Can We Talk About Race at Church?

It’s the type of thing that church leaders lose sleep over: Someone sits down in a planning meeting and suggests the church needs to holds a class addressing one of the most polarising social and political issues of the day.

I was that person when I suggested to my fellow leaders that I teach a class on race relations from a Biblical perspective.

They were nervous.  I was nervous.

The class just finished… and it went well.

Let me give you some background.

  • Our church of 120 members is approximately 50/50 African-American and white.
  • The church has been racially diverse since the early 1990’s.
  • Since 2009 we’ve held an annual one Sunday celebration of ethnic and other diversity in the church that we call HARMONY Sunday.
  • Since 2013 I’ve blogged on the topic of multi-ethnic churches and researched it for years before that.
  • I was still nervous.

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What helped this class work?

  • We limited the class size to about 15. The class as I taught it would not have worked with 50. This size encouraged interaction and comments.
  • We acknowledge the possibility that some ideas or comments in the class could be offensive, but we asked members to commit to presuming good motives behind those comments.
  • Not all areas of interest can be discussed in class. Some comments will have to be followed up in conversations outside class.
  • A key aspect of the class was outside reading. Each week I would email links to a selection of articles, videos and audio resources. Some of these expanded on the class discussion and others prepared for the next week’s topic. This meant that people knew that all their questions didn’t need to be answered in the class.
  • Clear time limits. The class ran for 7 weeks and each class was only 45 minutes. This short class length meant that we all knew we couldn’t dig deeply into topics. The class was a survey, not an excavation.
  • We had a mix of ethnicities in the class. As a white, non-American, leader in a multi-ethnic church I depended on the contribution of the Africa-American class members to give the class material credibility. While the material I provided was a helpful guide, not surprisingly, some of the most helpful thoughts came from class members sharing their experiences and from the interaction between black and white class members.
  • A clear syllabus. This limited each class session to topics I had studied and prepared for. It also prevented the class from roaming to every hot button issue or personal sopabox. While those issues are important, this wasn’t the time or venue to discuss them.
  • Have a Goal. While most of the class time was spent dealing with broad social issues, the final week of the class discussed how our church could better embrace all minorities. We asked, what goals should our church have when it comes to race relations? While we didn’t settle on definitive answers, we raised awareness of issues and started a conversation that I know will continue.

Topics Covered

For those who are curious, here are the 7 class topics:

  1. Introduction – Why this class now? And the history of the Church of Christ regarding race relations.
  2. Defining terms and considering personal bias.
  3. Institutional and Systemic Racism – The Institutions
  4. Institutional and Systemic Racism – The Individual (Compound Deprivation)
  5. White Privilege
  6. The Cross & the Lynching Tree – How life experiences colour our faith
  7. What does this mean for our church?

Measuring Success

I expect that each church may have different goals pertinent to its situation. When I say that the class was a success, here’s what I have in mind:

  • There was no yelling, no one stormed out of the class, and no one left the church!
  • A diverse range of views and life experiences were expressed.
  • People shared life experiences.
  • At the end of the class members from disparate backgrounds said they had learned something.
  • We’ve demonstrated that complex, emotionally charged topics can be discussed in a Godly manner.
  • The class ended with members asking how they could continue to build on the topics we covered.

Down to the River

I am currently teaching a class at my church using material created by Eric Gentry, a minister with the Highland Church of Christ in Memphis. While the concept I present here isn’t original to me, I have expanded upon it considerably.

In 2013 James H. Cone published a book titled, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree“. One aspect of this work suggests that one’s life experiences impacts the way we read Scripture. In particular, Cone argues that the closer one’s proximity to the lynching tree the more that person identifies with the suffering of the cross. This extends to the extent that the cross is viewed as a lynching tree (Galatians 3:13) and the thousands of lynchings the African-Americans experienced throughout the U.S. are regarded as a “uniting with Christ in his death” (Rom. 6:5).

For white Christians comfortable with a well established historical understanding of the significance of the cross, the idea that a community’s shared history can lead a different perspective may create some discomfort.

Similarly, African-American culture has often viewed baptism through a different lens. White Christians commonly regard baptism as a moment that a divine transaction takes place; it’s a physical representation of a spiritual reality. Baptism is a moment of commitment, of forgiveness, of new life and orientation. It’s a mental and emotional undertaking to trust one’s future to God and to make changes to live in harmony with God.

Within black culture baptism has often held dual hopes: an immediate hope of physical rescue and the spiritual hope of forgiveness and eternal reward.

In my mind, these different perspectives (and yes, I know I’m painting in broad strokes) are well portrayed in three songs written around the familiar Gospel theme of “the river”.

This traditional tune has a catchy tune that disguises the gravity of the lyrics. There are at least three ways to understand this song:

  1. It speaks of baptism and putting on the long white robe down by the riverside. There’s also the immediate connection of “studying war no more” and “laying down my sword and shield”. There’s a physical connection between baptism and escaping or ending violence. Sadly that hope seldom came to reality.
  2. The river described in the song is the river one crosses moving from life to death. A darker perspective this song declares that the only escape from life’s burdens and violence is death.
  3. When I played this song in class an older black member quickly commented that the spiritual language was a metaphor for slaves crossing the Ohio River to reach the relative safety of the non-slaveholding states.

Each of these understandings stresses the immediate hope of peace and escape from oppression.

Eric’s class notes pointed me to a more recent (2015) song by Leon Bridges simply titled “River”.

Bridges describes his motivation for writing this song in this way,

I felt stuck working multiple jobs to support myself and my mother.  I had little hope and couldn’t see a road out of my reality.  The only thing I could cling to in the midst of all that was my faith in God and my only path towards baptism was by way of the river.

Bridges’ iteration of the river theme has a darker melodic feel and the video captures the daily struggle of life. While the lyrics turn hopeful the links between the river, baptism and hope for a new life in the present remain intact.

Finally this contemporary Christian song titled “The River” was also released in 2015by Jordan Feliz.

Writing for a predominantly white audience Feliz describes his journey to the river more in emotional and spiritual terms than the concrete realities of the previous songs. On his website Feliz reflects,

“Musically ‘The River’ is my own personal happy place. It’s a great driving groove that just feels good to sing. The song itself is an invitation to anyone who hears it—whether they’re stuck in pride and legalism or wallowing down in the mess they’ve made of their lives—it’s an invitation to take whatever we have and to run to Jesus. It’s an invitation to go down in amazing grace and to rise up being made new.”

This contrast of emphases regarding baptism does not make one view right and another wrong, but the songs demonstrate a diversity of perspective of a Christian sacrament at the core of our faith. They remind us that our way of viewing the world is not the only, or best, way. They remind us that we are all interpreters of Scripture seeking answers to our questions within its pages.

For multi-ethnic churches we’re reminded that we need to hear diverse voices in our teaching and within our congregations, because no one voice will speak into each hearer’s life. The way we express and apply our faith will have different points of emphases to different cultures. We can’t be so arrogant to think that any one person can cover all the cultural bases. Diversity is not just different skin colors or even languages in one room. Diversity involves different ways of thinking ans seeing the world

(If this post brings other “river” songs to mind, I’d love for you to share them in the comments section below along with any other reflections you may have.)

Hospitality & Reconciliation

The Islamic month of Ramadan this year ran from June 6 to July 5. During that month a local Turkish Cultural Center hosted a series of community meals. They offered a variety of formats.

First, they invited community members to come to their facility and enjoy a meal with a large group of people. Second, they offered to prepare the meal but host it in our church’s fellowship space. Third, if people were interested they would schedule community members to come into their homes and share an iftar meal with them.

international-food-map-01As I talked with them they explained their simple reasoning. Sharing a meal together breaks down barriers. It encourages conversations as people share the experience of meeting a fundamental human need, eating. They longed for their neighbors to see past their religion, or different clothing to recognise and acknowledge our shared humanity. In discussing the experience we talk about the food and their favorite Turkish dishes. They share what they value about Ramadan and we exchange notes on the Muslim and Christian practices of fasting.

By sharing a meal we discuss topics we would never broach talking to each other across a desk or in a classroom.

Jesus knew the power of meals. In the Gospels we find him frequently eating with a variety of different people. Often, Jesus ate with those who were furthest from the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ dining habits were apparently a frequent source of conversation to the extent that Luke describes the criticism Jesus recieved,

The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ (Luke 7:34)

A couple of weeks ago my church declared October our “Month of Hospitality”. My sermon that week was based on Ephesians 2:11-22. I suggested that if Jesus died to reconcile Jews and Gentiles to each other, and if “you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” (Eph 2:22) then we need to actually be doing something.

wp_20161014_12_20_22_richWe gave the church the simple task of using a meal to break down a wall by eating with someone on the other side of a divide. We provided a few guidelines:

  1. You should invite someone from our church that you don’t know well to share a meal or a coffee.
  2. The person should be on the other side of a divide: race, nationality, age, marital status, education, income, etc.
  3. Given the context of our church, this is a great opportunity to intentionally break racial barriers and specifically ask each other how you perceive the racial climate in this country at the moment.

The natural next step is to expand the hospitality to bridge divisions with those outside the church. Each of those steps takes more confidence and requires a greater investment, but the results make it worthwhile. Even in a multi-ethnic church people often need encouragement to break out of their comfort zones, spend some time building relationships and destroy some dividing walls.

We make this as simple as possible. Although we use the word “hospitality” we don’t pressure people to invite others into their home, or to cook a 3 course meal. The goal is to sit, eat, and drink together. If that happens at a Wendy’s or a Starbucks, or if the bill is split rather than one person treating another, it doesn’t matter as long as each person knows the other a little better at the end of their time together.

When we first did this in 2014 we posted the above board in our foyer and encouraged people to record their participation. It’s gone very well and I’d love for you to try it in your church setting and hear how you improve it.

 

7 Pitfalls when Preaching on Race

7 Pitfalls when Preaching on RaceSadly, not everyone in our churches will jump for joy when we introduce a sermon addressing issues of race.

Some people have heard speeches on the topic for years and are simply worn out.

Other people get defensive and insist that there’s no problem to discuss. At least not with them.

I’ve attended churches where people fear confrontation. Since this topic smacks of controversy, they’d rather not talk about it.

There are always some people who enjoy the status quo and believe it’s okay and reasonable to discriminate against minorities. Alternatively, they see accommodations granted to minorities and believe the discrimination is against them!

Any of these people can get hurt or angry when discussions around the issues of racial equality arise.

Then there are always inherent risks for the preacher when presenting these ideas. Numerous ways exist to speak insensitively, use the wrong words, or misrepresent an issue. Fear of these mistakes has often prompted churches to avoid the topic. In today’s society churches cannot afford to skirt issues of race. So here are some mistakes preachers should work hard to avoid:

1. Do not stereotype! Not all Indians are good spellers. Not all Chinese are mathematical geniuses. Not all African-Americans grew up around gangs in urban environments. Even large churches have experienced trouble using stereotypes as the story of this Asian-based VBS curriculum reveals. Stereotypes place a large group of people in a single box, and that box is often demeaning.
When strangers quote Crocodile Dundee to me they imply that all Australians carry knives, live in the desert and wrestle crocodiles. In fact, Australia is one of the most ethnically diverse and urbanized countries in the world. Stereotypes most often make the person using them look ignorant.

2. Do not mimic or imitate cultural differences. By all means, please do talk about racial/cultural differences. Your congregation needs to have this open conversation. But how you conduct the conversation is crucial. RESPECT is vital. Talk about cultural differences. Describe awkward situations and misunderstandings. However, if we start adopting accents, or walking in different/funny ways to illustrate a cultural stereotype, we instantly move much closer to mockery, than respect. Focus upon speaking clearly, not theatrics.

3. Do not think that there won’t be any misunderstandings. No matter how gifted your speaking abilities, people will still hear what they want to hear. If you say nothing about affirmative action, some people will think your whole talk was about affirmative action. Some people will criticise you for bringing politics into the church even if you spend the whole time exegeting one verse. No single sermon can address all objections. Expect misunderstandings.

4. Do not feel pressure to tell people “I’m sorry”, unless you are. This is a complex topic, but here are a couple of simple thoughts:

  • Don’t apologise for things you haven’t done… unless you represent institutions that have committed wrongdoing. You can can express sympathy for suffering, outrage at injustice, regret for the actions of others, but you can’t apologise on behalf of those other people. The exception is demonstrated in 1999 by Dr Royce Money the Chancellor of Abilene Christian University when he apologised for policies and practices of the university in years previous.
  • When we simply say “I’m sorry” we place a burden on the other person to forgive. It’s as though “I’m sorry” says, “I’ve done what I need to do for reconciliation, now it’s up to you.” We make it easier for minorities to forgive when we demonstrate contrition by taking tangible steps toward reconciliation.

5. Do not merely mention racism as a footnote in a sermon on another topic.  This might not apply if you’ve already raised the issue in a serious way, but simply including racism in a list of vices does not count as “speaking on race”. When you decide that you need to address racial issues with your church, preach from the best biblical texts. Because of #3 above we should address these issues with clarity. Assuming that people will catch tangential references and understand our goals reflects a misplaced confidence.

6. Don’t pretend to have all the answers. No one person has all the answers. Reading a book, talking to a minority friend, or having a dramatic story to tell, doesn’t make anyone an expert. After working in multi-ethnic churches for almost 20 years and researching as much as I can on the topic, I still find I have more questions than answers. As a leader in the church you might have clear insight into the next step the church needs to take. You might have a clear view of the goal of racial reconciliation and unity in the church. Those things are not the same as “all the answers”. ALWAYS preach and speak with humility on this topic.

7. Don’t minimise challenges. Related to the previous point, we face the danger of communicating a message that says something like, “If we all just did what the Bible tells us and loved our neighbours, racial prejudice wouldn’t be a problem in this country.” Other observations like, “If they just did what the police told them they wouldn’t get shot” fall into the same category. These types of statements minimise centuries of mistrust and abuse. It can be akin to telling a minority person to “suck it up and get on with life“. But life is not simple. For example, many of the factors that contribute to disparate educational outcomes for students of different races involve complex sociological issues. Loving more, or allocating more money to a school, won’t alter rates of childhood poverty. Honestly acknowledge the size and scope of the challenges ahead, then break it down into smaller steps for your congregation. Remember that what seems like a small step for you, may be huge for other members.

For some positive suggestions when preaching on racial issues check out this previous article: 8 Tips for Preaching on Race.

8 Tips for Preaching on Race

8 Tips for Preaching on Race

Race relations in the United States have grabbed the headlines in the last few months, culminating in the shooting of five Dallas police officers in early July. In the weeks that followed I know many churches publicly addressed the issue of race relations. Some did so through special prayers, others did so through sermons. For many churches this was the first time they’d directly addressed the issue for years.

As this topic becomes more acceptable to discuss there are dangers preachers face as they dive into sensitive waters. To help navigate this challenge over the next couple of weeks I will share two lists, of Do’s and Do Not’s about preaching on issues of race. I hope you’ll add to the conversation in the comments section and expand our knowledge through your experiences.

We begin with the positive suggestions:

  1. Do speak on issues of race and culture: We all face a temptation to skirt difficult and divisive issues. It’s easy to rationalise sweeping stuff under the rug by asking, “Is it really beneficial for the church if it results in conflict and division?” But the answer is “Yes!” if approached humbly and carefully. Many of us encourage our churches to move towards relevance when discussing music choices, but true relevance means addressing topics that dwell close to people’s hearts. 
  2. Ground your sermon in Scripture: The church never speaks for itself. When the church addresses social issues it must speak for God. The preacher’s role is to persuade people that the path of peacemaking and reconciliation is God’s path for His people. We can easily find civil rights activists willing to speak out against the evils of racism. Only God’s people have the authority to speak for God. When preachers attempt to motivate behavioural changes without establishing God’s will, we’ve become manipulative rather than prophetic. Stories and statistics will play an important role in whole conversation, but in the church, it should always be a supporting role. 
  3. Have a clear goal in your preaching: Is your goal simply to say racism is bad, or to prompt the church to take substantive steps toward reconciliation? Who do you want the church to reconcile with? Is the first need in this conversation to convince people that racism still exists in our community or church? Sometimes we will address this topic from a more educational perspective than a motivational one. Our preaching needs more purpose than simply reminding the church to love our neighbours. 
  4. Be specific and define your terms: I’ve written previously about the need to define terms. Don’t assume that everyone uses technical words the same way that you do. The bigger issue at this point involves defining racism, prejudice and discrimination. Very few people will admit that they’re racist. Regardless of a person’s real views we all understand the negative implications of being known as a racist. Instead, focus on giving examples of specific behaviours or statements that your congregation may recognise. 
  5. Research the topic. Because race relations continues to raise emotions, we need to found the sermon application on verifiable research rather than impressions and personal experience.  A few years ago I read a nationally-known church member describe working in the fields alongside African-Americans and observing, “They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.” No preacher will get far doing nothing but comparing anecdotes. However, pointing out rates of poverty, lending practices, and education levels at that same period will paint a picture that’s much more credible. If you haven’t done much reading on the topic, you really shouldn’t say much on the topic!

  6. Provide “next steps” for hearers to take afterwards: The goal of a sermon on race should always exceed merely producing guilt. If the goal is education, suggest books, articles or movies for people to look up on their own time. If the goal is action, point people to organizations or events in which they can participate. When promoting reconciliation encourage people to share a meal or coffee with someone from a different ethnic or cultural background and listen to their stories. Even if the goal is introspection or self-awareness provide resources such as this inventory for people to evaluate themselves. And if we need to convince people of the ungodliness of racism then provide a handout of Scriptures and questions for personal study. These are simple suggestions.Whatever you do, don’t give the impression that a hearty handshake and “Well, done preacher.” sufficiently resolves the issues. 
  7. Prepare church leadership to receive and respond to likely criticisms. No matter your oratory skills, one sermon will never complete a congregation’s transformation of racial attitudes. Preachers must prepare themselves to work long-term. Ambushing elders and other ministers without warning of the sermon topic may well make the sermon your last! Even if you survive, the church will make a much greater impact when the leadership shares the vision for racial reconciliation and possesses the training and knowledge to engage members’ questions and concerns. 
  8. Pray. If it’s dangerous to address this topic without the support of congregational leaders, how much greater is the risk of excluding God from the sermon? Pray that the congregation will hear with open minds. Pray that supportive voices will drown out any opposition. Pray that real change may occur. Pray that our mission will be God’s mission. And pray for peace, courage and reconciliation that leads to lasting change.

The companion post to this article is 7 Pitfalls when Preaching on Race.

Seeing Inside Out

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“The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7

Perhaps you’ve heard that verse before.

We use it to tell other people to stop judging us. “God knows what’s in my heart.”

We use it to judge other people, because although they look good God, and I, know what’s really going on in their hearts.

Sometimes we use it to include people who have a lot of tattoos, or whose clothes are shabby… “the Lord looks at the heart.”

Sometimes we use it to excuse our laziness and lack of action. “I know I could have cooked a meal for that person who just had surgery. I’d have liked to but just didn’t get around to it. Well, God knows my heart.”

In reality, we all judge on appearance more than we’re usually willing to admit. Although we know and quote 1 Samuel 16:7 we often live in opposition to this principle.

We make all sorts of judgments about people based on appearance:

  • Football fans – we like people more or less depending which team they support;
  • Professional attire – we presume people are more educated and capable the more formal their dress;
  • Skin tone – we all tend to more quickly trust others who look more like us;
  • Hemlines – women in general are more regularly judged by appearance and people associate values with clothing choices us as the length of a woman’s dress.

Because we know people make judgements based on appearances we then begin to accept them and play along. We may even try to use those judgements to our own advantage.

donald trump 01“It’s not a coincidence that many politicians wear red-coloured ties with light shirts and darker suits.

“Red is the power tie,” said Mark Woodman, a trend analyst who studies colour in Laurel, Maryland, in the US. “There’s something about red that always comes back to strength and passion.”” [quoted from HERE]

When it comes to playing along there’s not much we can do about our skins. We all ‘play along’ to some degree in regards to clothing, but accepting skin colour as a reasonable basis to make judgements about a person is dangerous. Viewing a presidential candidate as passionate because he wears a red tie pales in significance compared to initially regarding someone with dark skin as dangerous or assuming that someone with white skin would ‘fit in’ better to our office atmosphere.

It’s difficult to see people inside-out when society, and perhaps our human nature, trains us to see others outside-in. Notice in the opening verse that God states that it’s completely natural for even the great prophet Samuel to judge people by appearance. But as we grow in spiritual maturity we must desire to see others as God sees them.

The apostle Paul expresses the same thought this way:

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation     2 Corinthians 5:16-18

Reconciliation as described here has many different applications. Primarily all humanity needs reconciliation with God. But given the history of the United States no one can claim to be reconciled with God while neglecting racial reconciliation. Given the tragedies we’ve witnessed around this country recently, the church can’t preach forgiveness while standing on the sidelines pointing fingers at violence and injustice in others.

Christians should be leading the way in practicing reconciliation because we regard no one from a worldly point of view.

  • Can we continue to describe churches as black and white if we no longer regard others from a worldly point of view?
  • Can we tolerate education systems with disparate graduation rates running along racial lines?
  • Can we remain silent while African-Americans fill our jails at a disproportionate rate?

Do we really believe that in Christ the old has gone and the new is here? Or is it too easy for us to rationalise the points above? Do we really see people differently because of Christ, or have we just memorised a couple of feel-good Bible verses?

Steps to See Others Inside-Out

  1. Remind Yourself Frequently: When you find yourself saying, “Typical, black drivers are always cutting me off.” or “Well, that’s no surprise, Indians are taking all our jobs.” Find ways to talk back to yourself. Remind yourself that each person is an individual with struggles and bad habits just like yours. Remind yourself that God loves them too.
  2. Understand that skin color is more than skin deep. People of different ethnicities experience the world in different ways. When we intentionally try to ignore skin color we ignore important aspects of that person’s life. Seeing people inside-out means acknowledging that a black male will most likely have different thoughts about dealing with the police than will a white female. The outside influences the inside. [I’ve written further on this topic HERE.]
  3. Ask Questions: Spend time with people from other ethnicities and cultures. Don’t tell them what the people in the news are doing wrong. Listen to their experience with the issues that interest you. Don’t argue! A simple ice breaker might go something like this, “What’s something about your experience living in the US that you think would surprise me, or I wouldn’t experience?”
  4. Make New Friends: If you live in a racially diverse community, and all your friends come from the same race as you, it’s time to develop some new friendships. It’s hard to demonstrate that you’re an agent of reconciliation if your friends are all one color.
  5. Be Color Brave: Encourage your church to address issues of racial reconciliation. If you live in an area with single race churches, then speak up for unity services and other forms of cooperation. Don’t pretend that race-based churches provide an acceptable status quo. Push for your church to embody the truth that “the Lord looks at the heart.” [Check out a great TED talk and other thoughts HERE.]

It has taken the United States centuries to reach this point in race relations. While prejudice may never disappear from our society, Christians have an opportunity, and responsibility, to demonstrate a better way. We can show the world what a difference it makes to move through life Seeing Inside-Out.


This summer I’ve been participating in a Summer Blog Tour with some excellent bloggers. Our theme for the summer is “[         ] Inside Out“. You can follow their work on my primary blog: www.ozziepete.wordpress.com. This post will also be shared on their sites in the coming weeks.
Church Inside OutAs part of our Summer Blog Tour you can win a copy of Tim Archer’s newly  released book and accompanying workbook Church Inside Out by leaving a comment on this page and then completing the form over HERE.

Same Words but Different

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As I’ve followed numerous articles, interviews, speeches and conversations related to race relations in the United States over the past couple of weeks I’ve come to realise that we’re not all using words the same way. Our words sound the same, but the meanings and emphases differ. White society faces the temptation to adopt the role of guardians of the lexicon and deny the validity of new definitions arising from within minority cultures.

This blog exists to encourage and provide resources for multi-ethnic churches. One of the keys to speaking to a diverse congregation is using the right words. The less our congregations look like us, the more carefully we need to choose our words. This is true in regular preaching, but exponentially more so when addressing cultural flash points.

So here are some words related to race relations that I’ve come to realise have at least two meanings each. If you can think of additional examples please list them in the comment section below. I intentionally focus on Black – White relations as that’s been the focus of attention in recent weeks.

RACE
This may appear to be a simple term for all of us who’ve completed numerous forms that ask us our race: Black; White; Latino; Pacific Islander; etc. However, consider this definition from FreeDictionary.com,

“A group of people identified as distinct from other groups because of supposed physical or genetic traits shared by the group. Most biologists and anthropologists do not recognize race as a biologically valid classification, in part because there is more genetic variation within groups than between them.

(While that’s hardly the most academic source, it’s a fair summary of many scholarly discussions.)

Although we think of racial differences in terms of physical features such as skin color, eye lid folds, or sometimes language, those physical differences are genetically insignificant. I have found that when we talk about different races, we most often refer to social and cultural differences rather than physical distinctions. If someone says, “Black (or White) people like this particular food or think a particular way” they are referencing a cultural value or taste, rather than a behaviour arising from a person’s skin colour or genetic makeup.

While this term isn’t disappearing any time soon, it’s valuable to remind ourselves of its limitations and foremost that all people belong to the human race. Our similarities far exceed our physical distinguishing features.

RACISM
Traditional (White) dictionaries define this word in relation to an individual’s sense of superiority over another because of race, or their hatred or prejudice toward others because of race. Racism occurs when one person treats another person badly due to their racial differences.

Many African-Americans include an additional word in their definition that makes a vital adjustment to the conversation. That word is “power”.  By this understanding of the term racism is a sense of superiority over a minority population with the power and authority to implement policies and systems that honor the superior and suppress and oppress the inferior.

According to this definition a Black person in the USA cannot be racist towards Whites, because almost no sphere of society exists in which Blacks possess power over Whites. Racism isn’t an attitude an individual possesses. Racism exists in systems, policies and institutions representing the majority (White) population who have the power and authority to implement and maintain those systems.

This “power” definition doesn’t mean that people of color bear no guilt in their relationships toward White America. There are plenty of vices that reflect racial hate, just not “racism”. These attitudes can be found in people of all colors: prejudice; hate; discrimination; bigotry; intolerance; and arrogance.

WHITE SUPREMACY
When most White Americans hear the term “White Supremacy” they’ll picture images of Ku Klux Klan hoods and neo-nazis. To label someone a white supremacist is a grievous insult. Because of this association when White America hears the term “White Supremacy” being directed toward them they naturally grow defensive and the conversation stalls.

I’ve increasingly noticed writers using this phrase in reference to social systems and structures where those with white skins enjoy advantages over other ethnic groups. Like “racism”, this shift in definitions applies the term less to individuals and more to collective organizations.

For Example: If I were to say, “The NFL demonstrates and facilitates White supremacy”, I’m not accusing the NFL of being run by members of the KKK. Rather, I’m highlighting a system where a disproportionate number of owners and coaches are White, particularly in comparison to the ratio of White:Black players.

Personally, I believe church leaders should only use this second definition with great caution. In all likelihood the vast majority of the audience will associate it with extremist groups and therefore find it inflammatory. However, we should expose our congregations to the technical meaning so they will be willing to pursue the speakers meaning and be less likely to respond negatively and impulsively when they hear the phrase.

PRIVILEGE
White privilege is difficult to define and describe. A quick glance at Wikipedia reveals 8 definitions submitted by contributors. At its core, this term refers to the concept that within US society a person of white skin colour experiences inherent advantages over those with darker skin colours. These advantages will not necessarily be the consequence of intentional preference, but nonetheless they exist.

The primary rebuttal of this concept isn’t with the definition, but with the reality. Many white Americans point to their own struggles and challenges to succeed in life as evidence that they didn’t receive any benefits because of their skin colour.

Because this could be an extremely long discussion on its own, I’ll just give two examples I believe would commonly be described as white privilege.

  1. Dictionaries: This entire conversation relates in some way to the fact that English is a language of white people and the dictionaries have been maintained by representatives of white culture. “Proper English” is defined by White society. African-American word usage or Chinese-American terms may never make it into the mainstream dictionary and will be regarded as “lesser English”. In order for a minority to be regarded as educated they must speak like White Americans regardless of the degrees they’ve attained. Yet at the same time White English continues to evolve over time and “proper English” is continually redefined in a way that most people are oblivious to. The double standard is glaring and it advantages (privileges) White society.
  2. Church: Picture two 16 year olds, one white, one black. They go to school together. They have the same classes and the same teachers. But on weekends they go to black and white churches of the same denomination. Demographics tell us that when they start looking for entry level jobs the one attending the white church is more likely to have relationships with civic leaders, farmers, small-business owners, and executives. In addition, the White church members are probably higher educated than their counterparts at the Black church in town and reinforce the value of education to this student.
    Because of these relationships the White student gains part-time work with a career track in larger businesses, internships, and relationships with influential people in the community.
    Although both students will work equally hard, and their families of origin may live at comparable levels of wealth, the social connections made simply by attending a white church provide one teen opportunities the other never received. Looking back, the white student may never appreciate the privileges that came with his skin color while she credits her accomplishments to her efforts and therefore disparages the efforts of those (minorities) who haven’t succeeded as she has.

Each of these terms has huge conversations behind them. I know I haven’t scratched the surface of the issues and attitudes involved. Hopefully, this blog post can raise awareness of conversations that need to take place around terminology, even before substantive conversations toward reconciliation can occur.