Same Words but Different

misunderstanding 01.jpg

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.

Advertisements

Black Lives Matter TOO!

I’ve been reluctant to dip my toe into this pond. Many people with greater experience and education than I have written great articles on this topic. However, perhaps some people who haven’t read those articles will take a few minutes to read this post.

We’ve all heard, and maybe said, the response to #BlackLivesMatter: All Lives Matter. Most people I’ve seen commenting on social media don’t seem to realise that everyone places an additional word at the end of that phrase.

Many white people hear “Black Lives Matter” as “Black Lives Matter More” or “Black Lives Matter Most”. So they respond with a phrase (that also contains a silent word) to correct the imbalance they perceive: “All Lives Matter Equally”.

This retort is a true statement.

What these people seem to miss is that the vast majority of people using the phrase “Black Lives Matter” do so while using a silent “Too”: Black Lives Matter Too!

Black Lives Matter 01

Why do they need to make this statement? Are they seeking to be inflammatory or to make trouble?

Those using the phrase “Black Lives Matter” do so because they’re expressing their impression that many in society don’t think they matter. They feel neglected, so they remind each other and the world that they do matter. They do have value. Of course all lives matter, but there are many people made to feel as though they’re insignificant. Sometimes it’s individuals who feel as though no one notices them. Sometimes it’s whole communities.

Did you notice that little feeling of indignation you feel when you see #BlackLivesMatter and think that you’re being overlooked or devalued? That’s a sensation these people experience as a way of life.

Just telling them that “All Lives Matter” doesn’t remove the negative messages these people have heard for so long.

Why would a large portion of the African-Americans community feel a need to remind the world that Black Lives Matter?

  • Because they feel targeted by law enforcement and have seen a disproportionate number of African-Americans killed by police shootings.
  • Because in 2010 blacks accounted for only 13% of the US population they made up 40% of the incarcerated population.
  • Because drug laws are enforced more stringently against blacks than whites.
  • Because the best schools are in white neighbourhoods.
  • Because they have higher rates of unemployment.
  • Because they experience prejudice in their interactions with white Americans.
  • Because ‘white flight’ tells them they’re distasteful.
  • Because of history that, yes, goes all the way back to slavery, and more recently to Jim Crow.
  • Because they have limited opportunities as a result of Jim Crow policies that ensured limited inter-generational wealth transfer within much of the black community.
  • Because no one tells them they matter or are valuable.

These issues are complex. There is no single simple solution. But all these factors and more contribute to why so many in the black community feel a need to remind the world #BlackLivesMatter…Too.


If you’ve read this far, you might also appreciate this article by Michael Hanegan, 9 Reasons Why My Faith Compels Me To Say #BlackLivesMatter.

You may also be encouraged by this short video from Rick Atchley who preaches for The Hills Church in Fort Worth. This was filmed in the days after the shooting of 5 Dallas law enforcement officers.

And I’m sharing this video below because sometimes we just need to be slapped.

Privilege

I recently attended a one day seminar by Christena Cleveland, the newly appointed inaugural Associate Professor of the Practice of Reconciliation at Duke University’s Divinity School where she is also the faculty director of Duke’s Center for Reconciliation.  She is also the author of Disunity In Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart.

One of the statements she made that stuck with me ran something like this…

Many people are willing to acknowledge that minority populations are discriminated against. However most of these same people fail to recognise that when a person is discriminated against someone else gains an “unfair” advantage, or privilege.

For example, numerous studies (HERE’s one) have been conducted which demonstrate that resumes with a white sounding name are 50% more likely to receive callbacks than applicants with black sounding names. When Kate or James get a job that launches them on to a successful career, they naturally think it’s due to their grades and previous life/work experience. They don’t realise (and probably their employer doesn’t either) that their odds of obtaining that job increased because black candidates with identical, or even better, qualifications were subconsciously discriminated against in the hiring process.

A 2008 research project in New York City summarised,

“We find that whites and Latinos are systemically favored over black job seekers. Indeed, the effect of discrimination is so large that white job seekers just released from prison do no worse than blacks without criminal records.”
Cheesy workplace diversity pic

Cheesy workplace diversity stock  pic

Yes, white job applicants do need to study hard, work hard and perform well to get their jobs. They do compete against everyone else: black, white and Latino. Because of their hard work they feel that they’ve earned their accomplishments, and they have. But because they have the “right” name they compete against less candidates than do the minority applicants. That’s privilege.

.

How does this impact churches?

Church leaders have an opportunity to share studies like this with their communities. I know that many members of white churches bristle at the phrase, “white privilege”. So if black Christians (correctly) believe they’re often on the receiving end of discrimination, but white Christians won’t accept the inverse of that equation, there’s going to be conflict.
.
White Christians have the opportunity to assist their minority brethren by using their social and professional networks to bring qualified candidates of color to the attention of those responsible for hiring. While it’s admirable to assist those we know, there’s an even greater opportunity to be advocates in the workplace for racial minorities during the hiring process. This awareness is not only necessary in multinational corporations with detailed diversity hiring guidelines, but in small businesses in small towns. This is not about being “anti-white”. This is about working to create true equality for all applicants regardless of whether their name is Sarah or Jamal.
Additionally, this understanding should impact our attitude toward minorities who find themselves unemployed. For some, in their reality it’s twice as difficult to find employment than it is for white Americans. Our attitude towards these people should focus upon compassion. All to often they receive criticism to accompany the despair of unemployment.
Understanding privilege should help us to love our neighbor as we better understand our neighbors world.

The Conference Conundrum

Late last year I came across an article describing the lack of racial diversity among speakers at major evangelical conferences around the US.

Since I can be a pretty skeptical guy, let me get the limitations of this article out of the way:

  • The numbers are not serious research as they were determined simply by the author scanning names and photo’s of speakers at the various conferences. (I expect they should still be pretty close to accurate.)
  • The article’s bottom line that only 13% of conference speakers represent minorities is skewed by some conferences with many speakers but low minority involvement. In fact about one-quarter of the conferences listed have 20% or higher minority speakers.
  • The numbers do not reflect the percentage of “unique” speakers, either white or minority. It could be the same 5 black and Hispanic speakers at each conference!
  • Some of the organizations that host these conferences serve mostly white churches. The speakers reflect the target audience.
  • The evangelical movement is largely a white movement. As the article itself points out 81% of evangelicals are non-hispanic whites. Wouldn’t we expect their conferences to be largely white?
  • This is not just a white issue. The religious landscape is scattered with black denominations, hispanic workshops, etc.

Despite the limitations listed above I thought the article raised a valid point on whether these significant and influential events among evangelical church leadership should better reflect the goal of racial diversity.

In a similar analysis Mark DeYmaz concluded that based upon US population distribution at least 25% of conference speakers would be non-White. He’s not arguing for quotas or compromising the quality of speakers, just more awareness of this issue and the racial landscape of the United States.

I’ve never organized or hosted a major conference. All my reflection should be understood through that lens.

These major events that attract thousands of church leaders have an easily generalised goal of influencing the church to be more passionate and effective in carrying out the mission of God. In many ways these conferences seek to model what local churches can look like, and inspire them to move in certain directions.

If a conference rolls out white male after white male speaker, it implies that these white men are the keepers of God’s word for the church today. It discourages minorities from attending the conference as their social context and cultural perspective will not be represented. It further insulates the “white church” from the influence of other people groups and thus perpetuates the issue of segregation within the church.

I’m not at all blaming conferences for the segregation of the church. I am criticising these conferences for not leading the movement toward racially integrated churches. I see this as an opportunity missed.

Because I know some people will quickly point a finger at the various workshops and conferences catering to minority groups let me address that topic for a moment.

Some of those conferences need to exist to serve a particular language group. Some of those conferences exist because they function as identity preservation for a particular cultural group. (If there was a conference for “Australian church leaders working in the US”, I’d try to get there!) Some of these workshops allow issues specific to Asian-American immigrants to be addressed by those familiar with the issues.

I’m not trying to argue that all conferences should offer a melting pot of speakers and attendees.

However, even within the workshops that cater specifically to non-White populations it seems that many of the arguments for greater diversification still have some validity. I would hope that all church leaders across the racial spectrum agree that we can learn from each other.

If there isn’t room for racial diversity in our iconic events, then there’s unlikely to be room for this enrichment in our local congregations.

Thankfully, DeYmaz could also reflect, “With this in mind, we should be encouraged as trends are moving in a positive direction.

If you’re interested in multi-ethnic conferences here are a couple to consider:

How Sensitive Are You?

This isthe fourth post discussing a five stage continuum of growing cross-cultural competence that Mark DeYmaz describes in his book, Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic ChurchHe calls this fourth stage “Cultural Sensitivity”.

If you’re reading this blog you’re probably already on the path to cultural sensitivity. Not because you’re learning from the most sensitive person in the world. I’m not. But because you’re making the effort to learn more about the subject. Hopefully you’re just as willing to learn more about other cultures you encounter in your church and community.

Many people practice cultural sensitivity when we travel overseas. In 1958 an influential fictional book was published with the title The Ugly American. It described a sensitive and insensitive approaches to interacting with locals in foreign countries. In time the phrase has often been associated with American tourists. However, tourists from all countries run the risk of being “ugly” when insensitive to local customs and values.

Most people I know when preparing for international travel take time to research the culture of their destination. Internet articles and numerous travel guides alert travelers to possible local sensitivities. Other people I know make an effort to speak to friends who’ve already traveled to those places and learn from their experiences.

But surely if I’m attending church with people who grew up in the same city as I did, I don’t need a “travel guide” to understand them!

Phil RobertsonFor several months I attended the church where Phil Robertson is an elder. I respect him, his family and the church. However, his comments in a GQ article regarding African-Americans that he observed prior to desegregation in the South demonstrated a lack of cultural sensitivity. He seems to assume that what he saw reflected the hearts of the people.

Practicing cultural sensitivity requires sitting down with those same people and saying, “I saw this and this on the news. How does it affect you?” Or maybe asking “Do you feel that our laws treat you as a lesser human being?” Without those conversations and efforts to understand those from another culture we’re never going to be sensitive to the thoughts and hearts of others.

Pursuing cultural sensitivity requires that we seek more than the facts regarding a culture, a race, or an historical event. True sensitivity demands that we seek to glimpse the feelings and heart of people with different experiences and values than ours.

Churches can promote the pursuit of sensitivity through organised events where different cultures exchange perspectives on various events. However, this does involve a risk of debating or comparing values. The most effective way for churches to embrace diverse ethnicities is for leaders to model the practice of cultural sensitivity one-on-one. These leaders will find themselves better equipped to lead the congregation along the multi-ethnic journey toward Cultural Competence.

The need for cultural education isn’t limited to when we travel. Too often we assume everyone sees the world the way we do. We need to pursue cultural sensitivity each time we engage people from a different cultural background to ourselves. Since loving our neighbour requires us to express that love in a way that is meaningful to them, we have a responsibility to first learn “what is meaningful to them”.

The Point of No Return

This is my third post discussing a five stage continuum of growing cross-cultural competence that Mark DeYmaz describes in his book, Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic ChurchHe calls this third stage “Cultural Awareness”.

Cultural Awareness occurs when a person recognises and accepts cultural distinctives. To reach this point one crosses a tipping point away from the previous stage of Cultural Blindness. Once a person accepts that culture runs much deeper than the skin and actually makes up a large part of a persons identity they can no longer deny that cultural differences exist.

Churches positioned in the stage of Cultural Awareness will find themselves talking about their diversity. They will also take steps to address obvious cultural issues such as providing sign language interpretation for deaf members. Decorations and art around the church building may reflect racial diversity. Signs and announcements may be printed in multiple languages. The church might even provide English as a Second Language classes.

DeYmaz describes how Mosaic church has hung flags in their worship area to “communicate no only our awareness but also our appreciation for the individuals and nations represented in our body at any given time.” (104) This makes a public statement that other nationalities and cultures are wanted and welcome at the church.

My observation of this stage is that churches and individuals willingly make adjustments to accommodate differences they observe with people of another race or culture.

This stage cannot be the final destination on the journey of cultural awareness. Although it has crossed a tipping point it still deals mostly with surface issues and observed needs. At this stage understanding intangible cultural values is not a priority.

Although a church service might be bilingual, the attitude toward time and punctuality may still reflect the values of the majority group. A casual attitude toward punctuality on the part of the minority may be generally regarded as disrespectful and rude.

Cultural Awareness does not necessarily lead one to seek understanding of other cultures. The word “awareness” is key to this definition. People recognise differences, but probably can’t explain the differences or the heart issues and values of the other culture. At this stage a person might acknowledge the fact that racial discrimination occurs, but not sit down with a man or woman of colour and ask them to describe the feelings that come with being discriminated against.

If your church is at a place of Cultural Awareness, celebrate that perspective! This is the starting point for a positive dialogue. From this point growth is possible without requiring a new worldview. But don’t sit back as though this is the destination.

Encourage your church to explore cultural issues. Take the first step yourself. Whether your part of a majority or minority, take some time to sit down with someone and compare cultural notes. Find someone you trust and ask them questions you’re nervous to ask publicly.

Don’t think you’ve arrived because you can list those differences.

Make an effort to understand the reason for differences.

Do You Know Your Community?

Race map USA 2010

The above map purports to show each person identified in the USA through the 2010 census. If you click on the map above you’ll go to the original site that allows you to move around and zoom in on your community.

This isn’t really the typical material promoted on this blog, so let me explain.

I suspect that most churches have little concept of the racial makeup of their community. We often function based upon our impressions as we shop and drive through the neighborhood. Perhaps particular parts of our towns and cities have reputations for having a lot of residents from a distinct culture.

The risk with functioning based upon impressions is that appearances can easily deceive us. Yes, the majority of our neighbourhood may well be black or white, but the apartment complex down the road may have a large Indian population. We may not see many Indian restaurants or businesses because while the live in our neighbourhood, they work and shop elsewhere in the city.

Churches can’t serve our communities effectively, if we don’t know who lives in our communities.

Really knowing our community requires research and asking questions. So I submit the map above as a starting point. Zoom in on your city and see if it matches your impression. Did you find any surprises? Please leave a comment and share your thoughts.

Personally, I found a lot more red dots in my city than I expected. (They do seem to stand out more than the green and orange.)