Top 10 characteristics of white students

[Continued from last post… used with permission from Joe Ho, who works with students of every race and many cultures.]

Characteristic #1. To be White is to have choices. Everyone has choices, but the number of available choices, and being the focus of most marketing in America, makes choice perhaps the fundamental reality in White student experience. White students are used to people competing for them. So, if you want White students to come to your Large Group or chapter retreat, it must offer something that is better (in value, quality, “customer service,” etc.) than any other option available. We may resent this, but we cannot ignore it.

Characteristic #2. Grown-ups make decisions for themselves. In White culture, self-determination is a key standard of maturity, perhaps the standard of maturity. To be given independence is to be treated as an adult. Mature White students respond when they can “opt in” for themselves, and learn/decide for themselves. This is one attraction to inductive Bible study. If you are working with White leaders, you need give them some autonomy. The critical flip side is that you also hold them fully accountable to their commitments and to the outcome of their autonomous choices. If you coddle students, you will get the immature ones. This reality (and the one that follows) might stretch you if you come from a culture that defers to authority.

Characteristic #3. I call my pastor by her first name. White culture places relatively low value on positional authority. In more technical language, this is called “low power distance,” or “non-hierarchical.” In social settings like retreat free time or NSO, it can build trust to act as a peer and downplay the “authority” aspect of your role. You will even have to downplay your positional spiritual authority in those setting, even in discipling settings. (This is the opposite of what you’d do in most other ethnic settings.) With leaders, you must tolerate and even affirming dissent, debate, and give-and-take. It does not mean they must have their way, but they must have their say.

Characteristic #4. Newer is better, bigger is better. In the White western worldview, there is always a place beyond the horizon that promises more than the status quo. You can appeal to this expansionist spirit in White culture by casting entrepreneurial vision, and by showing how InterVarsity is doing things that are unique, innovative, and/or breaking new ground. Many of the best missional Christians or pre-missional Christians will opt out if you lack this ethos. White people can be your best friends when planting – even if the plant is non-White!

Characteristic #5. “What works” equals “what’s right.” Being pragmatic and solution-focused is valued in White culture. When discussing controversial issues, be sure to ground your perspective in the bottom line and how things actually apply in real life. When making difficult or unpopular decisions, say, to stay on mission, pragmatism can be your best friend if you create short term wins. Warning: An appeal to pragmatism can backfire if you say it will work and do not show that it works.

Characteristic #6. I think therefore I am. All good communication appeals to both head and heart, intellect and passion. But you can get away with lower passion with White students if your conceptual content is strong. As in many “low context” cultures, be sure that in communication you make good use of both good quality and quantity of thought. Quote books and experts. Use logical outlines. Things you say should be just as good if it were written and read.

Charactertic #7. Fair is fair. This is another “low context culture” characteristic. White students have a strong belief in absolute rules that should apply equally to everyone.  When making decisions, say, in leadership selection or scholarship allocation, be careful to strive for consistency and limit exceptions based on circumstance. This means you will have to think through allocation of power and resources very carefully to be sure they apply to as many possible situations as possible.

Characteristic #8. Waste not, want not. In White culture, wasting time, energy or resources is considered near to sin (or actual sin). Meetings and communication need to be brief and straightforward – often painfully brief and straightforward to people from other cultures. Even worship needs to be time bounded and move along briskly. When you ask students to spend money, it must be seen as returning value. (This doesn’t mean that things need to be cheap. They need to be “worth it,” which in some cases costs more. See characteristic #1.)

Characteristic #9. If it’s not fun, it’s not worth it. Another near moral imperative is that life should be fun. Levity needs to be sprinkled in generously in all venues, especially in new environments like NSO. This can reach levels that can appear silly or even irreverent from other cultural perspectives, but it is very important. A gifted White female staff once trained freshmen male SG leaders by saying, “Freshman guys are stupid. So to reach them you have to do stupid things.”

Characteristic #10. Competition. Competition is a key way of building community and fostering engagement. But for White men in particular, you have to balance their love for competition with the potential shame of appearing incompetent. Play sports and games, but be sure to include invented or obscure forms of competition where everyone is a novice. Also, if there’s no prize or penalty, it’s not a competition.

(These are posted with permission, from Joe Ho, Asian American cross-cultural minister to white students.  He writes, “As our region’s first Asian American campus staff, I had worked at ways to attract and develop Asian American students, and we had built a multiethnic chapter with no majority ethnic group in the heart of the American South. But it seemed to cost our ability to reach White students. When I took the ministry director position in rural Virginia, I knew I was going as a cross-cultural missionary.

I am NOT saying “all White students are like this.” As a matter of fact, almost no individual White student will have all ten characteristics.  I‘m also not saying that other cultures have these characteristics too. Many of them do.  I AM saying that these characteristics derive from deeply held values in White culture, and cannot consistently be ignored without presenting a barrier to reaching White students, especially high-identity White students.”

Joe is a busy guy, who grew his student group 804, 825, 930, 1076, 1096, 1184, 1265 during seven years in Virginia.

We think we should listen and learn from his observations about white culture.


One thought on “Top 10 characteristics of white students

  1. I heard Joe Ho speak on this topic a year ago. We worked to use these 10 Characteristics in our New Student Outreach on campus and were excited to see that we did attract more White students (especially White men). I am pleased to say we did not see any decrease in interest from other ethnicities. I am very thankful for Joe Ho!


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