30 Days of Anti-Racism: #4 Normalization

In 2001, I conducted a study of the membership, worship, growth, and demographic statistics of over 300 churches within the Southwest Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. To enhance the effectiveness of this study, I combined internal data gathered annually from each church with demographic information in the context of each local church and throughout the counties served by the conference.

My goal was to examine the inclusion of Hispanic people within the local churches and discover any relationship between diversity and vitality.

To determine inclusiveness, I calculated the ratio of the percent Hispanic membership to the percent Hispanic population. A ratio of 1, or a value of 100% “Inclusive” would indicate that local church membership reflected the complexion of the community at large around that church.

The graph below shows the number of churches that fell within each level of inclusiveness.

To my amazement, the shape of the graph was a classic normal or Gaussian distribution, something I had seen before as a student of Physics when studying the behavior of energy states in atoms. This was a “ground state” graph. The significance of this could not be understated.

  1. The “normal” ground state level of inclusiveness of Hispanic persons in the churches of the Southwest Texas Conference was zero.
  2. The inclusion of Hispanics throughout the churches followed a random process.

The church had open doors, open minds, and open hearts to any Hispanic family that showed up, but the peak, the norm, was still zero. Zero meant that the conference, as a whole, was Anglo-normative in constituency.

Exacerbating this, the same study showed that growth trends among Southwest Texas Conference churches moved negative when the Hispanic surrounding population of those churches approached 60%. Why 60%? A 60% Hispanic population would indicate a community where Hispanics were becoming dominant in area politics and economics.

At the time of the study, the Southwest Texas Conference had been enjoying several years of membership and worship growth. Based on this study, I predicted that without comprehensive change aligning resources to intentionally become inclusive, the entire organization was at risk of decline. I called the importance of this change “The Hispanic Imperative.” The conference needed to find a new normal.

Normalization is the returning of a complex system to a normal status. Normalization is a tactic felt heavily among sexual minorities, individuals who are too often overtly labeled and persecuted as abnormal, even within communities of color. In the structurally racist organization, normal is White.

If we look through the eyes of others, we see normalization everywhere, in the illustrations in the Children’s Bible, the ethnicity of dolls offered to children, in the depiction of Jesus on stained glass, in the identity of the people who always seem to have the spotlight. We can see it in the staff pages of any large church, progressive or conservative.

We hear normalization in the voice of the well-meaning person who thinks Rachel is a more respectful way to address Raquel (something we call “rachism” in my family). We encounter it in how youth camps are organized, how music is chosen, what is considered appropriate dress, what foods are offered at events, and what venues are selected for regional events. We find it in the prioritization of social justice concerns. We see it in how language translation receivers are distributed in meetings, offered only to those who do not speak English. Normalization assumes that everyone has a car, can afford a nice hotel, can take off from work, and would trust leaving their children with strangers. We hear normalization even in the self-deprecating humor of persons of color, crafting their racial or ethnic jokes for a White audience.

Normalization undermines inclusiveness, reducing it a superficial add-on, a means of paternalistic tokenism and patronage.

Cultural expressions of normalization are reinforced and rewarded through structural normalization. Structural normalization is most evident in racially biased staff placements, the disregard for diversity and inter-cultural communication skills in job descriptions, and in the writing and execution of official policy, correspondence, or news to a default White client, reader, or audience.

Consider the statement against racism within the 2016 United Methodist Social Principles. Section A is subtitled, “Rights of Racial and Ethnic Persons.” The paragraphs that follow speak at length about racism, but to whom?

Throughout UMC usage, the label “racial-ethnic” refers to persons outside the White race and Anglo-Saxon ethnicity. White people are the implicit audience of the text confronting White privilege and racism. At the same time, the choice of terminology places White people above race, above ethnicity, and superior to both. This is structural normalization.

Dozens of paragraphs that mandate inclusiveness assume a White audience by stating who else the White people with power should include, rules made necessary by the very tactic evident in the language itself.

Within the 2016 Book fo Discipline, the word “race” appears 102 times. The word “racial” appears 136 times. The words “ethnic” and “ethnicity” appear 200 times.

In contrast, the word “White” appears only five times. Three of those are surnames of bishops. One is the surname of a missionary. And the other, single reference, states the following:

“In many cultures white persons are granted unearned privileges and benefits that are denied to persons of color.” (¶162.A)

Notice the use of the passive voice. Who “grants” white people unfair privilege and benefits? People of color? Notice that the color white isn’t capitalized. The label “Black” appears 35 times and is capitalized as a race category every time.

Looking at this language, we can deduce that White people are not a race, not an ethnicity, and not responsible for racism, but as an implied normative audience, need dozens of paragraphs to correct their exclusive normalizing conduct in staffing committees and other agencies.

When the Southwest Texas and Rio Grande Conferences merged, the two conferences adopted a new, revised structure for both governance and executive staff. The transitional structure was intentionally balanced, but normalization began almost spontaneously.

Job descriptions were created for the staff stating “Spanish is a plus but not necessary.” Confidential forms used between pastors and superintendents were translated into Spanish without any expectation that those receiving the forms, those in power, could read and understand what was written on them. When the Standing Rules were amended to call for all official correspondence to be offered in English and Spanish, conference officials began to split-hairs between what was “official” and “unofficial” correspondence, leaving the English only conference newsletter classified as unofficial correspondence. Google-translate was utilized to haphazardly interpret websites, often with embarrassing results.

Four years later, after a series of resignations, only two major executive posts or committee chairs are held by Hispanic persons, one clergy, and one lay, and not a single clergy person of color is employed at the conference office.

The bold new conference quickly rebounded to the Anglo-normative ground state of the dominant partner in the merger, the Southwest Texas Conference.

Within Anglo-normative denominational structures, “ethnic” or predominantly non-White congregations can provide a refuge from normalization. In that space, language, talent, culture, identity, leadership, wisdom, authority, and opportunity can flourish with a fullness and freedom of human potential that is often undervalued or suppressed in an Anglo-normative environment.

Such freedom is often misunderstood or mislabeled as “segregation” or even “reverse-racism.” Its value and existence cannot be taken for granted. Normalization can shame and marginalize such communities or attempt to infiltrate and pillage their membership and cultural solidarity through assimilation. As one Hispanic family told me before leaving our church for a wealthy White suburban congregation, “We don’t need to have Hispanic Heritage month. We need to teach people to be American!”

For a regional organization serving an increasingly diverse context, the structurally racist tactic of normalization may create a sense of nostalgia and control, but this comes at the cost of irrelevance, obsolescence, and extinction.

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