When the Colonizer is One of Your Own

In this post I’m delighted to feature the following reflection by Dr. Suzie Sang. Dr. Sang responded to my recent social media post – “Beware the colonizer disguised as a multicultural pastor” – and was gracious enough to turn that response into this article. I can’t thank Dr. Sang enough for sharing her experiences and wisdom with us.

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America is my chosen home. I am a Black Caribbean immigrant woman who has lived in the United States for 17 years. I migrated from my island home of Jamaica as a bright, energetic and hopeful young adult ready to take on the world. My first round of migration to America (there were two) came in response to a call to seminary to be trained for ministry. At the time of migrating, I knew that I was called to ministry and had already been ministering for 5 years. But I knew I needed some theological training to undergird and supplement the hands-on experience I already had. So off I went to sunny Southern California for a 10-year sojourn of life and ministry in my second home. At the end of my time in SoCal, I moved back to Jamaica for a 5-year stint and then migrated again, this time to Chicagoland. Fast forward 7 years and today I feel settled and established in the city that has captured my heart – Chicago.

In a recent social media post, Pastor David posted the following statement – “Beware the colonizer disguised as a multicultural [1] pastor”. To be honest, I had a visceral reaction to his statement. My response on social media was “Oh yes, I hope there is more to come about this”. I then emailed Pastor David to ask him to say more. Instead of him saying more, he flipped the script and asked me to say more. So here we are.

Over the years, I have reflected on the wide and varied church experiences I have had – some were really good, some were OK and one in particular was the most traumatic experience I have had with a Pastor in my 26 years of being a follower of Jesus. I would describe him as a multicultural colonizer. In 17 years, I have been to a plethora of churches in a couple different denominations and with a variety of ethnic make ups. There were large and small African American churches, large and small predominantly white churches, church plants and churches that self-describe as multi ethnic.

My church experiences in predominantly white churches where I was in the racial ‘minority’, presented an air of welcome but reeked of either tokenizing or exoticizing me. I was different from the other Black and Brown folks and there was always a fascination with how ‘well I spoke’ or how ‘I knew English’. At the time, I didn’t realize that these were racist tropes – my ethnic identity was rooted in a national identity and I was just Suzie, the Jamaican girl living in the United States. I didn’t see the racism. As if white evangelical churches weren’t enough, I attended two predominantly white Christian institutions to obtain graduate degrees in those 17 years. While these institutions amplified my encounters with white supremacy and racism, I grew in my racial consciousness and was able to clearly see the unholy marriage of white supremacy, theology and Christian nationalism that created what Dr. Anthea Butler poignantly names “white evangelical racism”.

So why is all of this important to a conversation about multicultural pastors being colonizers? Good question. I share these examples to frame the making of a multicultural colonizer. Some of the multicultural colonizer development is very subtle and may not be initially seen. White evangelical theology is typically presented as theological authority and that has sadly shaped and formed many BIPOC locally and I would also say globally. Think about it – most seminaries are predominantly white and only until very recently did some of these institutions start to shift their perspective from BIPOC theology being on the periphery and as an elective to affirming its place as valid theological understanding on par with white evangelical theology. Make no mistake, we are on the journey but we are a long way from systemic sustainable change.

So, what are we left with? BIPOC who are influenced, trained and impacted by white evangelicalism sometimes succumb to divesting ourselves of our ethnic identity for the sake of assimilation. And some of us have endured enough trauma and drama in these non-affirming spaces to force us to walk away hurt and homeless. And when this happens, some BIPOC look to Pastor a third alternative – a community that reflects a multiethnic Church, capturing the Revelation 7:9 idea, as it were. Mind you, these is of course nothing inherently wrong with this desire or vision but for BIPOC who have been influenced and impacted by white evangelicalism, there has to be a deliberate interrogation of their white evangelical experiences to explore how those have shaped how they perceive and do ministry.

So then how does the multicultural pastor become a colonizer? How does a marginalized BIPOC who has faced racism, marginalization, white supremacy etc. turn around and become the colonizer they escaped? Remember I mentioned that I have had a lot of experience in a variety of church environments. Well, I had the unfortunate front row seat of being in a church led by a multicultural colonizer. And I can tell you that the trauma and harm from this type of colonizing may actually be worse than that of a white colonizer. Why do I say this? Because there is a feeling of double betrayal – one in which the colonizer marginalizes his or her own people and where you witness firsthand the colonizer relinquishing their soul on behalf of white evangelicalism. The source of this colonization is whiteness.

By definition, whiteness is a hegemonic system that perpetuates certain dominant ideologies about who receives power and privilege. Whiteness maintains itself in cultures through power dynamics within language, religion, class, race relations, sexual orientation, etc. [2] And racism is based on the concept of whiteness—a powerful fiction enforced by power and violence. Whiteness is a constantly shifting boundary separating those who are entitled to have certain privileges from those whose exploitation and vulnerability to violence is justified by their not being white . Whiteness is a powerful construct that has real and very tangible, violent effects and it embodies white normativity based on white culture, norms and values that wields power as a tool of control. Let me be clear and say, whiteness is not based on skin color, it is rooted in an ideology, whose weapon is power, whose action is violence and whose lifeblood is lovelessness and inhumanity.

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed Paulo Freire warns about the dangers that oppressed people need to be aware of lest they become oppressors. He talks about the task of the oppressed to be liberating themselves and the oppressor as well. He suggests that it is the power that comes from the weakness of the oppressed which is strong enough to liberate both the oppressed and the oppressor. It is the humanizing of the oppressed and a desire to extend love and charity that leads to counteracting the acts of lovelessness which is at the heart of the violence of the oppressor.

He says that in this humanizing, the oppressed need to be careful that they do not become oppressors themselves because they have been conditioned by and adhere to the existential situations of the oppressors. If we are not careful, the oppressed cane become a multicultural colonizer. All of us suffer from the effects of white supremacy, racism and oppression. No one is exempt, neither the oppressed or the oppressor because it is in the literal air we breathe. We are aware that the oppressor may never interrogate themselves enough to do and be different but when the oppressed absconds from doing that work to interrogate the ways whiteness has influenced and shaped them, the fall for the power, control, deception and lies that whiteness promotes which only leads violence and further inhumanity of those they lead. Because the oppressed, by nature understand what it means for their humanity to be stifled and subjugated, when they do the work, they can leverage their resilience and promote the embodiment of a fuller humanity.

The web of whiteness is tangled mess rooted in hegemonic power often married to misogyny. It thrives on the fact that the multicultural colonizer is wounded and craves for power and control. It creates a false persona which can suppress the colonizers own ethnic identity in favor of adopting the tendencies of whiteness as normative. It is hard to reconcile how one can do this knowing that they too have endured the pain of marginalization. Crazy making, right? Yes, it is. But what is worst is the actual demonstrated colonization of your own BIPOC. It is literal violence (mostly mental and emotional). And it causes trauma, hurt and pain that is both terrible to observe and even worse to endure. To inflict trauma and violence on your own people is a different level of cruel – but that is what whiteness does.

What follows are some of my observations about the ways that multicultural colonizers operate. At their core, they are driven by ego and the wield weapons of control, domination and power over people. Unfortunately, in most of the stories I have heard, Black women are on the receiving end of the rage of a multicultural colonizer because it is not uncommon for them to be misogynoir as well as being a narcissist. This combination terrorizes Black women by a consistent suspicion of their motives, voice and word which then leads to widespread censorship of those who dare to speak up. The colonizer prefers to lean into the voices of white people as trusted authorities and struggle to deferring to the expertise or wisdom of Black women. And when they cannot control the Black woman, they fabricate stories about them, accuse them of not being a team player, paint them as angry, problematic and uncooperative in an effort to punish them and force them into submission. They are unwilling to adopt a posture of learning because they are experts and so they forfeit the ability to live out nuance and intersectionality among the issues of race, socio economics, immigration etc. Therefore, what could make for a rich diverse experience is traded for the safety of white ignorance and a lack of interest.

If the multicultural colonizer is called out about their colonizing, they rebel against any form of accountability and there will be violent backlash towards anyone who would dare to insist that they are accountable. At the core of the multicultural colonizer, I think is a battle for their ethnic identity and sense of self. Because of the influence of whiteness, I believe there is internal turmoil that manifests as rage and anger. While they may be committed to a vision for multiethnicity, they don’t reflect an understanding about restorative justice and I think the reason for this is because justice demands accountability and cannot begin without ownership. Multicultural colonizers don’t want to own their own pain, much less the pain, hurt and damage they inflict on others.

In closing, where do we go from here? Is there hope for BIPOC to not get tangled in the web of whiteness towards a trajectory of multicultural colonization. Emphatically, yes. I believe that the Spirit of God calls us to decolonization and deconstruction. We have all been impacted by whiteness and we cannot ignore its effects. The work of racial justice and healing must therefore be done in contexts of nuance and where there is a safe environment reflecting humility, mutual submission, unlearning and relearning from the marginalized people within a community. Navigating a variety of ethnicities with a myriad of cultural histories and stories in multiethnic spaces requires a heart and posture of learning. It requires prioritizing the lived experiences of BIPOC over white normativity and at the same time interrogating, confessing and repenting when one discovers another place where whiteness shows up. It requires the embodiment of a faith that is communal and cohesive and that demands self-awareness and other awareness.

It is a lesson in growing more towards our humanity and less about performance that leads to oppression. The struggle to become more human is an exercise in exploring our inhumanity to ourselves and others. Our inhumanity is forged and fortified in systems and perceptions that are ruled and reigned by whiteness. We must interrogate and dismantle them all as part of the work of racial justice. The work demands our commitment to Jesus and the common good standing in solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed. To do that work requires us to have the courage to work on our own racial identity and the areas that need healing, help and hope. Because if we don’t, we continue to re-enforce the persona of multicultural colonizer who uses trauma and violence to enforce the very injustice that they claim to want to eliminate. I believe we are called to build a different type of community based on mutuality, submission, accountability, learning and growth. It is hard work. It is necessary work. And it needs to be done because in the words of Fannie Lou Hamer “nobody’s free until everybody’s free”.


[1] For the purpose of this article, the term multi ethnic and multicultural are used interchangeably although the term multicultural by definition is much broader than multiethnicity.

[2] “What do You Mean by Whiteness?”: A Professor, Four Doctoral Students, and a Student Affairs Administrator Explore Whiteness Stephanie Power Carter, Michelle Honeyford, Dionne McKaskle, Frank Guthrie, Susan Mahoney, Ghangis D. Carter”

I first shared the following post in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here. (Photo credit: David Buchi.)

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