ORLANDO, Fla. — 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?
Robert Davidson described the precise way his mother had seasoned pork chops — one of the soul-food staples of his childhood — before dredging them in flour and frying them to a crisp crust.
Davidson told him that her recipe for pork chops was exactly the same as his mother's.
Her mother-in-law soon taught her to cook some of her husband's other soul-food favorites, such as black-eyed peas and collard greens, and she found herself getting along with the people around her.
I got used to it, she said. The people are nice.
That was a relief to her husband.
If I didn't think people would accept her, I would have never brought her here, he said.
Although she was raised Catholic, Davidson is now a member of historically black Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church in Eatonville.
Davidson's adoption of Eatonville as her new home is typical of how minorities adapt to unfamiliar surroundings, researchers say. They find ways to blend in and minimize any discomfort others might feel about their presence — as well as their own discomfort at being in the minority.
White said she has long had an affinity for black communities. Her primary caretaker after her father's death was a black woman who loved me unconditionally, she said.
But not everyone has enjoyed a close relationship with someone of a different race or ethnicity. Sociological studies show that most people tend to want to work, live and play around people of similar backgrounds. It's human nature.
Most whites still live in white neighborhoods. When they move, they move to other white neighborhoods. Likewise, most blacks live in primarily black neighborhoods and move to other primarily black neighborhoods, said Kyle Crowder, a University of Washington sociology professor.
In fact, even when controlled for socioeconomic status, there's evidence that whites actively choose not to move into areas or stay in areas as the concentration of nonwhite increases, Crowder said.
African-Americans have expressed a lot more tolerance for living in integrated neighborhoods than have whites, he said.
There are some metropolitan areas that have seen dramatic declines in racial segregation.
You see places like Phoenix, Seattle and San Diego, which have seen their levels of segregation cut in half, Crowder said. The integration in those cities has been the result of Latinos and Asians moving into those cities, he said.
In Central Florida, neighborhoods are still relatively segregated. Areas such as Pine Castle, Azalea Park and Ventura are among the most Hispanic areas in Orange County, while Pine Hills, Washington Shores and Richmond Heights are among the areas where the most blacks live, census records show.
But interracial marriages such as Davidson's are helping to bridge many long-standing differences in America's communities. The Pew Research Center reported earlier this year that about 8 percent of U.S. marriages are mixed, compared with about 3 percent in 1980.
White also said she's equally comfortable among black and white people, and can be frustrated when others try to draw her into one crowd or another.
My feelings of uneasiness originate more in environments where I feel theologically or intellectually displaced, but never racially, White said. It simply has never been an issue for me. I think the deeper we go into these discussions, we will begin to see that more disparity and discomfort has its roots in economic and educational disparity than anything else.
Denise Belcher, a 17-year-old who is the only black player on the girls' volleyball team at Apopka High School, said race simply isn't much of a concern for her or her friends.
Denise, who has spent most of her life as a minority among a majority, said her generation, the so-called Millennials, doesn't pay as much attention to race as earlier generations did.
We're all playing a team sport, so it doesn't really affect them or me at all, Denise said.
Her parents never gave her any advice about how to deal with being a minority among a majority, she said, because it's just normal now.
In theory, her generation's attitudes could become mainstream. The 2010 census reported that about 40 percent of Americans ages 18 to 25 are nonwhite, and that the number of nonwhites in the U.S. jumped by nearly 80 percent from the 2000 census to the one in 2010.