As a junior in college, I was part of a multi-racial group of Resident Advisors. As a team building experience, our Director thought it would be fun to go jet-skiing. When I received that email, I panicked. Now, I can swim, so it wasn't the water that terrified me; it was my hair! Though we were a multi-racial group, my hair was very different from the others in my group. After dousing it in water all day, I would undoubtedly be required to spend hours trying to put it back together or would have to find a hairdresser who could help me out. And I would have to do so immediately, or look crazy until I could book an appointment with someone I trusted. When I expressed my concerns about how our community building experience would actually make me feel isolated and alone, the Director immediately changed the game plan. Instead we spent the afternoon on a sailboat enjoying the Chicago skyline. It was a great alternative that allowed me to feel fully a part of the group.
Had my director chosen to be colorblind, he would have dismissed the reality that my hair is different because my race is different. Instead he chose to engage the complexity of being color conscious and figured out a way to honor everyone in our group. Living a color conscious life opens the possibilities for honoring everyone by delighting in our complexities rather than ignoring them.
When we talk about making room for race and culture, particularly in church settings, the conversation quickly takes a turn toward the "sacrifice" that some must make on behalf of others. I find this line of thinking intriguing. I wonder if my fellow RA's thought they were sacrificing jet-skiiing for me. I wonder if they felt that I had taken something away from them.
Its possible, but considering how well I knew them, I don't think they did. In fact I think they were happy that I spoke up. I think they would have been devastated if I had been silent and felt uncomfortable and out of place during our team building time. And I think one of them would have spoken on my behalf if I hadn't had the courage to ask that our plans be adjusted.
Why were they not sacrificing for me? Because the team building exercise wasn't theirs to own. I didn't take anything from them because our time together was about us as a group- not them as individuals, not them as different from me. I had every right to request a change in plans, an alternative because we were owning the experience together.
One more example. Also as a student in college, I remember well how much the worship was stretched to include multiple cultural voices. At first those voices were primarily black by adding African American vocalists and including gospel music. I readily admit since my cultural needs were met, I was pretty satisfied. Then we started doing songs with a clear Latin sound, and I was thrilled. Though I didn't have the foresight to fight for it, I enjoyed every moment. But the day we started singing in Spanish, I was moved. Despite 4 years of Spanish classes, my ability to speak it (let alone sing it) was pretty pathetic. But the first time we belted out those spanish lyrics, I happened to be standing next to friend who's bilingual. Though I had known her for a couple years at that point, it was the first time I heard her speak in Spanish. I looked over at her, and she was beaming, singing from her soul, every beautifully pronounced word. I imagine thats how I look when gospel is playing. Let me tell you, in that moment of seeing my friend lost in worship in her own language, I lacked nothing. I sacrificed nothing. I needed nothing. I was giving nothing. All was well. I joined her in worship.
When I think about sacrifices, I think about Abraham standing over his son with a knife. I think of the prophets who lived painful experiences to proclaim the Words of the Lord. I think of martyrs who died rather than renounce the faith. I think of Jesus stretched on the cross. I do not think of worship services, languages, or music styles. I do not think of team building exercises or retreat locations. I do not think of leadership opportunities like expanding the number of teachers, preachers or key influencers in your institution. These are not sacrifices that you are making. These are decisions. You have chosen control. You have chosen power. You have decided that your preferences are of utmost importance. Don't blame that on "colorblindness" and don't dress it up as a sacrifice.
Choosing to be color conscious rather than colorblind is not a series of sacrifices on our part. We are not dying. We are living, expanding, welcoming, growing.
I think the words we use to talk about how we deal with race and culture matters. Using terminology like "sacrifice" doesn't seem to be a helpful one. It implies that the requests of "the other" (whomever they may be in your institution) are over the top. It implies that I am asking you to change your DNA rather than live into it. It implies that I am taking that which does not belong to me. It implies that you are the owner, caretaker, creator, and lord of the community. It implies that I only belong if you lose.
There may be some things in the world, in the Church even, where the language of sacrificing is helpful. I do not suggest the word should be eliminated from our vocabulary. But I do wonder if it has gotten in our way, if it has reinforced racial hierarchies rather than torn them down. Let us no longer choose to look at embracing multiculturalism as a zero-sum game where I only gain what you are willing to lose. When will we learn to view diversity as a gift that enhances us all?