Culture & Race, Social & Political Issues

5 myths that stop white people from facing race

While much has improved since the days of segregation laws and public lynchings, the struggle of racism has by no means gone away. It feels like there’s a racial battle nearly every week in the news; and I watch the stories unfold with a sense of shock and sorrow. Conservative pundits’ accusations of ‘race baiting’ and ‘playing the race card’ capture headlines, but a less publicized, more complex story I hear from white people around me is a sad confusion over how racism is still causing these kinds of problems. Truth be told, I’ve found myself overwhelmed by this confusion to the point of checking out completely. While self-care is sometimes necessary for those deeply involved in difficult conversations, I’m keenly aware that it’s far too easy for white people to disengage because we don’t have to care; our skin gives us that option.

In her article, White People Facing Race: Uncovering Myths that Keep Racism in PlacePeggy McIntosh (2009) explores five myths that keep white people from understanding the experience of other races. Understanding these assumptions has helped me shift my mindset when I find myself wanting to run away from the on-going racial conflict in our country.

The Myth of Meritocracy

In a majority world, individuals are viewed as the sole component of society. There are no “groups”, only people. As a result, people get what they want and deserve based on their individual choices. The American mantra of ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps’ reinforces this sentiment: all you have to do is try and you’ll succeed because “nothing stands in your way”. There is little  acknowledgment of the impact that systems have on individuals.

This myth stands most potent when looking at the stories of African-American families talking to their sons about the realities of race today. In his book, Between the World and I, Ta-Nehisi Coates, a national correspondent for The Atlanticshares this from a letter to his son:

You stayed up till 11 p.m. that night, waiting for the announcement of an indictment, and when instead it was announced that there was none you said, “I’ve got to go,” and you went into your room, and I heard you crying. I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.

Having known many young black men who have done nothing to deserve the burden of this reality, I mourn the disconnect in society that makes it possible.

The Myth of Manifest Destiny

Because racism is embedded so deeply in the foundations of our country, it remains difficult for those who have traditionally held the power to recognize. Our childhood history lesson of Manifest Destiny teaches that God gave this land to America, and that we are, as a result, his chosen people. Seeing the US as “a nation found by God” keeps us from acknowledging the long-term impact of the blatantly evil and sinful stories like Native American genocide, African slavery, Japanese internment, and segregation laws.

CaptureWhile we don’t see campaign signs like this anymore (though I wouldn’t put it past Donald Trump), this sentiment still rings true in the hearts of many as issues like racial segregation, urban gentrification & property values, and white-boy-club politics play out.

The Myth of White Racelessness

When discussing race, many white people struggle to identify cultural characteristics they share with other whites. YouTube points out some of these characteristics in some not-so-gentle and painfully accurate ways. Growing up as a member of the majority can foster a “I don’t have a culture. I’m just normal.” perspective that assumes only other people have race. 

Additionally, white people’s participation in racial oppression isn’t seen as racial activity, but simply as “history.” We see it time and again through the merchandising of products like nude pantyhose and flesh colored crayons. We see it in advertisements that only include only white faces and public response to shootings-by-white-people versus shootings-by-brown people. When brown people do something bad, it’s immediately attributed to their race. When white people do something bad, they have no race.

For white people to grasp the racial dynamics, it’s crucial that they first understand the role that our own race plays in society and history. Failing to these face these realities creates a short-sighted and ignorant perspective that will only serve to repeat history, not redeem it.

The Myth of Monoculture

Viewing values through a single lens leads many to operate on the assumption that there is one “American” culture that everyone experiences in similar ways. This is still the myth I catch myself practicing most frequently when I slip up and make comments like, “Christians think…” or “Americans say…” when what I really mean  is “White evangelical Christians in the US think…” or “White middle-class Americans say…” Lumping everyone into one group creates an unspoken expectation that people of color adapt to the “white way”.

Considering others better than ourselves (Phil 2:3) means that it’s essential that we don’t unintentionally demand that others follow cultural norms that we don’t even realize we have. Such differences present themselves through how we view diverse perspectives on theology, worship style, or individual spirituality.

The Myth of White Moral Elevation

Years ago, I chaperoned a very diverse group of high school students on a field trip to the nation’s capital building. I grew quickly ashamed when I saw painting after painting like this:

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Where were the role models that reflected the background of non-anglo students? What possibilities would they imagine for themselves if these were the only people credited with America’s greatness?

The myth of white moral elevation creates a societal bias that fosters a subconscious superiority complex . While it’s never directly stated, this bias strings through the media, education, and society that communicates that it’s natural for white people to be in the limelight but exceptional for people of color. This attitude comes through in statements like, “He’s so articulate” or “She doesn’t act black.” We see it time and again in our church leadership structures, elected political officers, and community leaders. Even in the most diverse regions of the country, the majority of people who pull the power-making strings are white. To truly grapple with how privilege impacts ourselves and society, we need to be regularly asking why this is still our reality in one of the most diverse countries in the world.

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While this is only the beginning of the conversation, it’s a great place to begin. Understanding race is not a one-time-thing to wipe our hands clean from. It is a never-ending process of listening and learning in order to become a safe place to hold the stories of those around us with gentler hands.

Want to learn more?

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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…

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

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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.

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Did you know?!?!

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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.

 

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.”:

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.

Related Posts

 

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.

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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.

Related Posts

Culture & Race

30 Day Race Challenge

When I saw the 30 Day Mom Challenge, I was inspired to create a similar challenge for people who want to develop a deeper understanding of race.  So, I developed the resource below with links to some thought-provoking resources available on race out there. (Click on the image to open the file and access the links.)  I’d encourage you to spend some time slowly digesting and learning from the resources here.

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You can also download this file here:  30 day race challenge.

Books, Culture & Race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

Culture & Race

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.

Related Posts

Culture & Race

4 reasons white people need to talk about race

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph articulately shared a similar opinion:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.  We don’t know who we are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.  We need healing, too

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

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

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

4.  We’re afraid of losing control

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

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

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

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

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I’m Jody, and I’m a white person.

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

Will you join me?  

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

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Comment Policy

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

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

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

Culture & Race, Restoration & Reconciliation

When even Jesus is white

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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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.

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