Back Door Mentality

Carter G. Woodson, the father of Black History Month states in his book The Miseducation of the American Negro ‘That if you teach a man to use the back door long enough, when he gets to a place where there is no back door, he will create one.’

I remember this as though it is a current event. The Africans are sitting in the back of the room just next to the back doors. There is a front door, but it is easiest to enter through these back doors. What I cannot understand is why the Africans are taking seats that are furthest away from the stage and podium which is the front of the room?

All of the missionaries, including me, take seats at the front of the room, near the stage and podium. We do so because it is natural as leaders and missionaries to sit, stand and speak up in the front. I get it because I, like them am an American missionary in Africa. Unlike them, however I see the subtleties. Why are the Africans naturally inclined to sit at the back of the room? That is the advantage of my African American experience. I understand ‘Back Door Mentality’

When thinking about the back door, I approached one of the African doctors with whom I had worked for several years. He was sitting near the back door. His wife and 3 adolescent children were seated with him. They were waiting for the worship service to begin. I asked him, why he and his family were seated at the back door. His response was, ‘the white people are seated up front.’ I then asked him, ‘what if the white people sat in the back?’ He didn’t miss a beat and said, ‘we would sit outside’.

A white missionary colleague of mine recently stated how easy it was for him to get along with the Africans with whom he has worked for the past twenty years. Essentially, he said there seemed to be a natural affinity to get along with his African friends and co-workers. They did not seem to take offense when speaking on a variety of issues. However, he stated that he is careful not to discuss issues with his fellow citizens of color in America because he was fearful of offending them. It implies that Africans are less easily offended than men and women of African descent. Suffice it to say, if that is what he is thinking, he is wrong. More importantly that statement itself is offensive.

Living as a powerful minority as a white person in Africa with a less powerful majority of black people will always put the more powerful white person at a distinct advantage. The person of power has what the less powerful desire and need. Then again, moving back to America living as a powerful majority white person, who rarely if ever interacts with a less powerful minority of black people completes the illusion that somehow the African is less easily offended. Nothing could be further from the truth.

No doubt things have changed over the 30 plus years of my time in Africa and there are many more Africans who are walking through the front door and taking a seat at the front podium on the stage. However, the significance of my story is that when you are a powerful majority, those who depend upon you are less inclined to tell you when you offend them. They would rather go through the back door and sit on the back seat.

The African descendants in America have essentially gotten over being fearful of offending white people. It took a lot of blood, death, bombings, rapes, kidnappings, a civil war and continuing civil strife to do so. But to assume that approaching this minority population on sensitive issues will cause an offense is of itself, offensive. There is no knee jerk response to having a white person in our midst. In fact, we are more accustomed to white people in our midst than white people are accustomed to us in their neighborhoods and schools. We are actually slow to take offense because we actually depend upon the services offered.

Africans have always been Africans. African Americans have continuously morphed from being chattel, like cows and pigs, to colored, to Negro, nigra, black and now African American. There are several sub-categories of being colored, mulatto, octoroon and quadroon to mention a few of the more subtle, less divisive or derogatory terms. These sub-categories were determined by how many times the slave masters had raped and enslaved the children of the enslaved African women who gave birth. This latest iteration was the result of seeking our own identity and to stop using the back door.

Africans have always had an identity of who they were and are. They identify as tribes and communities. African Americans have had to redefine ourselves to fit the political and social climate as it evolves.

An African who is dependent upon the majority culture and has learned to accept its generosity is very much disinclined to make that culture feel offended. They become an amalgam of who they know they are by tribal distinction and who they can become by education and opportunity. Americans of African descent have to defend even our citizenship, by constantly being challenged at voting rights and civil rights. We actually have many things about which we should take offense. But to assume we will do so, is offensive. It seems no matter how much we obey the rules, comply with the laws, play the game fairly, we will be seen as offensive to the majority culture just because we kneel at a ball game.

The final word is this. Jesus states in Matthew 5:23 that if we believe our brother has anything against us, we must seek reconciliation with him before Jesus will be inclined to even consider our prayer. That is, if we feel that our brother is offended, we must seek him out, not avoid him. Avoiding conflict is not the way to avoid conflict. The issues remain and until we meet them head on, we will present to the world a distorted body of the Christ we claim to serve.

Speak in love. Be slow to take offense. That is how we move onwards as the body of Christ.