The great list of “-isms” could go on and on. As a society, we always tend towards separating – discriminating between people like us and those not like us. In the extreme, it is called xenophobia – irrational fear of the stranger. While it can be argued that cultures having European roots have perfected many of the “-isms”, they are in no way limited geographically. Even the most basic building blocks of society – tribes – were many times based on a sense of “them vs us.” The jury is still out on whether this is an integral part of human existence or a learned trait spanning hundreds of generations. It is clear, however, that it is part of the human condition that we must strive to overcome if we are to live fully in the coming Reign of God.
As discussed in the Power Flower article, racism, or any of the other “-isms”, is bias empowered by the majority’s ability to enforce conformity and dominance. While certain practices or attitudes may be traditional, that does not mean they are inherently healthy or worthwhile. They are also counter-intuitive to any reading of the words and message of Jesus Christ. It is incumbent, then, for churches to not only conbat these evils in society, but also in their own institutions.
Bias can be said to come in two forms – explicit and implicit. Explicit bias is the kind for which few of us would argue legitimacy – unless, of course, it was culturally popular, as will be discussed later. It is the kind of bias expressed generally in bigotry. Implicit bias is, perhaps, the most heinous. It is the kind of discrimination that lies underneath myriad layers of tradition and normalcy, but is expressed covertly and unconsciously by members of any group. Implicit bias is the kind, when it is addressed, that gets denied rather than examined, and so continues to insinuate itself into the underlying psyche of the church.
Of course, the same can be said about theology and praxis. Many churches claim to be welcoming to new visitors – explicit claim to praxis. In reality, however, many of these have practices, such as gathering in cliques at coffee time, that present walls that are invisible to the members but tangible for the visitor. If addressed, the usual response is to say that anyone is welcome to pull up a chair, which is not readily available usually, and enter the conversation. Some indignance accompanies the reply. What is not obvious to the members is the amount of courage it takes for a newcomer to break into an existing group and try to engage in a conversation with which they are unfamiliar. The fact that the visitor CAN insert themselves into the group leaves the church feeling wrongly accused – the fact that the visitor feels that they CANNOT break into the wall of people’s backs leaves them feeling excluded. No-one wins.
Implicit bias shows itself in equally subtle ways. Representation on sessions/boards can appear egalitarian, until one examines deeply and finds, often times, patterns of gender and/or racial stereotyping – women consistently leading service and education ministries, people of color in service and maintenance committees, and white males or the wealthy congregants leading the finance and property committees. Sometimes, even if minorities are represented in the congregation, it becomes apparent they do so cautiously – sitting in clusters towards the back. This is generally because institutionalized bias is most evident to those who are the recipient of such unwritten policies. Sometimes the most telling is the firm denial that immediately follows any insinuation that bias has infected the praxis of a church. The more visceral the denail, the more likely that privilege and position have been protected through generalized bias. People who remain aware of the bias in their midst remain aware that it can be incipient and insideous, and so are open to constant review.
The solution to implicit bias is the same as the solution to previous illustration of implicit unwelcoming behavior – reflective awareness.
Any institution should be open and conducive to examining its own practices. The more sacred the practice, the more important the need to look for insinuated bias. Have someone who normally isn’t part of the clique give their opinion about how it appears to an outsider. Have someone keep track of how many times the lay reader or liturgist in significant roles is male or female, white or a person of color, is English as first or second language. Institute measures that watch how meetings are conducted and who speaks – who gets interrupted – who repeats what a woman or person of color has said, translating or interpreting it to the others.
The best approach to weeding out implicit bias is to assume that it does, in fact, exist and to set in place measures to find it. You may err on the side of being too self-critical, but is that worse than avoiding self-assessemtn and allowing bias to run free?