I’m Christian and My School is Liberal About Everything Except Me

Dear Other Dad — 

I’m a Christian. My school is almost all liberals and they’re accepting of everything except me. I didn’t do anything to them but they talk about my religion like it makes me stupid. How do I get through this?

 — Believer

(Photo by: Priscilla Du Preez)

Being the outsider to the majority is always hard — no matter what the majority is. Your specific situation is really common in the Northeast, where there are so many liberal bubbles. Students of Christian faith at the colleges where I teach are decidedly in the minority and often I’ve heard from them that it can be a struggle.

You’re not alone: the feeling of cultural exclusion takes many forms. It’s often true for LGBTQ students on Christian campuses, as well as for many Muslim and Jewish students depending on the setting. Countless students of color know this experience firsthand all too well. I tell you this to say that you can draw encouragement and strategies from others who navigate life as a minority wherever they are.

Perhaps your biggest comfort will be time: your situation isn’t permanent. Whether you’re in college or high school, in a few years, you will change settings and, the older you get, the more control you’ll have of the environment you choose to be in. Though it may not feel this way, you are in a fortunate position, in that moving someday could change whether or not you’re in the minority. Not everyone has that luxury. (As a gay dad, for instance, I know in which states I can live most safely and where there are more people like me, but I will never be the majority.)

Knowing that others also feel minority stress or that you may not always be in the minority won’t solve your day-to-day struggles. So, until you have greater ability to choose your own setting, here are seven strategies to employ.

Be your authentic self

Some of the poorest advice I’ve ever gotten has involved changing myself to fit what other people needed from me as a minority. After an interview for a job I really wanted, a prospective employer told me I needed to “play up the Spanish thing” more, because I wasn’t what he’d expected me to me. (I wasn’t sure what I could have done differently — brought him black beans and rice?) And I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told that I needed to “act less gay” to keep others comfortable, as if my affect was worse than their bias. Such “helpful” advice is really limiting and not likely to yield progress.

The greatest change is always made person to person; if you get to know someone, it is both harder to demonize them and easier to care for their well-being. But I think the likelihood of your presence eroding bias increases exponentially when they spend more time with the real you. They need to see the roundness and fullness of your life, not a shadow version catering to their preexisting notions. Here’s the thing: If someone really is prejudiced, you behaving falsely won’t solve it.

Don’t generalize about people

One habit a lot of us fall into is assuming that people will feel or act a certain way based solely on their belonging in a group. Believing this sets us up to perpetuate bias, not fight it. For instance the statements “All democrats think X” and “All republicans think Y” are both generalizations; no matter what you fill those blanks with, there are exceptions to the rule. The reason you feel outcast is that many of your liberal schoolmates are making that kind of generalization about Christians. That doesn’t feel good to you and it doesn’t help them get to know the person beyond their stereotype.

The reverse is also true: if you pre-judge everyone as anti-Christian, you’ll miss out on opportunities for connections with those who are not. Naturally, you will always find people who live up to your lowest expectations — but others will surprise you. That’s the doorway to belonging, so don’t approach every interaction assuming the worst. Be open to discover those who aren’t prejudiced at all, those who are less firm in their beliefs about Christians, and those who are genuinely curious to learn more about you because they really have no concept of your faith at all.

Allow for growth

On a related note, some people who start off prejudiced may come around in time. Being open to that growth can be really powerful. One of my most homophobic classmates in college later came to my same-sex wedding. A high school classmate who ranted about Cubans being drug dealers and criminals (thanks to Scarface) completely changed his tune once I told him he was talking about my family.

Granted, it can be hard to trust someone who has diminished your identity. It’s perfectly fair to keep your guard up a little, as progress doesn’t always make perfect; some people will evolve a lot for you and yet still harbor some bias. Even so, fostering growth is better than rejecting its possibility; your quality of life is definitely improved when someone holds space in their heart for you, the actual person and not just scorn for the idea of you.

Understand the root cause

For some of your classmates, Christianity is related in their minds to homophobia, sexism, and persecution of other faiths. You might feel that such a generalization is unfair to you and your own life may defy all those stereotypes. You’re up against not just ancient history but 21st-century events like churches funding anti-gay initiatives or high profile anti-Muslim sermonizing . Even many Christians know what it’s like to feel threatened and outcast from their own communities when they don’t fully align with the majority beliefs.

If you are trying to counter those opinions, all you can do is let your words and your actions alike make clear that you don’t deserve to be blamed for others’ behaviors. When talking with open-minded people, remind them that Christian denominations are not interchangeable in belief and that individual Christians vary even more widely. (Some people simply won’t be able to hear you, no matter what you say; there’s nothing to do about that.)

Bear in mind, however, that if you do personally support limiting the rights of others or participate in denigrating them, it is not actually your identity being rebuked but your practice. The irony is not subtle when one complains about being a targeted minority while at the same time signing off the targeting of a different minority — and that is true no matter who is in the crosshairs.

Set boundaries

One thing that can be exhausting when you are in the minority is the constant feeling that you need to educate others. As I said above, people make the most progress by exposure to other people; however, you shouldn’t personally have to bear the burden of representing all Christians to anyone.

Share your faith when you have the emotional resources to do so. And when you don’t, don’t. If someone asks you questions — whether it’s sincere or whether they’re trying to provoke a fight — you can choose the path that feels right for you in that moment. Maybe you’ll answer in depth or maybe you’ll answer only enough to get by; you can also just tell folks that you don’t feel like having that conversation in that exact moment. There are times it will benefit you (and others like you) to be open about your life and there will be times it simply won’t be a healthy choice to engage.

Practice self-care

Look for ways to boost your own mental and physical health, seeking options that are not dependent on acceptance by the majority. If you know certain situations are going to set you up as a target at school, consider avoiding them. At the same time, if there are school activities you know you will enjoy, partake because you want you; don’t let differences deny you access to something positive. Outside of school, take in content that lifts you up, whether it’s a new Jars of Clay album or reruns of Greenleaf — anything that reminds you that there is a world of faith outside your school.

Talk about your school experiences with people who understand where you’re coming from. If you are part of a community of believers, revel in that connection. If you are not, try to find others like you (either in person or online) that you won’t need to educate about your core identity. Others who have walked your walked can be a great gift.

None of these strategies are quick fixes, but I hope they help you in the years you have left at school. I hope, too, that you and your classmates begin to open up more channels of connection, creating deeper bonds that run both ways.

Send questions for Your Other Dad to yourotherdadsays@gmail.com.