Read Part 1 here.
As an African-American, third-culture adult teaching in an honors program at a predominantly white Christian institution of higher learning, married to a white American with a blended (bi-racial) daughter, I think about race a lot.
I’ve been thinking through the issues addressed in this blog post on Huff Post Parents titled, “For Whites (Like Me): On White Kids.”
I shared the article with my husband Andrew and asked him if he’d be willing to share his thoughts. He is brave and willing to share his process.
I can attest that the ‘we’re all the same on the inside’ rhetoric was definitely taught in my home and it was the primary lens through which I understood most, if not all, of what I knew about race and ethnicity. Eventually this left me paralyzed and defensive—unable to think, much less talk, with others about race and ethnicity other than to simply make assertions about our ‘sameness.’
When I became a Christian, ‘we’re all the same on the inside’ was translated into ‘we’re all one in Christ.’ This worldview was baptized in Christian doctrine and thereby became absolute truth.
The problem with this syncretism is two-fold: first it uncritically normalizes and sanctifies the white person’s experience; and, second, it teaches that if there is a different perspective or experience (even by another Christian), the ‘other’ experience is not Biblical and needs to be discarded for the ‘we’re all the same’ philosophy.
The success of our lives as Believers does depend on our common unity in Christ, but not our homogeneity.
The other problem with this philosophy is quite simply that White people, White Christians, and White parents don’t believe it or live it.
The reality is that there are some simple solutions to the paralysis and inability of white parents to talk with white children about race/ethnicity well; but these solutions are not simple or easy to implement.
The first is this: be in genuine relationship with actual people of color. What I’m saying here is that many White parents, and White people in general, tend to have their most significant interactions with people of other races/ethnicities through media.
TV shows, movies, music, etc., rely on deeply embedded stereotypes in order to connect with audiences and communicate on a very visceral level. This disconnected and insulated ‘interaction’ is problematic primarily because it allows White parents to watch ‘others’ from a distance and have conversations with other White parents about people of color and the stereotyped narratives without moving outside of their own experience. The point I’m making here is that many White people live insulated lives surrounded by mostly White people—especially in their personal lives.
Many of us think that because we have co-workers, church acquaintances, neighbors, or even extended family members who are not White, that we are far advanced in terms of racial conversations.
The reality is however, that many of us don’t have any personal, genuine, intimate relationships with people of other races/ethnicities and therefore lack personal, genuine, intimate knowledge about their experiences and reality.
This is why most of us cannot teach our children about race—we don’t have any friends who are not White. It was not until I was in personal, genuine, intimate relationships with people of color that I realized that I was able to move beyond the paralysis of confusion and frustration about why “we can’t all just get along and have everyone just recognize that we are equal” and behave as such.
My second point is this: I cannot learn well in abstract. Like most people, I need my learning to be contextualized. I cannot learn well by staying “in my own head” about a topic. Much like love, tolerance and patience cannot be learned those simply by watching TV, just reading a book, or listening to a song.
I only have an idea of love when I’m just around people who I find it easy to love.
I only have an idea of tolerance when I’m mostly around people in my personal life who have nearly identical worldviews and experiences to my own.
And I only have an idea of patience when my life is so pleasant that hardly anything gets on my nerves.
But, I can move beyond ideas into actual genuine love/tolerance/patience when I learn to love people I don’t easily love, when I can hear and accept things from others that I find different or strange, or when I can respond with grace and compassion rather than defensiveness in uncomfortable situations.
In short, I could not learn to have meaningful conversations about race and ethnicity until I was in genuine and intimate relationships with people of different races/ethnicities.
It was from this space that I was able to talk about the things I learned growing up and then hear a point of view borne from very different experiences. Neither experience supersedes the other nor negates the other.
I discovered that in my diverse friendships I could begin to talk honestly about the things I learned growing up and how they may need to be adjusted, changed, or eradicated altogether. To say the least, this was an uncomfortable process in the early stages and continues to challenge me on an ongoing basis. The point isn’t that ‘it’ gets easier but rather that I become better.
In these relationships I was actually able to admit that I held a strange amalgam of belief of anti-racist ideas and racist ideas regarding people of color. For instance, I found it deplorable and infuriating for someone to call a Black person the n-word, while simultaneously wondering why Black people, by and large were angry and not willing to just work hard be responsible in life.
As you can see these competing feelings/beliefs immobilized me in conversations about race and ethnicity at best and created space for resentment and participation in personal and institutional racism at worst.
It was not until I was in relationship with my best friend (a Black, Ivy-league educated attorney) and my wife that I could begin to hear and understand the challenges people of color experience in academia and their respective professions, not to mention their day-to-day lives.
It is important to note that intimate relationships with people of color is not an end in or of itself, nor simply a means to an end. If treated as such, we as White people commoditize people of other races/ethnicities and perpetuate the problem.
In reality, these relationships are a beginning of a journey towards understanding White identity, ourselves, and personal, as well as institutional, racism.
What I’ve learned is that I am not a devil because I’m white.
I’ve learned that the civil rights movement did not ‘take care of’ race-related problems in the United States and that still today racism exists—even in good people.
I’ve learned that even though race is a debunked biological theory; race is an alive and well social reality.
I’ve learned that time spent listening, learning, and in dialogue is much more valuable than teaching, telling, and monologue.
I’ve learned that the positive characteristics of one culture (i.e. honesty, hard work or perseverance) are not exclusive to any one culture.
I’ve learned that much of what I see on TV and films regarding race and ethnicity are either patently false or just true enough to feed audiences subtle and outright lies.
I’ve learned that White people can have impactful things to say about racism, and multicultural engagement and have the potential to make meaningful contributions to the conversations surrounding race and ethnicity.
I also know that it can be quite intimidating to make friends outside of our own insular groups and that it can be beneficial to start with some good books that speak to White people and the White experience from a White perspective. One such book for me was White Like Me by Tim Wise. Tim Wise is a no-nonsense author who directly confronts the lack of white self-awareness, White privilege, and institutional racism.
His book really spoke to me; it challenged me to begin to understand how empty the rhetoric of ‘we’re all the same on the inside’ truly is from a White perspective and how this philosophy crippled me in terms of multi-ethnic dialogue.
Engaging with this book and having friends of different ethnicities began to allow me to understand that I can move beyond paralysis, confusion, and defensiveness as it relates to race. But this can only happen when we’re able to discard the crippling lie that we’re simply ‘all the same on the inside’ without being able to talk about what’s on the outside as well and its implications in our lives and the lives of others.
In short, because of my relationships with people of color, I discovered much more of the truth about myself, my ethnicity, my beliefs and my place in the world than I would have if I had not had those relationships.
And it is from this space of truth that I can securely dialogue with my two-year-old daughter when she says, “daddy is peachy-white; mommy is brown; and I’m tan” rather than become paralyzed, try and shut her down in her learning and expression, or make her feel awkward or inappropriate about being herself.
We think about this, my husband and I, because our daughter is both black and white. We get the privilege of shaping her thoughts about the world from an early age; and her racial/ethnic identity is a blended part of that privilege. She knows that we are not the same, we are not equal, but we are all valuable.
Some of you might be thinking, well what about the way that we should find our identity in Christ?
This is true, but even Christ came to earth as a Jew.
His was an oppressed people, even in his day.
Even the gospel he came to bring was one about reconciling disparate peoples into one, complex, people.
Not eliminating their differences—and oh, how the early church struggled with these differences – but calling them together, holy.
And so we will be at the end of times, worshipping before the throne of The King.
Together. Many Nations.