I recently heard the White Evangelical church described as the “sunken place”, and I can’t get it out of my head. Here are my thoughts.
Spoilers ahead for the movie Get Out!
In Get Out, a seemingly friendly progressive white family brings Black people out to their house where the wife hypnotizes them. Each hypnotized Black person’s consciousness is cast into a pit in their own mind; we later hear this place called the “sunken place”. In the sunken place, they lose the ability to make their own decisions, they seemingly no longer can control their own bodies, and they end up either acting white, or acting in caricatured ways that benefit white people—the servant, the yard boy.
Segregationist vs. Assimilationist
In How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram Kendi describes the two common attitudes of white people toward race: segregationist and assimilationist. The segregationist is your classic racist, believing that Black people are inferior and therefore deserve subjugation, servitude, imprisonment, and death. The assimilationist, on the other hand, is your “diet racist”, “closet racist”, or “northern racist”: one who believes that Black people are perhaps temporarily inferior, but given some culture, have the potential to be just as good as white people.
Most people can recognize a segregationist, and most of us would call them a racist. But the assimilationist is sneaky, couching their ideas of how Black people need to “grow” in purportedly objective standards—for example, Scripture, or phonics, or fashion, or “decorum” and “civility”. Most assimilationists today don’t even realize they’re assimilationists, assuming instead they hold a single objective standard for all people. Try asking them why their standard is so much easier for white people to achieve and they’ll likely feel very uncomfortable.
I’ve struggled for years to describe what makes me so confident that white supremacy is embedded in White Evangelicalism, but I’ve discovered one key reason: the White Evangelical church in America is assimilationist to the core.
The White Evangelical church as assimilationist
The White Evangelical church believes, more than almost any other church I know, that it has the truth, both spiritual and social. It believes everyone else doesn’t have it nearly as right, and it requires all who encounter it change to conform to its standards of goodness and purity and rightness. But just like all other assimilationists, its standards elevate whiteness, interpreting and augmenting Scripture through white perspectives.
When Black people encounter the White Evangelical church, then, they are told two things: we have the truth, and you must conform to our standards in order to benefit from it. The church is telling everyone this, so many Black people don’t realize that there’s anything off (or they do, but join anyway); they join in pursuit of this truth and thus begins the pressure for them to conform to the standards presented them.
However, these standards require one thing of white members and an entirely different thing of Black members. These standards include how you talk, how you move, how you disagree, how you celebrate, what music and what emotions in music are acceptable, how loud you are, how nice you are, how much you tolerate bigotry, who deserves your time and patience, which theologians and teachers are acceptable to learn from, which “sins” in your friends and family are more or less acceptable, and many more.
Like the Black characters in Get Out, Black members of White Evangelical churches (and, of course, many other white assimilationist spaces) are invited to be present—in fact, are particularly desirable—and then expected to conform and be silent. They’re pressured toward some combination of awkwardly mimicked whiteness and caricatured happy subservience. Often, like Chris in Get Out, they realize the insanity of their situation, and they run.
About halfway through writing this, I googled “Sunken place white church” to see if anyone else had written about this topic. Turns out, they have. In “Get Out Contains a Theological Lesson That is Easy to Miss”, Delonte Gholston writes, “[a]ny time you can walk into so-called “multicultural” worship spaces and not tell the difference between it and a Hillsong or Bethel worship concert [,..] we have embraced a sunken-place theology.” This is because Black people have been invited to perform a particular function—that is, allowing this church to claim diversity—but to do so silently, not bringing their own voices or personalities.
We don’t get assimilationist churches without assimilationist theology. I’m not a theologian or an academic, so I can’t go far here. But I can re-hash what I’ve learned from much wiser friends: there’s a notable lack of theologians of color in the list of teachers who influence Evangelicalism. There’s a notable lack of translators of color who work on the most popular Bible translations. There’s a notable lack of pastors of color under whose leadership white pastors sat as they came up.
When you only learn from and are only led by people like you, it’s easy to form and perpetuate a theology that only benefits and works for people like you. This is a medium-sized problem. But when you’re in power and have been for centuries, and your theology is cast not as yours but as the best for everyone, you end up with our current situation: a system built for one group but sold as the system for all. Like how Jefferson Davis said America was founded “by white men for white men”, so was the American White Evangelical church.
Again, a theologian could do a better job here, but here are a few examples of what I think of when I talk about assimilationist theology and culture in White Evangelical churches:
- The prioritization of thought over emotion
- The definition of peace as absence of conflict (silence) instead of justice
- The prioritization of eternal souls over lived experience
- The prioritization of flattened-to-positive emotions over the full range of emotional expression (“too blessed to be stressed”, the almost entire inability to mourn in church spaces)
- The prioritization of white communication and conflict styles over non-white communication and conflict styles (Black members and leaders in white churches are often corrected for being too divisive, too loud, too angry, etc.)
- The conflation of white cultural values with Scriptural values
- The conflation of mainstream cultural values with Scriptural values (i.e. enforcing American-ness or “normal-ness” as a Biblical mandate for people who dress or talk or act differently even when there’s no Scriptural backing)
- The explicit and implicit suggestion that the faith of non-Evangelical family members is incomplete (e.g. because of their lack of academic Scripture study)
- Inclusion of some sorts of political commentary (e.g. abortion) and exclusion of other sorts (e.g. police abuse) with the suggestion that that’s a framework of integrity
- The culture of smaller groups (prayer groups, “small groups”, home meetings, etc.) being conducted in exclusively stereotypically white manners and without the consideration or validation of how those same groups might look different in different cultures
- People of color in presence but not in culture (churches which change demographics without changing their culture at all)
- The idea that a church can effectively and truthfully serve a diverse people group without any people of color in senior leadership
Where do we go from here?
In “How to Be an Antiracist”, Kendi describes a third way: not segregationist, not assimilationist, but antiracist. This is the goal: for churches and denominations and religious movements and believers and non-believers to be antiracist.
If a segregationist thinks Black people are inferior, and an assimilationist thinks they’re temporarily inferior but can be made to conform, what does an antiracist think? An antiracist thinks Black people need not change at all; instead, an antiracist, seeing Black people as equal to all others, wants to “[reduce] racial inequities and [create] equal opportunity.”
I’ll be honest: if you haven’t read this blog before, you may not know this, but I’m only 34 pages into Kendi’s book and I’ll be on this journey toward being as antiracist as possible for the rest of my life. I don’t have the answers, and I wish I did. But I do have a few ideas.
First, I would suggest that all multiethnic/multiracial churches and parachurches and religious organizations consider whether your organization is acting as if all people are equal, or whether you’re really just perpetuating white-centric theology and cultural norms. Sure, you have Black people on stage. But what happens when they disagree with you? What happens when they get louder than you’re comfortable with? How many of them are in senior leadership positions? What would your church do if a bulk of the Black members came with a concern? Do your cultural standards—not just taught from the pulpit, but also in smaller groups—enforce Godliness? Or is whiteness being taught there as well? How many theologians of color influence your organizational values and theology?
Second, if you’re a white person who’s frustrated with the situation, it’s very tempting to seek to identify ourselves as those who think different, without actually taking action to change anything. Let’s seek to learn, and speak truth, but also focus our speech on that which helps others and shy from that which makes us look righteous or whatever. But, more than anything, seek Black teachers. I’m glad you’re reading this, but I have no idea what the hell I’m doing here. Go find the Black teachers and movements who have been out here doing this for decades. Let’s learn from them. And then let’s act, not just get informed.
And third, if you’re a Black person in a white/multiethnic church or organization, I pray that you, whether you stay or leave, have the love and support to know that you, your culture, your worship styles, your way of speaking, your way of handling conflict, your entire being is good. It’s beautiful. You’re beautiful, and you don’t need to change in order to be loved by God. You don’t need to squash the way you grew up, or the way your family is, in order to be Godly. You don’t need to assimilate to white cultural standards to be faithful. I pray that you are surrounded by love and joy and acceptance and affirmation.
If you decide to stay where you are, I pray you find support from people in and outside the church who affirm you and everything you bring. And if you discover that you can’t be yourself there, if you have to swallow your opinions or your thoughts or what your family taught you or how you laugh or how you dance or how you disagree, if you find yourself squashed and unable to be honest to yourself… I urge you.
I need to make three heavy caveats for this post:
First, very little of what I’ve written here is my own original thought. Almost everything, perhaps everything, comes from conversations with Black friends and family, and I credit them for their ideas. Second, I believe that I have left many of these things behind, but I am confident there are many I have still not. I am not without this sin. I would normally have used the words we here instead of they but I no longer identify with the Evangelical church. But it must be clear: I am not writing this from a position of being past this, or better than it. I worked in White Evangelical Christian ministry for years and I’m still trying to piece together what I do and don’t agree with from what I was taught and what I taught. I’m not the expert here. And third, as with most of my writing and thinking, I’ve focused on the Black-white dynamic here, because it’s both the most drastic, but also it’s the one I have the most personal familiarity with. I’m aware but ignorant with regard to Native, Latin, and Asian racial dynamics in the church, not to mention those impacting the LGBTQ community and folks with disabilities.
And one more note: I don’t know everyone who’s talking and teaching in this direction, but I can recommend a few. I haven’t listened in a few years, but Pass the Mic and Truth’s Table are both fantastic podcasts created by wonderful and wise people and I used to be a devout listener to both. And after sharing this article with a few friends, they recommended Brandi Miller’s podcast Reclaiming My Theology, which I’m very much looking forward to listening to, and which reminded me of how much I appreciate Erna Hackett, one of her earlier guests. I’m sure there are dozens or hundreds of other amazing voices but those are a few in my close spaces. … even after writing this post-postscript, I watched Brandi and Erna’s Instagram live and it reflects how verrrrrrry far further into these thoughts they are than me.