Overcoming Race Fatigue in Your Church

A pastor of a well-established multi-ethnic church recently lamented to me about the “race fatigue” that periodically re-appears and dampens the congregation’s hopeful enthusiasm for the difficult work of racial unity. This is a common problem amongst churches that are trying to break free from homogeneity and achieve cross-cultural unity.  Shelby Steele describes race fatigue as “a deep weariness with things racial.”  Quite simply, it occurs when individuals who are typically passionate about engaging and confronting racial issues simply grow tired of doing so.  The Apostle Paul talks about our warring spirit and flesh – this war is often evident in congregations that are working towards racial diversity and unity. Our flesh which always covets the comfort of homogeneity is perpetually at war with our spirit which always desires the unity of the body of Christ. Our flesh is weak; we’re always inclined to gather in homogenous groups and keep others at bay.  However, our spirits have a growing desire to pursue racial unity amongst diverse peoples.  When our flesh dominates the battle, we experience racial fatigue because we are constantly fighting our natural desires to retreat to our homogenous groups and perceive others in inaccurate ways. If we want to avoid race fatigue and win the battle for unity, we must tend to our pro-unity spirits. Church programming designed to promote racial unity must go hand-in-hand with transforming hearts that are always grasping for a better understanding of God’s heart for racial unity.  A singular focus on intentionality, diverse programming, leadership, etc., without an equally strong focus on God’s heart for racial unity, will leave us cognitively exhausted and susceptible to race fatigue.

Cognitive exhaustion occurs when a discrepancy exists between the flesh (e.g., the beliefs that a person actually holds such as “people in my cultural group are better”) and the spirit (e.g., the beliefs that a person would like to hold such as “people in other groups are just as valuable as people in my cultural group”).  In a cross-cultural church situation, the person would need to suppress his fleshly, biased beliefs by exerting self-control (e.g., by overriding biased perceptions that he holds) and that leaves him feeling cognitively exhausted. In a sense, this individual is wearing a mask – trying to pass as unbiased when in fact he possesses biased beliefs. Naturally, this is exhausting. However, when people are ruled by their spirits and are sincerely convicted that the inaccurate perceptions they hold (e.g. “people in my cultural group are better”) are wrong and should in fact be suppressed, the process of overriding them requires less self-control and is not as cognitively taxing.  When our pro-unity spirits dominate the battle, we do not experience racial fatigue.  However, when our pro-homogeneity flesh dominates the battle, we experience racial fatigue.

Sure enough, plenty of research shows that the mental effort we must expend to override nonconscious processes during cross-cultural interactions effectively depletes our mental energy store. In one chilling study, racial bias researcher Jennifer Richeson [i]led white participants to believe that they might be perceived as racially prejudiced and then asked them to partner with either a black or white individual for a discussion on several topics, one of which was race-related (“campus diversity”). Next she asked all participants to complete a supposedly unrelated mental task on their own. She predicted that participants who were asked to converse with a black partner would be externally motivated to appear unprejudiced (even though they were in fact prejudiced) and would expend mental energy to override prejudiced perceptions of blacks.  As a result, she predicted that these participants would perform worse on the subsequent mental task (compared to participants who conversed with white participants) because the process of overriding prejudicial perceptions would consume most of their limited mental energy. Indeed, she found this to be true. Richeson concluded that cross-cultural interactions are mentally-taxing if individuals are extrinsically motivated to appear unbiased and consciously override inaccurate default perceptions in order to avoid being perceived as biased.

Further, other researchers have found that people who attempt to suppress stereotypes (that they actually believe) during cross-cultural interactions not only experience cognitive exhaustion but also end up being bombarded by the stereotypical thoughts that they were trying to suppress. Social cognitive psychologist Neil Macrae[ii] found that when participants were asked to temporarily suppress a skinhead stereotype while describing a day in the life of a specific skinhead, they were more likely to use the stereotype on a second skinhead-related task. The once-suppressed stereotype came bounding back into their consciousness and greatly impacted the perceptions that immediately followed.  This weird effect occurs because the mere act of suppressing a thought makes it even more prevalent in our minds. Essentially, the suppressed thought hovers just beneath the surface of our consciousness, like a beach ball that has been forcefully submerged in a pool and fights to reach the water’s surface. Once we stop suppressing the thought, it immediately and willfully breaks through to the surface of our consciousness.

These studies show that well-intentioned plans to suppress inaccurate perceptions of other church groups or overcome the forces of homogeneity during cross-cultural interactions are bound to backfire if we do not actually believe that the inaccurate perceptions should be suppressed or that the forces of homogeneity should be overcome[iii]. We must change our hearts, not just our church programming.

When it comes to achieving racial unity, the state of our hearts can make or break the programming that our church implements.  We must look inward and examine the ways in which our commitment to homogeneity might feed our identity and self-esteem. We must examine our hearts and discover why we might be clinging to negative beliefs about other groups. We must ask ourselves why we’re afraid to let go of those negative beliefs. Then, we must ask our head, Christ, to heal our eyes, ears, mouths and hearts, so that we can be free from racial fatigue as we intentionally pursue cross-cultural relationships.


[i]  Richeson & Trawalter, 2005

[ii] Macrae, Bodenhausen Milne, & Wheeler, 1994

[iii] Gordijn, Hindriks, Koomen, Dijksterhuis, & van Knippenberg, 2004