Books, Culture & Race

Why black history is for white folks, too: A reflection on Birmingham Revolution by Edward Gilbreath

While it’s no secret that I care deeply about issues of racial equity and understanding, I must admit that my personal knowledge of the historical realities of race sometimes feels inadequate.  To assuage some of the guilt over my ignorance, I occasionally blame-shift and attribute my ignorance to the fact that I was educated in a predominately white community by a high school US History teacher who carried cigarettes in his socks and did more stand-up comedy than teaching. However, in my more honest moments, I must admit that I don’t know simply because I haven’t taken time to learn.

As a result, I was admittedly eager to read Edward Gilbreath’s new book, Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King Jr’s Epic Challenge to the Churchin an effort to continue building a stronger foundation of understanding of racial issues in America. Having spent a fair bit of time within Christian communities, I’d found tremendous insight and relief in the honesty of Gilbreath’s first book, Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical’s Inside Views of White Christianity.  He put words to the experience that I have so often heard from people of color and helped me understand realities that I don’t experience as a white person in the church.

Ironically, I read Birmingham Revolution this week in the midst of the unfolding of yet another failure of the American justice system to protect the senseless and random shooting of black youth. While there has certainly been progress in the past fifty years, it also grew painfully clear that there is still so far to go. I followed the race conversation a bit extra this week, taking in the clash of painful desperation from black voices and ignorant dismissal from white ones. Consequently, the 50-year-old stories of this book hit me extra hard as I watched our nation once again stumble through the throes of racial violence, prejudice and misunderstanding.

Gilbreath’s book dives in deep to the historical details of the civil rights movement in Birmingham in 1963.  I learned about Fred Shuttlesworth, the fiery bowels of Birmingham’s movement who had both the guts and humility to inspire the fierce perseverance of the non-violent protests that characterized the movement.  I learned about the Birmingham Eight, white clergymen who sincerely thought they were ‘helping’ race relations by writing a statement urging the Negro community to be patient and work within the system.  And I learned more about the influences and realities that shaped Martin Luther King, Jr. and the movement he led.  The story flows richly, and I found myself lost at times in the South of the 1960s, pondering how I might have seen things had I been part of the era.

Theirs were no easy decisions – blacks or whites.  For blacks, it was a decision to risk everything – even life itself – for change that they may or may not see in their lifetimes.  For whites, it meant letting go of power they didn’t even acknowledge they held and confronting a sin so deep it had blinded them for centuries. Neither option sounds like a walk-in-the-park to me.

In the midst of recounting historical details, Birmingham Revolution also addresses the here-and-now application of King’s letter specifically to the modern day church.  While ‘I have a dream’ makes a more dramatic sound byte, Gilbreath’s book shows how Letters from a Birmingham Jail is what we really need to be reading if we want to learn about living out the kind of reconciliation the Bible teaches.

Sit with these nuggets from MLKs letter for awhile to see which stirs you most:

birmingham jail quote 2birmingham jail quote 3 birmingham jail quote 4 birmingham jail quote 5

King’s words are eerily relevant to the church today, and the whole book left me feeling that, in Grace Biskie‘s words, MLK Jr. would ‘facepalm at the state of things today’. Birmingham Revolution shows just how much the white evangelical church has sided with the safety and reason of the Birmingham clergymen rather than learning from courage and tenacity of Fred Shuttlesworth.

“Race is the gigantic elephant in the American living room that some insist will disappear if only we would just ignore it,” Gilbreath asserts. “For African Americans and other people of color, however, it is difficult to ignore a six-ton pachyderm when it’s sitting on top of you.”

I’m afraid that I can’t say I see much change in white people’s fundamental view toward race today than what MLK saw at the end of his life, “Whites, it must be frankly said, are not putting in a mass effort to re-educate themselves out of their racial ignorance,” he wrote. “It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”

As a white person, there are times when I get the distinct impression from my culture that Martin Luther King, Jr., black history, civil rights, and the like are for ‘those other folks’.  What I was reminded afresh in Birmingham Revolution is that the story is just as much about us as it is about them.  We played half of this story, and if we care at all about adressing the issue of the elephant in the room, we need to learn more about how it got there in the first place.

Further Reading

Culture & Race, Families, Children & Marriage

Why toys need to reflect racial diversity (Here’s lookin’ at you, Lego!)

Image credit: Chinian

Our change.org petition to ask Lego to make their minifigures more diverse is beginning to make the rounds on Twitter (Way to go to those who are sharing it – keep it going, especially on Facebook!), so naturally I’ve received some push back.  It made me think that my mama-bear reaction to fight for what benefits my biracial kids would also benefit from a more thorough reflection of the issue.

I distinctly remember the first time, nearly 15 years ago now, that I saw an ad on the wall in a Springfield, Virginia Wal-mart containing people who weren’t white.  It’s hard to believe now, but back then I did a double take because it caught me so off guard. As a white person, I was so accustomed to seeing only people who looked like me in advertisements that I hadn’t ever considered the fact that they only represented one portion of our country’s population.

A lot has changed in advertising in those fifteen years, and the change had to start from somewhere.  I appreciate the variety of voices who have spoken up for better, non-stereotyped representation of all sorts of people in mainstream media (no surprise that my new BFF is Cheerios!). While there are certainly issues far more serious and pressing than the color of Lego minifigures, in the process of pursuing justice, there are a lot of little stories that matter right alongside the really big ones.  I believe this is one of those little stories.

As we’ve raised biracial children, we’ve searched long and hard for toys and books that reflect a wide variety of experiences, backgrounds and perspectives.  It hasn’t always been an easy or successful effort, but it’s been an important way we affirm this piece of our children’s identity. As a result, while a few may view such a petition as ‘silly’, I view it as yet another small step toward leveling the playing field in our broken racial history, and an opportunity to tell a new story to our children.  Here are a few reasons why:

THE-OBVIOUS

1. Duplo already did it.  When my son was little, his aunt bought him a whole set of multiracial Duplo figures.  We loved them and are still waiting for the Lego minifigure versions.  Strawberry Shortcake, Dora, Diego, Backyardigans, Little Einsteins, Sesame Street, My Little Pony, Wild Kratts, The Electric Company and so many other brands incorporate characters representing a range of physical appearances. Why not Lego?

2.  People aren’t all one color.  Even if I could buy the rationale that yellow is a neutral color, there’s still the problem of Legos minifigures only reflecting one color. If Lego wants to keep with the ‘neutrality’ theme, then at least they could create a variety of skin tones – green, purple, blue, pink, etc. – if yellow is really neutral, then so are these colors.  Creating more hues would at least acknowledge that skin color varies among people.

3.  Children see yellow as a color for light-skinned people.  When you give children crayons to draw a picture, they reach first for peach to draw light-complected people.  If it’s not there, they pick yellow.  By creating only yellow-skinned figures, Lego leaves brown children wondering why they were left out and doesn’t allow white children to encounter anything but themselves.

THE-PHILOSOPHICAL

1. Children believe what they see.  There is a long history of studies tracking children’s views of race, a recent one being CNN’s doll study on Anderson Cooper that clearly shows both white and black children picking white children as “better, smarter, nicer, more behaved.” This study and many others highlight the need to positively reframe how all children understand and view race (not to mention other characteristics like gender and ability and economic status), and one way we can shift this from a young age is through the subliminal story their toys tell them.  

We need to ask ourselves if all children encounter representations of themselves in what they play with or read, and if they ever encounter representations of children who aren’t like them? When one color is dominant, it sends clear messages to both the privileged and the oppressed that the story isn’t changing for anyone. This story hurts us all.

2. Children internalize what they see. It’s no secret that light colors are symbolically good and dark colors are symbolically bad, but we need to pause to consider the deeper story this persistent symbolism teaches our children, particularly in regards to race. By making broad and intentional efforts to redefine the subtle stigma attached to the colors used to represent skin color, toy companies have the opportunity to tell children of all racial backgrounds a story of value for everyone, not just the light-skinned hands that have traditionally held the power.

3. We live in a broken racial story.  Probably the most concerning piece to me about the yellow Lego minifigures (and the predominance of white dolls in general) is the underlying story it tells our kids:  Valuable people are one color only – the lighter the better. This isn’t only damaging to all the brown children out there, but also to the white ones because it never disrupts their perception of the world as just-like-them.  

When people suggest that Lego mini-figures don’t have a race, they say it in the context of a world that has struggled under the hand of white racial domination for centuries.  This argument may have been valid in the Middle Ages when skin hue didn’t carry the historical baggage it does today, but this is not our story and we must live within the reality we have, not the one we wish we had. In a world that is rapidly globalizing, we are closer to one another than ever, but the decreasing distance doesn’t automatically produce increased understanding.  To dismantle this broken racial piece of the story we’ve told ourselves, we need to create a new one, one that does a better job sharing and representing power.

So in the end, while yes, making Lego minifigures in brown and peach and tan and butterscotch and caramel and chocolate and beige (or in purple and green and blue and pink and orange for that matter) might be a Little-Story, it’s the good Little-Stories that ultimately make up the good Big-Stories.  

The first time I saw someone who looked different than me represented in an advertisement, it made me pause and think, “Oh, yeah. There are more people than just me. Maybe I should consider them, too.” It was only a little story in a blip of my life, but combined with so many other little stories, it’s shaped my Big Story into a more beautiful one than I could have ever imagined.

All the little stories. They matter.  

Let’s tell them well – especially to our children – so that we can all tell a better Big Story someday.

Related Posts

Don’t forget!

Culture & Race, Social & Political Issues

Dear ‘Merica: a Lament

When the Coke commercial began to play on Sunday, our Superbowl party of chatty adults and raucous children instinctively grew quiet.  We watched the striking depiction of America the Beautiful unfold with tears in our eyes, mesmerized.

After halftime, I checked in on Twitter, and learned that not everyone in the country shared our sentiments.  I sighed at comments like “We speak English here” and “Nice to see that coke likes to sing an AMERICAN song in the terrorist’s language” and cringed at hashtags like #wespeakamerican and #boycottcoke.

Inside, I ached on so many levels.  (That seems to be happening a lot lately.)

I ached first because I spend my days teaching English to the very immigrants you suggest don’t belong in the country. They are among the hardest working, most generous and kindest people I have ever met.  Contrary to your belief, they desperately want to learn English.  However, this isn’t always as simple as it may appear.

If English as a Second Language (ESL) classes are offered in an area, there are often long waiting lists, the class times conflict with work schedules, parents don’t have child care, or work 3 jobs to make ends meet and simply don’t have time.  Some, like many of you, have never had access to education and find learning a new language just as challenging as you would.  Many didn’t have the opportunity to learn English before they arrived in the US because they fled their countries with only the clothes on their backs.

All my students speak English to some degree, but it’s also no secret that English is quite a challenging language to learn, and everyone (including yourselves, I might add) falls somewhere on a spectrum regarding a complete and accurate knowledge of the language itself.  The issue is far more complex than a simple command to “Learn English”.

The other elephant-issue in the room is that even if immigrants learn English, they still speak their native language.  Just because they speak English doesn’t mean they don’t still use their own language.  It’s as much a part of who they are as being American.  Multilingualism plays a significant role in our national history.  Spanish predates English in the US, and there were debates in our early years if English or German would be the language of the government.  Pretending that English is the only language spoken is inaccurate at best and dehumanizing at worst.

My students love America.  They love its diversity and opportunity and potential.  Read it in their own words:

Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 5.39.13 AM

From their optimism, you’d have no idea how much they sacrifice because they believe in and love this country.  Their children don’t know their grandparents or aunties or uncles or cousins or beloved friends. Professionals with advanced degrees and impressive work histories accept menial jobs simply for the privilege of living here.  They work long hours to provide, and then share what they have with a generosity that puts most native-born Americans to shame.

swirl

The ache also struck another, more personal chord because both growing up and living as an adult in the rural Middle, I frequently encountered these types of perspectives. They didn’t come from everyone, mind you, and gratefully not from my own family, but they are certainly a familiar part of my background.

Part of my family had roots in Appalachia that transplanted themselves to the hills of Southern Indiana and the other part were Swedish immigrant famers.  We all grew into ‘good ole simple Midwesterners’. While I am not exactly one of those ‘liberal-coasters’ you like to rant about, I am a rural Indiana girl who frequently rubbed shoulders with you throughout a childhood that includes sweet memories of listening to country music in pickup trucks, riding in a tractor with my grandpa, devouring my grandma’s sweet rolls, rolling down hills, adventuring in cow-pastures and wading in creeks with my cousins. When I left home, I discovered a great big world that reflected so much of the goodness I had seen in my own little square of it; but it wasn’t scary like the tales I had so often heard – it was astoundingly beautiful.

So while I disagree wholeheartedly with your perspective that diversity in our country is not beautiful, I also know you.  I know your names and your faces and your homes.  I have played tag with you at recess and cheered with you at football games.  I have been your neighbor, your customer, your colleague, your student, your teacher.  For so many of these reasons, I know that these tweets don’t exactly give the rest of the country a complete picture of all that you are.

I know that you have families you love.  Like tight-knit immigrant communities, you care for each other, bringing casseroles for new babies and plowing driveways in snowstorms without being asked.  You visit hospitals and sit on porches and wave at neighbors and help out friends in need, even if you don’t really have enough for yourselves. Yes, there are ugly-racists among you, people who hate and spew all sorts of ignorance, but they do not tell your whole story for many of you disagree silently, but restrain from speaking for fear of rocking-the-boat, not knowing what to say or being told to ‘just take a joke’.  Some of you may speak like this because it’s how you were spoken to or because you’ve never known anything different or because you don’t know or love anyone who is different from you.  I know there are reasons for your words that go far deeper than the 140 characters you express them in.

But your words hurt.  They scar and they maim.  I know this, too.

I know firsthand that you don’t easily know what to do with people who are not like you. Our biracial and bicultural and multilingual-but-English-speaking family lived among you in a tiny little cornfield town for 8 long and painful years, enduring glares and scowls, holding hearts and sighing wearily with the very-few-others-like-us.  You love yourselves well, but you did not love us at all. You ignored us in restaurants, ran us off roads, made threatening phone calls in the middle of the night. You kept to yourselves when we reached out. You shrunk back in silence when the ugly-racists raised their loud voice.

There were some among you, however, who countered your iciness. They brought us casseroles, visited us when our young child was in the hospital, helped us build swingsets in our back yard, chatted with us in the schoolyard and invited us to their homes for dinner. Even if they didn’t always understand us, they offered their hands in friendship, listened and loved well.  I will forever cherish their efforts to welcome us ‘strangers’ into their world.

Looking back, however, I so wish it all could have been different, that everyone in the land that gave me such a warm and rich and connected childhood knew how to welcome outsiders like they welcome insiders, that they applied the same fierceness of love they show their families to the newcomers among them.

swirl

These days, I lament how frequently I hear this story of us vs. them – a story that says everyone needs to be just-like-us-or-get-the-hell-out; a story that forgets that most of us were immigrants-learning-English ourselves not too long ago; a story that demonizes the other side without ever actually getting to know them.  While it is not a new story, it is a broken strain of what has torn our country apart, not one that has united it.

This insularity and close-mindedness some of you wear like a badge really looks like an ugly-monster-mask to the rest of us.  It hides your true self, covering up the goodness and beauty that is in you, too.  By standing against the diversity represented in the #americaisbeautiful commercial, you are protesting some of the very ideals of family and virtue and community you value so deeply yourself (unless, of course, you side with the KKK. In that case, we have other issues to discuss.)

It reminds me of this peculiar name our forefathers gave us: the United States of America.  Just as our families hold individuals of every ilk, what makes our nation most beautiful is the diversity within.  Together, we’re attempting to tell a collective story to the world that echoes, ‘We’re better together.’  

The big cities and the tiny towns.
The crazy liberals and the staunch conservatives.
The blacks and the whites and the in-betweens.
The mono-linguals and the multi-linguals.
The fifth-generation descendants and the fresh-off-the-boats.
The cornfields and the coasts.
 

This is why it was so beautiful to hear America the Beautiful sung in so many languages, and why I long so fervently to see the love I first learned in ‘Merica open its arms and embrace everyone in their midst instead of just themselves.  

You are better than this, ‘Merica.

Embracing is something you do way better than the city-folk who won’t even look at each other on the street. The country has much to learn from you if you’d just drop your masks and share the beautiful parts of your lives instead of these ugly ones for you, too, are part of the America-that-is-beautiful. Please, help us keep it that way.

With love and hope for a new tomorrow,

Jody

Related posts

Culture & Race, Families, Children & Marriage

Dear Lego: Yellow is not a ‘neutral’ skin color

When my biracial son wrote this letter to the Lego company about the need for more racial diversity among Lego figures, I started thinking more deeply about the issue.  A friend of mine commented on Facebook that her son (now in his 20s) had written the company complaining that there weren’t any dark-skinned figures because he thought his dark-skinned cousin would feel left out.  At that time, Lego responded that they didn’t make different color mini-figures because “yellow was a ‘neutral’ skin color.”

I gasped.

Really, Lego?  

Have you ever given children a crayon and asked them to draw themselves?  White children use peach – OR YELLOW – for their skin and brown children DON’T.  Not ever. (Unless, perhaps, they wish the were a yellow Lego figure.)  Consider this picture my son drew of our beautiful family (I’m the peach one with the yellow hair.  He and his father are the brown ones):

family

I set aside my son’s offense temporarily until I went to the Lego website to submit his letter detailing his desire to organize his school into a strike against Lego because of the aforementioned ‘neutral’ yellow heads and, much to my great surprise, found this:

Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 10.51.14 AMYes, folks, in 2014.  The centuries old narrative of one color dominating the world’s story needs to change.  Its hurting us all.

We now have a black president, 15% of marriages are interracial, over 20% of our country isn’t white, and that this figure is quickly increasing at a rapid rate.  Perhaps Lego missed the headlines that this is the world’s most typical – or in Lego’s words ‘neutral’ – person:

Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 6.46.39 PM

Not this:

Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 6.51.11 PM

Don’t get me wrong – I LOVE Lego.  I love their creativity and quality and imagination. That’s why it shocks me so greatly that such a genius company dismisses such a significant reality of its consumer market.  Consider with me a few facts about Lego:

  • There are about 62 LEGO bricks for every one of the world’s 6 billion inhabitants.
  • More than 400 million people around the world have played with LEGO bricks.
  • 7 LEGO sets are sold by retailers every second around the world. (Neatorama)

Here’s part of a fascinating infographic by visual.ly that gives specific stats about mini figures themselves:

lego

Let’s think about these stats for a minute:

  • If 400 million people around the world have played with Legos, it’s likely safe to assume that quite a few of these people weren’t yellow – or male for that matter.
  • Lego has corporate Lego offices in China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Singapore, South Africa, and Taiwan – none countries which have a sizable ‘yellow’ population (unless, that is, Lego cares to recreate the demeaning slurs of yesteryear).
  • If this many Legos and mini figures are being created and sold around the world at such a rapid rate, surely there’s enough market interest for Lego to create characters of varying skin hues, genders and ethnicities.
  • If one of Lego’s 4 most frequently asked questions posted on their own website is about the color of the mini figures’ skin, I’m clearly not the first person to ask this question. This mama-bear wants to know why the problem is being dismissed and not fixed asap. My son is growing up quickly and there’s no time to waste.

Step up to the plate, Lego.  Surely your unparalleled creativity can come up with a better solution that allows all children to see themselves in your toys given the remarkable history of innovation you have always shown.  Stop the excuses about yellow heads being ‘neutral’ – #werenotbuyingit  even the kids see straight through that one.  

swirl

Sign our petition to ask Lego to make their minifigures more diverse at Change.org.  Be sure to forward it along to your friends on Facebook or Twitter as well.  

Culture & Race

4.5 tips to help white people talk about race

carpe-2It’s no secret that race is a tough topic to discuss.  Given white people’s history of being both a dominant power and racial oppressors, it’s an even harder issue for us to discuss.  As a group, we tend to either stay quiet on the issue out of ignorance or fear or flip out and do horribly offensive things that make us look like racist-fools.

One of the most common reasons I hear white people say they don’t talk about race is fear of saying the wrong thing.  I know many, many people who don’t want to be offensive, but who also simply have no idea how to have a conversation on race because they’ve never had one.  They may care deeply, but without experience or understanding of race in their own lives, they bumble through such conversations, hoping for the best but not really knowing if they’re helping or hurting.

The tips on talking about race here will provide a starting point for people who want to be part of the solution instead of the problem, but who may not know where to begin.

1.  Listen.  In many race conversations, the dominant group is eager to share their opinions, views, or perceptions of how they see things.  They begin conversations by stating their questions, observations, or disagreements with a presumption of ‘rightness’, giving an unspoken impression that there’s no possible way to have a different perception than their own.  By participating in conversations first by listening, requesting clarification, and listening again, we communicate openness and allow ourselves to actually hear the reality of another’s experience instead of shutting down the conversation by becoming defensive, dismissive, or dominant.

2.  Learn.  Factually speaking, white people don’t have any idea what it means to live as a racial minority in a racialized society.  We can’t.  The simple fact that we’re white means we don’t experience racial prejudice firsthand in our homeland on a regular basis.  However, even if we can’t understand through our personal experience, we can attempt to learn more about what it means to see through someone else’s eyes.  With the sheer availability and accessibility of media today, we have no excuse to not read, watch movies, or seek out viewpoints outside of our own experience.  If we want to be a valuable participant in the conversation, we need to speak from a place of awareness, not ignorance.

One important point here is the need for white people to seek out other white people who are further along the path of racial understanding to process with in this phrase.  Quite frankly, too many eager-but-stupid-white-folk can be completely exhausting for the people of color who consistently have to dialogue about issues of race.  William A. Smith coins this ‘racial battle fatique’, a term which nails the overwhelming emotion many people of color face when they have to continually challenge others to acknowledge the realities of racism.  Most white people, however, have walked the lands of racial ignorance themselves at some point, and have an ability to understand and empathize with others just beginning the path.

3.  Accept.  Rather than assert an opinion, I’ve had more success accepting realities present in racial conversations rather than attempting to defeat or discount them.  These days, I find myself acknowledging my ignorance in conversations of all sorts of topics.  When I know my knowledge is inadequate, I’ll start a conversation with words like, “Forgive me for my ignorance here, but I don’t really know much about ___.”  and then I’ll ask for another’s perspective and do my best to listen well.  Admitting my ignorance from the get-go frees me to listen without trying to prove I know something.

Holly Daly, a good friend of mine with a long history of seeking racial understanding, points out that another reality white people would do well to accept is that the racial conversation does not have to be fair.   Many people approach a conversation with a feeling that the conversation needs to be ‘fair’, thinking consciously or subconsciously, “If I listen to your experience with racism, then you need to listen to mine and acknowledge that it’s equal.”

This attitude communicates an unwillingness to accept that we’ve received far more benefits for our skin color as opposed to prejudice. The fact is that race relations have never been equal in our country, and if white people want to be a healing factor in the equation of racial reconciliation, then we need to know how and when to surrender our own need for ‘equality’ in order to create places where the painful wounds of inequity have space to breathe, to be heard and to heal.

4.  Affirm.  While we will never completely understand what it means to walk in another’s shoes, we can affirm the reality of another’s experience.  Rather than dismiss another’s perception of racism, what if we simply affirmed the reality of what someone experiences rather than critique or question or explain away?  Phrases like, “I’m so sorry for your pain,” or “I can only imagine how that must hurt,” go a long way to affirm the experience of someone who feels marginalized.

4.5.  Love.  There’s one more point that I’ve found the most transformational, but adding a 5. will mess up my whole 4-theme, so I’m only counting it halfway because it’s not so much a tip as it is a magnificent gift because it cannot be forced or created, but something that arises organically and unplanned. By far the most life-changing way I’ve learned to speak of race is under the umbrella of love.

When you love someone, you should naturally do all of the above – listen, learn, accept, affirm.  And when you love someone of a different race, part of the process is listening, learning, accepting, and affirming this part of their experience as well.  I love and am loved well by so many people of color, and it has changed my world in ways I could have never imagined.  As they have spoken their truth out of love for me, I have learned about the fierceness of the human soul, about forgiveness, compassion, and healing in ways I’d never seen in my very-white world.  I am deeply indebted to so many who have loved me patiently and consistently across racial lines, for in loving me, they have shown me how to love more deeply.  This is, by far, the greatest gift that comes from our relationships.

swirl

In the end, while our efforts to grow in racial understanding won’t ever be perfect, there is still much we can do to humbly and boldly walk the path toward wholeness and restoration.  It’s time to stop our pattern of silence by talking, listening, and learning more about our role in the broken racial history of our world and intentionally pursue ways in which we can become part of the healing rather than continuing to contribute to the problem.

Related Posts

Culture & Race, Families, Children & Marriage

Dear Lego: Get your Butts to Work on Equality

Apparently, I’m raising a couple of activists.  My daughter was just complaining yesterday that Lego makes cool toys for boys and boring ones for girls, so there was much rejoicing in our house upon reading this letter that recently went viral:

Immediately after I showed this to my kids, my Lego-loving son son went straight to work on his own letter to the company.  When his older sister suggested that Mama might not approve of the ‘butt’ part, he responded, “Well, Mama says what she thinks, so I’m going to say what I think,” and proceeded to include his own vocabulary choice in his letter even though he knew it meant risking the loss of his precious screen time.  (Upon reading the letter, I thought it captured many children’s frustration with the company’s lack of attention to diversity well, so in this case we applauded his accurate choice of vocabulary and had a good little chuckle ourselves!).

He’s not one for beating around the bush, this kid.  His teacher recently told me that when his class was discussing the history of Native Americans, she made a comment along the lines of, “The Europeans did a few bad things to the Native Americans.” to which my son promptly responded, “Really?!?  Just a few???”

His keen mind sees straight to the core of so many things, and he captured another aspect of Lego’s bias so perfectly in his letter below that I couldn’t resist asking him if he would mind guest-posting on my blog.  He graciously agreed.  So without further adieu, I introduce to you my slightly sassy, ever truth-telling and fabulous 8 year old son, Jehan:

lego letterFor those of you not proficient in reading 8-year-old-handwriting, here’s a transcription:

Dear Lego,

I know you have to make white people in Lego, but I am biracial and I would like (and probably a lot of other people too) for you [to] make more dark skinned and Chinese legos.  I have never seen a Chinese Lego minifigure.  Now, if you don’t make these, I will ask me and my friends to go on a strike on Lego! So I mean now and maybe even my whole class!

So I suggest you get your Lego butts working or I will ask the whole school to do a strike on Lego.  Now my sister thinks I should NOT post this on Facebook, but a girl named [Charolotte] did, so I am!

Now I mostly play with girls.  I think girls aren’t all pink princesses because my friend Arie plays spies with me.  She has bows, guns, you name it.  Now, my other good friend Emma, she would like to have Lego girls too.  Maybe you could have a new form of Legos – Lego Adventure – Lego sales would go haywire.

From, Jehan

Culture & Race

4 reasons white people don’t talk about race

carpe

As a follow-up to last week’s post 4 Reasons White People Need to Talk about Race (which I’d strongly recommend reading in tandem with this post), I want to explore further the general silence surrounding race within white culture.  

But before I go there, I need to confess that this is perhaps one of the hardest pieces I’ve ever written.  It was one of those that I tried to avoid every time I sat down to write.  I’d type three words and get up to make myself some tea, then remember I needed to change the laundry, then attend to some dirty dishes (which is significant if you know how much I hate to clean), finally returning to my screen to check Facebook, Twitter, and email before returning here to add just five more words and deciding I was far too tired to write and needed to go to bed.

It’s not that I don’t have anything to say and more that it’s just really hard to say it.  The likely reason that it’s hard to say is that all of these things below swirl around inside me to this day.  I’m not only pointing out holes in everyone else; I’m also pointing them out in myself.  Quite frankly, that’s not a whole lot of fun. 

With that in mind, I walk carefully through this complex, loaded, and painful territory, terribly aware of the reluctant awakening this journey holds for many like me.

swirl

There’s clearly a frustrated-curiosity out there regarding white people’s racial understanding given some of the search terms that direct people to this blog:

  • “why do white people dismiss black suffering”
  • “culturally insensitive white church”
  • “don’t trust white people”
  • “no idea about white people”
  • “don’t like white people”
  • “white people think they’re experts”
  • “white people don’t acknowledge me”
  • “white people talk like they know everything”

When I see these phrases, I can’t help but wonder if part of this is in response to the silence that surrounds race in many white communities.  Recent news stories illustrate this silence well.

Phil Robertson’s comments around race were just as provocative as his comments surrounding homosexuality, but this didn’t get near the coverage that it should have.  The lack of speakers of color at many conferences passively removes the race conversation from such venues.  Bring up race in a mixed room and watch as most of the white people morph into wallflowers.  After the Zimmerman verdict last summer, I had white friends who hadn’t even heard of the case.  Even though it was one of the most controversial racial cases in recent history, no one in their circles was talking about it at all.

As every person is an individual, there are likely a whole number of reasons for such silence.  However, the tendencies that run within cultures are still beneficial to consider if we want to deepen our understanding of what shapes our views on and reactions toward racial conversations.  While this won’t be a conclusive list, for the sake of conversation, I’d like to put a few reasons out there why white people don’t talk much about race for us to ponder together.

1. Fear of Conflict

Perhaps the most potent reason white people don’t talk about race is fear of conflict.  This can be fear of both internal and external conflict.  Jon, a commenter on this post, writes about the fear of conflict with others, “Yes, racism is real in the United States, as is privilege, but I think there has to be a way to deal with that problem without constantly having to take the posture of being apologetic so that everyone knows you’re not like those “other” culturally insensitive people.”

Jon’s comment summarizes well the fear that many white people of being wrong, looking ignorant, or saying the wrong thing in conversations about race.

Sarah Visser, a professor of leadership at Azusa Pacific University who studies diversity and white privilege, points out that this fear of conflict need not be only with others, “I think that often when we experience fear-triggers, we assume that it’s coming from someone or something,” she wrote in a recent email exchange we had on the topic, “when actually it springs from deep inside us and is evidence of our need to do some ‘personal work.'”

I learn this lesson time and again, not realizing the impact of a racialized society on my own thinking.  Years ago, I was teaching at a very diverse high school.  One of my best students was a tall African American male who faithfully submitted meticulous work, treated everyone with respect, and was well-known for his kind and gentle manner.  One morning, I was walking into school and saw a tall black male dressed in saggy pants, an oversized jersey and a cock-eyed hat from afar.  Instantly, I tensed because of the ‘gangsta’ image I perceived from afar.  As I walked closer, I recognized him as my beloved student.

Coming face to face with my subconscious absorption of society’s microagressions* toward black male youth, I was both shocked and embarrassed by my reaction, and it forced me to face the fact that, regardless of what I thought I believed, I was not at all immune to subscribing to stereotypes.  In order to deal with this stereotype I held, it was necessary for me to intentionally acknowledge it rather than remaining silent to save face, even if I was only acknowledging it to myself.

2.  Guilt

“I am tired of this guilty conscience mentality that people are trying to push onto “white” people,” wrote Joseph, a commenter in this post.  He is certainly not alone.  I have heard many white people express frustration with feeling forced to ‘take responsibility’ for past actions that they had nothing to do with.

Tatum (1997) suggests that this stems in part from white society’s understanding of themselves first as individuals in a meritocracy (p. 103).  In other words, we think we got where we are all by ourselves and that we deserve it.  This contrasts significantly with the fact that many people of color come from cultures with more communal perspectives who view their individual success rooted in the experience of those around them.

My husband has made a similar observation about how this individualism influences the white evangelical church in America.  From his perspective, this arm of the church disproportionately focuses on individual sins relating to sex like homosexuality, abortion, pre-marital sex while turning a blind eye to corporate sins like greed, lack of care for the poor, and preferential laws for the rich.

When we (white people) view ourselves as only individuals and not part of a whole, it’s easy for accusations of racism to induce guilt. It’s true – we didn’t do it individually. However, when we allow ourselves to learn from the perspective of communally oriented cultures, we’ll learn more about how the system was established to benefit us at the expense of others and how we continue to perpetrate this very system without intentional actions to change it.

As it stands, the system in which we quite comfortably live our lives tells our stories from our perspectives far more frequently than any others.  Ponder a few of these stories with me:

  • How might the ‘Thanksgiving story’ be told from a Native American perspective?  Could it be perceived differently than a peaceful dinner between the ‘Indian’ and the White Man?
  • Who frames the theological story we tell?  How would that story be told differently from those of a non-dominant power?
  • Where are our theories rooted?  If the research on which we base our understanding of ‘sound theory’ comes only from a white western perspective, what realities might we be missing?

While the white perspective shouldn’t be eliminated, for the overarching story to be accurate, it needs to include a wide array of perspectives that extends beyond the dominant group.

3.  Ignorance

“Part of the problem, I think (in America, at least), is the willingness of the minorities to KEEP themselves segregated.”  (Chris)

To put it bluntly, a lot of white people don’t talk about race because they don’t know how, or because they assume that just because they’ve had a few conversations or seen a few news programs, they know everything there is to know about the topic.

In college, I was on a committee to plan the Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration on campus.  Our (mostly white) committee came up with the slogan, “Racism: Been there, done that.”  When we suggested our theme to the invited African-American speaker for the celebrations, she pushed back. “Oh no, you haven’t!” she countered, and she was quite right.  We thought that our willingness to say the word race meant that we actually knew something about it.  How wrong we were.

Chris’s comment above illustrates an ignorance that  many white people continue to believe.  We may believe it because 1) we operate on media driven sound bytes or stereotypes; 2) we don’t have actual friends of other races; 3) we rely on gut feelings rooted in our own experience and not fact; 4) we’re not listening to any experiences except those that reflect our own.  Chris’s assumptions in the above statement are factually wrong, but his views will never change until he starts to dig deeper than the reasons above.

We can’t simply will ignorance away.  If we want to increase our understanding, we have to do something about it.  Watch documentaries.  Read the resources listed at the end of this post.  Volunteer.  Listen without speaking.  Attend an MLK Day celebration or a Black history event.  Ask the hard questions not of others, but of ourselves.

4.  Subconscious Superiority Complex

That revelation came later. In my youthful days though, I had concluded in my White-Christian mind that all those (passive-) aggressive Indonesians and blacks needed to repent from their anger and that me quietly ‘forgiving’ them was the way to balance out the evil in the world. I would look at my WWJD bracelet and smile, all self-indulged. (Jobke)

Finally, I think part of my fallen culture as a white privileged male person is to use my power to control and fix things, and people. It’s quite likely that that’s a bigger part of my draw to working with people from other cultures than I’d care to admit. But I need to confess this, continually, and claim my call as faithfulness, not fixing. I fail. Maybe we need a WPA (white privilege anonymous: “Hi, I’m Kevin, and I’m privileged”). Actually, doing my own “white work,” and engaging privilege directly, is much harder for me than “serving” folks from other cultures. (Kevin)

If I get really honest with myself, I kind of like the position of racial privilege that comes with my skin.  This doesn’t mean that I cognitively believe I deserve it or that I’m better because of my race, but it is a reality in my thinking that I need to confront.

A good friend pointed out that another way this superiority complex shows up is when white people expect race conversations to be ‘fair’, as in “if I listen to your experience with racism, then you need to listen to mine and acknowledge that it’s equal.”  Sometimes, we just need to listen humbly and keep our mouths shut. The honesty about arrogance and power in Jobke and Kevin’s comments is a great starting point toward humility for us all.

Gary Howard wrote an insightful book for teachers called We can’t teach what we don’t know: White teachers, multiracial schools.  In the same vane of this title, we can’t talk about what we don’t know.  Until we’ve spend some significant time understanding both our own attitudes and the perspectives of others in the racial conversation, we remain only observers of the conversation, not true participants in it.

swirl

In Why do all the Black Kids Sit Together in the Cafeteria, author Beverly Tatum discusses the necessity of courage to break the silence in the race conversation.  “Silence feels safer,” she suggests, “but in the long run, I know it is not.”  Tatum recognizes that nothing will happen if she acquiesces to her fear of confronting the reality she sees, and that silence is ultimately not a beneficial response for herself personally or society at large.  Keeping quiet in the face of injustice has never hailed as a historical virtue.  

With gentle steps and hopeful hearts, may this be our ever-present prayer:

Give us awareness to let down our guard and lean into the fear that keeps us silent in racial conversations.

Give us courage to face our guilt by learning about how our cultural values shape our internal definitions of what is valuable.

Give us a desire to increase our knowledge through listening and learning to voices of those whose stories and whose access to power differ from ours. 

Help us acknowledge our propensity to hold tight to power by loosening our grip and looking always to understand before we are understood.

(If you’re not white, I’d ask that you pray this for us as you can.  The painful history of race has also left us a broken people, even when we don’t acknowledge it, and your prayers for us are deeply needed.)

What’s your take?  Have you experienced any of the above reasons for not talking about race?  What did I miss?  

Related Posts

Further reading

Sue et al. (2007) describe microaggressions as, “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”

Tatum, B. D. (1997). Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Culture & Race

4 reasons white people need to talk about race

carpe-1Hi.  My name is Jody, and I’m a white person.  

Over the years, this single admission has often felt like an Alcoholics Anonymous confession, a fact about which I can do nothing and for which I am slightly ashamed.  I have stood at bus stops on the south side of Chicago, desperately wishing for dreads and dark skin so I wouldn’t stand out so starkly.  I have maneuvered the streets of the developing world, greeted with “I lofe you, babeee” and “Taxi, madam” solicitations because of the color of my skin.  I have received unwanted but superior treatment to the locals because my skin defines me as a wealthy foreigner.

My whiteness is something I did not ask for, cannot change, and don’t always completely understand.  While I haven’t always been aware of the full implications of this trait in a racialized society, living between worlds has pushed me to grapple with my race as a significant shaper of my identity. As I began this process, there was a time when I was ashamed of the privilege it carried, angry and saddened over the history of racial supremacy and discrimination.   I hear this shame frequently from other white people, frustrated with feeling blamed, dismissed or responsible for actions-not-their-own.  In response to this post, Jason summed up a sentiment I often hear from white people:

I feel frustrated that I somehow inherited qualities based on what my race did or didn’t do, and that I have “responsibilities” to be a certain way to other races therefore. I feel people want me to feel guilty for who I am based solely on my race.

I’m tired of being the bad guy, the boring guy, the rich guy, whatever. I’m tired of being told I have no right to feel that way because others have it worse. I’m tired of being singled out, having to be taught how to be “culturally sensitive” as if I’m the only one who isn’t–which incidentally reinforces privilege. I’m tired of being told I can’t have a voice, an opinion.

Joseph articulately shared a similar opinion:

All that to say that assuming someone’s whiteness or blackness marks their cultural makeup and place in society does not further the discussion nor lead to constructive debate. The issue in claiming that white people should burden the responsibility is that we again draw swords for the wrong reasons.

We entrench ourselves in our values and take sides to eliminate the burden of guilt and point to a symbol, which has no clear identity, as the root of the problem. Respect, faith and personal responsibility should be a driving force in how people conduct themselves with any and every person regardless of race. We should not be subject to some noble obligation for the sake of cultural semblance. I challenge your presumption that being white requires some intangible burden to be carried. You assume that my whiteness defines me simply because I am white. It does not.

Comments like these are great examples of why white people need to talk about race more than we do.  Let me explain a little further:

1. We don’t know how to talk about race

It’s rare that I hear a white person use the word “black” in public settings to describe someone’s race without stuttering in the process.  Most white people stumble nervously over themselves when using racial terms, “She’s a-um-a, well, she’s af-, bl-um, she’s blackImeanAfric-um, I mean, African-American?”

Yeah.  Let’s just be honest…I know I’ve done it.  And I know that chances are most of you white folks reading this have done it too.   We’re uncomfortable using racial terms because we don’t have to think in racial terms on a regular basis.

People of color talk about race all the time – they have to in order to negotiate living in a world where the dominant power structure does not recognize cultural norms outside of their own.  When race is a daily factor in human relations, people develop a language and ability to process it. However, because white people remain so silent on the issue, we often don’t have a clue how to talk about race with someone from a background different than our own.

2.  We don’t know who we are

I (along with plenty of other scholars) would argue that one of the reasons we defend ourselves so vigorously is because we don’t fully understand ourselves and the racial dynamics that shape our perspectives.  In her landmark book on racial identity development Why do all the black kids sit together in the cafeteria?, psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum (1997) explores the development of white identity.  She suggests that the silence on race in white communities stems from the fact that white people see race as something as a defining trait for other people, not themselves.  As one white student commented, “I’m not white, I’m just normal.”

Tatum then goes on to explain the stages of white identity development, something I’d never even heard of until my college years.  My first encounter with my whiteness was when I participated in an urban studies program on the south side of Chicago.  We privileged and white college students lived in a rehab center with recovering drug addicts, all of whom were urban African Americans.  Completely unaware of the cultural rules by which I operated, I dove into seeking relationship with the residents, eager to learn more about their lives.  I asked all sorts of questions and listened eagerly as they shared their stories with me, a naive rural white girl.

I thought I was maneuvering just fine until the day, a woman named Pat approached me and said, “I need to apologize to you. I’ve been avoiding you the whole time you’ve been here.”

I froze inside, wondering what I’d done wrong.  I thought I’d been so nice, listening, smiling, asking questions. People where I came from were rarely so blunt, and I wasn’t sure how to respond to her bluntness, so I just continued to listen.

“You asked so many questions, I felt like you were some journalist pelting me with questions,” she explained.  “It didn’t feel like you really wanted to know me, just like you wanted to use me for my stories.”

I thought I might cry, both from her misinterpretation of my intentions and my lack of understanding about how my actions were perceived.

“So. I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry I didn’t give you a chance and just shut down on you instead. It wasn’t very nice of me.”

I stumbled through some sort of response, but mostly I was speechless because I really didn’t know what to say.  It was the first time I’d come face-to-face with a person whose cultural rules dictated different values than mine, and I hadn’t even known I’d been operating by cultural rules.  In my mind, I was just “being normal”.

Come to find out, “normal” isn’t the same for everyone.  Gerald Pine and Asa Hilliard (1990) explain some of the underlying dynamics shaping our differing communication styles.:

Discussions and debates about racism create anxiety and conflict, which are handled differently by different cultural groups.  For example, Whites tend to fear open discussion of racial problems because they believe that such discussion will stir up hard feelings and old hatreds.  Whites tend to believe that heated arguments about racism lead to divisiveness, loss of control, bitter conflict, and even violence.  Blacks, on the other hand, believe that discussion and debate about racism help to push racial problems to the surface – and perhaps, force society to deal with them.

When I hear whites portray themselves as ‘colorblind’, I think of myself in those days, unaware and shielded from the harsh realities surrounding race and privilege as well as the different values by which I operated.  I think of the friend who said to me, “If you don’t see my color, you don’t see me.”  I think of all the people like Jason and Joseph who feel silenced in the race conversation because they feel blamed or pigeon-holed.  I think of the intense individualism by which white mainstream America unknowingly operates that conflicts with the communal value systems of other races and cultures.

And then I think it would do us all a whole-lot-of-good to talk about these things far more than we do.

3.  We need healing, too

Oppression does not only hurt the oppressed, it leaves deep scars on the oppressor as well.  Silence breeds shame, and the silence about our history as racial oppressors has allowed our shame to work its way so deep we don’t even see how it eats away at us.  Some of us even find it funny when it shows up in our private-little-racial-jokes or shock jock personalities like Rush Limbaugh.  Occasionally, it slips out to the public and there’s a collective gasp, a scurry to apologize, and red faces.

Quite frankly, sometimes it all feels like one big messy subject, a conflict too painful to solve, more divisive than uniting.

But Parker Palmer’s words linger in my heart, “We think the world apart, what would it be like to think the world together?”  To me, this is where healing for everyone begins in this complex conversation; and to think the world together, there needs to be two participants in the conversation. If we truly want to see change (which I believe many of us do), it can’t just be the people of color who are vested in this issue.  When white people “participate” in the conversation by smugly crossing our arms, silently observing from a distance, assuming we know better or arrogantly refusing to consider to other perspectives, we only perpetuate the system we’ve created.

4.  We’re afraid of losing control

This conversation about being the majority race can certainly grow complicated, and sometimes we can be so caught up in subconsciously defending our long-standing position of power that we’re unable to actually discuss the issues in earnest.

If we do want to discuss the issues, we need to start with ourselves and the history that frames the reality of our lives. While I value his honesty, I’d challenge Joseph’s notion that our whiteness does not define us by suggesting that in order to effectively and compassionately participate in society today, we need to spend time first understanding ourselves in relation to others by contemplating questions like this:

  • Who do I know?  Are my social circles made up of mostly people just like me?  If so, have I ever really listened to someone’s story that does not reflect my own?
  • How do I respond when someone presents a perspective I don’t understand?  If I am defensive, dismissive, or angry, what does their response trigger in me that makes me unable to hear their story?  How might I learn to respond with more compassion?
  • In conversations about race, do I listen or do I preach?  Do I assume first that I am right? Do I follow Stephen Covey’s model to listen first to understand, then to be understood or do I leave the conversation before I even consider the other participant’s perspective?
  • What do I know about my history?  Where do I come from?  What shapes my subconscious values and rules?
  • What do I know about the history of other races and cultures?  How do I know this history?  Was it told through the eyes of the culture itself or the dominant culture?  Could there be another perspective than the one I’ve seen?
  • If race comes up in a conversation either positively or negatively, do I speak or remain silent?  Why do I respond the way I do?
  • If I feel afraid or guilty in race conversations, how have I dealt with these emotions?  Do I allow them to immobilize me or do I lean into them as opportunities for deeper growth?

This cannot be a discussion of tit-for-tat, of accusations and defensives, and as members of the dominant majority, we need to lead the conversation first with humility and compassion.  We can not let go until we know what it is that we’re holding onto.

swirl

I’m Jody, and I’m a white person.

This is not my only identity, but it is certainly a piece of it.  The more I understand how it shapes me and, in turn, how this affects those around me and in the world-at-large, the more I will become a peace-maker rather than a conflict-instigator.

Will you join me?  

The road is long and the journey a bit bumpy at times, but the destination is one of vulnerability, hope and restoration. Let us not shut our eyes, our hearts or our mouths, but rather open them to those around us, creating space for everyone in our midst, not only those just like ourselves.

Related Posts

Further reading

Comment Policy

This is a painfully loaded issue posted in a moderated public forum.  Comments are welcome, but please be sure to carefully read the post first and then thoughtfully respond.  Knee-jerk reactions and hasty accusations are rarely productive in potentially explosive conversations.  It may also help to read this post before commenting.  Comments that do not follow these guidelines will not be published, though it is highly likely that these commenters will receive a personal email from me so we can dialog in a more private arena. While it can be ironically cleansing for the shit to hit the fan, it’s not particularly helpful to fling it all over everyone else.

Pine, G. & Hilliard, A. (1990).  Rx for racism: Imperatives for America’s schools.  Phi Delta Kappan, 593-600.

Tatum, B. D. (1997). Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria. New York, NY: Basic Books.

The-best-ones

The-best-ones-in-December

The-ones-about-Christmas

Dear kids: What you need to know about Duck Dynasty, Justine Sacco, and Christmas by Ann Voskamp. “Whoever said sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you? Was dead wrong. Ask a bearded guy from Louisiana or a tweeting PR exec en route to Africa to comment on that. Don’t ever forget it, kids: There is nothing more explosive than words.”

Me and the oldborn king by John Blase.  A beautiful poem about the steady pursuit of God.

Rethinking the nativity by Rachel Pieh Jones.  “We want to make the birth of Jesus as hard as possible, as cold and lonely and desperate and painful as possible. Why? Is it because we can’t grasp the infinite coldness, loneliness, desperation, and pain of what the incarnation truly meant? We wrap it up in dirty clothes and stinking animals, in physical loneliness and fear. Is our feeble attempt at re-imagining the Christmas story our way of trying to understand, to put images and emotions to something so powerfully and deeply beyond our comprehension? To bring the miracle of God-made-flesh into our realm of understanding?”

Christmas is cross-cultural by Christena Cleveland. “Our Christmas celebrations often turn us culturally-inward. We focus on our biological/cultural families, our traditions, and exchanging gifts with those inside our social circles. These things are great! But if we truly want to commemorate the Incarnation, we must turn culturally-outward. We must follow our great High Mentor – and leave our cultural enclaves in order to inhabit each other’s stories this Christmas.”

The-ones-about-mustering-up-courage

Oh, Honey! Come Here, I think your privilege is showing by Osheta Moore.  “Since I wrote last on racism, privilege, and diversity, I’ve had several white bloggers, most of them happen to live or come from the South say to me, “I really want to talk about this but I don’t think I have the right to, I mean…I’m white”. To which I say, because you’re white, you need to talk about it.”

Father’s heartbreaking journey after losing his wife post childbirth.  “”I wanted to take this thing that happened to me, this really, really awful moment in my life, and turn it into something beautiful so that [Maddy] could look back and see the love story of my time with her mom. And my love story with her,” Matt says. “There’s two different love stories there.”

Guy brings his white girlfriend to a barber shop and gets hated on by eBaum’s World.  Watch this remarkable video on how people respond to racist statements about an interracial couple.

The-one-that-made-me-grin

America’s longest-married couple to celebrate 81st anniversary.  Their secret?  “We have watched the world change together,” said John Betar. “The key is to always agree with your wife.”

The-ones-about-Nelson-Mandela

Dear Mandela, the only way I know how to walk now is long and free by Idelette McVicker.  “I can be, because Mandela has been. Strong, proud, wise, graciously forgiving, tenacious for freedom.”

On Nelson Mandela, Jesus, and Our Sanitized Stories by Hannah Heinzekehr.  “Nelson Mandela was a great man and a great leader. This is true. But as I watched all the coverage surrounding his life and death, something struck me. I was struck by how quickly we humans can tend to sanctify and sanitize a person and their story. I was not alone in this observation. Shortly after his death, The Daily Beast ran an article entitled, “Don’t Sanitize Nelson Mandela: He’s Honored Now, But Was Hated Then.”

10 Human Rights Activists who made 2013 a better year for humanity.  “Our beloved Nelson Mandela once said that, “A good head and good heart are always a formidable combination.” As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of Human Rights Day today, let’s celebrate 10 individuals around the world who are living by Mandela’s words and helped make 2013 a better year for humanity.”

The-ones-about-Jesus-being-white

Fox news host Megyn Kelly tells Kids: Jesus and Santa are both white guys.  No wonder my daughter thought even Jesus was white…too much Fox news for her? 😉

Call Jesus white? Expect a big fight by Edward J. Blum.  “All the chatter about Jesus being white (or not) shows how much America has changed. There used to be “whites’ only” restaurants and schoolrooms. Now, even Jesus cannot be called white without repercussions.”

Insisting Jesus was white is bad history and bad theology by Jonathan Merritt.  “If the Bible is silent on the matter of Jesus’ skin color, does it really matter that Megyn Kelly says Jesus is white? Yes, actually.”

Jon Stewart’s reaction = priceless.

Popular-ones-on-BW

When even Jesus is white.  “Those blasted colonialist publishers who had to go and make Jesus look just like them – they were fully responsible for my child feeling on the outs.”

Dealing with anger in race relations. “I have often heard people of color express a similar anger toward the inequitable system that keeps racism alive and kicking, but living with my non-white family in a majority white setting made my experience with anger and race take a new turn. The longer we lived there, the harder it was for me to assume good-intentions when the bad-actions were so obvious. Over time, I grew angry with white-people myself.”

Iceberg concept of culture.  “In intercultural relationships, simply talking about some of the rules guiding the unspoken and unconscious rules of culture brings a new level of awareness in understanding how to relate to one another.”

Culture & Race, Restoration & Reconciliation

Dealing with anger in race relations

As I’ve participated both publicly and privately in the race dialogue over the years, one of the most difficult aspects I’ve navigated is the role of anger in race relations.  It’s not hard to see – the comments section of race-related articles demonstrate well the heated presence of anger in race relations.  For those seeking to walk the path toward deeper cultural understanding, understanding the roots of racial anger is an area that we can’t afford to dismiss.  As a white person, I’ve been surprised to encounter my own battles with anger and race, and I share from that experience here.

swirl

My first teaching job was in an historic black school in a Midwestern city, and it was a crash course in understanding dynamics of urban settings, race, and poverty.  Being brand new to the professional world, it is highly probable that my youthfulness translated into a white-savioresque attitude à la Dangerous Minds, even though I didn’t consciously enter with this perspective.  In spite of my intentions, I encountered two quite contrasting responses to my naïveté.

The first was from an African-American teacher next door who railed angrily into me one day for something I’d done that irked her.  I don’t remember a word of what she actually said to me, but I clearly remember returning to my classroom in tears, feeling crushed by her anger and assumptions regarding my white ignorance.  I’d tried to seek her insight out on previous (failed) attempts, and now she’d shut me down for good.  From that point on, our relationship was one of icy glares and cold shoulders.

The other response was from another African-American teacher who kindly took me under her wing.  She showered me with hugs as she gently taught me the basics of African-American history and urban culture.  She took kids home with her when they needed a mama and brought them breakfast at school when they were hungry.  All the kids knew that you went to her classroom first if you needed some extra love and I followed their lead frequently.

While Loving Teacher’s response felt better than Angry Teacher’s harshness toward me, both reactions taught me vital lessons in the world of race relations.  Nearly fifteen years later, I cringe at my youthful self with a grateful nod to the lesson Angry Teacher taught me.  After I got past the initial sting of the Angry Teacher’s reaction (which, I might sheepishly add, took years), I began to contemplate why she may have responded the way she did.   She’d lived down the street from these kids and their parents and their pastors for longer than I’d been alive, and she knew a reality that I didn’t.

As I’ve reflected on it over the years, I’d guess that her anger spewed on me that day stemmed more from the continued systemic racial injustice that she navigated on a daily basis rather than from my specific actions.  My young white skin and curiosity simply represented the cycle of systemic injustice that had reeked havoc on her home, and it (understandably) made her angry with me.  For all the good I hoped to do in that context, it forced me to acknowledge that she was the one with the lasting influence and that I was simply an observer passing through.

swirl

I have often heard people of color express a similar anger toward the inequitable system that keeps racism alive and kicking, but living with my non-white family in a majority white setting made my experience with anger and race take a new turn.  The longer we lived there, the harder it was for me to assume good-intentions when the bad-actions were so obvious.  Over time, I grew angry with white-people myself.

I was angry that ‘my people’ wouldn’t embrace my family like they did people who fit into their pretty-little-cornfield-box.  I was angry they didn’t care enough about the world-outside to understand people from it.  I was angry they clammed up and smiled when they didn’t understand something rather than just admit it outright.  I was angry they dismissed others’ perspectives with Christian platitudes just to ‘keep the peace’.

Over the years, I’ve asked people I hold in great esteem how they’ve managed to keep going through the anger that inevitably comes with interracial relationships.  I’ve had more than one day year when I’ve shut down on the whole thing.  The last bout nearly did me in completely.  But then, the air came as we surfaced somewhere near Los Angeles gasping for breath.  We sat quietly vibrating in the shadow of the mountains and on the edge of the sea for over a year.  

Little by little, I leaned on the wisdom from people ahead of me on this path to sort out the pieces of my anger over our experience in a land that did not understand its impact on those who were different within its borders.  Since everyone processes these things differently, I’ll recap a few things I’ve been learning about processing racial anger along the way.  

swirl

It’s ok to be angry.  The nice Christian Midwesterner in me would disagree with this statement, but I’ve learned that denying anger only makes it sink deeper.  Bringing it to light it in an appropriate time and place helps to shed light on what’s my responsibility and what’s not. In the process of walking with my anger, I’m also learning to distinguish between a productive anger that produces fruit and a vomiting anger just explodes  ickiness over everyone.

Expressing anger is both cultural and individual.  Personally, I rarely yell and scream when I’m angry. Instead, I grow very quiet.  This happens to work great in my home culture where many shut down and numb out upon screaming-and-yelling.  You can imagine my shock, however, to encounter people who ‘yelled’ at each other only to start a hugfest and productive conversation a few moments later.  Everyone subscribes to unspoken personal and cultural rules regarding the expression of anger, but few of us follow the same exact ones.  Letting go of my need to apply my internal rules to the rest of the world helps me to listen better when I encounter an anger expressed differently from my own.

Jesus is not a band-aid.  It’s human nature to want a quick fix, but also equally human for that fix to be complex and layered.  Sticking Jesus on the massive history of racial and systemic injustice doesn’t heal anything, it only makes Jesus look inadequate and small.  While I’m a firm believer that walking with Jesus in our moments can give us the ability to walk alongside one another’s pain, it’s not the same as understanding others’ stories by listening to them with our ears and our hearts and our lives.  To say that ‘the only solution is Jesus‘ implies that we don’t need to do anything but piously open our bibles and sing hymns and everything will get better.  One only need to read the history books to see that this isn’t true.

Injustice is painful. I’ve occasionally caught myself whining, “Why me?” in response to our difficulties.  But when I live in light of a global reality, I find that the more appropriate question is, “Why not me?”  What better lesson for the middle-class-white-girl-with-an-education to learn?  My privilege sneaks up on me so subtly that I hardly notice it, and coming face-to-face with injustice gives me a stark reality check on what the majority of the world faces every day.  The quicker I accept this pain, the more humbly I learn to walk in it.

Forgiveness takes time.  A former African-American pastor of mine recommended that I walk in the way of Jesus by following His words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” – even when “they” likely know what they’re doing because it still shows a better way.  Another guide gave me permission to take time away to be imperfect and angry for awhile.  When people hold those you love at arms’ length, it hurts, and I needed some private time and space to grieve this loss.

Savor the good moments.  While the overarching flavor of our racial and cultural isolation was bitter, there were all sorts of sweet-and-holy moments, and plenty of individual people who, in spite of the prevailing environment, embraced us open-armed in their homes and their hearts. Pausing to sit with these gentle memories softens the anger and refocuses me toward grace and goodness.

swirl

These days, when I sit with a person of color, listening to them express the conflict of being the only one, wonder if they were chosen for their skill or their skin color, or sigh at the incredulous ignorance of a white leader’s words, what I hear first is pain, even when it sounds like anger.  I hear sadness over what hasn’t changed and grief over the white majority’s lack of understanding of their inherent privilege and power.   I hear weariness over walking the same path time and again, wondering if change will ever happen, if the majority will ever really care enough to understand.

I am, however, only one small voice and two small ears.  What I say and hear is only a piece of the story.  Like Loving Teacher and Angry Teacher, everyone processes the brokenness of our racial history differently, and each voice tells a story we need to hear – even the angry ones.

I’d love it if you shared your voice, too. We all have much to learn about this difficult topic. What does your story say?  How do you walk along the path of anger in race relations?  

Related Posts

Culture & Race, Restoration & Reconciliation

When even Jesus is white

“Mama,” she ran toward me through the sand, “something really funny just happened.”

We were relaxing at the local murky-pond-called-a-lake on a quiet summer day.  “Really?” I grinned at her, eager for the humor of a five-year-old. “What was so funny?”

“Some kid just asked me if I was from China!!!” she sounded shocked.  “Why would anyone think I was from China!?  Isn’t that funny?!?”

“Yeah, honey,” I smiled, covering the ache inside. “That’s just crazy.”

She shrugged her shoulders and skipped back to the beach, oblivious to her mama’s sinking shoulders.  We’d lived as one of the only biracial families in our small-town cornfield for several years at that point, and I was wearing thin on the lack of awareness we ran into around every corner.  My margins to tolerate the monocultural masses were shrinking, and their ignorance had worn me thin.

I know, I know.  But they’re just kids.  They don’t mean any harm, right?

But what about the friend who whispered to me that no one would play with her black son at recess?  What about the teachers who wouldn’t do a damn thing about his isolation, claiming he was just ‘quiet’? Or the time another friend’s daughter was called a ‘burnt hot dog’?  What about the teenagers who had run my brown husband and white self off the road, sticking their heads out of the truck with angry shouts?  Or the time my husband confronted another group of teenagers who were harassing an African American just walking down the street?  What about the threatening phone call that woke us up in the dead of the night?

Maybe they didn’t mean harm, but maybe they did.  All I knew for certain was that I had no ability to tell the difference, and I didn’t much like having to choose.

swirl

My sweet daughter climbed into the van after preschool later that year and dissolved into tears, “Why am I the only brown kid, mama?”

Unwisely, I attempted a rational explanation and she shut me down cold. “No, mama!  Everyone is America is white! Everyone except me.”

It was clear she just needed to vent so I listened for awhile and then reattempted my explanation, “Not everyone is white, sweetie.  Think of your uncle and your cousin and all of Thaatha’s family and-”

Furious, she interrupted me, “NO, mama!  Everyone is white except me.  I’m the only brown kid.  Even Jesus is white!”

She might as well have stuck a knife through my heart.  Those blasted colonialist publishers who had to go and make Jesus look just like them – they were fully responsible for my child feeling on the outs.  I collected myself and told her that actually, Jesus wasn’t white, and that the people who painted the pictures of Him got a little too focused on themselves and didn’t think about how Jesus really looked.  “He probably looked much more like you,” I told her in an attempt to soothe her angst.

Even at five, my intuitive daughter knew what it felt like to live at the margins.  Sometimes she chuckled at it and called it silly; but other times it made her crumble to pieces.

Since we left the cornfields, I’ve had my own moments of chuckling and crumbling before God, asking why we had to endure cultural isolation for so long, why my daughter had to live those hard questions at such a young age, and why we felt so isolated in a place that so many (white) people loved to call home.

For now, there are no clear answers, other than knowing that Jesus lived in the margins, too. And when He asked my husband and I to walk this path of living between worlds, he promised to walk with us through it, threatening phone calls and all.  That doesn’t mean we’ll always know how, or do it flawlessly, or be responsible to fix it; but it does mean that when the bitterness creeps in, we exhale, “Father, forgive them…” and await the slow restoration of our hearts from the breaking days of the cornfields.

What I’m learning from those marginal years is that if we don’t know healing in our own crumbled moments, we won’t ever see the beautiful sights of the healed ones.  For racial healing to run deep in our stubbornly shallow world, it must be led by the wounded healers who love one another fiercely and forgivingly, willing to wade through the murky waters of the margins.

Related Posts

Culture & Race, Restoration & Reconciliation

Dear white man:

I guess you and I have some difficult things to talk about.

Sometimes, I say things that might make you squirm a little.  And other times, they seem to make you downright angry. Yours is a story of dominance, of disrespecting and denying others’ rights and conquering those who are inconvenient to you.   I know you well, and imagine that it can’t be easy to carry such a heavy load on your shoulders.  You are not alone in your burden.  Indeed, others from a variety of cultures and races and histories have told this story sometimes even more brutally than you.

But sadly, you have told it too.  Even if others have their faults, this fact does not shift the blame from your shoulders to theirs.

However, this story alone is far too simple a tale. I would be grossly mistaken to suggest you are all the same.  You are as varied as the whole world wide, and you have also been very good.  

You have been my brother and my father and my grandfather, loving me fiercely and caring for those around you with wisdom and gentleness.  You have been Dietrich Bonhofer, William Wilberforce, and Abraham Lincoln, advocates and defenders of justice, fighting to right the world’s wrongs.  You have been Dr. Paul Brand, Graham Staines, and Shane Claiborne, offering your lives as a sacrifice to pursue healing for the world’s brokenness.  You have been Henri Nouwen, Phillip Yancey, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and N.T. Wright, thinkers and writers who have blown new life into my faith and kept me from walking away when so many others in it looked so damn crazy.  You have been countless friends and colleagues and mentors who simply do not fit the stereotype that is portrayed of you.

I am so deeply sorry that you must carry this burden simply due to the color of your skin.  Perhaps this experience will help you better understand the feelings of many who have suffered at your hands simply because of the color of their skin.

I do not say this because I hate you, or because I’m angry or arrogant or have a chip on my shoulder that needs fixed.  

I say it because I need you, because the world needs you.  

These days, things are growing ever more complex and we need every voice available to speak for what is heals and restores and unites. Even with all your historical baggage and brokenness, we need you.  Even with your current tales of greed and violence and corruption and misuse of power, we need you.  All the people who fall under tales of your oppression – the women, the people with skin colors and cultures different than yours – we still need you.

You are not useless.

You are not throw-away.

Your scars, prominent as they may be, do not leave you without hope.

But we need you to be something different than what the broad strokes that both history and modern culture paint.  We don’t need you to deny your burden, or to be angry when we notice its impact on our lives.  We don’t need you to be defensive, and try to shift the blame onto someone else. We don’t need you to pretend we don’t exist because you don’t know any other way to respond to our voices asking you to change your ways.

What we need is your voice, not to speak for us, but to speak with us.

We need your minds, not to override our thoughts, but to listen and collaborate with us.

We need your hearts, to love us deeply, and to care about the pain of the burden we must carry.

We need your confidence, not to overpower us, but to care with us, to work for goodness and fight for justice.

We need your courage, not because we don’t have it or yours is stronger, but because great courage in the hands of power changes the course of history.

We need your respect, to view us as more than mere bodies to satisfy your desires and your lusts.

We need your legs to stand with us as we pursue a world that is better for our children, one that loves peace and prevents violence.

We need your ears to listen for and include the voices of everyone, not just your cronies or the people you most easily understand.

We need your vulnerability, to walk through the guilt that overwhelms and into the understanding that gives us all life.

We are human, too, equal in every way to you. We are capable and competent, eager and interested.  We need you to acknowledge this, to humbly loosen your grip on the power you hold and actively create ways to share it with us, too.

Please, walk with us – not ahead or over top of us – but simply and humbly alongside us, as partners and companions.  We need each other.  These burden are much too heavy for any of us to carry alone.

Much love,

Jody

Related Posts

For further reading

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.

swirl

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.

Related Posts

Restoration & Reconciliation

When white people don’t know they’re being white

It’s been an interesting week in the realm of race relations, with many Asians Americans challenging Rick Warren on an offensive Facebook post featuring a picture of  the Chinese Red Guard.  (You can read even more detail on Kathy Khang’s blog).  The aftermath of comments reflected confusion from some, wondering how people could be ‘so easily offended’, suggesting they needed thicker skin or more forgiving hearts.

Inside, I ached.

This is no new conversation to me – the ignorant assumptions, the christian-stifling-language-that-really-just-wants-you-to-shut-up-and-let-them-stay-uninformed.   This is nothing new to my ears.  Over the years, I have sat with many hearts aching – even those of my own family – over the ignorantly belittling comments of others.

Something must change.  This ever familiar sentiment sunk to the pit of my stomach as I watched the week’s events unfold.  While I was grateful to hear Rick’s eventual apology, the whole situation highlighted a common occurrence between the majority and minority experience that, in my observation, most white people don’t understand.

In case you’re white and starting to feel defensive, please know that I’m white, too.  I’m hoping this detail lowers defenses, for the concern I’m addressing in this post is to “my people”, more specifically to white Christians in the American church.  I’m concerned because I know firsthand how good-hearted and well-intentioned their actions often are, and how often they do not understand the impact of their intent.  I speak first as someone who has been there, who has made the ignorant comment, asked the stupid question, made the racist assumption and feared offending by opening my mouth.  I speak second as the only white person in my household for well over a decade now who has had the great fortune to see through others’ eyes on a daily basis.

When the Rick Warren news came around, I was already chewing on the power dynamics of both race and gender represented in this video that was making the rounds on my FB feed:

It left me conflicted, for I could clearly see the surface intent of the creators to rightly showcase the beauty of the world God has created, but I was also deeply distraught by what it left unsaid.   This opening shot* can communicate two quite contradictory messages:

chris tomlin with poor kids

God cares for the poor, and so do Christians. 

vs.

Hipster white guys have more going for them than slum dwellers.

This is sometimes called the “white savior” mentality; and it is far too prevalent and accepted in the American evangelical church. Without words, it communicates that the white people are better, smarter, more capable to hold the power strings.  It is one of the tragedies built by the empire of colonialism that none of us want to face.

We didn’t do it, right?  

That’s not our story.  

My family didn’t own slaves.

But we still benefit.  The system is set up for us, and gives us power without us even having to ask for it.  

We can be white without even knowing we’re white.  

To be fair, the church is not alone in it’s message-giving.  Hollywood also loves to tell white savior stories rather than those stories from within cultures that represent strength unattached to the people group in power.  And don’t even get me started on the news media’s portrayal of race…

I could give example after example of ignorant cultural and racial blunders in the church, but for the white hands who hold the historical and institutional power, it basically boils down to this:  We want to say that everything that happens in church is about Jesus, but it’s simply not.  There’s a whole lot of culture and power and history and social structure in there as well.  Until we acknowledge how these realities shape our thinking, we’re going nowhere.

We say we want to be a ‘church of many nations’, and cheer on videos like the ones above, but sometimes our arrogance, ignorance, and unwillingness to listen communicate that we really view ‘the nations’ as our minions, not our partners.  In other words, they exist to make us look good.

  • Put the black guy on stage to read the MLK Day prayer = I care about civil rights.
  • Take pictures of all 6 minorities in our institution to display prominently in our publications = We support diversity, but may or may not support you, especially if you say things contradictory to what we already know we know.
  • Sing white hipster music in Spanish = you, too, can be just like me, even in your language!
  • Host an international event with yummy food and cool ethnic clothing = awesome, but this is only the top layer of who people are.  Do we want to know the complex depths of people’s realities or are we satisfied to simply skim the surface that looks all happy-happy-joy-joy?
  • Send brochures with hungry-looking poor children = Give us your money.  We know you feel guilty.

I know, I know.  It all sounds a little harsh, right?  I’ve been right there with you, defending myself, confident that my intentions are pure.  However, regardless of our intentions in these endeavors, the fact stands that the impact of our actions can be isolating and downright hurtful to people of color. White people – especially the leaders of the church – need to start acknowledging this and listening to it with utmost seriousness.  This conversation cannot be one-way.  If we do not listen to the voices that courageously share their truth with us, we are breaking the very body we so sincerely wish to build.  

swirl

“Cultural competency” is a popular term these days, and while I appreciate the sentiment of the phrase, I’ve been feeling terribly inept culturally.  When it comes to race relations, failure is simply inevitable.  I recently mistook an Iranian student for an Egyptian and suspected immediately that I’d offended him.  I hadn’t meant to – I’d really just confused him with another student – but I couldn’t take my words back either, and didn’t know enough about Middle Eastern culture to know how offensive my assumption truly was.  After stumbling a little trying to retract my words, I fell back not on competence, but humility, “I’m sorry,” I admitted. “I didn’t know. Please forgive my mistake.”

A colleague recently introduced me to the term “Cultural humility” and I instantly connected to it, for even with all my practice being married cross-culturally, earning a degree in multicultural education, speaking several languages, traveling on 4 continents, and spending my days with immigrants from around the world, I often feel culturally incompetent.  I only speak two languages fluently, not six like some of my students.  I grew up in a monocultural cornfield and have had to work to learn anything I know about the rest of the world, which is still not really enough.  I have always lived in my country of birth, and don’t have near the depth of experience or insight about cultural adjustment that the world’s resilient immigrants know.

Culturally, I am far from competent.

But cultural humility?  This makes sense to me.

Instead of “Get over it”, cultural humility responds, “I don’t understand.  Can you help me understand more deeply?”

Instead of some variation of “quit whining”, cultural humility responds, “I’m so sorry this hurts you. How can I walk alongside you in this?”

Instead of reading only the white megachurch types, cultural humility also seeks wisdom from the pages of leaders from a wide variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

Instead of “Why do you keep causing problems?”, cultural humility responds, “I’m sorry I keep hurting you. It seems like I’m missing something big.  How would you recommend I start to better understand your experience?”

Instead of keeping quiet because you don’t know, cultural humility clumsily admits, “I’m a little embarrassed I don’t know much about your background. I don’t even know how to ask you questions about it, but I really would love to learn more.” (God bless the dear man who actually said this to my husband.)

swirl

While all of this might sound a lot like an us-vs-them scenario, I want you, my white brothers and sisters, to know that it does not have to be.  While I have never lived in a different skin, I fiercely love those who do – their very DNA runs through my veins.  I share my perspective here from a bridge between worlds, longing to see those on both sides listen to and love each other so much better than we currently do.

When white people don’t recognize how our position of cultural dominance influences us – when we don’t know that we’re being white – we can be like bulls in a china shop, throwing everything in our wake askew without even realizing what we’ve done. For us, this understanding begins with learning a perspective of cultural humility and seeking to understand another’s experience without judgment.  May more of us boldly begin to walk on this long and winding path.

(And just for the record, I kinda like white hipster music.)

swirl

Updates

*10/2 Update:

Some readers have rightfully informed me that the man in screenshot I posted is actually Indian.  I promise I didn’t purposely provide my own example of how to make assumptions and cultural mistakes, but it does allow me to practice what I already preached:  we all make mistakes in this dialogue.  Please forgive me for mine.

I could replace the picture with plenty of others with the same sentiment, but I’ll leave it for a few reasons. First, I think it’s a valuable example of fallibility in this conversation (even if it is at my own expense). In addition, I still maintain that the problem this video highlights is one we need to address at large. I also question other subtle messages in the video and would like to continue dialoging about the messages it communicates to have a white man leading the song of the world, once again.

10/4 Update:

An amended version of this post was published on The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, & Culture this afternoon.  It corrects the erroneous assumption regarding the picture in this post.

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.

RELATED POSTS

Further Reading