I never really understood the intricacies of race, ethnicity and Christianity until I began to study sociology, and more specifically how race and racism work, in Brazil and the United States.
When I came to study theology in the U.S. many years ago, the two schools I attended never taught me that important facet of U.S. history.
Perhaps, if I had learned about the history of bigotry and xenophobia in the U.S. and how churches were such a big part of it, I would have been prepared for the ethnocentrism I experienced as an international student in seminary.
Coming from a privileged background in Brazil, I did not know how covert racism manifested itself in daily interactions.
I was also not prepared for the emotions of feeling excluded and for correlated anxieties of unbelonging.
Back then, I could not connect the dots when I saw how segregated students were.
Most noticeably, white and Black students would, for the most part, only engage in meaningful interactions within the same racial group.
Students gathered in all white and all Black circles, chatting and having a good time after leaving the classroom.
I rarely saw a Black student hanging out among white students and vice versa.
However, the seminary had more than just white and Black students. I met students from India, Korea, Senegal, Nigeria, Colombia, Brazil and so on, just to name a few.
Racially, these students could easily fit the stereotypical Asian, Black, white, mixed-race and so on. But ethnically, we were all different.
One thing, however, we all had in common: We were all seen and treated as “international students.”
This “third” group of students was diverse. Most of us spoke English as a second (or third or fourth) language. We liked different foods, had different accents; some wore clothes specific to their country’s culture.
Many of us had little to no experience with U.S. conservative culture because we had never lived here.
Paradoxically, our differences made our experiences very similar. By not fitting neatly in the U.S.-born Black-white binary, most of us experienced a type of default exclusion that targeted us as “not from here.”
Hence, the only group I could identify with and be a part of was the one of which all members were very distinct from one another.
What brought us together was not our differences, but the experience of failing to break through the strict racial boundaries that exist in U.S. society, especially the church.
Such experiences created a feeling in me that I could not easily understand. How could I not feel included in a context where supposedly “all nations” should be welcomed?
To be clear, U.S.-born students never came to me asking to leave their groups. There were no physical barriers indicating I could not trespass.
The mechanisms of exclusion are much more subtle than that. The way I felt excluded was rooted in a sense of invisibility and apathy to things I said and did.
Rarely was I included in conversations. When I could participate in a conversation, white people seemed impatient or even patronized by what I had to say.
It was as if being white and American – just like their Jesus – gave them an inability to learn from nonwhites.
What about Black students? Although my former seminary did not have many Black students, I couldn’t participate in Black students’ conversations either.
But here is the catch: Like past and present residential segregation, the segregation among students in the seminary I attended was not initiated by the Black or international students.
Such dynamics followed a social order that is already in place before we all came along.
White and Black students just perpetuated wider societal patterns in their daily interactions. International students had to learn the hard way, feeling excluded, stereotyped and invisible.
For years after I graduated with my master of divinity degree, I thought the problem was with me.
It affected my self-esteem. It even made me question my intelligence, even though I always did very well academically.
Luckily, sociology opened my eyes to the evils of structural racism in the United States. And one place where this racism still exists unconstrained is in the Christian church.
Learning this liberated me from self-flagellation.
In part, the continuation of racism and segregation in churches has much to do with white-led, conservative institutions like seminaries.
Such places have the potential to make positive changes to the racial divide in the church, which could spill over into society.
Unfortunately, many white students have unconsciously become guardians of racial and ethnic hierarchies.
They perpetuate white supremacy by perpetuating the mechanisms that enable white supremacy.
To paraphrase Ibram Kendi, there is no middle ground in U.S. society, just racism or anti-racism. I did not encounter the latter in seminary.
Rodrigo Serrao, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of sociology at Hope College, Holland, Michigan. His research and teaching are located at the intersection of race, religion and immigration in the United States and Brazil.