When Will I Arrive?

As a white person who believes in God’s multi-ethnic kingdom, have you ever found yourself falling into the trap of thinking you’ve arrived at a place of “getting it?” Do you ever think back on how many mistakes you used to make before you became one of the “good guys?” I have. I do. But sometimes we can think we’re one of the good guys, when we’re actually perpetuating harmful ideas and practices.

Let me explain.

Reverend Doctor Brenda Salter-McNeil opened last week’s Christian Community Development conference by confessing the limitations of her own leadership. Dr. Brenda is an African American leader who has spent her life leading the evangelical church in racial reconciliation. She shared a story of visiting young Ferguson activists on the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, and asking them what they thought of the Church. “We hate your misogyny. We hate your hypocrisy. We hate your complacency. And we could care less about your attempts to make yourselves feel better by making your churches more diverse. What we care about is you bringing real change.” Ouch.

The implications of these young activists’ critique were that Dr. Brenda had been complicit, possibly even participatory, in ideas and practices that actively contribute to their marginalization. Yet rather than react defensively, protecting her life-long legacy of leadership, she listened, she began re-examining her assumptions, and is going back to the drawing board.

If Dr. Brenda needs to keep learning from her critics and challenging her method and assumptions, then we do too.

Just because we may have been affirmed by “getting it” in the past—whether that means 20 years ago or 20 minutes ago—doesn’t mean we “get it” today. And the truth? We probably never “got it” at the level that we thought we did. I’m actually convinced that the more we think we get it, the more blind we are to our own faults, and the more dangerously we wield our cultural power as white people. What passed as cross-cultural competence ten years ago doesn’t make the cut today. We need to learn how to put ourselves in places of perpetual learning, especially learning from folks on the margins of cultural power.

Dr. Brenda went to Ferguson and listened. What will we do?

1. Enter into/Go deeper in a cross-cultural relationship: nothing holds a candle to keeping us growing like being in honest relationship with a justice-minded person of color. This could be a young activist, a mentor, or a peer. Forming new relationships is an art beyond the scope of this post, but more than any other thing, our relationships shape who we are. If we want to grow, we need to be in honest friendship with new folks who will speak truth.

2. Diversify your media: one year ago I subscribed to a daily RSS feed from The Root, a black-owned, black-issue-oriented media outlet. Not only has that decision given me more connective material to discuss in relationships with black friends, but has also led me into asking new questions that are changing me.

3. Discover black twitter: tap the benefit of un-censored conversation about race in America. Start with hashtags like #blacklivesmatter or #oscarssowhite and follow a few folks that intrigue you. Beware: you will see vitriolic bigotry in some of the comments…just a part of the learning.

4. Read non-white-male theologians: A Taiwanese friend recently asked if we could begin identifying certain theologians as “white theologians” in the same way we identify “latino theologians” or “native theologians”, so that white doesn’t equal “normal.” I was so grateful for that insight. Start with Grace Ji-Sun Kim, James Cone, Justo González, and Richard Twiss.

Even though she stands upon a mountain of integrity and decades of prophetic leadership, Dr. Brenda had the humility to let go of being overly sure of herself, and as a result Jesus is expanding the scope of her prophetic influence. How much more appropriate is it for us, then, to hold our own cross-cultural competence loosely?

Where do we not “get it” as much as we think we do? And how can we put ourselves in places where we’ll be equipped to answer that question?

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