Why Conversations About Race and Ethnicity Must Stop Being White-Centered: Part 1–What It Is, What It Isn’t

white-pivilege-cardIf you are a “woke” person of color or a white person who “gets it” (i.e. has not just cross-cultural experience but wisdom where even people of color consider you an ally and advocate), then you’ve been there several times. I know I have.

The last few years I have been invited repeatedly to check out a new book, YouTube video, training, sermon, blog post, podcast, and/or conference that is going to focus on race and ethnicity. The net is cast wide in preparation. There will be diverse speakers, breakout sessions, and attendees. The resource is hyped! You’re told, “This will be the game changer.”

The overwhelmingly majority of the time, I am given a very basic overview of race, ethnicity, and crossing cultures told primarily from a white perspective that that is taught as though it is meant for a primarily white audience. I start reading/listening, and it becomes clear that this resource is white-centered. (White-centering occurs when topics that relate to diverse contexts are limited to focus both from a white perspective and taught as though the audience is white.) I am invited to individually consider my own ethnic identity and journey of crossing cultures and presented with a few tools in my interactions with people of color (i.e. “lean in,” “engage,” “point people toward hope,” “acknowledge you hear and stand with people of color”)…even though I am a person of color. There is an omission of historical, legal, and systemic oppression of the past and present which has present day implications on the socio-economic, political, educational, professional (both for and non-profit), denominational, and theological landscape of the West—particularly the United States. There is silence or bad theology around the biblical basis for ethnicity, multi-ethnicity, ethnic reconciliation, and justice at personal, church, city, and national levels. There is not a theological interpretation of how the secular land in which we live and the Christian church to which we belong have both succeeded and/or failed in these areas. The conversation isolates the issues to our present context, as though our present reality is detached from the previous generations and has no implications for the people coming after us. As a result, there isn’t a clear call for actionable steps for anyone in the room which will ultimately result in the same cycles of marginalization repeating themselves in the next four weeks, four months, or forty years. White staff who are new to the discussion walk away encouraged and affirmed, while experienced white staff and staff of color walk away with what my mom used to call “rocks in their jaws”—hurt, frustrated, and disappointed.

Before you jump to the comment section below to rebuke me, let me give a few disclaimers about this post and the one to follow it Wednesday.

Disclaimer #1: We Need Conferences that are White-Centered.
Please, don’t misread me. We do need conferences and resources for our white brothers and sisters who are at beginning stages of understanding race and ethnicity historically and theologically. As a result of being in the dominant culture, many white people are unaware of their own culture and how to navigate this terrain. We especially need those resources for our white brothers and sisters in places where they are called into cross-cultural leadership. That is a benefit of white privilege—that someone can go years without these issues crossing their minds. We have pastors and presidents, judges and teachers, parents and missionaries that never reflected on their ethnic heritage or of the people they are serving in various capacities. There are numerous white people who ask regularly for resources, trainings, books, etc. and we need items that are white-centered because they serve people coming from and ministering in that context. We need to do a better job of giving them practical application at the conclusion of the resources we present to them, and the resources that are coming out are a great first start.

Disclaimer #2: I am not advocating for Black-Centering to replace White-Centering.
If you serve in a context that aspires to be multi-ethnic or multi-cultural: everyone needs to equally experience displacement. Again I say: everyone needs to equally experience displacement. Too often when we approach these issues, Western Christians will tell people of color false statements like: “Jesus was colorblind” or “We are one human race and your identity is Christian.” If these statements are true, which ethnicity or cultural values will we adopt? As people, we will create some system for us to work/serve together. If we tell people of color their ethnicity doesn’t matter to God, we are actually saying, “We are all going to assimilate to White Western American Christianity,” or more basically, white-centering.

Disclaimer #3: Our ethnicities are a gift from God.
One of my seminary professors said it best a few months back. “We see diversity from the very beginning of Scripture. God made different types of plants, trees, fish, animals, and different ethnicities within the human race. Diversity has never been a problem to be solved, but a song to be sung.” God’s intent from Genesis was for people to “fill the earth” with His image. Our intentional God knew we would move to different corners of the world, creating customs, languages, and culture. That picture in Revelation 7:9 is an incredibly diverse picture of “every tribe, nation, and tongue,” which means we can visibly see our differences. It is our differences with unity under the banner of a resurrected Savior that is worship to God and a witness to the world.

That image is distorted, however, when we center the conversation entirely on one racial class. We cannot continue to have multi-ethnic conversations be white-centered for three basic reasons: the past, the present, and the future (the focus of Part 2).

Disclaimer #4: It’s Not Your Fault, But It Is Your Problem.
Knowing our history does not mean we assign blame to anyone. This is not an invitation to pronounce guilt and shame on white people or to arouse anger in people of color. As people of God and people of color, we draw hope from history. It is a reminder of how far we have come that gives us the courage to move forward. At the same time, we must resist the Western ideology that our present generation is not connected to previous generations. The move of God in our generation is directly connected previous and future generations. If this wasn’t true, then Jesus would need to die every 40-50 years. We inherit the blessings and the burdens of the previous generation. We are not starting any conversations, but merely continuing what happened before we got here and will go on long after we are gone. Legalized slavery and oppression of the past is not the fault of anyone living today, but if you are committed to ethic reconciliation: it is your problem. To ignore the past is to ignore the history of the people we are inviting into our multi-ethnic churches and organizations.

Disclaimer #5: Assimilated People of Color Cannot Be the Only Litmus Test for White-Centering.
Another false start on progress that occurs when race and ethnicity conversations are white-centered is when we have people of color who have largely assimilated to the dominant culture as primary contributors to whatever resources or content distributed. There are tons of resources on high/low identity in ethnic groups that are expounded upon with greater clarity than I space for in this post. This is not an assault on anyone who assimilates to whichever culture they choose. However, what too often occurs is that a person of color who highly identifies with the dominant culture is chosen to represent their ethnic background. If we limit ourselves only to the perspective of those who have adapted and adopted to the dominant culture, it will negate—and in many cases undo—the progress we hope to have. There must be an invitation to people of color to be mentors that will reveal not affirm our blind spots.

Making It Practical.

  1. Do a Survey of Your Context. If you’re writing books, leading seminars, presenting sermons or workshops on multi-ethnicity, ask questions diversely to discover if you are white-centering. If you’re unsure, ask the margins. They will tell you quickly. Listen to them, learn from them. Remember, the goal is not to dismiss white culture, but to create a place that is equally affirming and challenging for all ethnic groups.

  2. Stop White-Centering Multi-Ethnic Resources. Get mentors of different ethnic groups. Share power, the microphone, and the levels of displacement equally in the room. As in Acts 6, look for diverse people “who are full of the Spirit and wisdom” as these issues are not easy to discuss and we need people who will speak truth to human power, rather than pour salt in open historic wounds.
  3. Start Equal Levels of Cross-Cultural Displacement Today. Mark 1:15-16 reads, “‘The time has come,’ Jesus said. ‘The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.’” The Common English Version translates late this as, “Now is the time.” My friends, now is the time. Let’s not wait another forty years before we have Gospel-centered theologically sound discipleship around multi-ethnicity. Now is the time to ask the difficult questions, to hear difficult truths, to break bread across ethnic and language barriers. Now is the time to be the church our ancestors in the West should have been for our children who are coming after us and most of all as ethnically diverse image-bearers of our great God.

Sean M. Watkins

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