Yeah, I’m going there today, writing down these humble words, with a bit of fear, in an attempt to keep discussing, listening, and learning about this thing we call diversity. First inspired by Deidra Rigg’s blog and then Lisa Jo Baker’s blog, #GoingThere is a conversation about race that is gracious and open.
I walked up to that black church and my knees were knocking, my heart pounding hard, because I was facing my own fear, the one that kept telling me I wouldn’t belong.
It’s hard to enter a world where you know you’ll be a minority–different and possibly, rejected.
I wanted to run back to my car and enter the safety of my own church, where people who looked and talked like me would shake my hand and smile.
I had only been the minority culture once before, when I went to Haiti in 1999. Our plane touched down on a small landing strip in Port au Prince, a sea of black faces staring out at us, watching planes land.
I walked out into the scorching sun and realized, we are the only white people here—our little group of college ragtags, the missionaries meeting us at the airport, and my husband and I, who were chaperoning the trip, barely old enough to be out of college ourselves.
You never know how vulnerable being the only white person makes you feel. It turns your world upside down to step into that new place, one that was outside my comfort zone.
So when I walked up to that African American church many years later, knowing my husband and I would be the only white people there, I wish I could tell you that I felt brave and confident. I wish I could tell you Haiti prepared me for that.
But Haiti only opened the door. It only gave me what it feels like to be the “different one.” It held me in the discomfort of that moment. I remembered how that moment felt and it made me afraid.
When I opened the door to the church, my fears spilling into my throat, I had no idea what would be standing behind it.
I had no idea what it felt like to face my fear and find it swept away in kindness.
I had no idea that when we start to open our hearts, we start to understand.
That when we listen, we learn.
When I stepped into that African American church that day, the people inside looked us and smiled.
Women I never met came up and hugged me. I didn’t know any of these people, but they didn’t walk by, pretending not to see me. I was in their church and they welcomed me with open arms. My daughter was in the midst of her own race and we were the ones who didn’t look like anyone else. This was the kind of role reversal we didn’t do often enough, but it was enough to start the conversation about what it feels like to be different.
When we started our adoption process ten years ago, we didn’t know we would end up with a black child. We entered the international program hoping to adopt from Korea. We almost had the referral of a child when my husband got cancer. That’s when we got the phone call from the agency. “I’m sorry,” they told us grimly, and then explained we could not adopt internationally.
So we changed course, and decided to try domestic adoption, and opened our hearts to a baby “of any race.” We were naïve in many ways, thinking that love would carry us through the differences in our races and that it didn’t matter what color our baby was. Love is powerful but we still live in a sinful world and with that are privileges associated with certain skin tones.
In an effort to prepare parents, our adoption agency recommended books and articles for families like ours, helping parents understand what it means to be a minority child in a largely white country. The agency’s goal was to help parents grasp the privileges we had because of skin color, privileges we were largely unaware of. They gave us the white privilege checklist, by Peggy McIntosh, a list of things that determined whether your skin color afforded you certain advantages, like:
I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
McIntosh’s list wasn’t meant to make us feel guilty, but was intended to make us aware that we do benefit from these privileges, while others do not.
When my daughter asked for her own Bible a few years ago, I sat in the Christian bookstore for hours, pouring over almost every children’s Bible they had in stock. Nearly all the Bibles had white people in them, and not just any white people, but very European-looking white people.
A white Jesus, a white Mary, a white Joseph. People who were drawn up like a regular Midwestern family.
This bothered me for several reasons. First of all, it was not historically accurate. Most of the people in the Bible were Middle Eastern. They had olive skin—a lovely shade of brown—not fair, white skin like a character out of the Sound of Music. I have played Maria; I fit right in with the von Trapp family, but when I went to Israel in 2005, I stuck out like a white person in Haiti. The people of Israel are various shades of olive brown, with dark hair, and different facial features. Some are lighter, some darker, but nobody looks like the von Trapp family. Even the Israeli women who dyed their hair dark blonde didn’t look European. But that’s how these Bible drawings looked, like Americans in Bible bathrobes.
So why were there so many Bibles with historically inaccurate pictures?
Let’s face it: we want to see ourselves in the Bible. Holy people who look like us. In our desire, we also want our children to see themselves too. Bible publishers know this. I don’t think this is entirely a bad thing, but it does beg the question: Why shouldn’t we offer Bibles with Hispanic people, Asian people, and Black people too?
Even though I live in a diverse city, with significant African American, Burmese and Hispanic populations, I could only find one Bible with a minority group in it. It was an African American Bible, with pictures created by African American artists. At least my daughter could have a Bible with people that looked like her, even if that wasn’t historically accurate either.
But what about the Burmese people in my city? What about the Hispanics? Where was the Bible with people who looked like them?
Until we became a multi-racial family, I did not think about the privileges that I was given by being born this way. I wish I could say that I thought about it sooner, that it did not take our two adoptions to make me think about how so many things—skin color, gender, disability—give privilege to some and not others. I am guilty of being blind to this and while finding myself as a minority in an African American church every once in a while is a good step for me, it will not fix the problem of racism or white privilege. Experiencing this once or twice was not enough to tell me what it’s like to live it day in and day out.
So where do we start?
Maybe it’s a small first step of being open to building relationships with new people.
Maybe it means listening instead of talking. Serving instead of leading.
Maybe it’s realizing it doesn’t have to be an argument, but can be an ongoing discussion, rooted in love, rather than hostility.
Diedra Riggs, a Christian writer and speaker offers some ideas:
If the people in your social media feed and your Christian conferences and your blogging trips and your church look like you and see the world the same way you see it, you’re missing out on the rich diversity God created and intends for us to celebrate. Pray, and ask God where you can go to be in the minority (it’s probably not as far as you think) and, once you get there, don’t try to convince the people there to see things your way. Once you get there, listen.”
As Jesus-followers, we need to be discussing these things and listening hard, realizing that even though we have privileges we didn’t always choose, we are still willing to try to step into someone else’s shoes and see life from their perspective. I will never understand what it’s like to be a minority.
But I can embrace diversity, celebrate it, and listen to those who have a deeper understanding of it. By stepping into those places where our comfort zones are stretched by not being the majority, we will find our hearts stretched too.