Culture & Race, Restoration & Reconciliation

That time when white people talked about being white

So my humble little post When white people don’t know they’re being white apparently hit quite a nerve.  It had roughly 14,000 hits in 24 hours and became a space of rich discussion on a usually very-quiet-blog.  At the publishing of this post, it’s had close to 40,000 views and almost 100 comments.  What hit me by the post’s high response was the need that people have to discuss this issue, and the thirst many have to understand it better.  (Well, there were a few trolls whose comments never saw the light of day who made me question this, but the vast majority of the comments were genuine, thoughtful and honest).

Emotions expressed in the comment section ranged from gratefulness to relief to anger to hopelessness.  In my experience, there aren’t many safe places to discuss race and privilege for white people, especially if we’re in a place of feeling wounded, scared or threatened.  Already in a protection mode, we tend to say things from this space that can be hurtful to others who may or may not have it any more figured out than us.  Regardless of the emotion, what I heard echoing most strongly behind many people’s responses was an unnerving, hesitant question, “Can white people do anything right?”

I hear this, and I know it is a hard question to ask.  We shuffle our collective guilt from blame to anger to defensiveness to silence.  No one likes failure and our collective history of domination is a painful one for everyone – not just the people we have dominated.  But it certainly is not the only picture in history.  Sadly, the stories that often get the most airtime aren’t the ones of what actually works. We are far more intrigued to ooh and ahh as things fall apart than to cheer them on as they are being built.

Whenever I enter a cemetery in a Sri Lankan church, I am struck by how many British people are buried there – missionaries from the turn of the 20th century who gave up everything – even their own lives and the lives of their own families – for a call greater than their own.  My father-in-law, a doctor, speaks gratefully for the many Christians who established hospitals and built schools in South Asia.  Did these very missionaries impart colonial ideas upon the Sri Lankan peoples?  Probably, but this was not their only story.  My husband’s family speaks fondly of Reverend Good (his real name, I promise), an Irishman who pastored their church for many years.  The first word they use to describe him is always humble, the second, appropriately, is good.  They speak of how he listened when there was conflict, how he cared for others, and how he didn’t think more highly of himself than anyone else.

Where are more stories about such good people who come from majority backgrounds?  How do we find them?  How do tell them?  How do we make them our own stories?  Where do we look when we need hope and examples of people who have led the way toward a genuine posture of humility toward and respect for others? 

Given that the focus of my initial post was on what white people do that doesn’t create positive race relations, I thought it may also be helpful to create a space for others to share what does work in race relations – from all sides. The Bible calls us, after all, to be rooted first in the good news of reconciliation, not division.

I urge people of all backgrounds to comment here – the more perspectives that contribute, the more we learn from each other.  Please include descriptions of and/or links to projects you know of, historical role models, suggestions of books or movies, websites, TedTalks or even YouTube videos that offer insight to this conversation.  Perhaps your stories are double edged – one side that worked, one side that failed.  That’s reality too.  I’d love to hear more hard-but-good kind of stories that show how we grow and learn together.

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Comment policy: Ranting, rude, or ridiculous posts will be deleted, so don’t bother wasting your time here.  Please proceed to someone else’s site, or better yet, take some time to think about what you want to express and how to say it in a respectful way.  If you need it spelled out even more plainly, here you go:  Don’t be an ass.  This is a place for thoughtful, productive discussion, not hotheadedness and knee jerk reactions.  While I will not filter out disagreement, I do insist that we offer it with respect for one another’s God-given humanity.  And, please stick to the topic of this post.  If you have general comments about race, feel free to share them on this post instead.

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12 thoughts on “That time when white people talked about being white”

  1. I find it interesting – we white majority individualists think we can’t comprehend communal thinking – but when a home school family gets their kids taken away from them for ‘educational neglect,’ every home school parent in the community will double up on their support for the Home School Legal Defense Association, will post links to each other on facebook, will deplore the horrors of the police state – even if the family in question actually DID neglect their children’s education, or even physically neglect them. It’s just that our ‘communal thinking’ isn’t based on what we look like.

    I wish so much that they would LISTEN and realize how much they have in common with the black family in an entirely different city who is outraged when blacks are perceived and portrayed as thugs who deserve to be arrested (or even shot), when we are just as outraged that ‘home school parents are portrayed as neglectful…’ and we ignore the question of individual guilt or innocence just as much as our black brothers might do.

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  2. Dang I fell kinda bad now. I didn’t know ya’ll was all about Jesus. My last post was kinda street poet mixed with plain old orneriness. You sound like nice people. But even I know the most segregated hour of all is 11:00 on Sunday. However, I digress.

    The white person I like the most dealing diversity (whom I’ve never met but I love her work) is Jane Elliott of “Brown Eyes/ Blue Eyes” fame. I was ever day of 30-something when I read this interview.

    An Unfinished Crusade: An Interview with Jane Elliott
    a href=”http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/divided/etc/crusade.html

    She’s the first white person I ever heard of to admit that racism is not a figment of black people’s imagination. Of course there have been plenty since then, but the first time I read this it was like a light bulb went off. Her nearly life-long work doing the Brown Eyes/ Blue Eyes exercise is the first work that mirrors modern day diversity training and education.

    To get a taste of her no-nonsense style check out this video which says she’s “just plain nasty” but honestly, I show this video to every woman I know. Get Over Cute: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8y2UPNjRvB8

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    1. Your last post was beautiful and elegant and strong and necessary. Sometimes people don’t listen unless we get angry. Frankly, I love ornery street poets. They tell the truth that no one else will. To me, your post felt like a big hug. Even those of us who are about Jesus have a hard time with each other sometimes, and it feels good when someone’s got your back. Thank you.

      I love the Brown eyes/blue eyes video. Thanks for the link – I’ll check it out!

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    1. Yes, this book is a great resource – full of vignettes about life lived cross-culturally, complete with missteps, misunderstandings, and lots of growth for Lupton and his family. I’d also recommend “Grace Matters: A Memoir of Faith, Friendship, and Hope in the Heart of the South” by Chris P. Rice (not the musician). It’s the story of his experience (as a white man) living in intentional community with white and African American adults in Mississippi – and working to embody the principles & values from the Sermon on the Mount. It’s an honest depiction of the struggles, challenges, and beauty that can come from working intentionally on reconciliation.

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  3. As a white person living in a majority black neighborhood for the past 10 years, I’ve found that in taking an approach of 80/20, rather than 50/50 goes a long way in building understanding, reconciliation, and honesty. Allowing the minority to speak openly and candidly about their experience without defensive, judgement, or question and not making it about MY experience, allows for true understanding. I make the effort to go the extra mile, not expecting them to come half way to meet me. I don’t really understand why white people get so defensive and offended when they hear a minority’s (negative) experience with white people. Just as a minority doesn’t speak for their entire race, nor do I represent my entire race.

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    1. Yes, thanks for bringing this up, this is a huge necessity in the conversation. It’s on the whole an accurate assessment to say that broad white american culture holds individualist worldview, meaning it’s a default to filter the world through a personal narrative lens. So when people who primarily filter things through a communal level (for example, if I’m black and I see a black man who broke the law gets his arrest covered on television while twenty public and note-worthy philanthropic acts by black people don’t get coverage on the same day, it’s not “oh look, he got arrested” it’s “oh, look how they are portraying us again.” Or as an Asian, having the feeling when someone in even your distant family mess up and then feeling like you can’t go to school or church due to shame, even though it could be argued that you “had nothing to do with it.”) There are, of course, pros and cons to both existences, but I think living in America forces minorities to know these multiple ground-level worldviews in a daily experiential practice.

      For those in the majority, it’s vital to make an effort to stretch beyond the status quo, even if the level is only merely imaginative faith in the other person’s humanity, voice, validity, and perspective, because while words may be exchanged and received equally, often the person in the minority has already been required to exchange, experience, encounter, and live through a perspective or cultural climate that was not normal or natural for them. This is difficult to hear for many people in the majority understandably, but again, it’s not a contest of competency, it’s a communal effort to bring everyone into reconciliation. I assure you that minorities do not feel good that they might “know more.” Rather it’s a burden. We actually want everyone to be up to speed on as many things that people can be brought up to for the manifestation of true Shalom, but it requires those in the majority listening to those perspectives that privilege in culture and systemic structures make it easy to miss.

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