Posts tagged culture
Proximity and Peace

Lately, I've found myself working more and more with adults who are interested in exploring conversations about race, justice and reconciliation. It is not uncommon for adults to draw comparisons between their childhoods and the current experiences of their children or grandchildren. Adults often note "how much things have changed" pointing to increased diversity on playgrounds and in Sunday school classrooms. Some are looking for a little bit of hope that America is getting better at this; others are questioning the need to talk about race at all. If things are getting better, can't we just leave it to our children?

On one level I agree. In some respects things have certainly changed in the last 50 years, but can we agree that America kind of has a low bar on this topic? Things are better compared to what? Slavery of African Americans, genocide of First Nations tribes, internment camps for Japanese Americans, changing borders on Mexican Americans, legalized segregation and discrimination for a number of ethnicities and the list goes on and on. I'm glad we are doing better than all of this, but I don't know how much celebration we should be doing for treating one another like… humans.   

Still. Our hearts warm when we see children of various races playing together. We are proud of our diverse classrooms and love to see kids sharing their toys during Sunday school. I don't wish to negate these things, but I would like to suggest that we can't just wash our hands of racial injustice believing that our children have figured this out. 

Proximity doesn't equal peace.  

Consider this. We are decades out from integrating classrooms, workspaces and churches. Yet, there continue to be explosions of racial tensions on high school and college campuses- you know those young people who are growing up surrounded by diversity. They aren't escaping the complications. Nooses. Microaggressions. Hoods. FlyersViolence. Bullying. Parties. Even Easter eggs aren't safe. This is just a smattering of incidents, but consider for a moment that all the above took place recently and many of them in schools. If we are now spending more time together, being raised together, attending church and schools with one another- how can this be? Unfortunately, putting us all in a room and teaching us to play nice isn't enough, though we desperately want it to be.

Our history of racial tensions are real. The segregation that has kept us isolated from one another's pain was quite thorough. Our ability to use old props to create new wounds continues to abound. Why anyone in their twenties knows how to string a noose suggests that racism is not a thing of the past. It is present, passed on, continuing down through the generations. The stereotypes of Asian and Latino communities abound with no real understanding of geography, history, language or the diversity of culture within those communities. Why? Because proximity doesn't equal peace. 

A really good girlfriend of mine wrote a brilliant recounting of the beginnings of our friendship, which became a worship element during an MLK service at our church. It was incredibly meaningful for us to share our story with our community. We received a great deal of support from our church community even months later. We were thrilled that a topic that can be so hard to talk about touched people so deeply. What I wasn't prepared for were the waves of confessions that followed from complete strangers. I won't recount them here, but I wished we thought to include some element of reflection and repentance. It was clear that many were close enough proximity to people of different backgrounds to have committed some racial sin, but were not in deep enough relationships to make personal apologies to the victims. I (and others) become the stand-ins. I wonder if perhaps our closer proximity invites not peace but a higher occurrence of pain. We have no idea how to be with one another. 

So if proximity- just being around each other more- doesn't bring peace, what will? In a word: WORK. Friends, it takes real work to build meaningful relationships across racial lines, but it does get easier the more you do it! And believe me, its so worth it. 

Here is what that work looks like: 

We have to be willing to share the truth. 

We have to be willing to listen to the truth. 

We have to be committed to ongoing dialogue. 

We have to be committed to self-reflection. 

We have to be patient and gracious. 

We have to express our anger and disappointment. 

We have to make space for different perspectives and experiences. 

We have to be in relationship with one another.

We have to be willing to make confession.

We have to be willing to forgive.  

We have to be willing to make mistakes. 

We have to dig into multiple levels of ourselves- race, culture, personality, gifts, skills. We are whole beings who seek to know one another. 

Its not enough to just "hang out" if what we seek is reconciliation. That might make us integrated but proximity alone will not make us reconciled.

Reconciliation comes by way of love. But we cannot love each other if we do not know each other. And knowing comes not from proximity alone, but from working towards relationship. 

What would you add to the list?

May it not be depressing that it isn't easy, that we can't just sit a room and wait for the magic moment. Let us instead create that moment together and enjoy the incredible fruit of knowing and being known. 


Blessing or Privilege?

Have you ever had a conversation with someone about race, and it seemed like our Christian language was doing more harm than good by preventing the conversation from going to deeper levels of truthfulness and vulnerability? You know... someone risks tiptoeing into the murky waters by sharing a personal frustration about race relations, and all of a sudden the next person to speak is erasing the significance of the story by reciting Galatians 3:28.  

Too often, rather than propel us forward into our shared pain, Christian quick-fixes serve to insulate and isolate. In recent years, I think a lot of work has been done to make us challenge these surface responses. Some great theologians, pastors, writers, and teachers have reframed many of these verses, offering a more arduous but adventurous way. Taking Galatians 3:28 for example, rather than using it to suggest God doesn't care about culture and neither should we, we can take a closer look. Isn't it strange that we are all too willing to erase the cultural element (Jews and Greeks), but we continue to explore our differences as male and female quite openly? Instead of using this verse as a blanket to cover up, diminish, or erase altogether our cultural differences, we can use the verse to propel us out of our comfort zone, to challenge the power dynamics and hierarchy between all the groups listed. What if we analyzed our own churches and asked ourselves, if Paul walked into our church on Sunday, would he still see a hierarchy of one culture over another, of one gender over another, of one class over another? Much harder, right? 

While there has been much written (and spoken) on this and other verses that traditionally have been recited to tranquilize rather then agitate us into action, I think there is more "Christian-language" that we really need to work on challenging, particularly in our churches that are seeking to be multicultural. 

One that I'd like to focus our attention on today is what we call a "blessing" from God, but is actually (or also) privilege at work. Sometimes when opportunity routinely comes our way, we can ask ourselves, "Is my voice continuing to reinforce the dominant culture?" Often times our reasoning that God has given us an opportunity relieves us of our responsibility to seek space for other's voices to be heard, too. 

Lets look at Christian conferences. How often have you been to a conference, and more than 80% of the speakers and presenters are white (and male)? If you are one of the presenters who has routinely been invited to this conference, what might it look like for you to invite the planners to seek more voices? What if you as a presenter said, "I would love to talk about this again at your conference, but I have a friend who is also an expert in this field. She is a young, Asian American woman and her philosophy around this topic would be of tremendous value to attenders." Its a thin line between what could be another great blessing for you, and what could be an opportunity to lend your privilege to another voice. 

I use conferences as an example but consider where you can release a little of your privilege and bless someone else- worship leaders, preachers, teachers, writers, musicians etc... Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that every time an opportunity comes it must be given away. I am asking that you consider lending your credibility to another voice, and to do so creatively. Can you co-present? Can you feature another voice or new style? Can you promote someone else?

Rather than leading with the assumption that God is just blessing us, might we ask ourselves if privilege is at play, and how we might give that away. 


Happy Halloween... for all

So, I am sure you have heard of a phenomenon called cultural commodification, which essentially is placing a price tag on elements of a people's culture reducing said element to something "cool" without any recognition of its significance and meaning for the people group to which it belongs. One recent example of this is the "Native" wear line of Urban Outfitters just a couple years ago. (Go ahead google it.) Now, Urban Outfitters is not the first (nor will they be the last) to participate in cultural commodification. Hence this post! 

There is one day of the year, when many of our friends and loved ones believe they have permission to participate in cultural commodification, one day when the idea of respect gets suspended, and cultural commodification seems not only fun but funny. That one day, is coming upon us- halloween. Right now, there are families all over the country deciding what to be for halloween, and for those who would rather not offend, I want to offer a few tips: 

Tip 1. No black face. Period. Ever. Not okay. If there is even one person of color that you love or admire, just don't do this. I cannot begin to explain the level of distaste you are exhibiting or the level of disrespect you are imparting when you do this. Just say no.   

Tip 2. Imitate achievement, not race. If you want to dress as President Barack Obama, I'm good with that. Put on a suit, wear a campaign button, do the fist bump with your "Michelle", carry the seal of the President to the party. Get creative, but stay away from imitating his color (see Tip 1). Same goes for other cultures, friends. No changing the shape of your eyes with tape, wearing a wig that represents another people's hair type, or speaking in broken English. (I mean seriously, what did you sound like when you first learned another language? Do you know another language?) Focus on the achievement! Ask yourself, "Would whomever I'm trying to represent be honored or horrified by this costume?"  

Tip 3. Stay away from First Nations (Native American) wear, please. Hasn't dominant culture taken enough? Lets stop trying to claim a culture that has been so disrespected and under-appreciated. If you have the urge to participate in First Nation culture, do so with a clear invitation. Make arrangements to attend a pow-wow, reservation, or lecture on First Nation history. No one is saying you cant participate in the culture, but lets do so on their terms, shall we? So, no moccasins, headdresses, tomahawks, feathers, etc. Additionally, can we agree not to be a "sexy" Pocahontas? Let's read about her life instead.  

Tip 4. Yes, your child can dress up like someone of a different race. Friends, minorities have been doing this for decades- think batman, superman and most pre-2000 disney princesses. But what you haven't seen are minorities wearing "white face" or making fun of dominant culture. Parents, I refer you back to Tip 2... focus on achievement. If your child wants to be Gabby Douglas, get a gymnast leotard and some chalk! If your child is still obsessed with Jeremy Lin, sounds like a basketball uniform is in order.  Get creative, and don't be afraid to weave the role model's name into the outfit, just in case your child is concerned no one will get it!

Tip 5. Uplift, rather than demean. Go with people you actually admire. Leave the gross costumes alone- terrorist, "illegal alien," nazi soldier, geishas, gypsies, thugs and red necks. If there is something you would like to say about any of the above, get a pen and use your words, but don't try to make a point by using a costume. Uplift instead. Who do you love? Who do you admire? Go with that.        

May we all leave our parties happy rather than deeply offended. Happy Halloween. 


Please feel free to add more tips in the comments! 


For The Onlies

Recently I went to the movies to watch a horror flick that apparently had great appeal for high school students. They easily filled the first 15 rows of the theater. Since I was in the burbs I was not surprised to see mostly white kids fill the seats.  Just a couple rows in front us sat 8 girls, all white, until a black girl plopped into the last seat in the row. I noticed her because she had the cutest little cut I've seen on a girl her age. And though there was little else that made her stand out, I could not help but think of all the times I was her- the only black girl in the row. So, this is for all the "onlies" at the end of the row. 

 To the only black girl in her school batting away swinging ponytails while combating a limited retelling your her-story choosing to begin with slavery rather than your Motherland. To the only Latina on campus who thinks in another language, constantly making translations in your head. To the only Asian girl always assumed to be from somewhere else, somewhere far. To the only Indian girl whose name reflects her parent's fears of a future of discrimination. To the only Native American girl whose image of self is hidden behind stereotypical mascots of male faces. To the only biracial girl in the neighborhood who is always bracing to hear the question, "What are you?"  May you know that your history is vast, your language beautiful, your home here. May your full name embody your full self. May you know stories of significance, of wonder, of greatness that look just like you. May you know that you are a who.  

To the only Latino boy who must be present at the parent/teacher conference- the constant mediator, translator, teacher and learner. To the only Asian boy who must explain his "funny" eyes. To the only black boy already considered the mean one, the violent one. To the only First Nation boy who is laughed at for his long hair, who is asked to cut it off because it's distracting for others. To the only Middle Eastern boy whose place of worship was threatened last week, last month, last year.To the only multiracial boy in the class who has to explain his parents, his siblings, his family- even to adults.  May you know that your ability is a skill not a tragedy. May you reject the notion that different equals strange. May you create titles that you are comfortable wearing and throw away the rest. May you never apologize for being distracting, for perhaps that's exactly what's needed to break up the monotony. May you worship in peace. May your answers be simple and sarcastic and knowing. 

To the only Indian child whose culture is ignored until the moment it is misunderstood and back again. To the only Hispanic child who must split the world in half- home and everywhere else- whose two worlds reside within you, but often nowhere else. To the only black kid at the mall with your white friends who must resist the urge to explain to passersby that you have black friends, too, that you are not losing yourself, that you do not need to be found.  To the only First Nation kid who carries the weight of the ancestor's pain, the ancestor's tears. To the only two Asian students in the school who are constantly confused with one another, despite the sea of other same race faces.  To the only Asian child whose neighborhood is considered a tourist attraction for the masses. To the only ethnically ambiguous children who will never fit neatly and nicely into the racial boxes America has created, who must dig deep to find reconciliation within themselves.  May you choose when to give voice.  May you find the intersection that works for you. May you lose yourself in the moment feeling no need to explain. May you embody the strength the ancestors displayed, embrace the uniqueness of your face, enjoy the richness of your culture. May you lead the way. 

To all the Onlies of all races, all colors all combinations who are quirky, colorful and constantly changing: may you find that you are not monolithic- that your version of 'us' is nothing short of brilliant. May you know that you are lovable, incredible, fearfully and wonderfully made. May you find special ways, among special people to let your culture breathe.