to reconciliation, I think phrases like “racist ignorance” are also, but in the opposite direction. Few things will hinder a sincere white Christian/church from doing the necessary steps suggested in the closing paragraph more than having sincere yet clumsy attempts at racial reconciliation labeled racist. The word “racist” slams the door of communication by making it unsafe to have the conversation.

    *** Clarification: I do believe there IS racism and racists. The above statements are not meant to deny or diminish that sick, sinful reality.

  9. Jared

    You touched on it in your third mini-paragraph, but I think the issue with a white pastor saying to a mostly white congregation “go visit ethnic restaurants” is that what it communicates (even if unintentionally) is:

    White = Normal
    Black = Ethnic (which, when contrasted with “normal” can subtly come to mean “abnormal”, and becomes offensive)

    Where in reality (and I think you understand this based on what you wrote):

    White = Ethnic
    Black = Ethnic

    So “ethnic” becomes offensive when it’s used in such a way that communicates abnormality. I can’t speak for Dr. Williams, but I think this is the crux of the issue. Part of the struggle for us (white ladies and gentlemen who’ve grown up in white contexts) is that FOR US white IS normal and because “white normality” was rarely challenged (white context) we don’t properly recognize “white normality” as “white normality”, but rather we see it as just normal. I know I’m speaking abstractly, but does that make sense?

    Anyways, it takes a lot of effort and listening and intentionality to even recognize the ways we do this and the ways we hurt our brothers and sisters by communicating whiteness as normal. And I feel you, it can be confusing and frustrating at times! But let’s be willing to endure frustration and confusion for the sake of repenting of our sin and learning to love people with our words and actions. Let’s be willing to take our share dings along the way, for the sake of Love, Justice, and Unity in the body of Christ!

    Peace brother,
    Praying with you for thick skin and a soft heart.

  10. Anonymous

    Dear Dr. Williams,

    In my effort to earnestly try to understand this issue better, would you please explain the slight discrepancy I have detected ( I think) in your argument. Early in your article you cite an example of a pastor saying his white members should visit ethnic restaurants and places in order to reach out to those of different color, as an example of a “micro-aggression” and as being offensive (it being offensive to you is my assumption given the negative definition of “micro aggression” which you used).

    Then, later in your article you say “As an African-American Southern Baptist with a multi-ethnic heritage and a multi-ethnic family…” so you describe yourself as “ethnic” or “multi-ethnic” (not sure if there is a difference). This is the discrepancy that I am referencing. It is this type of logic which utterly confuses me. Are you, or are you not, ethnic? If you are, and if one person describing you as ethnic is offensive, then why is not offensive to describe yourself as such? Is there something inherently bad, or negative, about being “ethnic”? If so, I can understand why the pastor’s statement would have been offensive.

    I am also not trying to say that white people are not “ethnic”, as obviously they are. It just seems to me that this type of logic is so exacting and can completely miss the point.

    Would the better option for the pastor to have said “Congregation, you should go out and seek to eat at restaraunts where mostly black people eat, and shop at stores where mostly black people shop”? I don’t ask that rhetorically, but sincerely, because I really don’t know which would be less offensive.

    My point is, it seems impossible to not offend a human being at some point in my day to day speech. This is not necessarily because I bear ill will towards said person and try to say rude or derogatory things, but because I have an imperfect understanding of all different types of people AND because ALL people (black white brown green yellow pink purple lgbt the list goes on) have an equally imperfect logic to what does and does not offend them.

    This is just a frustrating issue which I have earnestly tried to understand, but find myself, after reading articles like these, frustrated with the logic of those who cry foul.

    Thanks for your help and insight.

  11. Melody

    Thank-you for writing about this. I’ve always lived in areas that were extremely white and there are a lot of aspects of racism and racial reconciliation that I don’t even know I should be thinking about until someone writes about it or talks about it.

    I do have a handful of minority friends or acquaintances who sometimes talk about this stuff, but until I started reading articles online about it, it never occurred to me that they might not feel comfortable enough to be completely honest. Or that they might be too worn out from previous experiences to want to talk about it.

  12. Burke Weaver

    What a wonderful send-up of “Progressive” thinking in theology! This was really a great parody of how Liberals inject one-sided definitions of “aggression” (“micro”?? – hilarious!) and identity politics into their theology, and corrupt the message of the Gospel. I mean, it’s just like Liberal churches sounded 30-40 years ago. And that bit about “safe spaces” for minorities – wow, what a slam on today’s campus madness!

    There are few better short summaries of the vagaries and dangers of “grievance” politics in today’s anti-Christian culture. Having to endure increasing “macro” aggressions in the work place and in school, it’s great for Christians to be reminded of the thinking and language behind these real aggressions. A pardoiic application of such nonsense to a church setting really brings it out in stark colors.

    I’m so glad that Biblical churches remain staunch against this. If they didn’t, I could really understand why the LGBT crowd is so confident that all it will take is another generation and even “conservatives” will be saying exactly this, except with reference to “Hertero-normativity” and “Gender-binaryness” in place of “whiteness”. What a great warning for us to heed! I’m so glad true Christians don’t think this way or use such post-modern, forked-tongued language!

    (Oh, and the reference to the “racist” origins of Dixie – what a great example of the kind of anachronistic re-writing of history to further grievance politics. Of course, as everyone knows, Dixie was written by a Northerner, and was rhetorically declared contraband of war by Abraham Lincoln. On the night that news of Lee’s surrender reached DC, Lincoln asked a celebratory band to serenade him with it and said it was one of his favorite tunes! Brilliant to remind us of how the Left twists truth!)

  13. g

    Thank you Chris for highlighting the specific and unique American Church history of sin targeted at a specific group of believers. Perhaps it would be best if we could spend a decade as a black adult Christian in a white church. But that is not possible. So God is gracious to us in our sin, as He sends us HIs messenger Dr. Williams to tell us what it is like. Will we hear him/Him? I thank God for Dr. Williams. I pray that God will continue to send HIs Spirit to soften hearts through this man. I am reminded to pray for Dr. Williams when ever he writes here. He is a gracious, kind and gifted man of God. I pray for you as well as you will surely take heat for defending him. Praying for you now.

  14. Alex Clayton

    Wow – it is apparent that you are reading through the lense of the worldly definition of racism which claims that the oppressed can not be accused of racism. The title of this article is not from a biblical perspective that promotes reconciliation but is a perpetuation of a racism definition not a biblical definition of promoting unity. Quite untrue is the assumption that I do not recognize the sins of the church past, or the oppression of my brothers and sisters. In fact these coversations are a constant in a truly multiethnic church. If you read my response you will see that I truly have these coversations on a daily basis. Again, a monoethnic church does not have to have these coversations.

  15. Chris J.

    Alex, in your zeal to prove this brother wrong you’ve uncarefully read his text. In other words, in order to say what you want, you didn’t really listen to his argument. If you have read the article carefully, you would’ve read this sentence:

    “Predominately white Christians who never enter into predominately non-white spaces do NOT understand how difficult it is for minorities to enter into predominately white sacred spaces, especially churches.”

    The assumption of this statement is that white Christians would, in fact, face a similar sort of difficulty in non-white spaces that non-whites feel in white spaces. This is what you claim the author overlooks. But you are obviously wrong- the author *does* address it. It simply isn’t the focus of his article.

    Additionally, rather than making sweeping statements about whether or not minorities are “always” oppressed, the subject matter of the article very clearly communicates that the author is focusing on the Christian church in the United States, since he is focused on the southern baptist church and even mentions the PCA. Are you implying that there hasn’t been discrimination against minorities wrought by the white Christian church in the U.S.? Again, in your zeal to speak your mind, you have not carefully attended to what the author of this article has said.

    In so doing, you’ve made yourself look like the prototypical example of what the article is talking about: white Christians who do not care to truly listen and empathize with their black brothers. We, as white people, are free to and should discuss with our black brothers their experience in our churches and how that makes us feel – since white feelings are not unimportant – but you must do so after you have listened – truly listened. You obviously have not listened at all.

  16. anon

    This is really helpful to read as I think about my role in my church. Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us!

  17. Avelinn

    Since becoming a believer 21 years ago at the age of 17, I have only ever been in majority-white churches (I am black). While I can say that I never felt overtly unwelcome in any of them, I have felt unwelcome as a “black person”. That is to say that I have felt pressured to leave my “blackness” at the door when I entered in. I never felt that the people around me welcomed the idea of talking about race, unless of course, it was from the perspective of the white-majority culture. Even now I am struggling with this issue as I am attended a church where the conversation has been intentionally shut down by the pastor in order to preserve the feelings of the white people within the congregation. I do not, as you mentioned, feel safe. And if I’m being totally honest, I wouldn’t feel safe in most, if not all of the churches in our area, because they are pretty much all predominantly white. I have struggled with feeling like the only Christian response is to remain and be patient with the people around me, but I can’t deny that I feel emotionally worn-out and discouraged in a way that has been difficult to lift myself up from. I do appreciate this article being written, however. Because now, at least, I know that I’m not crazy in questioning how healthy the environment is for me to be in. I still don’t know what I will do, though.

  18. Alex Clayton

    The premise of your thesis starts with a false bias in that only monoethnic “white churches” have a problem with reconciliation. The assumption is that if as a white I go to a monoethnic church other than a white ethnic church I will be perfectly comfortable in that setting. I have a “white” (your words) lady who was married to AA and was the only one of her ethnic group among 300 members. She constantly had to tell the AA pastor to stop talking about white people in his sermons in a derogatory manner. His response was “O we don’t consider you “white” since you are married to him, you are one of us.”
    Your premise starts with a worldly definition of majority and minority, and that the minority are always oppressed; even in the church. Unfortunately, the 7,000 member monoethnic church up the street is not going to become multi-ethnic any more than the 7,000 member monoethnic “white” (your words). Majority and minority does not fit neatly into a biblical definition.
    In fact as theologian there is no such thing as a majority or minority Christian. Unfortunately, too much of the world has become a part of the church. I had an elder tell me that a “white” preacher can not preach to and AA audience. I asked him, is there a different Gospel other than “we all have sinned, and need saved”. Worldly definitions will always make it impossible for reconciliation. However, let me make it quite clear that Christians who are a minority ethnic group are persecuted everyday in ways that Christians of the majority have no clue.
    The church majority ethnic group is a major offender. One last comment; My experience as a minister of a multi-ethnic 52% AA and 47% Caucasian and 1% other is different because we are nondenominational and self governing. There is systemic institutional racism in most denomination.

  19. g

    I pray the Holy Spirit strengthen you in mind and body as you bring these truths to us. I pray that God protect, provide and guide your wife and children in this difficult ministry that He has given you. Thank you for the risk of your own emotional safety all these years. Praying for you now.

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