Admission is the first step. This is what you will read in any self-help book. Diagnose the problem, and bingo, you have the solution. How is it that, while easy and true, it is so hard to do? The current sermon series at our church is entitled “Race Matters.” Yes, we are having that discussion. We are quite diverse as far as churches go so part of me wonders why we even need the conversation. Well if admission is the first step than I admit discussions about race, white privilege, white guilt and the like interest me about as much as going to the dentist. I know it needs to happen, but I’ve got some fear and hesitation. I don’t really fear anything in particular, but when I remember from my childhood how others characterized people that didn’t look like me, well, it makes me cringe. Countless books and articles I read begin with “I am a good person. I am not a racist.” Hey, I identify with that. By and large I think the authors are truthful because that is how I feel. I like to consider myself pretty enlightened and culturally sensitive. Most people would probably say this is true. I love experiencing different cultures, food, music, being a tourist, etc. I can dabble in multiculturalism, but alas, I’m doing it from my dominant, ingrained white culture. In a way it is like entertainment in that I go to the movies and lose myself in the story. But then, lights on—it’s just the real world. The fact remains that I am a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male—a WASP. I wake up one and go to bed as one. In between my frame of reference is “WASPy” regardless of what cultural experiences I may have.
This whole topic is really uncomfortable for many WASPs, I know. Race and culture are words used to describe everyone else not white. White is the default setting. This in and of itself can be a problem; white stereotypes exist and aren’t flattering either. To enter in the conversation many feel that both sides need to acknowledge the issues that exist with each other. It is probably healthy not to look at the issue from one side exclusively. On the other hand, concessions from the non-dominant cultures should not be a requirement that somehow determines participation from whites in the discussion. For me the issue is about being a Christ follower: admission of culpability, openness to see and understand, to love thy neighbor as thyself. There is so much I don’t understand about being white simply because I am white. But if I don’t come to the table prepared to empathize and understand how simply being part of the dominant culture challenges others, how am I to love my neighbor? The easy answer, which we all like, is of course to have my neighbors be just like me. Whether where we live or in the circles of people that we gather around us, that is what seems to happen. We naturally gravitate toward likeness.
Inherently, our wiring to find and feel comfortable with those that are like us is real. Regardless, I must make an effort to go beyond what or how I’m wired. Frankly, I am not necessarily wired to be a good disciple of Jesus and that is something that I have to acknowledge, reflect and act on on a continual basis. Why should this be any different? Like the issues that arose in the early church, maybe the best way to engage with others that aren’t like me is to understand how we each come to Christ to become whole. Our shared identity in Jesus becomes our common, dominant and ingrained culture. Imagine that for a minute—it is what Jesus refers to as the kingdom come, and it can be here and now. Paul tells us that we are made new in Jesus Christ and that we no longer exist as we were. We have a long way to go, but the willingness to consider what part I play and how I play that part in all of this is critical to achieving the kingdom. We have to be willing to diminish ourselves and let others enter the same space we claim, admitting to our fear and/or anxiety. When we do that, something holy and sacred can happen. After all, Jesus told us that when two or more are gathered he becomes present in our midst. Jesus is our unity, our all in all. I know the more I allow him to be my agenda the better off I am in all ways.
So I’m entering in the discussion with my mouth closed (be nice all of you who know me). I am actively practicing being present and aware that nearly everyone around me sees things differently than I do. Race is one lens we all use whether we realize it or not. Being aware of it and taking the time to process how I react and why I react a certain way is the exercise. Like anything, it takes practice. No value judgments, simply identifying how and why. Once I’ve gone through that I can evaluate the how and why against Jesus’ call to love my neighbor. Eventually the trick is to get to the point where the awareness of it no longer is necessary and loving my neighbor is simply who I am. Very Wesleyan!