Restoration & Reconciliation

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

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

Inside, I ached.

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

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

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

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

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

chris tomlin with poor kids

God cares for the poor, and so do Christians. 

vs.

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

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

We didn’t do it, right?  

That’s not our story.  

My family didn’t own slaves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

swirl

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

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

Culturally, I am far from competent.

But cultural humility?  This makes sense to me.

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

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

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

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

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

swirl

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

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

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

swirl

Updates

*10/2 Update:

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

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

10/4 Update:

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

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