July 09, 2008

Judging a Book by its Racial Cover

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

 On Easter Sunday, my husband and I took my mother to church in her neighborhood. (We live about 25 miles from her.) My rationale for this was to introduce Mum to a church, and perhaps to some church-goers, in her neighborhood; she only attends church when her visits with us include Sundays. As we headed into the church, I realized that we were the only ones doing so, which was odd especially on Easter. Undaunted, we  headed into the sanctuary, sat in the back and happily joined in the singing of one of myJ0173998 favorite hymns.

As I looked around the church, I was reminded that it serves a largely white congregation. I had attended a few services at this church when we first moved to this city but had not returned once we moved out of clip_image003[4]that general area. As I sang, I noticed a black man in a suit standing next to the white minister in his robe at the front of the church. Given the racial makeup of the church, and because the black man seemed to be assisting with the service in some way since he was up front, he was noteworthy. To my dismay, when we finished that wonderful hymn, the service was over! 

Down the aisle came the procession of church officials, followed by the congregation. We had traveled that distance for less than one whole hymn! Somewhere between annoyance and amusement, I stumbled back outside with my family. As we stood outside the church trying to figure out what had happened, my husband said that the black man had given him a note that read, “Follow me to the auditorium.” Who was that man? And why were we to follow him? 

clip_image005[4]We followed the man and found ourselves in the building next door to the main sanctuary where the service was about to begin. We found seats and I noticed that the man who had directed us to this service seemed to be taking part in the proceedings once again. I guessed he was there in his supporting role once more and that the white man I saw on stage was the minister. 

Turns out I had the roles completely reversed. The black man was in charge of this service; he preached a wonderful sermon. Ah, so he must assist with the traditional service and preach at the contemporary service. During the service a few people mentioned Dr. Smith (not his real name of course), pastor of the church, and I wondered whether we had seen him in the few minutes at the earlier service. 

Service over, I asked someone about arranging transportation to the church for Mum. She directed me to Dr. Smith. I explained that I did not know him so she showed me to his office. To my surprise the black man in the suit was Dr. Smith, senior church pastor! I was stunned! My assumptions about Dr. Smith were based on his being a black man at a church with a mostly white, affluent congregation; they were also shaped by the fact that I have never been a member of a church with a black pastor in America. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of times I have heard sermons delivered by black pastors in the U.S. This is because I have never been a regular attendee of black church denominations or black churches that fit under white denominations, so my churches have been predominantly white. 

This Easter Sunday experience was a great lesson in how prejudice works: Using the information we have, based on our often narrow personal experiences, we decide where someone fits in the world. Those prejudices may take the form of race, class, gender, sexual orientation or any other lens that we choose to wear. Also, context matters. Had Dr. Smith been wearing a robe instead of a suit, I would probably have made the same assumptions, especially because I also saw a white pastor at the church. But, had I seen Dr. Smith on campus, dressed as he was, I would probably have assumed he was on the university faculty.

I know that black men occupy all spheres of life. I’m from a large family filled with black men (and women) who have attained the highest professional levels. I am married to a black man who defies just about every stereotype of the African American male. I am a black woman. I am a sociologist who writes about race, ethnicity and culture. And yet, there I was unable to guess that I was looking at the pastor of that church!

Have you had a similar experience? How have you prejudged someone or a situation based on information about their race, class or maybe their gender? Tell us about it.

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Comments

In this case, I don't see that there was anything bad about your prejudice. As you state, you pre-judgement was based on your experience and on a survey of your surroundings and on the garments worn... all that is very reasonable. Your pre-judgement was not racial (ie "a black man should not be a pastor"). Pre-judgments can be helpful as along as we do not let them become some kind of "ism" (racism, sexism, etc). Pre-judgments can be helpful, but only when we recognize that pre-judgments are not always good judgments.

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