Minorities often face pressure to fit in

Every Sunday morning, the Rev. Paula White stands in front of her congregation at New Destiny Christian Center in Apopka and looks out on thousands of brown faces.

"When people say things like, 'She is a white girl that preaches black' is when I become conscious of it and make a joke or laugh and say, 'That's right, this girl can whoop,' " White said.

She became pastor of the primarily black megachurch in 2011 after the death of founding Pastor Zachery Tims. Before moving to Central Florida, White, 46, co-founded Without Walls International Ministry, another mostly black congregation, in Tampa.

As pastor, she must motivate her followers, a task made more difficult because she's white. That means her relationship with the congregation must quickly transcend any barriers if she is to be effective.

White is one of many Central Florida residents who find themselves racial or ethnic minorities at work, home or play. At first it can be uncomfortable. But often, White and others say, they adapt by putting the people around them at ease, finding common ground, using humor to get along or even ignoring their differences entirely.

Too often, though, that's just not possible, and the results can be awkward, uncomfortable or tragic.

The shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford in February brought attention to the way people perceive others who stand out because of their race or ethnicity.

The role that Trayvon's race played in the tragedy is still being debated, but some of the circumstances are not in dispute. George Zimmerman, who shot the unarmed Miami teenager during a struggle, said Trayvon looked suspicious.

The black teenager, walking to a town home where he was a guest, was wearing a hoodie and was in an area of Sanford that census records show is about 12 percent black.

His death is the ultimate nightmare scenario feared by many black parents, who stress the importance of first impressions to their children during "the talk": Be aware of negative stereotypes that the majority could hold about you, and do your best to avoid them.

"The issue for getting along, especially for minorities, has to do with how they're perceived," said Julian Chambliss, a Rollins College associate history professor who studies race and ethnicity. "You may be hyper-aware of what you need to do to signify that you belong."

In those situations, something as simple as how a person dresses can be a marker of class or how well that person fits in. In other circumstances, however, people find themselves in situations where they are minorities by choice.

For White, it's her message that transcends many of the differences in background between her and her congregation.

"They think, 'Well, how can she identify with my experience?' et cetera, but honestly, I believe that the core members of the church focus on the content of the message more than the color or any other external characteristic of the messenger," White said.

For Emerita Davidson, fitting in to unfamiliar surroundings is motivated by a number of factors. Mostly, though, it's by circumstance: She fell in love with a black man.

Davidson, 69, a native of the Philippines, may be the only Asian resident of the historically black town of Eatonville in Central Florida.

She first set foot in the town briefly in 1971, staying with her in-laws while her husband served in the military overseas. She had never been around so many black people and wasn't exactly sure what to think.

But there was some common ground she shared with her new family and neighbors: food.

Not long after they married in 1969, Davidson turned to her husband, Robert, with a question about dinner.

How, she asked, did he want her to cook his pork chop?