Here’s part two of my thoughts on why multi-ethnic conversations cannot continue to be white-centered. At its conclusion, I’d encourage you to scroll down to Part 1 and check out the disclaimers again to understand better understand the context and content of my message. We cannot continue to have multi-ethnic conversations be white-centered for three basic reasons: the past, the present, and the future.
The Past: White-Centering Is What Led to Painful Atrocities of the Past
History. Winston Churchill said it best, “The history books will be kind to me for I intend to write them.” This motif was is especially true in the West. The United States has been white-centered since the founding of the country. Pick any history book anywhere in the country and you will see American culture being painted as solely white culture, without error,while it minimized voices from the margins—if they are mentioned at all. When one group is centered over another, it justifies any actions against every other people group. In the case of the U.S., white-centering was what led to the mass genocide of Native Americans, kidnapping and enslavement of Africans, why California and Texas both neighbor Mexico, the Chinese Exclusion Act, etc. The founders of the United States believed in the concept of manifest destiny, God’s will for the U.S. to become a nation from Atlantic to the Pacific regardless of the other ethnic groups that had to be used or removed to accomplish that goal. White-centered history universally affirms the actions that benefited the white community, regardless of their impact on other cultures. Little to no history of America is presented from a perspective that is not white, and if it does exist, it is brief (i.e. Black history is slavery, Dr. King and Malcolm X; Mexican history is their defeat, and we don’t know how everybody else not Native American got here). This is evidenced today when a white person can say, “Black people need to get over slavery and move into the 21st Century,” but simultaneously call everyone to “never forget” Independence Day, 9/11, or President’s Day, or any other national holiday. It’s having a selective memory on what we count as history–or more basically what is often called “controlling the narrative.” That narrative has been and continues to be white-centered.
Theology. Theological scholarship past and present of mainline denominations has been largely written from a white perspective, and as a result, consistently omits ethnicity, culture, and justice. There is a strong emphasis on discipleship of the mind, which is incredibly important. However, it feeds the idol of intellectualism in the West and neglects context in which body which houses that mind is located. In other words, intellectualism and theory never translated to practical action. John Newton, author of Amazing Grace), theologian Jonathan Edwards, James P. Boyce, and others who are seminal in the Christian world also owned slaves and little information of that reality is ever mentioned. Books written during the Reformation and the Enlightenment do not reference other ethnic groups beyond describing their ignorance or intellectual inferiority as compared to whites–motifs we still have in the 21st century. Those theologians do not speak to the atrocities happening during the time because white people were the only lives that mattered then. During segregation in the early 20th century, there were white Christians that would walk out of church on Sunday to hang black people in the South while singing hymns—events my parents and grandparents remember vividly. They have had far more painful interactions with the dominant culture than positive ones. The same came be said by numerous other sub-dominant (ethnic minority) groups. Those experiences of the past have led to a fear of interacting and reconciliation with the white community and those concerns too often influence future generations like mine. Those fears of previous generations are reinforced every time there is silence another major cross-cultural conflict occurs. While the circumstances have changed over the centuries, there remains a constant trend of unarmed Black people being killed in the U.S. by people in power without consequence. I don’t think we should eliminate everything written by the great minds of the past, but we should tell the entire story: what they got right and what they missed. Don’t stop singing Amazing Grace. Just be sure to know and teach what led him to write the song. Omitting parts of their story is to omit the life lessons we need shared so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.
That’s the danger of centering a discussion on one group only: their strengths, weaknesses, and idols will be made manifest but they will be unhealthily accepted as societal norms. There must be equal representation, equal sharing, equal distribution of power, equal levels of displacement across ethnic lines if the church is to be a light shining in the darkness of the world rather than simply affirming that darkness. I think too often we misunderstand grace, both God’s and from other people. For the oppressed and the descendants of the oppressed, grace does not mean we pretend that previous events did not occur. It is not a matter of forgetting, but choosing not to remember or holding previous injustices against someone. It means, as painful as it may seem, we must trust and hope again across cultures because this is what our Lord asks of us as his image-bearers in this ministry of reconciliation. For oppressors and the descendants of oppressors, whether by bloodline or by culture, receiving grace does not mean ignoring the past, not correcting injustices committed by your ancestors, or isolating today’s issues to this generation as though the events of the past didn’t occur. It means knowing what part of the conversation of time you are in and “bearing fruit in keeping with repentance,” not just lamenting things are still broken in our country.
The Present: White-Centering Ignores the Diversity of the 21st Century World
The world is incredibly diverse. With globalization, we are experiencing incredible ethnic diversity in 2016 at levels our grandparents wouldn’t have dreamed possible. Our…well, some of our neighborhoods, jobs, churches, and schools are incredibly diverse. If you’re a person of color, not always but most of the time it means you have had a lot of experience in crossing-culture. You’ve had to adapt to the dominant culture in the United States really since the day you left your house for pre-school—maybe earlier. We have experienced racism, systemic injustice, heard stories from your elders, been followed in the mall, or stopped by the police for “random searches” on more than one occasion. As Dr. Eric Mason once said, “If you are white, you can get a high school diploma, bachelors, masters, and a doctorate without having to interact with a person of color, but if you are a person of color, you can’t get a G.E.D. without learning white culture.” This means for people of color and for white people who have cross-cultural wisdom and not just experience, we need more than the introduction to crossing culture. We learned basic skills, personal awareness, history, and biblical basis for these items a while ago. We need deeper theology on multi-ethnicity. We need resources that move us from cross-cultural competency to cross-cultural proficiency. We have to learn and re-learn topics like “Be Angry, But Sin Not: Righteous Anger at Injustice,” “Seeking Peace and Justice, Not Silence,” “Caring for Your Soul Before, During, and After the Next Unarmed Shooting,” “Preparing for the Next Hashtag” (i.e. the Asian American community with #whitewashedOUT) and “Voices from the Margins” (i.e. learning past and present perspectives from all ethnic groups). We need deeper study of history and theology to keep our hearts soft and hopeful as we proclaim the gospel in a broken and hurting world we are continue to cry from the margins that our lives, our history, our stories, our voices matter.
When the conversation is white-centered, it omits the diversity of ethnicity and perspective in the room, which again forces other people to wait for the dominant culture to recognize what it has been living for decades and in some places centuries. When we as people of color don’t continue to grow in our own cross-cultural skills, we will end up like Chris Rock at the Oscars: defending your own tribe by offending another. When we honor all the ethnicities in the room equally, we remove the historical supremacy and inferiority society imposes. We call out each others strengths, discover the sins within our own ethnicity, and by the power of Jesus we tear down our idols–but that happens when we are equal at the foot of the cross in word and deed.
The Future: White-Centering Multi-Ethnic Conversations Won’t Prepare Us for What’s Coming
We are approaching a turning point in both the U.S. and the world. Studies have revealed that by 2046, there will not be a dominant ethnic group in the U.S. Racism and cross-cultural incidents have happened since the founding days of our nation. Social Media for the first time in history has given a strong voice to the margins that is raising awareness of these issues in incredible and unpredictable ways. If the conversation remains white-centered, our multi-ethnic churches and organizations will begin to decline because it will not prepare our white brothers and sisters who want the education and experience to lead in the 21st and it will harden the hearts of people who witness Christians consistently and deeply miss opportunities to declare and model the gospel of reconciliation who can no longer wait for change that is too long delayed. Proverbs 13:12 says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” There are too many deferred hopes and sick hearts in the church because are avoiding and misaligning our theology and witness on multi-ethnicity. There will be cross-cultural conflict in the world. It should not be at the same level and remain unresolved in our Lord’s church.
In Acts 6, one ethnic group of widows complains about being overlooked when resources are being distributed in the church. The church leaders recognized these errors in their leadership and decide to turn over the whole responsibility to the marginalized group—Stephen and the crew all have Greek names. They made an incredible statement by giving up some power to the powerless and demonstrating faith that the previously oppressed would not become oppressors.
To my knowledge, that has never happened in any major and lasting capacity in any context, especially Christian context, in the U.S. The people at margins have been given seasonal influence, but not power. Our voices are elevated in times of crisis, we are asked to take pictures to display unity, while leaders temporarily change behavior but not structure–and we walk in circles, having the same conversation every few years. People of color are given a seat at the table but not the resources to do the actual work of justice. As a result, we simply have a closer view to see the decisions made that marginalize our people. We don’t want to just be in the room. We need the freedom to rearrange the furniture, too.
It is interesting what comes next in Acts: persecution and the spreading of the gospel. I think God in his sovereignty didn’t allow the church to received increased persecution until they were unified across ethnic and cultural lines. The world needed to see people of various ethnic backgrounds unified and preaching the same message. They need to see us live out the gospel before they believed our preaching it.
We must have a diverse center, a broader conversation about race, ethnicity, and theology at centers on the gospel and affirms and displaces all cultures equally. If we cannot love each other as the Lord created us to be—ethnicity and all—how then will the world know we are His disciples?
Making it Practical
- If you’re white, find a person of color with whom you have a relationship or can build one, and listen to their stories and experiences. Don’t rationalize, attempt to clarify, or defend actions that have offended the person. Take a listening and learning posture, and believe what the person is saying. This will take courage, and there may be points of offense on both sides. Give some disclaimers up front, “I may say the wrong thing, so let’s help each other, because I want to learn.”
- If you’re a person of color, start looking for and reading voices from the margins. Howard Thurman, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Dr. Soong-Chan Rah, Rev. Dr. Brenda Salter-McNeil, Rev. Dr. Virginia Ward, and others have been water for my beautiful godly black soul.
- Everybody find someone who doesn’t look like you and listen to them until they are finished speaking. Don’t stop at Awareness. Take Action. Become an Advocate for someone at the margins. Enter into their story. Share their joy and burden of being who they are, where they are.
This was originally one long post, but a good recommended I turn it into two. Again, please check out the disclaimers below to get the context of the content of my words. I believe the gospel of Jesus is the only hope we have in this world. I believe it is truly possible the people of God to be ethnically and culturally reconciled to each other. Like the Psalmist, I want to see “the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Ps. 27:13). I don’t write these things from a place of bitterness or hatred of white people, my people, or anyone else. I write these things because, quite simply, I care. As someone who lives at the margins–or perpetually as a guest in an evangelical world and organization–I also have the blessed burden of being a bridge-builder. No one volunteers to be marginalized. We got pushed there, a long time ago. We didn’t get into this mess on our own, and we cannot get out of it on our own. In the same way white culture and a contaminated gospel divided us, so too will take a posture of humility and grace of all cultures and the Christ-centered gospel to unify us. It will take celebrating the ethnicity and culture God has given to each of us, owning the sins of the past, and genuine repentance in the present, in order to press toward the future.
We have been here before. Ask any of elders in Black and Latino communities. They will tell you “Ferguson is Watts,” “Trayvon is Emmett Till,” and so on. God exists outside of time and He is not in a hurry. He will keep us in a holding pattern as a church until we reconcile not our way, but his way. It is Christ’s goals through Christ’s methods, and what was his method? I’ll end with the words of Philippians 2::6-8, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”
When the powerful give up power that was never theirs, the powerless are bestowed the dignity they were meant to have only then will we begin to look more like that image in Revelation 7:9 where all God’s people are together living in harmony with each other. If we don’t, God will pass the responsibility on to our children–much like it has been passed to us.
May we be the people of God as He intends us to be. Let’s not pass this debacle on to our children.
Now is the time.
Sean M. Watkins