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The Unbearable Whiteness of Being (in West Michigan)
The Christian Reformed Church is a Dutch Calvinist denomination that dominates race, culture, and religion. And I have a love/hate relationship with it.
Last month we published a special series on what it’s like to be Black in the Midwest, and invited you to share your own experiences. Following is one of several submissions by Medium writers that we are excited to share with you.
My first real job after grad school was at Planned Parenthood, raising money for critical reproductive health care for West Michigan’s “most vulnerable people,” i.e. Black and Latinx women. The adult salary meant I could finally upgrade the brokedown Pontiac Grand Am I drove through college. I leafed through the classifieds until I found the perfect listing: “Volkswagen Golf in ‘Bristol condition,’ for sale by owner.” (“Bristol” is the same as “mint” but it’s more often used to describe yachts than automobiles.) The car was about 30 minutes away on a farm outside Zeeland.
I called the number and spoke to the seller, an elderly widower who had continued to maintain the vehicle after his wife’s death. He sounded lonely, so I let the conversation continue beyond car specs. I told him I lived in southeast Grand Rapids and was a graduate of Calvin College. He laughed and said, “Calvin College? That’s great. Because you know if you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.” He’s going to be real surprised when I show up to test drive, I thought as I hung up.
Grand Rapids, Michigan, is one of a number of Dutch American enclaves concentrated in the U.S. Midwest and Canada, which retain strong ties to the Netherlands, via the Christian Reformed Church and its slightly more liberal cousin, the Reformed Church of America. Unlike other White-majority Protestant denominations — and that would be all of them; the Pew Center reports that more than 75% of evangelical and mainline Protestants are White — Reformed churches and affiliated schools not only reinforce shared faith, they also reinforce the shared ethnic identity of its members.
Dutch Reformed immigrants arrived in North America in the mid-1800s. In addition to Calvinist theology, they were heavily influenced by historian and religious thinker, Groen Van Prinsterer, who viewed Dutch Reformers as God’s chosen people and credited them — not colonialism or the trans-Atlantic slave trade — with the Netherlands’ prosperity. Devoutly anti-revolutionary, Van Prinsterer also coined the political and religious maxim, “in isolation is our strength.”
It was their separist attitudes, not their English or legal status, which enabled Dutch immigrants to create structures of power and privilege that benefited them and excluded others, particularly people of color.
This ethos became central to Dutch American identity. Professor Robert Swierenga wrote that Dutch immigrants in Chicago were an overlooked, “invisible people,” a model minority that only made it because “half of the newcomers” were Reformed Christians. He also proudly noted that the Dutch became legal citizens and learned English.
But it was their separist attitudes, not their English or legal status, which enabled Dutch immigrants to create structures of power and privilege that benefited them and excluded others, particularly people of color. When Black people flocked to Midwestern cities during the Great Migration, Dutch inhabitants moved out. Today, despite deep investment by mega-philathropists, including U.S. Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, and her family, West Michigan, like much of the Midwest, remains extremely segregated by race and class. Other Dutch-majority communities like Hollandtown, Wisconsin, and Pella, Iowa, simply have no Black people. And the church is pretty much okay with that.
I chose to go to Calvin College, now Calvin University, because they had a reciprocal tuition waiver with the school where my dad had tenure and, unlike other Christian centers of higher learning, they let you smoke cigarettes on campus. As a result of these dubious criteria, I unwittingly ended up at the Christian Reformed Church’s flagship institution, despite never having heard of the denomination before.
Calvin, though not particularly highly ranked, had all the superiority that I now associate with the denomination and then some. There was even a joke on campus that went, “if you flunk out of Calvin, there’s always Hope,” referring to another Reformed college in nearby Holland, Michigan. This was a real possibility as Calvin’s relatively benign admissions requirements belied a challenging curriculum and rigorous grading system; religion professors allegedly never gave A’s.
At first, I found all the Dutchness interesting. My friends had long and sibilant surnames — Broersma, Hoolsema, Dykstra. The stroopwafel cookies and Dutch chocolates at the school bookstore were charmingly European. Friends of mine even participated in “ethnic” activities like “Tulip Time,” held every year in Holland, Michigan. I think a few even owned wooden shoes. My first semester was like the staycation version of a semester abroad.
But soon I realized that as much as I was exoticizing them, they were exoticizing me. Many students knew each other from feeder schools like Grand Rapids Christian High, Holland Christian, or Timothy Christian near Chicago. For them, arrival at Calvin was like — or literally was — an extended family reunion. I was not part of that family. Neither were the other Black students, who were mostly from Ghana — yep, there are Reformed churches there, too — and weirdly sequestered in the “diversity dorm” at the far end of campus.
I was going to parties and drinking heavily before classes even started. I dressed uniquely and provocatively and performed for the White male gaze. But no matter how much attention guys tantalized by my dark skin and textured hair gave me, they never asked me out. By senior year, most were in serious relationships with or engaged to Dutch girls. (And now, 20 years later, I imagine them as the pot-bellied heads of households with barely pronounceable, multisyllabic surnames like Schultze-Eldersveld.)
In fact, White men dominated my college experience. Most of my friends were White men. My two boyfriends were White. Nearly all of my professors were White men. White men, and Dutchmen, who Calvin’s curriculum prioritized, had written my textbooks and made all the art I studied for my art history degree.
There was no space for me at Calvin. I stood out but never felt seen. My mental health was poorly managed, and I exacerbated my symptoms by overusing alcohol and stimulant medications. I engaged in non-suicidal self injury, clinically abbreviated as “NSSI,” which left visible signs that I know at least one professor noticed — I saw his double-take when I raised my hand in class. Yet, except for Calvin’s lone Black instructor who reprimanded me for failing to represent! and a White bipolar professor who recognized my symptoms, all my professors acted oblivious to my struggles.
My grades were trash. Homeschooling, which my parents had chosen for religious and financial reasons, had left me with disadvantages. My science background was limited and I didn’t know strategies for getting partial credit on homework or maximizing test time. But even in classes where I should have excelled, I could never quite deliver what my professors were looking for.
A Spanish teacher downgraded me for writing “Nueva York,” where my mom’s family is from, instead of “New York” in a Spanish composition. Other students gave glib and banal presentations; I struggled to pull a D in Speech. Public speaking, which I had never done before, triggered my anxiety to the point that I self-medicated with three shots of peppermint Schnapps prior to my morning final. When I requested a recommendation to support an NYU grad school application, an art history professor cautioned me about setting my sights too high.
All these years, I thought the problem was me and that I should have applied myself more. But when I talk to other people of color like long-time Grand Rapids resident Jammal-Hollemans, who is Dutch American and Lebanese and grew up Reformed, I learned that she had similar issues at seminary and while working for the Christian Reformed Church. She says that she was not mentored the way White men were and, “people always thought the worst of me.” Once, a professor blamed her poor grades on her Facebook use during class — she was actually taking notes “furiously” on her laptop during his lectures — but offered unsolicited help to another student with a Dutch last name. Later, while working as a racial justice team leader for the denomination, Jammal-Hollemans was often asked to perform secretarial duties like taking notes, which limited her ability to participate fully in important discussions and on-site visits.
Denise Evans, a pastor and implicit bias trainer in West Michigan, had analogous experiences as a church planter for the CRC. After she was hired, her uplines actually proposed cutting her salary by $10,000 until after she could do a “listening tour” of local churches — essentially giving Dutch congregants a chance to weigh in on her value before they fulfilled her contract. As a Black woman, people also often assumed she was an assistant.
“People cannot separate their Dutch traditions from what the gospel teaches,” Evans tells me. “They see them as this one thing.” She has dubbed this toxic blend of Dutch heritage, superior attitude, isolationism, and religion, “spiritual elitism.”
They wrote me up and fired me over miscommunications that I didn’t understand.
Evans is originally from New York and just from our interview I can tell she has zero problem calling shit out. But Jammal-Hollemans and I, who spent formative years learning to play Midwestern nice, coped with West Michigan’s spiritual and cultural elitism by taking on token roles.
“My participation there — I couldn’t articulate it at the time — but it felt conditional upon how much I was able to fit in,” says Jammal-Hollemans, who recently parted ways with the Christian Reformed Church. “I tried for a long time to blend in and knew that was impossible. Then, like I think many people of color do when they agree to be tokenized, I felt like, if I just played this role, I will fit in.”
Despite my attempts, I never could quite show up the way I was “supposed” to and eventually stopped trying. And my confidence grew. In my twenties, my social circle moved beyond the Calvin College bubble. I became active in the local arts scene, which was populated by numerous “exvangelicals.” I joined a feminist roller derby team and started grad school at a state university. I got real jobs. But my newly minted confidence began to create conflict, particularly in professional spaces. I had all kinds of (at the time) inexplicable run-ins with White women, many of whom were Dutch American and/or long-term West Michigan residents. They wrote me up and fired me over miscommunications that I didn’t understand. They never applauded my successful ideas but shouldered me with responsibility for their bad ones.
It’s been more than 10 years since I left West Michigan, and I both regret and cherish my time there. I met my current partner at Calvin. His family, which is deeply engaged in anti-racism and social justice, is now my family. Though they are White, they’ve helped me build a vocabulary for describing the cultural and religious othering that I lived with for so long.
More recently, I’ve connected with women of color like Shannon Jammal-Hollemans and Denise Evans. Swapping stories affirms that, no, I’m not crazy, and yes, that really was racism. It has exposed wounds that I didn’t even know I had. But I’m also finding absolution for my younger self through the process. Instead of thinking of that girl as “not much” or “not enough,” I applaud her efforts. She did the best she could navigating a deeply entrenched hierarchy of religion, culture, masculinity, and privilege that, 20 years later, is still excluding Black and Brown women. And, ultimately, in her isolation, she found her strength.