White Protestant Liberation

The Protestant Liberation Workshop, held near San Francisco, California, USA, in the spring of 2003, was exciting and groundbreaking.1 It was an all-white workshop, so we looked mostly at the hurts and patterns of white U.S. Protestants. We were led by Barbara Boring, whose sense of humor, humanness, and irreverence for Protestant patterns finally got us laughing, and kept us laughing over the weekend.

The first evening we focused on embarrassment, humiliation, and carefulness. Barbara asked us to share our names, what kind of Protestant we were growing up (our denomination, whether we were culturally or religiously Protestant, and so on), and either our own, or somebody else’s, most embarrassing moment. Barbara helped us by reading a selection from a magazine that gave examples of terrible embarrassing moments—people breaking rules, saying the wrong things, not censoring themselves; incidents relating to sex and bodies; children saying out loud things that embarrassed their parents; and so on. This got people laughing. Barbara talked about how carefulness and worrying about rules get in the way of our humanness. When we make a mistake, or even see someone else make a mistake, there’s a tendency to quickly occlude the incident and try to forget it, rather than feel the humiliation, guilt, and embarrassment. As a result, we are all sitting on loads of occluded feelings about rules and mistakes. As more people told their stories, many memories began to pop up. It was eye-opening.2

This led into a wonderful talk by Barbara about the history of Protestantism—its humanness and revolutionary spirit, its connection to capitalism, and its role in installing patterns that fit with and supported the capitalist system as it was newly emerging. 

As white people raised Protestant, many of us share a common experience of rules not being clearly spelled out.3 We found out about these rules mostly by breaking them by mistake, by being too human or too curious as young people. Barbara did some great demonstrations on rules: What were they? How did we learn them? What happened if we broke them? As we discharged, we began to get a picture of what the rules were: for example, work hard, be quiet, don’t have any needs, don’t make mistakes, don’t have too many feelings, don’t get angry, don’t play in church. Also, a lot was expected of us, from which it could be inferred that we were “better” than other people.

Harshness is a cornerstone of white Protestant culture. Some of us experienced physical harshness. Others of us experienced verbal harshness or a complete cutting off of physical and emotional contact if we didn’t act “right.” The harshness was then internalized—and we became hard on ourselves, and on our children and other loved ones.

As children we learned to be careful and vigilant to avoid being targeted or ostracized by the people we loved and counted on.4 This made it difficult for us to show ourselves: our struggles, our gifts, and our wilder sides.

White Protestant patterns can leave us feeling lonely and alone, even in the midst of a community of people. Human beings get close to each other partly by needing help, showing where we are having a hard time, and wildly sharing our joy. We don’t get a chance to do these things when we are carefully watching ourselves.

Many white Protestants were hurt into believing that certain values, rules, or things were more important than relationships. Barbara shared a story of going to the graduation of a young woman of color. She was worried about getting there on time, but the girl was focused on getting her family all together so that they could go as a group. Barbara thought that going separately would be more efficient and allow everyone to be on time. Then she realized it was much more important to her friend for her family to arrive together—as a group, connected and with each other—than on time. Others of us had had similar experiences. As children, before we were fully indoctrinated into white Protestant culture, we knew that relationships were more important than, for example, material things or being on time.

We also shared what we love about white Protestant culture. We sang hymns. We put on skits showing practices that various denominations hold dear, and we were able to laugh and see the humanness in them. Barbara talked about Christianity’s initial humanness and revolutionary nature and how it got co-opted by oppressive societies.

It was lovely to be together. We gradually got through the internalized oppression that at first had us wanting to get as far away from each other as possible. As we discharged carefulness and harshness, we became more compassionate with each other. As we listened to our stories and learned what it was actually like for each person to be raised white and Protestant, we fell in love with each other. It was a huge relief to take a look as a group (many of us had discharged on our own) at our individual hurts, the systematic nature of white Protestant internalized oppression, and our indoctrination into white Protestant culture.

White Protestants have been put in the oppressor role in relation to other groups. Many of our white Protestant patterns are seen in U.S. culture as “the right way to be.” It is challenging to even notice a distress when society tells us it isn’t distress, that it’s “the way to be.” It was good to take a look at this.

As clients we need our counselors to be gentle with us. We need encouragement to show our struggles, and we need people to not confuse who we really are with the distressed parts of the culture in which we were raised. We need encouragement to make mistakes, and to do things that feel wildly uncareful. We need to tell our worst mistakes and our most embarrassing stories. We need encouragement to stop overworking.

A Co-Counselor of mine counsels me beautifully by asking me to teach her, a Jew, how to be a good white Protestant. She asks me to tell her, in a harsh manner, just how she has to act, how she has to be, what she has to worry about all the time. We laugh, and she loves me through it. It’s one effective approach. Just having people love me asa white Protestant is also a good contradiction.

Alison Ehara-Brown
Richmond, California, USA
Reprinted from the newsletter of the
East Bay North, California, RC Community

1 Groundbreaking means it got people thinking and discharging where they hadn’t thought or discharged before.
2 Eye-opening means revealing.
3 Clearly spelled out means made clear and explicit.
4 Counted on means assumed we could depend on.


Last modified: 2015-02-02 20:15:13+00