Introduction: You Don't Know How White You AreI took a Women's Studies course in my undergrad days. I was the only male in the class of fifteen students. The class was about Sexual Violence and social structures. One of the main books we read was a collection of narratives of black women who had been raped, including the narrative of our teacher for that class.
So, there was this one time when I raised the question, in my Women's Studies class, on what was keeping black and white women from working together to advance the cause of women. Why were black women and white women so far apart on the issues, and so incapable of working together? Suddenly one of the white women in the class stood and stormed out without saying another word. I inquired the other members of the class, about half of whom were black, what I had said that was so inappropriate, and they were as puzzled as I was. I made an appointment with my classmate to apologize and hear what I had done. She met me at the nearby coffeeshop a few days later, her hands shaking in rage, and we talked.
"You aren't going to convince me to be your friend," she started with. I didn't really know how to respond.
"What was wrong with what I said?" I asked.
"You don't know how white you are," she said to me with anger in her eyes.
I didn't know how to respond. I tried to discover the full meaning of her words, but she was so upset that the best we could do was agree not to talk to one another in class. I had to let her be angry at me, and not know how to deal with it, not know what I had done to deserve her anger.
I. The Problem with Being White, Rich, Christian, and Male
...is simply this: you don't understand what it means to be anything but white, rich (well, middle-class), male, Christian, and educated for a very long time, and once you figure out what it means to be a WASP, you are expected to feel bad about it by some people and very good about it by others, but never to be ambivalent about the privileges and history you've received by virtue of your whiteness. Above all, of course, you are called by Christ to love everyone, regardless of differences. You are literally demanded by God to reconcile with the Other. When you (white, male, rich, Christian, etc.) interact with someone from a different racial/cultural/economic/educational background, however, you factually cannot completely understand the life experiences of the person raised in that other situation. You just can't put yourself in their shoes: you are unable. I am unable to fully understand what it means to be black in America, or to be Muslim in America, or to be anything other that an educated white rich Christian male.
I can try. Indeed I ought to try: this is part of love, is understanding the object of affection. If I am to love everyone, I must do my best to understand those I meet, those I see, even those I might hate. Love your enemies and all... To process this, I self-assess my white male Christian-ness while somehow empathizing and seeking to understand the Other. In the middle of this assessment and empathy, however, I become increasingly burdened by the realization of what generations of some people of my cultural heritage or characteristics (white, male, rich, educated, Christian, and so on) have done - horribly done - to people from different backgrounds. Self-realization of my own culture lead to earth-shattering realizations of sexism, racism, class conflict, religious violence, and the violent extremes of these forms of discrimination. I realize that I have come into the planet in a cultural setting that will afford me significant peace, opportunity, and wealth through no work of my own, but lays on me an form of guilt that I received through no fault of my own. I am materially comfortable, but am seen by many - most often by anyone different from me - as a privileged oppressor. My attempt to love others has lead to an ever-growing realization of the vast historical and cultural barriers between me and the Other and just how difficult knowing how to love others can be, let alone actually doing loving things.
II. White Christians - Do... What?
This White People Problem - being totally unsure of how to process cultural barriers in loving the Other while dealing with a bloodstained past - leads to all sorts of problems as a guy like me tries to move forward with good, loving things like racial reconciliation, social justice, and cross-cultural ministry. I was told today: "White Christians: It's Time to Stand in Solidarity With Your Black Brothers and Sisters." Consider the implications of her title:
"It's time" - assumption: you, white Christian, do not care about Black people or perhaps care but do nothing to help
"to stand in solidarity" - assumption: you know what that means and how to stand with black Christians
"With Your Black Brothers and Sisters" - Assumption: Black Christians are united in purpose and how you should stand with them. There is an intelligible invitation to White Christians on how to "stand" with black Christians."
The conclusion of her article is inflammatory and totally ignorant of the participation of white Christians in the emancipation and civil rights movement from the very beginning, but here it is:
For years, black Christians have invited white Christians to participate in the unified family of God by leaning into justice issues that affect black people.
White Christians, are you ready to wake up???
Here is the challenge: how do I "lean into justice issues that affect black people," when the following things are true:
a) I do not wholly understand the issues that affect black people, and any presumption of understanding should rightly be met with a "you don't understand."
b) There is increasingly no such thing as "black people" in the homogeneous sense she references in America, so I have no point of reference on how to individually or congregationally do what she is asking. Is she talking about her issues? What about the issues facing the wealthy black man at my church? What about black guys who have been called "Uncle Toms" like Dom Lemon or Barack Obama - what are their current issues? Consider the alternative: what would "white issues" be? I have to suspicious of "black issues" just the same as I am suspicious when "women's justice issues" gets used as a cover for increased access to abortion.
c) Were I to arrive at a set of issues that I believe faced black people, that might not look the same as the list that she or another black person were to come up with. Do I follow the list that I create, or do I wait in service for whatever list of issues is fed to me by her or some other black person or group?
d) If I try to lead in pursuing the advancement of solutions for these issues, to what degree am I again the white man trying to take charge over black culture? How does a white person with good intentions try to help without seeming like he's trying to take charge?
e) If I say "I want to do whatever you want me to do," I've no idea how I filter through the groups that will line up to urge me to adopt whatever platform/strategy they've created. If I say "I want to help black people, where do I start? The Democrats would say "vote Democrat!" the Republicans would say "vote Republican!" the NAACP would say - what? I've no idea. Maybe vote Democrat? What would this author say? What do black Pastors say? What if their suggestions run headlong into my understanding of good/evil from Scripture? How are these balanced?
These challenges raised, I do believe this author arrives at the vague generality of a possible suggestion, though it is couched in all sorts of oversimplifications of history and insults to white folks who are trying through the rest of the article.
All Christians are called to love well across racial and cultural differences, choose to see the world from other people’s perspectives, search for and extinguish inequality in the church and society, advocate for each other, esteem one another, and live as true brothers and sisters (Philippians 2:1-3).
Amen! Amen! But consider how vast the cultural differences are that she presents, because pursuing things like true brotherhood between men of different cultural backgrounds is very difficult in the long run. Some cultural differences are sufficient to prevent true racial reconciliation in churches. Black folks generally worship differently than white folks, though that is changing in subsequent generations. Black folks generally worship longer (been to a few 3 hour services) while white protestants value their 1 hour services. Black preachers are generally quite stylistically different than your typical white preacher. Etc. Etc. We cannot very well force churches to be individually integrated any more than I can seem to force to get folks in my (totally white) neighborhood to go to church in the first place. People have preferences - good and bad - and many of those preferences play out most strongly at church.
To whit, most blacks I've known or brought to my church call it quite "boring." Some whites do, too... Do I force a stylistic change to accommodate? Or do I retain my "whiteness" while valuing, respecting, and loving the "blackness" of the Other. We share one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism - we do not necessarily share one Organ, one Hymn, or one Sermon.
On a local level, total racial integration is not necessarily ideal for the advancement of gospel. I dare you to identify a church that appeals to the interests of all white people in a given city, let alone all people in a given city.
So what do we do about skin, history, racism, and all that remains of generations of division?
III. Miscellaneous Thoughts On the Subject From My White Self
1) Divide skin color and culture, for they are not the same. Authors throw around "race"(even the author of that awful Christianity Today article) like it is a definited, meaningful thing, but the reality is that many black people are as culturally "white" as me - some even more so! So, too, there are many whites who are culturally identified as operating in "black" cultures. Note: I said cultureS. There is no such thing as one "white" culture. There is no such thing as one "black" culture. "Whiteness" as a cultural idea is the product or racial nationalism reaching back centuries but is no more real than "blackness," which was an idea created to make anyone with dark skin seem subhuman. Yes, there are shared white experiences and shared black experiences, but American blackness is not universal to those with brown skin.
I have white skin, but I am German/English, fifth or six generation American, and have no more in common in my heritage with a white Scot/Irish from the NC Mountains whose family has been on the same mountain for two hundred years than I do with a black great-great grandson of a slave. And these three widely disparate cultural heritages exist all within one state. What does the black second-generation son of Ugandan immigrants have in common with blacks who trace their lineage to slave ships? The former might be adopted into the latter's group, but these are not the same cultures. "Black America" includes individuals as widely disparate as President Obama and the Ferguson looters, just like "White America" lumps me in with the Unabomber.
Skin color is sacred, beautiful, individually unique, and respected. But skin does not define a person or a person's culture. Black people are not all the same any more than white people are all the same.
Want proof of this? Go to Africa. Blacks and blacks are not the same from house to house; cultures are as disparate for people in the same country with the same skin color as can be imagined. We as a Church must be wholly accepting of all skin colors and understand that skin color does not define someone's culture.
2) Culture means everything. I think it is incredibly helpful to understand different cultural groups instead of "race." The problem that this author and all the others like her is talking about is this: how do we deal with the legacy of slavery and discrimination between blacks and whites of different cultural groups? Black decedents of slaves - the predominant group that is meant when commentators say "blacks" or "African Americans" - are culturally linked by an awful legacy, had their culture wiped away by slave traders, and are still in the process of creating a culture and identity of their own. To make matters worse, black cultural creation has been maligned, repressed, and co-opted by different white cultures for decades since the end of slavery, including everything from the robbery of their music by white Southern rockers (one culture) and white English rockers (totally different culture) to the destruction of their lives and livelihoods by white Southern Protestants (yet another culture). "Whites" as a whole did not oppress "blacks" as a whole: individual white cultural groups repressed or hurt post-slavery blacks to varying degrees, and each one of them now have to deal with the legacy of their sins. Moreover, the ancestors of slavery and the inheritors of the legacy of Jim Crow still work to define their culture, their values, and their leaders. The work continues within these cultural groups, even as the cultures themselves change and values evolve.
3) Most cultural groups that are not American black are at a loss about how to "lean in" to justice issues affecting black cultural groups. We are! I do not just speak for rich white male Southern pastors (whatever you might label that cultural group.) I mean second- and third-generation Asian immigrants, Hispanics, or any other cultural group you might find in America. We do not experience the black culture in the same way that those who are in it do, and we do not share all of the same cultural values, so we don't know how to proceed. For many people that I've heard, the fact that a black man was voted in as President with control of both houses of Congress and nothing really changed means something like this: "if he couldn't do anything, who can?" Seriously, I've heard that said numerous times. I have a few thoughts on this below.
3) Culture does not change by force or the outside. Whatever solutions are offered, I (from my cultural background) cannot presume to inject my cultural values and solutions into the situation and hope for success. If I try to do this, I only breed contempt.
4) At the same time, I ought not denigrate or feel shame for the good in my culture. I 'yam what I 'yam. I can't feel bad for being white, because I didn't choose white. I can use my cultural advantage (whatever they might be: money, influence, etc.) to help others, as I might use any tool at my disposal, but I do not disparage myself just because others in my cultural group were/are awful people.
5) With regard to evangelism and integration, the American Church has a cultural integration problem. The churches who have successfully managed to attract people with different skin color have not done so by blending cultural values or styles to a great degree: they by-and-large exist in areas where cultural values and preferences have already blended to create new cultures and sub-cultures that are pan-skin-color. Christians like their music, their preaching, their clothing choice, their styles in whatever culture they came from, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. What would be awful is if two churches with different cultural styles did not get along, did not work together, and did not reach across the street to host events together or whatever. That's the real rubber-meets-the-road question: instead of trying to force culturally blended churches, why not respect and dignify different cultures with their own churches while bringing different cultural churches together at times under one heading called "the Body of Christ?" I respect the Hmong church down the road, so I do two things: I let them worship as they will, and I seek opportunity to fellowship with them in service to Christ whenever I can. Ought I not?
Conclusion: Specific Recommendations for Rich, White, Protestant Males
1) Cultural anxiety is only alleviated with familiarity. What would have happened if Officer Wilson had been black, everything else (including the shooting) being the same? We would have been looking at a policing issue, not a "racial" issue. Instead, the white midwestern culture seems to have a firm hold on the power structure in St. Louis and refuses to work to diversify. This is the crime before the crime: that the police did not represent the people they were policing. The governor had to import someone from a similar cultural background from the State Police to save face shortly after the shooting. What does that say about their culture - the white midwestern power culture - and their inability to calculate fairness and representation when doing police work? What if the prosecutor who lead the grand jury was from a similar cultural background as the young man who died? Culture matters. Put someone the people you are trying to care for/govern/police/pastor in charge because people identify with their own. That is human nature. If I lead a community with different cultures represented, am I ensuring that those communities are fairly represented in the decision-making and leadership process, and am I breaking down necessary barriers to entry for those folks?
If white cultures want to stop marginalizing cultures that face social justice issues, they must empower those cultures to have true representation and leadership. One President is insufficient There have been three - THREE - 3 - THREE!!!! BLACK UNITED STATES GOVERNORS --- EVER. Want to see a short list? Minority governors in the United States. Really?
No taxation without representation, indeed!
Churches must listen to this - do you have Elders from minority populations in your congregation? Do your denominations have minority cultural representation?
2) Cultural change must come from within. What exactly do cultural leaders in Ferguson want to change? Are they leading the charge? My first job as an outsider is to listen. Are we listening to the cultures who have been oppressed, or are will still trying to decide what we think is right for them?
3) Christians from other cultures must be ready to jump in to help, but ought not take charge. If you can answer #2, how do we help folks achieve what they want without taking over? White congregations are duty-bound by love to listen to our brothers and sisters from other cultures and then offer assistance, not dominance, and not leadership.
4) Churches can be culturally distinct without respect to skin color. I do not need to change my style (unless I am doing something sinful) just to accommodate the preferences of other cultural groups. I have black students who feel more at home in a historically predominantly white church, because that is the culture they were raised in. I have adopted Asian and Eurasian children in my church -- what culture do you think they will feel most comfortable among when they are older and seek out a church?
5) That being said, churches must be culturally adaptive to the world around them. Is your neighborhood predominantly East Asian, but your church lily white? Time to change. Adapt. Hire Pastors that reflect the community to be intentional about reaching the neighborhood.
6) Churches MUST be INTENTIONAL about breaking barriers between culturally distinct congregations. This is the problem with the segregated 11am worship hour: not that it is culturally separate, but that it is NEVER joined! Do we not pray in the same language? Do we not read the same Bible? I would relish the opportunity to see churches from different cultural backgrounds eat a meal together, at least. Can't we take the Lord's Supper in the same Spirit? This would help us break barriers that have existed for far too long.
7) Church must abhor segregation of any kind. Any kind. Any kind. Race. Sex. Class. Money. Cars. Whatever. Ever read the book of James?
8) (A related aside) A reminder: I hate the death penalty and consider it the worst vestige of racism in America. Ditch the death penalty until we can (at least) prove it is not racism made flesh.
9) Individually - I must engage with people who are culturally different from me. I am denied the opportunity of isolationism by the Gospel of Jesus. I am called to wholly love the Other, to see how the Other is not the Other in the eyes of God, and to see how I am in fact One with the Other - One in Christ eternally. I will worship eternally alongside some of those Ferguson looters. I will spend forever with people I currently do not understand. I will be united with them and be closer to them than I am with my own wife. There in the kaleidoscopic blend of colors and cultures I will bow before a Jewish carpenter and join in worship with brothers and sisters from every tribe, tongue, and nation in eternal harmony.
(I just hope that other cultures get to make the set list... White music is pretty boring.)