Walking On Eggshells: Five More Things On Ethnicity and Culture

My last post caused no little disturbance. It seems to me that anytime ethnicity and culture are mentioned in reformed circles, there is a mixture of responses ranging from anger to gratitude. Amid the responses, a brother in the Lord encouraged me to write a follow-up.

Before proceeding to some additional thoughts on this topic, I must confess that the atmosphere surrounding ethnic and cultural issues are much larger than the color of one's skin. After meeting with over thirty African-American (or perhaps more aptly stated, "black") pastors, professors, authors, and artists earlier this week, I am reminded of that truth. Class, language, political convictions, and education are intricate parts in this conversation as well. That will not be my focus, however. In this brief post, I would like to make some suggestions that might help us from walking on eggshells around each other. Especially after my last post, we can walk away thinking, "I do not want to say anything at all to my friends of color for fear of offending them." I hope this post provides another perspective on the issue that may help you from walking on eggshells around your minority friends. 

Below are 5 things you can do to cultivate healthier and more ethnically and culturally sensitive relationships with African-Americans and other minorities.

1. Transparency: In your current relationships with African-Americans or other minorities, develop a healthy degree of transparency. Grant them permission to tell you when you have offended them because you said something ethnically or culturally insensitive. In many relationships we sometimes feel inhibited from telling our friends when we think they have done something wrong. If you tell your minority friends, thereby making it explicit, that they have the freedom to help you understand where you have fallen off the ethnic/cultural ladder, that level of transparency should allow you to be you because you know when you fall short, they will help you. Transparency will also provide freedom to ask questions. For example, some of my white friends have asked me if I prefer to be called African-American or black. The transparency in our relationship gave them the freedom to ask that question. So it not only provides your friends a path to help you where you fail but it also grants you access to ask questions that you desire to have answered. For example (and I mention this jokingly), "Do all black people know each other?" Click here to find out.
2. More Friendships: Acquire additional black or minority friends. Since our reformed churches are predominantly white, our friendships are likely that way, too. Sure, we know people of color in the workplace, but those relationships sometimes do not transfer to intimate conversations and friendships in our homes. Cultivating deep and transparent relationships with blacks or other minorities are valuable for a myriad of reasons. One reason is that this will help you to better understand that there is no standard of blackness. Although it ought not to be limited to this, black is both Will Smith and Carlton Banks. Granted, we may have some idea what we mean when we say or think, "She acts black," but that understanding of blackness is too limited. Developing more relationships with blacks and other minorities will widen your view of us and help you in understanding our culture.

One silly example is in order. When I served in the US Navy overseas, I encountered a British young lady with whom I developed a cordial relationship. As our friendship developed, she apparently felt comfortable enough to tell me, "You're not like all those black people on Jerry Springer." This young lady maintained a narrow view of blackness.

3. Displacement: Make yourself the minority. It will help you more fully understand other ethnic and cultural groups. As the majority or dominant culture, you do not have to see things through the minority or subdominant culture's lens. The difference in the way we view the world is often the source of tension. Harris and Schaupp develop this thought in their book, Being White: Finding Our Place in a Multi-Ethnic World

Harris and Schaupp write, "...the white person chooses to put herself in a context where people of color are dominant in number and culture and whites are the minority. We call this displacement. Maybe she joins an Asian-led campus fellowship; maybe he goes to live and work on a reservation. Maybe a family moves into a neighborhood and school district that are mostly nonwhite. In this stage, the white person can learn to see whites and people of color in groups. He starts to see our respective racial and cultural systems and how they truly function. The key work in displacement is learning to submit and becoming a student of nonwhite cultures. The white person learns the other culture--celebrations, conflict-resolution styles and so on--and begins having productive, healthy conflict. He learns history through books and people's stories. It is a profoundly stretching stage of the white journey.... The active cross-cultural growth process a white person experiences in displacement causes her to reconsider her white identity in foundational ways... The white person begins to form a new white identity, strong enough to face the truth about white history and current reality... (19-20).  

4. Humility: Sometimes we think we have it all together. With that mentality, when someone attempts to correct us, the immediate response is defensiveness. When it comes to engaging the conversation revolving around ethnic and culture issues, we cannot respond in that manner. Instead of taking the posture of defensiveness, which is often announced in the declaration, "What! How could he say that?", prayerfully and thoughtfully consider what is being said.There may be some nuggets of truth available. Besides, there is no reason to get defensive, you are actually worse than you think.  

5. Clothe yourself in the gospel: Attempting to learn about others is a risk. I can only imagine the ethnic and cultural conflict that took place at the church in Antioch (Acts 13:1) and Philippi. Without embracing the glorious truths of the gospel, we will continue to behave as if the wall of hostility separating Jews and Gentiles (read: minorities and whites), still exist. It does not! That wall was demolished in the person and work of Christ. Further embracing the amazing truths of the gospel will bring us closer together not simply in our personal relationships but also in our churches, a place where the majority and minority peoples should be able to worship together.

I hope this is helpful. As I shared in the previous post, my desire in highlighting these issues is not to reopen a wound. The wound is already present. We have to work on healing. The gospel is foundational to such healing. Secondly, we must have open and honest conversations.

Lastly, I know blacks are not the only ones who are recipients of emotional pain from other brothers and sisters. Blacks have hurt whites, as well as others, also. We, too, say and do things that are offensive. In other words, regardless of the color of your skin or tax bracket, you are not immune to pain and emotional strife (i.e., ethnic and cultural insensitivity leading to that). We all need help in this area. Therefore, let us move toward reconciliation where reconciliation is needed.