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The Privilege of the Authentic Self

Claude Ball

The Lord has called me to do some redemptive work in a predominantly white Presbyterian church in Atlanta that desires to become more diverse. As I have started to interact with members, staff, and leaders, I have ran into this idea of the “authentic self.” This is a highly-individualized self-awareness developed by a specific worldview or culture. It is basically how you view your identity, and how it’s influenced by the region you live, socioeconomic class, race, gender, denomination etc. The authentic self becomes a privilege for the predominant culture because it allows them to escape anything that’s uncomfortable, which is an advantage that minorities do not have.

Minorities Do Not Get That Privilege  

Let’s examine the most basic and generalized stereotype–white people can’t dance. Even though there is biblical evidence that dancing is an appropriate worship to God, it is rarely practiced in predominantly white churches. People would usually say, “Well that’s just not me.” Or, “That’s not my authentic self.” I would ask a few more questions to get to the bottom of the hesitancy to move your body in church.

Do you not dance at weddings? Do you not dance at concerts?  How do you respond when you’re excited about something? Could it be that you’re self-conscious about being bad at something? These are self-conscious behaviors rooted in insecurities that many have labeled as their authentic self. But here’s what you must know, minorities have had to enter spaces where we were self-conscious, insecure, or bad at something—but we had to adapt.

Resistance Communicates Assimilation 

In my first few seminary classes at Reformed Theological Seminary, I felt very self-conscious and insecure about being there. I was the only African American sitting in my classroom. I felt like the theological rhetoric in which most of my professors spoke was a foreign language. I felt decades behind, having to make notes of “big words” to look up later just to be able to follow along in the class. Minorities are consistently met with feeling self-conscious in a situation and having to adapt. Here are two reasons why resistance to change your “authentic self” communicates assimilation.

  1. The Majority Culture Forgets that Minorities are Human with Human Emotions

Minorities feel the same way the predominant culture does when we’re self-conscious; we want to hide and say it’s not for us too. Perhaps that’s why it’s challenging for a predominantly white church to transition to a diverse church. Minorities just don’t want to feel self-conscious about being one of the few minorities present, especially when we have other options.

  1.   Posture: “We Don’t Have to Change Because You Should Want to Be Like Us.”  

I’m giving some white people the benefit of the doubt with this one because you’re probably unintentionally communicating this. When you’re resistant to change, you’re ignoring that the minorities around you have already had to change to even be in fellowship with you. We’ve had to adjust our jokes, the music we play, the way we talk, etc. to even be present and engage with you.

Anytime I have mentioned wanting to see more physical expression in a Reformed/Presbyterian setting, it’s usually met with some sort of push back. “We don’t want people to be inauthentic” Or “We don’t want to cater to emotionalism.” But it is an issue for me to see men cheer and shout for their favorite college football teams on a Saturday afternoon, and then sit dead still and quiet in a worship gathering 24 hours later. When the predominant culture is resistant to adjusting their comfort zones because of their “authentic selves”, it communicates assimilation. It tells minorities, “Yes I want you here, but I want you to adjust more than me.” It’s unfair that the predominant culture is able to cling to their authentic selves when minorities have had to adjust their authentic selves to even be a part of your church.

The Invitation to Your Real Authentic Self

As I’ve said earlier, I felt very self-conscious and insecure in my seminary classes. However, because I knew the value, I didn’t consider it a loss to adjust and adapt. I saw it as a gain. Maybe the predominant culture feels like they’re losing something if they were to attempt something outside of their comfort zone. We’re not trying to turn you into an African American, or into a charismatic, or into an emotionally driven person, just like many African Americans don’t believe we’re trying to be white because we want to pursue theology and practice stoicism.

There’s beauty in all cultures, but the way you prove that belief is when you try to engage other cultures. Not just invite them to your church for them to be themselves, but open yourself up enough to where you are participating with the minorities. You might find that engaging other cultures isn’t a loss, but could be evolution into your real authentic self.

2 thoughts on “The Privilege of the Authentic Self

  1. el

    This is so spot on and part of the reason why there is an increasing migration of black from predominantly white churches to black churches. we are tired of not being our authentic selves. thanks for this!

  2. Shaina

    Thank you for writing this. The idea that God has called each of us to be our authentic selves is huge at my predominantly white church. While it sounds harmless enough, I was beginning to suspect that it is a stumbling block to what God is actually calling the white evangelical church to. It was really helpful to hear you discuss how and why this idea is problematic.

    In my church (which is more charismatic than reformed), people seem to be reacting against an older form of white Christianity where everyone was expected to dress, behave, talk in a certain way. While my church understands itself to be more open to diverse expressions of the “authentic self,” it has as many theological constructs against racial diversity as the former generation did. Interesting how different forms of false repentance can prevent generations of believers from walking out true repentance. True repentance takes our authentic selves through the eye of a needle, saying yes to that thing we reflexively say no to, and being shocked that this narrow, self-denying path is the one that leads to life. I am seeking ways to walk out and shepherd my church in authentic repentance.

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