(The Root) —
“I’m so frustrated. Just because I’m black/African American doesn’t mean I’m Christian. I was raised in a home where we attended church, but during college I decided to officially call myself an atheist. Yet other black people are constantly assuming that I have a ‘church home’ or saying they will pray for me or telling me to pray about something — it’s like they have never met someone my color who isn’t ‘saved’ before. It’s such an assumption, and white people aren’t treated the same way. How can I tell the world to stop making this assumption about me without offending and encourage people to think before they put their belief systems on others?” –Annoyed Atheist
I’m not surprised to hear that you’re having this experience. After all, according to a Pew poll, black Americans are more likely than members of any other racial or ethnic group in the country to report a formal religious affiliation. And even among those who didn’t select a particular religion in that survey, three out of four identified as “religious unaffiliated” (meaning they didn’t choose a denomination but said religion was either somewhat or very important in their lives). That’s compared with slightly more than one-third of the unaffiliated population overall.
So, the people who are making assumptions about your religious beliefs aren’t being particularly sensitive, but they are making a pretty safe bet.
“Plus, if you break it down by gender, black women are the single most religious demographic in the country,” journalist Jamila Bey, host of The Sex Politics and Religion Hour: SPAR With Jamila, told me. Bey is an actual poster child for black atheists, having been featured in an African Americans for Humanism campaign showcasing religious skepticism in the black community. (“Doubts about religion? You’re one of many” was the advertisement featuring her photo split with one of Frederick Douglass.)
Then we have images of African Americans on the big and small screens reflecting and reinforcing high rates of religiosity among black people. There’s Tyler Perry’s cinematic assembly line of films with black stars and heavy-handed Christian messaging, plus reality series like The Sisterhood (starring the first ladies of Atlanta-based churches) and The Sheards (the story of a gospel superstar family in Detroit). BET is Black Entertainment Television, not Black Religion Television, but programs like Morning Inspiration remind anyone flipping through channels that worship is part and parcel of the mainstream black experience in America.
To be fair, it’s not just your skin color that’s getting you the unsolicited blessings, prayers and labels, though. Some of what you’re experiencing is explained by the simple fact that we live in a predominantly Christian country. “Ask your Jewish friends. They’ll tell you it’s ‘Merry Christmas, Jesus loves you,’ all the time,” says Bey. She explains that it’s a simple issue of the dominant culture imposing assumptions on everyone else, and it leads to some of her personal pet peeves, comments like, “You’re such a good person/You’re such a good parent. Clearly, you’re a Christian.”
But you’re probably on to something to feel that your race is playing a role in what people decide that you believe. “Intraculturally, we look at each other and say, ‘I don’t see you wearing a headscarf, so clearly you’re a Christian’ and ‘You look like me, so we clearly share a religion,’ ” says Bey.
Your frustration is a reminder that being stereotyped doesn’t feel any better just because the offender thinks the assumption he or she is making about you is a positive one (even the most positive one possible, as Christianity likely is to many Americans). And it doesn’t make it any better when the offender is the same race, either.