As Europeans, part of the ingrained behavior we need to work on changing is the assumption that what applies to us, applies to all. It clearly does not. Our white privilege affords us many more opportunities than those afforded people of color, from the tiniest things to life-changing events. Even knowing consciously that our day to day experience is wholly different than that of a person of color doesn’t guarantee we won’t make these automatic assumptions without thought. The more we learn about our own privilege, the easier it becomes to spot it, re-route it, or use it in our work to dismantle white supremacy, but the tendency to assume we are the default is something that requires constant vigilance.
One area that always strikes me as a particular blind spot for us is the tendency to assume everyone around us is Christian. We were brought up to believe this land we call America is a Christian nation, and today’s political climate is making certain Christian elements much more vocal, but the fact of the matter is that the number of people identifying themselves as Christian is dropping. A recent Pew study indicates only 70.6% of our population identifies as Christian, while 5.9% identify as practicing another religion, and 22.8% identify as non-religious. Even without looking at the racial breakdown of these categories, the presumption of Christianity discounts 3 out of every 10 people you know.
When you look at the breakdown of professed Christians by race, the divide is clear: 66% of those identifying as Christian are of European descent, with the remaining 34% comprised of Black, Nican Tlaca, Asian, and others, combined. This means, on average, every 7 out of 10 people of color are NOT Christian.
If you are a Christian, you’ve become accustomed to your holidays being commonplace, safe conversation topics for any setting, events everyone comes together for. And you’re wrong. How many people have you alienated with your “Merry Christmas!” and “Happy Easter”? How many people have you placed in an awkward position by giving them gifts for a holiday they do not celebrate? If you are an employer, has it crossed your mind yet that by sharing such tidings, you are effectively telling your non-Christian employees that you do not see them, that they matter less?
The immediate defensive mechanism Christians like to take with this is “I have a right to celebrate!” Well, yes, of course you do. No one is trying to take anything AWAY from you. However, non-Christians have a right to not be pulled into the holiday spectacle of a holiday they don’t celebrate, as well.
It doesn’t have to be hard to be respectful of one another. As a non-Christian, when someone wishes me cheer for Easter, for example, I’ll simply reply with “Happy Sunday.” I hope it sends a subtle message that yes, I understand you’re recognizing your holiday, but it isn’t mine. I hope it sends a thought to the person to perhaps consider their words in the larger picture, to maybe realize they are effectively shunning 3 out of 10 of their acquaintances, possibly even offending them.
And as a European Christian? You need to work harder. You need to do better. People of color have a long and brutal history with Christianity. It has been used as a tool to slaughter, enslave, oppress, torture, assimilate. Many people of color are not Christians for that very reason. Many are not Christians because they’ve done their studies and reclaimed their cultural and historical beliefs, as one very important part of fighting for liberation. For you – a European AND a Christian – to subtly, even unintentionally, enforce the idea that Christianity is the default, with your actions or words to people of color, displays your ignorance quickly. If you are genuinely trying to work toward dismantling white supremacy, it starts with guarding your own words and actions. It starts with putting yourself, as much as possible, in the shoes of others whose experience is different from yours. It starts with empathizing, and understanding that different-from-me does not translate as WRONG. It starts with seeing everyone. Really SEEING them.
I’m not telling you to go out and learn everything there is to know about other religions and take a survey of everyone you know, in order to give the appropriate and courteous greetings. I’m telling you to consider belief outside your own, and how you can accommodate it in your own perception, without insulting or diminishing those around you.
For more information on the Pew study referenced in this post: http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/