Christmas 2016: family discussion guide

Doug and I heard an extremely painful story from a friend about conflict in a white family over Thanksgiving.   In order to keep working at loving across differences, we want to share this from the Wisconsin Council of Churches:

“If your family is like most families, tensions can run high around the holidays with new stress, old arguments that still haven’t been resolved, and a few characters just to mix things up. This Christmas, those tensions might run even higher as people discuss the recent election. Rather than taking the bait and getting into arguments, why not try a different approach?

Discussion Questions and/or Responses:

If you were to design the perfect society, what would you want everyone to be able to experience?

Politics is about making our society livable and orderly. What things do you care most about that might make our society better?

It seems like this election really got under your skin. What are the most troubling aspects of the outcome in your opinion?

Some might argue that our politicians do best when we as communities are united in giving them clear directions about what we want. Those same people might argue that politicians are ineffective because they are getting such conflicting messages from their constituents. How might we try to build relationships to send more unified messages about what we need to our elected officials?

Even though people in our family might disagree about how to get to the goals, what goals for our family (society) do we all share?
How could we as a family build bridges with a broader network of people?

Imagine what life would be like if we made it our responsibility (and not politicians) to make our communities the way we want them to be. What would that look like?”

Direct or Indirect: Which communication style is better?

Growing up, I was not at all aware of my family’s directness in communicating about our needs and desires. It wasn’t until I made friends of other ethnicities, especially Asian friends, that my eyes began to open. Take that up 100 notches once I married Sandy, a Korean American.

Direct communication can be very helpful, given the context. And indirect communication can be equally helpful, given a different context. Let’s learn to assess the context, and then pick the kind of communication that serves those around us.

When we are eating with Sandy’s family, it is important to look around the table and see whose plate is getting empty. Others should offer seconds. In my family, if I want seconds and there is a little left on the serving dish, it is fine for me to take some.

Direct mindset: “I am still a little hungry. There is still some food left on the serving dish. I am going to help myself to some more.”
Indirect mindset: “Let me look around the table at other people’s plates. Whose plate is getting empty? I am going to offer them seconds. Someone will notice that my plate is getting empty, and they will offer me seconds.”

Direct mindset: “I’m going to grab a burger with my friend. I will announce this to my wife. If she wants a burger, she will ask me to get her one also.”
Indirect mindset: “Doug knows me and is aware of my needs and desires, just like I am aware of his. He knows that food is one of my love languages. Of course he will bring me home a burger. I don’t need to ask.”

Direct mindset: “I know what I would like to do today. It is up to me to tell others what my needs are.”
Indirect mindset: “I want to listen to my friends’ needs so that my desires do not overshadow theirs. Then together we can figure out what the best option is for lunch.”

Direct mindset: “It is important that I tell my team exactly where I stand on the issues we are discussing. I owe it to them to be clear about how on board I am.”
Indirect mindset: “I have some concerns about the things we are discussing, but I will wait to be called upon because I do not want to be disrespectful to our leader.”

I used to be confused by indirect communication. Instead of seeking to understand and empathize, I would use therapeutic language to explain why I was right and they were wrong. I would say, “I cannot be expected to read people’s minds. If they don’t say what they want, that is not my problem. Everyone is responsible to articulate their own needs.”

Jesus has humbled me since then. Love is more important to me than being right, on my good days.

Today I am grateful for the choice to be direct or indirect about my feelings, my needs, or my opinions, depending with whom I’m talking. I enjoy being able to be understated if I wish, or ask questions instead of just offering my opinion. And yet there are times when I am served by being direct and clear. I value both.

Within different ethnic groups, there are varying levels of direct and indirect communication. There are always individual exceptions to these trends. You can probably think of many. Also, within different regions of the U.S., the amount of directness (or what topics we are direct about) varies. The East Coast is different from the Midwest which is different from the South, etc.

When I  was growing up, I was encouraged to be direct about stating my needs, my preferences, and my desires. We practiced this regularly at the dinner table and in family meetings. But we were not direct about some of our deeper feelings. We did not talk about our sadness, our regrets, our loneliness, nor any sense of depression. (How about for you? What are you comfortable being direct about? And which topics do you prefer indirect or silent communication?)


(Thanks to Pat Li-Barbour, my collaborator for this post.)

German School and changing white culture

I’ve been thinking about white culture.  Joe Ho helped us with his observations about white culture, and communicating effectively within white culture on campus.  If you still doubt white people have a specific culture, why not go see My Big Fat Greek Wedding again just to think about the two families coming together, or remember about all the assumptions white people have together around how we do Thanksgiving, or how we do Christmas, or other major cultural events. Everybody has a culture, including white Americans.

Certainly, Doug and I both think that white culture has aspects which are positive and powerful. One of the core values of this blog is to be appreciative, looking for positive aspects to build on. White people tend to have a “can do” spirit, a sense of our own agency, a belief that things can change for the better, for example.

But white culture also has toxic, racist aspects. Black students at the university in my home city are speaking out about our negative effect on them, and their wellbeing. I share this “Being Black at UW” video to bear witness to the toxic aspects of white culture in my hometown.  Please spend two minutes watching it.

So because of this, and other situations like it, we need to change white culture. We need to learn to notice how the Holy Spirit is active in changing culture, and participate with what God is already doing. We can be in our own culture, be prayerful, be connected to white people, and call our friends and family and colleagues to a higher, better, more Godly standard.

How on earth do I change my culture? you might ask.

Here’s an example of this going badly. In Wisconsin, where I live, a hundred years ago there were publicly funded German language and dual language (German-English) schools. We had whole towns that spoke only German.   Our Wisconsin white American culture changed, because of the influence of English American immigrants, and the xenophobia between the two world wars. We burned German language books and closed schools.  So we all changed, in Wisconsin, a lot because of the hatred and fear of Germans between the two wars. Now most of our books and newspapers and blogs and schools are English based, and Muller brewery in Milwaukee has become Miller.  (My computer won’t let me put the umlaut over the “u” in Muller.) Sadly, part of the reason some white people are not aware of our own culture is because of these kinds of losses. My own paternal grandmother, who was German, never spoke German to me or in my presence. She and her sister erased most of my connection with German American culture.

But culture change can be redemptive as well. Last week, two guys came to visit me at church. They are in charge of a German language school and they were looking for a place to hold classes. Come to find out, they teach German language and culture to adults and kids of all ages. They are attempting to recover German culture in Wisconsin – in our last census, 44% of Wisconsinites reported German heritage and we have a lot of fun German traditions.  Culture changes, both for the negative and the positive. Culture is a real but fluid phenomenon.

In Germany itself, culture was intentionally changed in an attempt to become less anti-semitic, and heal from the Holocaust. After World War 11, the German people completely overhauled their education system in a concerted attempt to de-nazify and change their culture.

So the question remains, what will we do, to identity, confront and change the toxic effects of white culture? Here are seven simple ideas for adults and children:

  1. educate yourself and your children … find out who you are
  2. guard your own tongue (against hate speech and microagressions)… say kind, good things
  3. speak up against hate speech and unjust situations (be a witness, not a bystander)
  4. don’t take over (we white people, and especially white men, like to solve problems)… let’s avoid fixing and learn to be partners.
  5. leave space for the victim (of racism) to find his or her own voice, and validate it… this may mean, join the protest
  6. when the law comes (police, lawyers, teachers, principals)… stay.
  7. be present, be a witness, be a friend

Reaching More White People

Interview with Joe Ho, National Director of Asian American Ministries, IVCF

Doug: As an Asian American, you are an unusual person to advocate for reaching and developing more white people.  How has this burden from God grown in your life?

Joe: Looking back at my ministry in Virginia, I noted that not only were we beginning to reach more Asian American students, but we were reaching large numbers of white students as well. (In the rest of InterVarsity, we had been plateaued or declining in reaching more white people.) So I thought I might have something to say about this. For the past decade, I have not apologized for intentionally reaching more Asian Americans, and today I am not apologizing for helping us intentionally reach more white people in the name and love of Jesus.

Doug: For many of us white Christians, as we think about growing in our redeemed identities in Christ, we do not think missionally about this.  How do you approach this subject?

Joe: It is easier for me as an Asian American to talk about the good values of white culture, than for white people to talk about the good things in your own culture. It is wise to say affirming things about other people’s cultures. Whiteness has been defined by the problem, because as look back a century or two, its origin was oppressive. This makes affirming whiteness complicated today. Prophetic critique best comes from within each respective ethnic group. Take my people for example. As a Han Chinese descendent, we did the same thing in China. Han Chinese are guilty of many of the same oppressive actions. Is being Han Chinese redeemable by Jesus? I believe so. If Jesus can redeem and affirm my ethnic heritage, then being white can also be redeemed.

I have a missional lens on all of life, I think like a missionary toward all people groups. Some people think that the racial injustices of white Americans over the past several hundred years mean that we should not think about reaching white people as a missiological category. I disagree. If sin disqualifies us from being the object of God’s redeeming love, then all individuals and all people groups are out. Is there there is a type or degree of sin that disqualifies a from God’s love, and His invitation to repent and believe? We would say “no” with respect to individuals, so I think we have to say “no” with respect to groups as well.

Western Imperialism is unique in its global reach. Looking back at history, the rise of any “great” empire is fueled by the lie of Babel. (Genesis 11). We believe that we can make a great name for ourselves. We believe that we are the center of the story, no matter what the expense upon others. The sin of Bable has always been part of human history. Tragically, the European expression of Babel happened at a time where technology and transportation allowed global empire. White imperialism is not worse in its insidiousness, but rather in its scope.

Doug: In your excellent blog posts (re-posted below in full), you list 10 important values that you see in white culture.  Please give us an example of ministries using one of these values and how that helps them reach more white people.

Joe: #9 is HAVING FUN. When I came from an Asian American church, we did have fun. But when we do God stuff, that is serious. When I joined InterVarsity as a freshman, we sang a worship song and then we sang a secular song from the radio. Back to worship, back to secular. I was offended. I wanted to tell them, “Worship is serious. Don’t mess with that.” I have seen retreats that serve a lot of white people, and they do fun really well. For example, Young Life has a theology of fun, life, freedom. To reach White college students, I had to push the boundaries of how much levity and fun I would bring into the center of the ministry. Of course, white people are not the only people who value fun. But without excelling at “fun,” it will be challenging to draw lots of mainstream white young people.

Can God redeem white culture?

“Every culture is fallen, but every culture can be redeemed by God.” My InterVarsity friends first taught me this decades ago, and I continue to lean into this truth today. Here are two questions worth pondering: Do we white people have a culture? If yes, can it be redeemed by God?

This subject was initially very difficult for me to come to terms with. For years, I was not able to see the water in which I daily swim. In fact, it wasn’t until my wife and I displaced ourselves and immersed ourselves in an African-American church community that God opened my eyes to my own deeply-held cultural values. During those life-changing three years, I began to see the values that had been imparted to me through my family (and through my friends and through my wider context). God used this displacement experience to help me become grateful for the positive values I had been given via white culture.

Since that time, in conversation with friends from other cultures, I have also realized that even though some of my cultural values are distinctly white, they are not uniquely white. For example, my parents imparted the importance of hard work. I got my first job in junior high. A few years later, my dad helped us start our own family wholesale sunglass business. The first year of launching a business was tedious, lots of work with little to show for it. But in the second year it started to take off. This work ethic that I inherited has been in our family for generations. It is also Biblical. But it is not uniquely white. My Korean-American in-laws have an incredible work ethic. The story of how they started from scratch Family of 5.  Christmas 2015when they moved here in the 1970’s both humbles and inspires me.

Some of my friends would prefer if I would say that my values are German-American instead of using the term white cultural values. I hear that. And I do use German-American sometimes. They prefer if I use cultural labels, avoiding the racial labels. Other friends tell me that my pathway toward redemption, my pathway toward being a “good white person” is to renounce being white altogether. By renouncing the racial label, I set myself free from the worst parts of whiteness, past and present. Looking back at the history of Whiteness in America, they have a great point. But we come back to our opening question, Can God redeem white culture?

Let’s see if we can answer that question by looking at the fall and redemption of the city in scripture. We humans begin in a garden in Genesis. All is good. But after we rebel, we are banished from this perfect garden, this shalom. How do we respond once we are away from the grace of God? In the next chapter, in Genesis 4:16, Cain leaves the Lord’s presence. How does he survive? In the next verse, he and his family build the first city. In the legacy of rebellion, the city is created for self-protection and self-preservation. From this rebellious starting point, you might think heaven will be a return to the original garden of shalom.

But in Revelation, we find ourselves in a city, of all things. A city redeemed, made of gold, no sign of the line of Cain. God chooses to redeem that which we created to protect ourselves. So too in America. We originally created Whiteness to protect ourselves. (If you are interested, there are a number of books which deconstruct the history whiteness, how whiteness was originally created to create an elite racial class.) We take great hope in the fact that our Living God can and will redeem all things, even the city, we also take hope that God can redeem white culture as well.

As we discuss this important subject, let us step into our redeemed identity in Christ. We pray and expect that God will move us from passive to proactive, from ashamed to courageous, from silent to prophetic. Our country and world cry out for this movement.

(For more on God redeeming white culture, please read chp. 12 in Being White, p. 130)

Please post: What are your questions or reactions to this post?

Appreciating our gifts

Look at this kid. I think her parents have been teaching her some skills in finance and project management. She can market her project and make it from fresh ingredients. She also looks like a girl who knows her way around a book. I wonder what she likes to read. We white people have strengths. Our parents tend to invest time and money in our learning certain cultural skills, and these skills form a foundation for entrepreneurial initiative, for example. We all know what a “lemonade stand” is and many of us had similar childhood projects.

To be whole persons, coming from a white cultural background, I think we need to acknowledge and build on our strengths, the gifts we’ve been given. Who among us knows how to do less of a negative thing? I try to be antiracist, and I just end up thinking more about racism. But did you grow up valuing fairness? It’s easier for us work towards being more fair, more inclusive, more just. As followers of Jesus, we want to do a lot more than simply being fair – we want to live out his love for each beautiful human being that God created. We want to offer the dignity and respect that God offers each one. To really live as white people who are followers of Jesus in a multiethnic world, we also have to be willing to learn about other peoples’s experiences and grow.

However, God invites us to move past “fairness.” When one group of people live in abundance at the expense of other people’s flourishing, we end up on the wrong side of God’s justice. The prophet warned God’s people about those of us who have “treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace’, when there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14). On the topic of financial management, for example, generations of white veterans received G.I. benefits to help them get an education and mortgages (the G.I. bill was originally written to exclude people of color). If this young lady’s family has been in the United States a long time, her family may have been given land (taken from Latino and Native peoples). Our whole economy benefited from the unpaid slave labor of African Americans and underpaid labor of Chinese people in the West). When their work ended, those laborers were not given education or land, like the veterans. So while we admire her industry, let’s also be aware that she functions in a system of inequity – it’s not her fault, she didn’t create it, but she will benefit from it.