Culture & Race

Why we can’t just set race aside

Why we can't 'set race aside'“Let’s set race aside for a moment.”

“Taking race out of the conversation…”

Every so often I’ll hear white people pull out suggestions like these in conversations about race. I’ve probably even said such things myself at some point, for it wasn’t until I read Stephen Brookfield’s article Teaching about Race that the impact of such statements fully clicked:

Assume that for students of color race is evident in everything – how we name ourselves, what we consider as respectful behavior, how we think a good discussion goes etc. The freedom to say ‘let’s put race aside’ is something Whites have – they can ‘choose’ when to switch the racial perspective on or off.

A friend had sent me Brookfield’s article and wanted to know my opinion of it. “I’d like to get your take on the post-colonial condescension idea in relationship to the work you are doing and what I am finding/experiencing,” she wrote of her current dissertation research. “You seem to be so FREE from this in your writings and persona.”

Internally, I chuckled. She clearly didn’t live with me. My first reactions are quite frequently just as ‘white’ as the next person. But I also knew there was a slight difference in my life, too.

“It’s love,” I thought, almost without thinking. Being the only white person in my house, it’s next to impossible for any opinion to leave my mouth without also being filtered through three non-majority-race experiences. Because our conversations happen in a place where the undercurrent love, there is an inherent safety for honesty, even when conversations are contentious and hard.

“This is how I perceive the situation,” I’m often known to comment to my husband – even when my perceptions sound so racist I’m embarrassed to admit them, “Help me understand why I think this but feel bad saying it out loud.”

Years of such admissions are slowly helping me understand when my reactions stem from being a cultural majority and when I’m actually allowing more than one perspective to shape my perceptions. Sometimes it’s hard to tell, but as my understanding of racial experiences other than my own grows, explanations like Brookfield’s about white perceptions of race make more and more sense inherently.

While marriage is definitely one way toward this understanding, it’s certainly not the only one. I know others who have gained deeper understanding through friends, roommates, churches, neighbors, living abroad and working in cross-cultural contexts. It doesn’t always happen, mind you. There are plenty of patronizing white folks who think they’re helping when their ignorance is actually feeding their own egos and making situations worse. A huge key to authentic understanding is when people take the time to listen and don’t assume their perspective is best, or even ‘normal’.

Another key is that they place themselves under the leadership of people who aren’t white.  As Soong-Chan Rah is known to say, if white people haven’t ever had a non-white mentor, they won’t be true missionaries, they’ll simply be colonialists all over again. Without the presence of a perspective to speak a different story into our own, it’s really tough to consistently consider how others might perceive situations and understand how our ignorance inflicts more harm than help. This is one of the reasons I occasionally post resources like the ones below – to help facilitate access to and highlight the value of these voices.

When we only listen to ourselves, we lose the ability to understand others. When we don’t understand others, we segment and isolate and operate solely out of stereotypes and fear. We assume and second guess and overreact. Life is definitely easier this way – one look at the world tells us so; but it is not the way of Christ when we seek to walk in his commands by loving one another.

In liturgy, we confess our lack each week: We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done. The church’s often passive and dismissive response to racial brokenness falls mostly under the category of “those things which we ought to have done”. These things we leave undone – failing to seek understanding, compassion and empathy for others – are perhaps one of the greatest sins of omission in the church today.

Quite frankly, I also find that they’re one of the greatest challenges in my own life. It’s a whole lot easier to ignore something than to actively engage it – especially because I come from a culture that discourages direct confrontation. My own sins of omission often stem from a sense of lostness about knowing how to start. The Greek philosopher Epictetus offers sage advice to reluctant pilgrims like me, “First, learn the meaning of what you say. Then, speak.”

When it comes to race, too many of us are speaking before we understand, and it’s time we more seriously heed Paul’s wisdom to slow our speech down and speed our listening up. Understanding comes only after we take the time to listen, for in listening to others, we learn their stories. When we know another’s story, our ability to love them also expands, both in word AND deed.

In the scheme of things, isn’t love what it’s all about anyway? Not the syrupy, American, Disney type of love, but the deep and wide sacrificial love of Christ for a broken and beautiful world.

swirl

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that the racial conversation is a rocky and winding road, but avoiding it won’t make it go away as some would suggest. The only way out is through, and the way-through requires something we must all practice afresh every day:

It’s love.

My heart knew before my brain even had a chance to kick in.

It covers a multitude of sins.

Further resources

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2 thoughts on “Why we can’t just set race aside”

  1. This is a great post. When we are alien to another person’s experience we need to slow down and listen. I have learned this in my marriage and we are both from the same race. I think the fundamental uniqueness we have as individuals should make us listen more than we speak. If this is the case for individuals how much more so when a whole group of people have been shaped and affected by something like racism.

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    1. This is a great point, Ramon. The more I mature, the more I see a lot of what facilitates positive racial dialogue is basic maturity and compassion for others – traits that we need throughout our lives, not just for racial conversations. Thanks for sharing!

      Like

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