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Does NPR sound too white? How about the Episcopal Church?

Does NPR sound too white? How about the Episcopal Church?

NPR itself asked this question on a recent installment of the popular program All Things Considered, with non-white staffers reflecting on ways they change or modulate their speaking styles to sound “more white.”

From the Washington Post

It’s a question sometimes whispered but never boldly confronted: Does NPR, and public radio in general, sound too “white”?

NPR itself suggested Thursday that the answer might be yes in an unusual bit of public self-examination. In a commentary aired on “All Things Considered,” its signature newscast, and in a subsequent Twitter chat that quickly trended nationally, the public radio network lit the fuse on an explosive discussion about how a broadcast should sound.

The commentary came from Chenjerai Kumanyika, an African American who is an assistant professor of communication studies at Clemson University and a radio producer. Kumanyika’s “All Things Considered” piece left no doubt about his point of view: It was titled “Challenging the Whiteness of Public Radio.”

The segment sparked a conversation here at the Cafe’ amongst the team that produces the Lead.  The Cafe’ team is diverse in lots of ways: age, geography, sexuality, gender, and probably others as well, but not racially.  Though certainly not by design, we are reflecting on the ways we fall short of our ideals.

Of course, the Episcopal Church too is made up of a broad spectrum of people, but if one were to just be looking in from the outside, through our newsletters, journals, websites, social media pages and gatherings, how obvious would that be?  Our origins are as an ethnically based church (English people), and that we rarely think of ourselves that way says alot about privilege and our sense of identity in this country.  Are we stuck in a kind of way of speaking about ourselves that denies our reality and aspirations, or worse, turns away people who might find a spiritual home in the Episcopal Church?

We don’t have answers, but the questions, we hope, are a start.  What do you think?


posted by Jon White


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Vincent Harris

Ralph Ellison, the author of “The Invisible Man”, wrote these words sometime ago:

“There is an argument in progress between black men and white men as to the true nature of American reality. Following their own interests, whites impose interpretations upon Negro experience that are not only false but, in effect a denial of Negro humanity . . . Negroes live nevertheless as they have to live, and the concrete conditions of their lives are more real than white men’s arguments.”

Ellison wrote these words in 1948 and the argument remains in progress as is evidenced by some of the comments posted here.

Paul Woodrum

As a white priest who has served two-thirds of his ministry in black congregations, I think Deacon Beane’s comments are right on, and joyously second them. I think the shame of our church (and most others), as well as our country, is the way we cling to segregation and separation by race, ethnicity, social and financial status, national background, gender. etc.

But I wouldn’t blame the Prayer Book, as some seem to want to do. It is truly common, a distillation of over 3,000 years of Jewish and Christian prayer, embracing hymns of the Second Temple, practices of the disciples, offices of medieval monks, insights of reformers, and contemporary prayers, most translated from Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek or Latin, then, in our tradition, into English and from English into dozens of other languages. If it is to be color coded, rainbow may be the only word that fits.

My work as a supply priest has convinced me that the spiritual depth of the Prayer Book lends itself to a wide range of cultural practices and colorations without sacrificing the dogmatic core of the Christian Faith. Just saying, if as a church we want to deal with the issues raised by NPR, there are far more fruitful areas to examine than the Book of Common Prayer. Other than Jesus, it may be our only center that can hold.

The Rev. Emmetri Monica Beane, MS, JD

Dear Jon,

I am a visible minority. I have lived my whole life being different. I live in a county where the population is only 8.2% black. Therefore, while sometimes it is more comfortable not to stand out, it is hard to blend in. So, when I look at the appearance a parish presents to the world, I am trying to figure out if it is a parish that, like our God, does not show partiality. (Romans 2:11)

When I interviewed for a possible placement in 2013, I asked the rector if there were people of color at the parish. He proudly told me that there were. So, I asked “why aren’t they portrayed on your website?” Based on the pictures I had seen, this was an entirely homogenous congregation of white parishioners. After discussion, it became apparent that there was a lack of planning in the taking of pictures to make sure that a cross-section of the parish was photographed. Often, the photographers were taking pictures of people they knew and then shared those for the website.

Sometimes, the reality is that congregations are homogenous and our portrayal needs to be accurate. However, it would be a shame if we define our church simply by our membership within the parish walls.

My home parish, which I joined in 2004, one year after becoming an Episcopalian, has found that diversity can be achieved via relationships. This parish does it principally by building relationships with the people who volunteer in and use its food pantry. (To this day, my home parish with an ASA around 140 has less than 10 members who are people of color.)

I think that nearly all congregations have opportunities to enter into relationships with people outside of the parish circle. Rarely, is there a parish that could not intentionally choose to be in fellowship with people who add to the mix whether it be by race, culture, age, gender or sexual identification, economic status, worldview, etc.

Every person who touches my life changes me. Our parishes will be less homogenous when we enter into relationships with a range of people. (Relationships are different than doing an outreach activity.) If a parish has relationships with a full range of people, then that parish will not have to worry about diversity on its membership rolls. The pictures it shows the world will be of a group of people who love unconditionally.

In God’s Service,
The Reverend Emmetri Monica Beane, MS, JD
Diocese of Virginia

The Rev. Emmetri Monica Beane, MS, JD

As a black woman, age 48, Episcopalian, and a member of the clergy, the discussion about race is relevant to my day-to-day life. I live in a world that still makes assumptions about me based upon the color of my skin. I am part of a Diocese that just voted to let go of the name of its annual gathering that it took on during the Civil War. The Episcopal Church is a subset of its larger culture where race is still relevant and still needs to be talked about. I do not think that the Episcopal church is any better than our larger culture in the need to talk about race and how it affects people.

The Gospel says, in 1 Corinthians 9: “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”

I interpret “sounding white” to mean more than just the voices we hear from our pulpits. To me, it means a lack of awareness and sensitivity that the Euro-American experience is not the only cultural context for the Episcopal church. In my experience, my fellow Episcopalians who are white appear to assume that their context is the norm. I think this results in rhetoric, liturgical choices, programming decisions that appear not to contemplate that maybe not everyone relates to the approach taken. For some, the way we do church places “an obstacle” in their approach to God.

As a black woman whose roots are in deeply in Virginia (although I was educated in NYC and Virginia), I am culturally sensitive to the parish where I minister which has only 2 black members (my daughter and another youth). Other than a brief period of 20 days, I have never served at a parish with more than seven black members. Of the 5 parishes where I have served only 2 of them had members who were from minority backgrounds than black. I choose my language, metaphors, and gestures and help to shape liturgy in a way that is aware of and sensitive to those whom I am serving and hope to serve. What happens at church on Sunday filters out via report into the broader community.

This means I make an effort to think about others will experience how my words and actions. Communication is verbal and non-verbal. Asking, “how will this appear or sound to people who are not from my background? Will they get it?” I do that because I want the message of Christ to be relevant to everyone. Sometimes this makes me self-conscious and cautious. However, in the long run, I believe it makes me more effective in my ministry.

Ultimately, that is what makes the church different than NPR. We are not just trying to deliver information in a take it or leave it fashion. I believe that we have been charged with sharing Christ. Our standard of conduct is not the marketplace but the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. (Phil 3:14)

How? Acknowledge (without being defensive) that it is important to be flexible in our approach to ministry, not as a favor or concession to a minority group, but because it is our charge from God. Validate that when someone raises questions about how we do ministry that we are not above or beyond being questioned and have us really listen the concerns. Finally, the Episcopal Church will have to decide what to do with the concerns. Deal or defer? Be static or dynamic? Talk about inclusivity or live into it?

I have heard humility defined as “right-sizing ourselves in relationship to God and in relationship to other people.” The discussion of race is one that can only be done with humility.

In 1 Corinthians 10:23-24, Paul writes: “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” As we discuss race, we have free speech. However, not everything we choose to publish may be good for those who may read it. Let us choose our words with care.

Yours in God’s Service,
The Reverend Emmetri Monica Beane, MS, JD
Diocese of Virginia

Nick Porter

So, has the Union of Black Episcopalians made the claim about the church being too white?

Paul Woodrum

As one who was reared in Northwestern Pennsylvania, my English teachers said we spoke “standard,” i.e., Midwestern, English. I didn’t know I had an accent until I went to England where, at the heart of the English speaking peoples, my accent immediately identified me as an American and then, from Cornwall to Yorkshire, Sussex to Edinburgh, I ran into more dialects of English than I knew existed, some of which I could barely understand, and often spoken by Brits of all shades and races in addition to white. I would suggest the same is true in the United States: New England, Middle Atlantic, Southern, Midwestern, West Coast, where speaking variations are determined far less by race than by family, region or country or origin, education, and social position.

One of my grandmothers was born in Kansas but spoke the New England of her parents, dropping r’s all over the floor like the President drops final g’s. My other grandmother was born to immigrant Swedish parents who spoke little English but whose children all spoke standard English with no hint of a Scandinavian. accent. They loved laughing at “I Remember Moma” accents, but then those were Norwegians.

I would suggest we’re skating on pretty thin ice if we try to identify race with accent alone. I would also suggest that trying to tailor the Prayer Book to every ethnic and racial variation of English would be a fools errand. Some versions may be a bit sexist and others a bit dated, but the BCP’s plain English, correct grammar, traditional theology and the universality of English itself, as adapted by the various provinces, is the best mortal glue we have for holding the communion together and assuring correct (orthodox) worship.

David Streever

Thanks for sharing your story and background on where you’re from/how you sound/etc. I’m a big fan of British TV, and you made me think about the general outcry in England right now about David Tennant’s Scottish accent; it seems to have really incensed a lot of people there. (Although, as an American, I’ve had no problems with it; weird!)

I think it’s more than just accents that they are really talking about in the podcast; I don’t know if you got a chance to listen to the podcast, but it seems that it’s also the topics, the way they discuss the topics, and subtle cues that lead to sounding ‘white’.

I think too that NPR is talking about things that go beyond deliberate choices and getting into implicit, structural issues; the argument which is widely accepted by experts in race is that our social systems, infrastructure, justice systems, economic systems, etc were all created during periods of exclusion by whites of other people.

Because people were shut out of the decision making and excluded from anything more than marginal participation in white society, the vast majority of our institutions and systems are going to still be white. Is there an easy fix? I haven’t seen one posited anywhere that makes sense. I agree that creating multiple copies of the BCP tailored to different accents doesn’t make a lot of sense; I think a better approach (if TEC does try to change this) is to embrace and celebrate organic/grass roots change of liturgy by marginalized people.

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