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The-best-ones-this-fall

the-ones-about-education

As People of Color Formerly Employed by Mizzou, We Demand Change

Excellent article offering a clear summary of the realities faced by many faculty of color.

Taking my parents to college by Jeanne Capo Crucett.

I don’t even remember the moment they drove away. I’m told it’s one of those instances you never forget, that second when you realize you’re finally on your own. But for me, it’s not there — perhaps because, when you’re the first in your family to go to college, you never truly feel like they’ve let you go.

10 Ways well-meaning white teachers bring racism into our schools by Jamie Utt.

Though I know there are actively racist teachers out there, most White teachers mean well and have no intention of being racist. Yet as people who are inscribed with Whiteness, it is possible for us to act in racist ways no matter our intentions. Uprooting racism from our daily actions takes a lifetime of work

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Mother & Child are linked at the cellular level by Laura Grace Weldon.

“Sometimes science is filled with transcendent meaning more beautiful than any poem.”

Raising a biracial child as a mother of color by Lara Dotson-Renta

I want my sweet girl to understand that she may not always be judged by her character, that so many have and will face unfair challenges for their ethnic background or skin color, and that conversely there may be times where she will be at an advantage vis-a-vis others because of those same perceptions. As her mother I want to save her from pain, to give her the tools I lacked as I encountered prejudice early on. She is noticing the world, and it is my job to teach her to discern between what feels right and wrong, and how to navigate the gray spaces in which she will often dwell.

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String Bright the Gray by John Blase.

But to shine you must daily,
Jacob-like, grapple with God.
 
Refuse to let go every time.
 

The sanitized stories we tell by Sarah Bessey. 

“If we don’t deal with our trauma, our trauma begins to deal with us. If we don’t allow ourselves to feel our feelings, they have a habit of peeking around the corners of our lives, breaking in at the most inopportune moments.”

Waverly Mae by Shannon McNeil.

My college friends lost their daughter to Sanfilippo syndrome this month. Read this poem, Fermata, about her last breath.

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I like your Christ. I do not like your Christian language by Cindy Brandt.

“The American evangelical subculture has created within itself a Christian lingo that is intelligible only among those who have shared in that culture. Because a top priority of evangelical subculture is to evangelize the gospel, it quite boggles my mind that there hasn’t been more care taken to learn how to communicate said gospel with what actually makes sense to those outside of evangelical culture.”

For you were refugees… by Ben Irwin.

The Bible is the story of refugees. It’s the story of those who were displaced. It’s the story of a family who sought shelter in Egypt when famine decimated their land.

Religious freedom and the common good by Andy Crouch.

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Gate A-4 by Naomi Shihab Nye

Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement: “If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.” Well— one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.

An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. “Help,” said the flight agent. “Talk to her . What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”

Wheelchair van for the Begs

While my college friends’ daughter was dying, they started a fundraiser to raise money for another family who has three daughters with the same degenerative, fatal genetic illness. In the midst of their great grief, they live out hope.

Born again again by John Blase

Walk the narrow way of the severely astonished.
Bumble around mouth agape at the sheer gift
of the earth mumbling Wouldja look at that?
 

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British man creates app that filters out all Kardashian news.  My kinda guy!

I’m with Ellen, I love growing older…

over the hill

and am still a fan of this awesomeness called Socal “winter”!!!

Capture

Not mentioning any names, but this sounds a little like someone I know…

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Misspelled signs written by people who love English.

speak english

Did you know?!?!

Capture

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Abused elephant weeps as she begins her new life freed from chains by Stephen Messenger.

For the better part of the last 20 years, this noble elephant named Kabu had been forced to slave away in chains — but now she’s finally free. And just as her body bears the scars of decades of mistreatment, her eyes are now shimmering with signs of hope.

Speaking of… did you catch The wisdom of elephants here on BW?

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101 Culturally Diverse Christian Voices

If you haven’t seen it yet, this list has been pretty popular!

Beyond selfies: Using Instagram to tell whole-hearted stories.

As a culture that places high value on storytelling, I often wonder how the stories we tell reflect our overarching values. Certainly perfection, glamour, and adventure dominate the vast majority of the motives behind how many present their lives. But what gets lost when we hide mundane moments like when we’re stuck in bed with a cold, mildly depressed, and too worn-out to wash the piling dishes? Where’s the place to remember the late-night conversations about insecurities or worries or dreams? Who do we become when we photoshop blemishes out of our lives?

The problem with over-spiritualizing racism.

Let’s press pause on the “unity” button for just a minute. We need to do some sustained reflection on the causes of the “disunity” first.

 

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Culture & Race, Restoration & Reconciliation

The problem with over-spiritualizing racism

In the children’s classic Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, an African-American mother attempts to explain the harshness of 1930s Southern racism to her young daughter, Cassie. After offering a brief history of slavery, she describes the historical relationship between white Christian slaveowners and African-American slaves:

“They also said that slavery was good for us because it taught us to be good Christians – like the white people…  But they didn’t teach us Christianity to save our souls, but to teach us obedience. They were afraid of slave revolts and they wanted us to learn the Bible’s teachings about slaves being loyal to their masters.”

It saddens me to think of how slowly some things change. When race comes up in conversations among white Christians, it’s not uncommon to hear responses along these lines:

“This isn’t a race issue. It’s a sin issue.”

“We all belong to one family in Christ. Why can’t we just all get along?”

“We need to be focusing on unity. The topic of racism is too divisive.”

While these responses aren’t exactly what Cassie’s mama encountered from the White-Folk almost a century ago, they still carry whispers of the same sentiments. When we make the above statements, history reinforces that they’re likely to make a wildly different impact than their original intent:

“Quit giving us a hard time. We’re not bad people.”

“It only matters to me that I feel comfortable. If you have a problem, you need to keep it to yourself.”

“Unity is about conforming to the majority. If you don’t fit the majority, you don’t matter.”

Ouch, right? It hurts, I know.

But wait – let’s not allow the pain of this reality to shut the door on it so white people can sneak away from the conversation once again. Let’s press pause on the “unity” button for just a minute. We need to do some sustained reflection on the causes of the “disunity” first.

Thankfully, overt racism is no longer acceptable in much of the country. What makes this change especially challenging, though, is that it leaves white people with the impression that racism no longer exists. As a result, many white Christians begin the race conversation by dismissing racial pain with the hammer of spiritual language. Throwing Bible verses to cover up the realities of racism is essentially the Christianized version of “Shut-the-sam-hell-up. I don’t want to hear what you have to say.”

When the history of race relations in our country includes a story of whites converting blacks for the purpose of subservience, it’s essential to be very, very careful not to use spiritual language to silence pleas to be heard.

So, what do we do instead? 

A Bible verse doesn’t become Christian until it’s actually lived out. It’s the living of these verses that creates deep change, not merely the speaking of them. Phillipians 2 provides an excellent model of humility for white people engaging the race conversation. Let’s consider what this language might look like in everyday actions:

  • Be tender and compassionate = Listen to, learn from, accept, and affirm the shared experiences of people of color. Mourn over the challenges they express and listen closely to the reasons behind their pain.
  • Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit = seek to understand the realities of a racially privileged system without worrying about feeling ‘blamed’. Sometimes white people get stuck in the conversation because “my family didn’t own slaves.” That’s not the point – acknowledging the bigger picture of systemic injustice is.
  • Value others above yourselves = fill your lives with their stories. Watch movies on the civil rights movement. Read books about its leaders. Move out of comfort zones into a place that feels unsettling. Pause to consider what life might look like through someone else’s eyes. (30 Days of Race is a great place to start this process.)
  • Don’t consider equality something to be used to your own advantage = look for ways to pursue equity over equality so that all people might have better access to privileges that the majority holds. Engage concepts like white privilege and cultural appropriation as a means of valuing and respecting others.
  • Take on the humble nature of a servant = Listen, listen, listen, listen, and then listen some more. When we speak before we understand, too many words grow heavy in the hearts of those with whom we share. Find ways to learn about the perplexing parts of race relations that don’t exacerbate people of color who have borne our ignorance for centuries.

All of these are helpful steps toward meaningful racial reconciliation, but for the (literal) love of God, please stop silencing the voices of people of color through the use of Christian words. It doesn’t cultivate change. It merely silences long-ignored voices, fosters anger, and destroys the very peace Jesus came to bring.

Culture & Race

Where to start when you’re afraid to talk about race

It’s been another turbulent week for racial headlines in the US: yet another incident of police brutality toward black women at a swimming pool, NAACP President Rachel Dolezal is outed as a white person, and 9 African-Americans were shot and killed at a historic black church in Charleston.

Lord, have mercy. It’s only Thursday.

I’ve followed quite a few conversations on these topics and the general reaction (in addition to some shockingly racist comments) is dismay, shock, and sadness. As I’ve listened, I’ve also heard a sentiment from white people of not knowing exactly what to say or do. Blogger Jamie Wright pins down what I suspect many white folks are feeling right about now in her recent Facebook status:

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So, what’s a caucasian to do once this admission has been made? How do we move from “I care. I won’t ignore this.” to actually being part of lasting change? The internet has no shortage of excellent articles with tips on how to understand and respond to white privilege:

I love these articles – they’re incredibly helpful, practical, and get straight to the point. I need reminded and re-reminded of their truths: listen, learn, respect, challenge. As helpful as these tips are, at times I still find myself wrestling with how to handle the privilege I have, especially in light of the recent Rachel Dolezal coverage. Thoughts like these simmer beneath my surface, leaving me both perplexed and speechless in light of racialized headlines:

I have a degree in Multicultural Education, am multilingual, and have taught in communities of color for years. Do I disregard my experiences, my skills, my knowledge because of my privilege?

As a teacher, I still hold a position of power within the many communities of color I have known. Do I shun any association of power because of its association with privilege?

As a mother, wife, friend, and family member, I walk alongside the daily journey of people of color navigating a world of white power. Are these experiences invalidated in the wider world because of the privilege I carry?

Having grown up in a predominately white community and lived as an adult in many communities of color, I frequently see multiple sides to an issue that highlight misunderstanding from many sides. When do I use my voice and when do I keep quiet?

These are not easy questions;  but they’re real ones that churn deep down, rumbling as I go about my days. I read, talk, and think about race on a fairly regular basis, but there are times when I still feel at a complete loss because of the guilt I carry over my privilege. I know I’m not the only white person who feels this way.

While I agree that lying about her race is a poor choice, I also see the situation as far more complex than this. Truth be told, I identify with Rachel’s desire to don a different skin. I’ve often longed for a different appearance to disassociate myself from the harsh history of my race and to legitimize my passion for reconciling racial brokenness. Sometimes it feels like being white disqualifies me from a seat at the racial table. When I whisper this shame-filled admission to those close to me, they remind me that not having a seat at the table is no new feeling to people of color.

Ah, privilege. It blinds even those who want to see.

This conversation isn’t simple. It’s far – both literally and figuratively – from black and white. So where’s a white-person-on-the-sidelines watching all this pain, caring-but-not-experiencing, horrified-and-heartbroken to start?

As I sit with these questions, I find myself contemplating who I need to be in addition to what I should do to live in a culturally humble way. The lists of how-to’s and to-do’s are undeniably helpful, but they’ll go nowhere without a fundamental shift in our way of being.

In light of this, I ask myself harder questions than the initial ones above that were likely born out of defense.

  • How do I cultivate the type of character that consistently acknowledges my privilege and promotes a good greater than myself?
  • Who do I need to become in order to more deeply understand the lives of those who live and think differently than I do?
  • How do I seek understanding when I simply do not understand? 

The answers that surface are less to-do list, more lifelong goals:

1. Be ok with messy. 

I’ve read a lot of coverage on Rachel Dolezel and the one firm conclusion I’ve drawn is that it’s messy. There are good points on conflicting sides and so many speculations on her intent.

  • Could it be that a person who has been immersed in a culture for years would identify more strongly with that culture than with their own? Sure.
  • Does that make that person actually a part of that culture? Not exactly, but third culture kids have struggled with this balance for years. 
  • Is our society brutal in the way we draw lines between the haves and the have-nots, the ins and the outs? Definitely, especially when we only have 140 characters to do so.
  • Do Rachel’s choices exist in a larger social and historical reality of race and power that cause others to respond harshly to her story? For sure.

Voices from all sides throw ‘truth’ at each other without acknowledging that sometimes the truth-in-the-realm-of-people’s-experience is anything but clear. We operate only within our own skin and this limits our ability to understand others.

Heather Plett explains an idea called “holding space” that could close some gaps between these two gaping cultural realities. She explains holding space for another person as a willingness to be present and available in the difficult moments of life. When part of life carries such pain that it’s difficult to imagine the next step, those who hold space for others don’t judge, try to fix, or make them feel inadequate. Instead, they come alongside and offer warm hearts and open ears.

What if this response had been our measuring stick for Rachel Dolezal, the recent police pool beating of young black women, or the riots in Baltimore and Ferguson? How would the conversation shift if instead of jumping to immediate conclusions to label sides as right/wrong, we looked first to where we need to ‘hold space’ for the brokenness that exists on both sides?

2. Lean toward pain.

One way I’ve grown more comfortable with mess is through the practice of walking through pain – both my own and that of others. While it would often feel easier to just close my eyes and turn the other way, digging into the deeper reasons for what causes pain strengthens our ability to understand it. In our broken places, we experience how insincere gestures like offering platitudes or dismissing pain can hurt far more than they help.

Externally, this might look like actively reading on many sides of the headlines or practicing principles offered in the articles I mentioned at the beginning. Internally, however, it means sitting with a whole lot of uncomfortable. Theresa Latini explains this idea further in her article I am a pastor. Here’s why I don’t want you to pray for me:

Please do not pray for me unless you are willing to walk with me.

Know me. Hear the depths of my fear or anguish or whatever it might be and let it affect you.

Then let us bring our (not just my) most profound needs vulnerably before God. Please do not try to escape that vulnerability. Because if you do, you have left me, and that is not prayer. It is not communion with God through Christ by the spirit.

And if you have no words, that is okay — more than okay, in fact. It’s an invitation to sit with me in the awfulness of my predicament and silently wait upon God together.

I would imagine that a whole host of similar prayers are being breathed from the mouths of many in Charleston today. May it remind us of our need to simply walk alongside and hold space for those in pain today.

3. Seek first to understand, and admit when you don’t.

One of Stephen Covey’s classic principles of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,  this notion definitely needs revisited in our short-tempered and knee-jerk Twitter age. Seeking first to understand means that rather than constantly throwing out my own opinions, I ask questions and listen to the opinions of others. It means I don’t quickly dismiss those with whom I disagree but rather look for ways to understand why they might think that way. It means that I spend time reading, listening to, or seeking out perspectives of those with whom I disagree to understanding the what and why of their reasoning.

The hard part about seeking to understand is that sometimes we simply don’t. When someone’s experience extends beyond our ability to grasp it, we’re apt to throw our hands up in frustration and label them idiots. Sometimes, we feel embarrassed by our ignorance so we don’t say anything at all.

When I run into a racial situation I don’t understand, my first response is usually defensive. I like to play devil’s advocate, so it’s easy to dismiss my defensiveness as just being “who I am”. However, I’ve come to recognize that when I grow defensive in race/privilege conversations, it’s usually a sign that I need to stop, reflect on what triggered my anger, and revisit the conversation to listen some more. The phrase “help me understand” comes in really handy at this point because it focuses my attention on something besides my own (strong) desire to be right and maintain control.

4. Acknowledge both single and collective stories.

Many white Americans are accustomed to practicing an individualist perspective. We think about ourselves over the whole, elevating individuals over communities. One way this shows itself in many white churches is their harsher response to individual sins relating to individual sexuality (abortion, pornography, infidelity) than to communal sins like neglect of the poor, consumerism, or gluttony. In contrast, many cultures cultivate a more communal view where individuals consider how their personal actions impact the community as a whole.

In discussing the Rachel Dolezal situation with others, I’ve learned that I see it through an individual lens – she is one individual with specific details that impact her personal choices. In contrast, others see it through a collective lens that include painful realities of repeated power and race abuse through history. Do we both have valid points? Yes, we’re just processing through different lenses.

5. Create space to listen.

The breakneck speed of our culture robs us from time to consider both our place in the world and our impact on those around us. Throw the smartphones-glued-to-our-eyes in the mix and its a wonder any of us think for ourselves at all. Finding spaces to pause and sort through our thoughts, feelings, and experiences is crucial if we want to incorporate any of the above goals effectively.

Pausing looks different for everyone. Some people listen to podcasts or sermons that inspire. Others retreat to nature and quiet space. Some prefer to write, read, or chat over coffee with a friend. Whatever the method, intentionally creating space to allow ourselves to reflect deeply is key to long term and sustained internal change.

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“Let him that would move the world first move himself.” -Socrates

May these timeless words remind us of the need to act beyond the horror of the headlines by starting with the one thing we all have the power to change: ourselves.

Further Reading

A relevant and timely place to start listening is this post by Osheta Moore: What I Need You to Say in Response to the Shooting in Charleston and this post by Austin Channing: The Only Logical Concluson.

Here are a few other helpful resources for those seeking deeper racial understand to move beyond “I don’t know what to say, but I care.”:

Social & Political Issues, Spiritual Formation

Aching thoughts on Ferguson

It is the end of a long week with teenagers. #thankyouJesus

They are precious, those half-baked and hope-filled ones, but they are entirely exhausting. In quiet moments, my heart hangs heavy from hints of broken lives and battered souls. They try to hide it behind apathy or attitude, but still I see it for the deep-aching that it is.

My own soul has been deep-aching again. The current state of the country brings up conflicting sides of my identity: the “super-white” side of me that doesn’t inherently grasp the racial atrocities at hand and the “recovering racist” in me that knows they are very real and raw for many in our country. 

It shakes me that after all these years I still don’t always get it, that I still have to ask someone to explain to me the realities of pain they’ve known. It shakes me that I don’t know what-the-hell-to-say as the two sides shout it out between pain and pride. It shakes me that, in my teenager-induced exhaustion, I am afraid to say anything because I fear offending both sides with my own instability.

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When I returned to the Midwest last summer, I had a haunting dream.

I am waiting on the shore, desperately anxious, torn-apart for my husband and children who I have just learned are on a sinking ship. I am standing on solid ground on the shore, powerless over their fate, watching the horizon for any sign of their lives.

Suddenly, they arrive together in a life boat. They stagger over its edge into my arms and my relief over their safety overwhelms me. I collapse in tears. 

They are alive. 

They didn’t sink with the ship. 

We are safe now, together.

There is no clearer symbol of our move from the rural midwest to Southern California. A few days later, I had another dream:

My family and I are huddled together behind a door, hiding from an angry man in dingy overalls with a sawed-off shotgun who is shouting racial slurs at us. I cower in fear.

Suddenly, my brother and his wife are there, standing firm between the man and the door hiding us, “You cannot go in!” they shout at him as they fight him off. “We won’t let you hurt them.” 

I awaken, shaken again by the depth of protection I felt because someone saw and acknowledged our pain, even if they did not fully understand it.

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The dreams fade away and simmer deep under the layers of daily life. Months later, these headlines shake me back to reality and I cannot help but think of the many families who aren’t rescued from the sinking ships, who are torn apart by the raging waters of racial brokenness. I think of the relief that comes from knowing those who seek deeper understanding, and the pain of navigating those those who assume too much. I think of the weariness that sinks deep when we feel alone in the battle.

Slowly, a gratefulness arises for the shaking that these headlines bring. We’ve needed it for quite some time now, and the time has come for more of us to stand firm with a voice that shouts, “We won’t let them hurt you.” 

There is perhaps nothing we modern people need more than to be genuinely shaken up,” wrote Jesuit priest Alfred Delp in his essay The Shaking of Advent. “Where life is firm we need to sense its firmness; and where it is unstable and uncertain and has no basis, no foundation, we need to know this too and endure it.”

This – both the firm and the unstable – is what the Ferguson headlines, the #blacklivesmatter statements, and yes, even my tiring-teens reveal. Some of us have been living unshaken for far too long. 

The world today needs people who have been shaken by ultimate calamities and emerged from them with the knowledge and awareness that those who look to the Lord will still be preserved by him, even if they are hounded from the earth,” challenged Delp from his cell in a Nazi prison. He was condemned as a traitor for his opposition to Hitler and hanged in 1945.

As the protests, hashtags, debates and dismissals abound, I’m spending my Advent asking the Lord to preserve us all in ways that help us listen to and value each other. I’m praying that this shaking will teach me how to be a defender of other weary souls who need it like my family once did. I’m praying for protection from weariness for those standing firm in the trenches to create something whole from this brokenness. I’m praying for an adolescent nation that needs to grow-up and come to terms with its broken reality. I’m praying we will all pause long enough to remember what is firm and holy and good.

It is this soul-remembering season of Advent that reminds the weary world to rejoice. May the wait for His Coming teach us how to love one another better in a shaking and shattered world.

Further Reading

Alfred Delp Quote from Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, December 5.

Culture & Race

5 painful realities of white privilege

5 painful realities of white privilegeWe were sitting outside the frozen yogurt shop when my husband interrupted my yogurt-induced-heaven with a passionate “Did you see that!?!”

“What?” I looked around but didn’t see anything unusual. I’d been a little spaced out in a blissful yogurt coma and was, as usual, less-than-aware of my surroundings.

“That Asian lady in the yogurt store! She and her daughter were just standing there, waiting in line for the restroom and this white guy came in and walked right in front of her.”

He paused, shaking his head in angry disbelief, “And she just let him go. She put her head down and let him push his way past her,”

He paused, processing the interaction, “That’s just so privileged. And he probably doesn’t even recognize it. The problem with us is that we get all submissive and let people walk all over us.” 

Confession Time: In my head, I started listing all the reasons why what he just said happened couldn’t have actually happened. Maybe he saw things wrong. Maybe the guy had to puke. Maybe he left his cell phone in the bathroom. Surely what my husband saw wasn’t what actually happened. 

But then I remembered all the things I’ve written about race & privilege. Dismissing perceptions is one of the most unhelpful responses in race conversations.

I should already know this, right? Right.

(Except for the fact that I don’t.)

Privilege runs deep, and as I continue to ponder the ideas of humility, I keep running smack into its gritty realities. They’re not pretty, but ignoring them won’t make them go away either. Here are a few truths I’ve learned along the way:

1. Privilege is hard to see if you have it, but easy to see if you don’t

I often don’t see the privilege my husband or my friends of color see, but not because it doesn’t exist.  I don’t see it because I don’t have to see it. I live in a world where people who look like me are the norm, so the world-at-large adjusts to me, not the other way around. I can walk into a restaurant without heads turning in curiosity. I’ve never encountered a situation where people define my personal qualifications by my physical appearance. People rarely make comments – ignorant or informed – about my race or ethic background.

It’s kind of like the emporer who wasn’t wearing any clothes – everyone but the stubborn king himself sees the truth. If I could get into the mind of that classic fairytale character as he walked naked down the street when the little boy called his bluff, I can almost hear him thinking to himself, “That crazy boy! Who does he think he is?  He doesn’t know anything. I’m the Emporer, after all. What I say goes!”

It’s not so different from the knee jerk reaction that many white people have when white privilege comes up. Who do they think they are? we think about the people of color who suggest perspectives that upturn our understanding of the world.

What do they know? we dismiss the realities they experience. When history is written by the winners, our story is the one with the power, and until we learn other sides of the story, it’s nearly impossible to understand why some might question our interpretation of it.

If I’m brutally honest with myself, I’ve done the same thing as the privileged white guy at the yogurt shop and never even noticed. Privilege just doesn’t feel the same to those who benefit from it like it does to those who get run over by it.

2. Privilege feels great and horrible all at the same time

I’ll be the first to say that being the one with the power feels great. Power is fun, but an equal reality of power is that it corrupts and blinds. The power that privilege carries does this as well. That’s why when the headlines erupt when a Princeton student writes a letter denying the realities of white privilege. It’s a divisive topic, drawing intense criticism and ire from some loud voices who staunchly deny its existence.

When I travel, I am nearly always treated better than my non-white family. I get higher quality service, more attention and courtesy. I get less attention at airport security lines and from police men. Even if I personally benefit from this treatment, the fact that my family faces its fallout sours any positives it holds for me.

If people only knew how much more humble and sacrificial and generous they were than me, I think, my brown family would be the ones given elevated status, not me. But the history of white skin tells a different story, so we walk instead through a broken and unequal reality.

3. Privilege creates guilt which creates shame which creates denial

Brene Brown has shed an immense amount of light on how shame impacts our ability to be vulnerable, and it’s easily applicable when considering privilege. She writes,

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

When I don’t initially understand a situation like the yogurt shop, it can take me weeks to admit it. My guilt kicks in…how many years I have been married interracially? How many conversations have I had and books have I read about race and privilege?

Will I ever learn?

The shame lingers so subtly that I don’t even notice it until my denial eventually slips out and I’m forced to face my privilege once again.

4. Privilege isn’t about individuals, it’s about systems

What lacks acknowledgement in conversations about privilege is that it’s not necessarily applicable to individuals. When racial microagressions play out on an individual level, the reason they trigger reactions is because of the history such interactions carry with them.

In other words, when the white guy marches past the Asian lady in the restroom line, the history of white-dominant/Asian-submissive interaction plops down right in the center of things. As much as we’d like to believe it, the world is not only made up of individuals, it’s also composed of groups who represent ideas and create realities beyond individuals’ control.

5. Privilege isn’t only about race

As I grow in my understanding of privilege, I see how it extends far beyond the context of race. Privilege comes in many packages and shapes how we view and interact with the world.

“I am unlearning the ways I perceive my own areas of privilege as ‘normal’,” writes Austin Channing. “I can smell when patriarchy is leaking all over a man as he interacts with me. But there are plenty of other ways that that I engage in oppression, ignorance, avoidance, and all kinds of crazy.”

I think of all the times I fail to consider other realities and subconsciously operate as though mine is the norm regardless of things like disability, education level, language ability, religious views, or sexual orientation. We saw it happen yet again last week with nationalities when Twitter called the spelling bee ‘Unamerican’ for its lack of white participants. Clearly, there is no end to how we exclude each other when we see ourselves as the ones who belong and everyone else as the other.

As a result, unpacking how we engage with people of different backgrounds than our own is critical to development the model of humility we see in Phillipians 2:

“If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.

Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.” (The Message)

Christ’s example stands in stark contrast to the pundits and pontificators who insist nothing-is-wrong-with-me in response to the racial struggles of our world. It sheds new light on the pushy white guy’s behavior in the yogurt line. It opens the heart’s door of this stubbornly-skeptical wife just a teeny-bit wider.

Our world is sorely in need of people who follow Christ before they follow political figures and tribe leaders.  When we fight against the privilege discussion because it’s too painful to face the reality of the broken history and systems of our world, we end up perpetuating the exact same legacy.

Instead, may our humility grow deep enough that we have the courage to walk through the painful realities privilege carries. May we, like Christ, live selflessly and obediently rather than clinging to privilege and status. If we want to see change the world, truly, it must first begin with ourselves.

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Culture & Race

Some big words (and helpful ideas) for when the race conversation explodes

Some big words (and helpful ideas) for when the race conversation explodesIn spite of decades of diversity awareness and training, race continues to be an explosive topic, and the media headlines attest to a continued struggle of our multicultural country to come to grips with its multiple realities. There are microagressions and macroagressions, accidental insults, and purposefully racist rants.

While I don’t believe we can do much to change the extreme ends of the spectrum that refuse to think, question, and consider other viewpoints, I do have great hope for all of those who exist in-between to establish a culture of respect for diversity within society at large. Most white people I know have no desire to be actively racist, but usually either don’t know that they don’t know or have no idea where to begin and no understanding of how to consistently deepen their perspectives.

When a colleague who teaches social work first introduced me to the term cultural humility, I instantly connected to it as a fabulous starting point for cross-cultural relationships. Working in education, I had not yet heard this term that has been gaining popularity in the public health and social work fields for nearly a decade now.  While I am quite familiar with the terms cultural competency and being culturally responsive, cultural humility had a whole new feel to it, one that I believe the general public would benefit from significantly given all the public sparring over our differences.

In his recent response to the Donald Sterling fiasco, Kareem Abdul Jabar captured the state of the country well, “Moral outrage is exhausting. And dangerous. The whole country has gotten a severe case of carpal tunnel syndrome from the newest popular sport of Extreme Finger Wagging. Not to mention the neck strain from Olympic tryouts for Morally Superior Head Shaking.”

Something has to give. 

We simply can’t keep finger-wagging and head-shaking if we truly want to affect change. This is where I find the concept of cultural humility such a great place to start. Its three basic concepts include:

  1. Lifelong, reflective learning
  2. Respectful partnerships that recognize power imbalances
  3. Institutional accountability

Melanie Tervalon, one of the researchers who coined the term, explains that the ultimate goal of cultural humility is a “sense of equity, equality, respect that drives us forward” (Chavez, 2012). These concepts turn the idea of competence upside-down, for they shift the focus from simply attempting to gather information about people who are different to an approach that shapes how we think and act toward others.

If you’ll indulge the ‘think-y’ side of me for a moment, I want to pull a few more academic/theological terms into the conversation because they address an idea that I believe needs to gain some solid traction in the public conversation. In Christianity, the white evangelical church has spent a great deal of time focusing on orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice or behavior) of individuals, but not so much time on orthopathy (right passions, emotions, attitudes) in relation to how we interact with society at large.

This lop-sided growth has resulted in some significant holes in our interactions with each other. We can wave our carefully crafted orthodox flags while simultaneously finger-wagging and head-shaking, but we have a long way to go before our we actively lay our flags down, cross lines, and extend a hand of kindness and humility to someone who holds a belief that violates our carefully carved theology.

Lisa Boesen offers a helpful acronym as a guide to ASSESS how to develop consistent cultural humility:

Practicing Cultural Humility - TheLinkBetweenWorlds.com

As I write about and live out racial and cultural understanding, one of the strongest realities I’ve seen is that what creates the deepest change in relationships is who we are, not what we know.

In think-y words, this means that orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy must be deeply intertwined rather than separate values from which we pick and choose. “We have drawn upon a negative, hostile, and confrontational form of orthopathy,John W. Morehead reflects on recent evangelical interactions, “and out of this has come an expression of orthodoxy and orthopraxy that has been interpreted as less than compassionate by those outside our faith.”

Rather than perpetuate a hostile orthopathy, Morehead suggests evangelicals (and I would also add quite a few other Christian traditions) have another option, “Evangelicals can reflect on the scriptural call for love of neighbor, and for hospitality to the alien and stranger, and this can then can provide the basis for a reformulation of the form of orthopathy from which our orthodoxy and orthopraxy springs.”

Essentially, what it boils down to is that right theology (orthodoxy) and right practice (orthopraxy) should also foster compassion and empathy in our interactions with others (orthopathy) – not ‘farewell tweets‘, dismissively harmful comments, or polarizing reactions over disagreements.

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It all leaves me wondering who we would be if the church-at-large and individuals-in-it spent our primary energies cultivating these notions of cultural humility, orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy rather than defending our own interests? How would this reshape the imbalanced power dynamics and segregation in the western church as a whole? What if loving-one-another took the face of humility and respect for each other rather than igniting hostility and condemnation?

Instead of exhausting each other with our moral outrage, perhaps such steps would nurture our ability to respond to one another with the kind of sacrificial love Jesus himself taught us. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another,” Jesus told his over-confident disciple just before he predicted Peter’s ultimate betrayal. Ironic, eh? 

While we’re clearly not the first ones to stumble over ourselves in our feeble attempts to follow Jesus, may our imperfections not prevent us from seeking the deep-wisdom of those around us as we walk the winding path of loving one another.

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Culture & Race

Why we can’t just set race aside

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

“Taking race out of the conversation…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s love.

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

It covers a multitude of sins.

Further resources

Books, Culture & Race

What does it mean to be white? Resources on white identity development

Many white people I know haven’t ever given much thought to how their race has influenced them. When other Americans of color talk about their own cultural backgrounds, white people might sheepishly wonder, “What culture?” about their own backgrounds.

As I looked into what was out there on white identity, I was dismayed to find Jared Taylor’s book White Identity: Racial Consciousness in the 21st Century among the first and most prominent search results. Taylor essentially advocates white supremacy, segregation and racial superiority and completely dismisses the notions of white privilege.  While I generally advocate civility across differences, I found Taylor’s perspectives frightening, damaging, and outright racist.  Consequently, it was understandably disappointing to for Taylor’s work to be the primary search results of “white identity”.

A simple internet search proves that the loudest people talking about white identity are the blatant-racists and people of color. It was disappointingly tough to find any other voices in the mix. No wonder white people have such difficulty understanding ourselves!

In this spirit, I wanted to create a list of resources that speak to developing white identity from a position of cultural humility and value for understanding ourselves in light of both our history of racial oppression and a modern desire to create an equitable society for people of all backgrounds.

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Pondering Privilege: Toward a Deeper Understanding of Whiteness, Race and Faith

Pondering privilege: Toward a deeper understanding of whiteness, race and faith
 

For many white people, race can be a difficult subject to navigate. Some have never discussed the issue at all and may have no idea where to begin. Others, viewing themselves as colorblind, see no need to think about the issue at all. The topic grows even more difficult within the Christian church where it is no secret that Sunday mornings are often more racially divided more than united. Regardless of white people’s ignorance or inability to discuss racial issues, however, they are not going away.

Rooted in the concept of cultural humility, Pondering Privilege provides white people an opportunity to spend time more deeply reflecting on their personal perspective of and communal role in race relations by exploring why white people don’t talk about race, why they need to talk about race, suggestions for productive ways to discuss race, and how to deal with anger in race relations. Each chapter includes discussion and reflection questions and is ideal for personal or group use.

Understanding White Privilege: Creating Pathways to Authentic Relationships across Race
by Frances Kendall
 

From Amazon: “Racial privilege is hard to see for those who were born with access to power and resources. Yet it is very visible for those to whom it was not granted. Understanding White Privilege is written for individuals and those in organizations who grapple with race every day, as well as for those who believe they don’t need to. It is written for those who have tried to build authentic professional relationships across races but have felt unable to do so. It is written for those who believe strongly in the struggle for racial justice and need additional information to share with their friends and colleagues. Inviting readers to think personally about how race–theirs and others’–frames experiences, relationships, and the way we each see the world, Understanding White Privilege focuses squarely on white privilege and its implications by offering specific suggestions for what we each can do to bridge the racial chasm.”

White privilege: Essential readings on the other side of racism
by Paula S. Rothenberg
 

From Amazon: “Studies of racism often focus on its devastating effects on the victims of prejudice. But no discussion of race is complete without exploring the other side–the ways in which some people or groups actually benefit, deliberately or inadvertently, from racial bias. This is the subject of Paula Rothenberg’s groundbreaking anthology, White Privilege.

The new edition of White Privilege once again challenges readers to explore ideas for using the power and the concept of white privilege to help combat racism in their own lives, and includes key essays and articles by Peggy McIntosh, Richard Dyer, bell hooks, Robert Jensen, Allan G. Johnson, and others. Three additional essays add new levels of complexity to our understanding of the paradoxical nature of white privilege and the politics and economics that lie behind the social construction of whiteness, making this edition an even better choice for educators.

Brief, inexpensive, and easily integrated with other texts, this interdisciplinary collection of commonsense, non-rhetorical readings lets educators incorporate discussions of whiteness and white privilege into a variety of disciplines, including sociology, English composition, psychology, social work, women’s studies, political science, and American studies.”

Being white: Finding our place in a multiethnic world
by Paula Harris and Doug Schapp
 

From Amazon: “What does it mean to be white? When you encounter people from other races or ethnicities, you may become suddenly aware that being white means something. Those from other backgrounds may respond to you differently or suspiciously. You may feel ambivalence about your identity as a white person. Or you may feel frustrated when a friend of another ethnicity shakes his head and says, “You just don’t get it because you’re white.”

  • So, what does it mean to be white?
  • How can you overcome the mistakes of the past?
  • How can you build authentic relationships with people from other races and ethnicities?

In this groundbreaking book, Paula Harris and Doug Schaupp present a Christian model of what it means to be white. They wrestle through the history of how those in the majority have oppressed minority cultures, but they also show that whites also have a cultural and ethnic identity with its own distinctive traits and contributions. They demonstrate that white people have a key role to play in the work of racial reconciliation and the forging of a more just society. Filled with real-life stories, life-transforming insights and practical guidance, this book is for you if you are aware of racial inequality but have wondered, So what do I do? Discover here a vision for just communities where whites can partner with and empower those of other ethnicities.”

Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria and other conversations about race
by Beverly Daniel Tatum
 

From Amazon: “Walk into any racially mixed high school and you will see black youth seated together in the cafeteria. Of course, it’s not just the black kids sitting together-the white, Latino, Asian Pacific, and, in some regions, American Indian youth are clustered in their own groups, too. The same phenomenon can be observed in college dining halls, faculty lounges, and corporate cafeterias. What is going on here? Is this self-segregation a problem we should try to fix, or a coping strategy we should support? How can we get past our reluctance to talk about racial issues to even discuss it? And what about all the other questions we and our children have about race?

Beverly Daniel Tatum, a renowned authority on the psychology of racism, asserts that we do not know how to talk about our racial differences: Whites are afraid of using the wrong words and being perceived as “racist” while parents of color are afraid of exposing their children to painful racial realities too soon. Using real-life examples and the latest research, Tatum presents strong evidence that straight talk about our racial identities-whatever they may be-is essential if we are serious about facilitating communication across racial and ethnic divides. We have waited far too long to begin our conversations about race. This remarkable book, infused with great wisdom and humanity, has already helped hundreds of thousands of readers figure out where to start.”

White like me: Reflections on race from a privileged son
by Tim Wise
 

From Amazon:White Like Me is one-part memoir, one-part polemical essay collection. It is a personal examination of the way in which racial privilege shapes the daily lives of white Americans in every realm: employment, education, housing, criminal justice, and elsewhere.

Using stories from his own life, Tim Wise demonstrates the ways in which racism not only burdens people of color, but also benefits, in relative terms, those who are “white like him.” He discusses how racial privilege can harm whites in the long run and make progressive social change less likely. He explores the ways in which whites can challenge their unjust privileges, and explains in clear and convincing language why it is in the best interest of whites themselves to do so. Using anecdotes instead of stale statistics, Wise weaves a narrative that is at once readable and yet scholarly, analytical and yet accessible.”

for educatorsAs both a parent and a teacher, I have come to view teachers as one of the primary gatekeepers of cultural change and understanding. When teachers understand and present the value of diversity, children learn a new reality that subconsciously shapes their entire worldview.  As a result, I believe that a fundamental skill of teachers of every student at every level is both intercultural and racial understanding. The books below are written specifically to help educators develop this understanding.

Identity Development of Diverse Populations: Implications for Teaching and Administration in Higher Education
by Vasti Torres, Mary F. Howard-Hamilton, and Diane L. Cooper
 

From Amazon: “This monograph is focused on educating faculty and administrators about the developmental issues faced by students from different racial, ethnic, or other social groupings as they attempt to define themselves during the college years and the ways this information can enhance campus classrooms, programs, and policies. Although there is a growing body of work on how various racial, ethnic, gender and other social groups develop their identity, there has been limited synthesis or application of this literature to the practice of professionals in higher education. The authors have higher education administrative backgrounds, so their recommendations are grounded in experience, and each also has a solid record of scholarship in identity development. The combined scholarly and administrative experience of the three authors enhances the contribution of this book.”

Courageous conversations about race 
by Glenn E. Singleton and Curtis Linton
Watch a video about this series here.

“Courageous conversations” has got to me one of my personal favorite sayings, and this book offers great insights on how to begin such dialogs.  The purpose of the book is to help educators work to close the racial achievement gap in public schools and it explores this through examining characteristics, foundations, and keys to anti-racist leadership.  A facilitator’s guide is also available for purchase.

We can’t teach what we don’t know: White teachers, multiracial schools
by Gary Howard

A powerful book on the impact of white teachers in multiracial schools, Gary Howard’s book is a “Racism 101” text for teachers stepping into the racial dialogue. It’s a remarkably powerful book that chronicles Howard’s own journey toward a deeper understanding of race.

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TedxTalk: How studying privilege systems can strengthen compassion
by Peggy McIntosh
 

White privilege, racism, white denial, and the cost of inequality
by Tim Wise
 

Entering conversation about race as a white male 

Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible

This is a great documentary where white people reflect on their racial experience.  The entire film is on YouTube.

articles

What white people need to learn by Mary-Alice Daniel

Explaining white privilege to a broke white person by Gina Crosley-Corcoran

7 Stages of White Identity by Daniel Hill

White Privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack by Peggy McIntosh

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Know of other resources on developing a healthy and humble white identity? Leave them in the comments below.

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Culture & Race

Words that changed my world

Bronwyn Lea is hosting a series called, “Words that changed my world” where I’m guest posting today about a small conversation years ago that opened a whole new world to me.  Come read about the words that changed my world at Bronlea.com! Here’s a little glimpse:

“You don’t have to think about the issue of race,” she said to me point-blank.

I was taken aback, “Yes, I do. It’s really important to me to understand,” I tried to half-convince, half-explain.

“But you don’t have to,” she persisted. “I can’t ever take my skin off. It comes with me everywhere I go. You don’t have to think about yours if you don’t want to. I don’t have a choice.”

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.

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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.

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Culture & Race

4 reasons white people don’t talk about race

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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.

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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, 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

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.  

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“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.)

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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.)

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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

Belief

Rising from the ashes

Fascinating creatures, phoenixes. They can carry immensely heavy loads.

Their tears have healing powers.

—Professor Albus Dumbledore

One of my favorite symbols from the Harry Potter series is the mythical bird the Phoenix.  When the bird’s body grows old, it bursts into flames and is reborn from the ashes as a newborn chick.  Its tears are antidotes to poison, and can bring a dying person back to life.  As I read the series aloud to my kids, I’m often reminded that even when life’s circumstances are grave and murky, hope and goodness are often born directly from hardship.

Far from a philosophical dilemma, this symbolism plays out vividly in my daily life as I grapple with how to forgive the racism my husband and I have endured as an interracial couple, having spent a significant part of our marriage living in a place where it felt like KKK affiliation was more acceptable than interracial couples.  It’s felt a crushing weight at times, and I still quiver inside when remembering certain feelings, interactions, or situations.   Sometimes I cannot bear to look back it feels so raw.

So I’ve been asking questions of people on this road with me.  How do you forgive? How do you heal? How do you keep going?

  • They say time will heal.  They are right – it does.
  • They also say vulnerability and honesty are a good place to start.  This makes my knees knock a little, but I believe them, so I speak, shaky voice and all.
  • They say it’s ok to step back for awhile, that this work of reconciliation can be exhausting.  Amen-hallelujah-yippi-dee-doo-dah to that.
  • And finally, they remind me what Jesus says, lives out for us, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  Even if they do know (and surely some of them do), forgiveness still seems a better way than hate, though forgiveness certainly takes more effort than hate does.

Every so often, I feel a slight awakening, a growing sense that a phoenix might be shedding a few tears just for the dying part of my soul. The darkness of the past doesn’t change, but the light of the present is growing brighter.

Some days I pause with Susan Ruach’s words, reflecting on what it means to learn a new way:

To struggle used to be

to grab with both hands

and shake.

and twist.

and turn.

and push.

and shove and not give in.

But wrest an answer from it all

As Jacob did a blessing.

 

But there is another way

To struggle with an issue, a question –

Simply to jump

off

into the abyss

and find ourselves

floating

falling

tumbling

being led

slowly and gently

but surely

to the answers God has for us –

 

to watch the answers unfold

before our eyes and still

to be a part of the unfolding

 

But, oh! The trust

Necessary for this new way!

Not to be always reaching out

For the old hand-holds.

Being led.  Being a part of the unfolding.

These steps are both my lifelong story and a brand new journey born out of ashes.