What does it look like to be a White person on the journey of racial reconciliation?
In a world of individualized thinking, it can be hard to see how white responsibility could be any different from anyone else's.
In South Africa there is a word used to describe the very essence of what it means to be human. It describes someone who is generous, hospitable and compassionate. You share what you have. The word is “ubuntu.”
It is ubuntu that drives many South African blacks to forgive rather than demand retribution of their oppressors. It is ubuntu that led Nelson Mandela, on the day of his inauguration as president in a country where he was a political prisoner for 27 years, to invite two of his prison guards to sit with him on the dais. It is ubuntu that led to a peaceful transition in government on a continent that has been notorious for bloody governmental turnovers. And when they looked for a way to deal with the crimes against humanity, it was ubuntu that moved them away from something like the Nuremberg trials to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in his memoirs No Future Without Forgiveness, describes people with ubuntu as those who “understand that they belong in a greater whole and are diminished when others are diminished or humiliated or tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.” It seems at the very core of ubuntu is a true understanding of brotherhood, of the New Testament Greek koinonia; indeed, a Christian world view.
You don’t need to look far to find a biblical framework for ubuntu. For example, consider the call to Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2–3). Or look at Isaiah’s (and other prophets’) words to care for the marginalized and poor. Or hear the call of Christ “to unite all things in him” (Ephesians 1:10). It’s in Jesus’ own words, as he summarizes the Ten Commandments: “. . . love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). And it’s in the call to those who follow Christ: “. . . in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. . . . There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26, 28).
This is why we pray the Lord’s Prayer saying “Our Father,” not simply “My Father.” As Tutu says, “Our lives are inextricably bound together.” We are brother and sister; we have the same Father and are united by the same blood. Jesus had ubuntu.
Ubuntu stands in stark contrast to Western, predominantly white individualism. When faced with racism, our general bent as Christian whites is to think, I’m not a racist. I’m doing my part; I can’t help it if others are messing it up for you. I’m sorry that’s happened to you. But me, I’m no racist. We don’t want to be told that we have responsibility for something that doesn’t seem to be our fault. But God wants us to be a people with ubuntu.
You may be asking, “Why is white responsibility any different from anyone else’s?” In some ways it’s not. 2 Corinthians 5 tells us that we’ve all been given the ministry of reconciliation. There is no racial or ethnic distinction when Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” The Scriptures tell us to bear each other’s burdens, care for one another, be in one accord, look out for the interests of others and love our neighbors as ourselves. None of these is limited to a specific ethnic group; they apply to all. But there are some things that should be unique to our approach to reconciliation as whites.
Starting the journey
I’d like to suggest a four-step progression to help us be a people of ubuntu.* Now, I hate things that promote themselves as the “Ten Easy Steps to a More Healthy Lifestyle.” They give a false sense that a formula will bring perfect success every time. There are no quick fixes or easy solutions in reconciliation. It’s much harder than rocket science!
Learning to live with ubuntu is all about being on a journey. As my friend Trish McDonnell Baker says, “It’s taking one step and then another” on a bridge that can be pretty unsteady at times. It isn’t easy, and we’re just travelers together on this foot bridge.
1. Awareness / Recognition: White ain’t always right.
We need to be aware that the playing field is not level. I live in a diverse, working class community. As I walk along Central Avenue where the shops are, I pass Indians, African Americans, Korean grocers, Dominicans, blue-collar Irish, Mexicans and elderly Italian ladies. But when I pass the cheap department store selling dolls in the window, all I see are porcelain-white faces. Yes, in the malls perhaps they’re a bit more politically correct. But in my neighborhood, where the poorer folks shop, there are no dolls that represent the heritage of their children. The playing field is uneven.
Peggy McIntosh, a professor at Wellesley, has written a vital article on white privilege where she attests that on an everyday level the playing field is unequal. She identifies scores of the daily effects of white privilege in “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Here are just a few:
- If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area that I can afford and in which I would want to live.
- I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
- Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
- I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
- I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
- If a traffic cop pulls me over, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
There’s much discussion these days about the nature of racism. Beverly Tatum, in Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? likens racism to a moving walkway at an airport. You can walk to move faster (active racism) or simply stand (passive racism), but either way you still benefit from the system. Others have simply described racism as showing favoritism or partiality, which gives the connotation of something more personally overt, but which could also be descriptive of a system or institution.
Either way you understand racism, McIntosh’s examples are jarring. Doing nothing about these inconsistencies in our society is a vote for the status quo. “If you’re not a part of the solution, you’re a part of the problem.” And here is the notion of ubuntu again. What I do, or don’t do, is not in a vacuum; it does affect others. So, perhaps my being on the walkway does work to my advantage, especially when I’m so busy to get to my destination that I don’t see those who can’t even make it onto the walkway. We need to be more aware of how others manage in the world. Chances are they don’t all manage the way we do. Once our eyes have been opened and our ears are perked up we can move on to the second step.
2. Listen / Immerse: Learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
In 1992 I had a very brief conversation with a black South African. But it was as significant and memorable to me as it was brief. Tsetse said emphatically, “You must keep bringing multi-racial groups to South Africa.” I was intrigued by his urgency and asked him to explain. He said that in South Africa there exists a wall between blacks and whites. The “white” side of the wall is opaque; whites do not go into or operate in black communities, therefore they don’t see or understand the black world. On the other hand, the “black” side of the wall is transparent; blacks operate in the world of those in power all the time and so understand how the white community functions. Tsetse continued to explain that as South Africans (both black and white) see multi-racial groups of North American Christians living together and loving each other, hope is stirred up and they see that perhaps it is possible to coexist in the same country.
Majority culture people or those in power rarely understand the world of people of color. Oh, we say, “I love Kim-chi” and therefore assume we have a wide-open door with our Korean roommate. But have we ever gone to the home of our Korean roommate, or been the “token white” in a social setting? Those of European descent don’t often wander into ethnic enclaves or stay for very long if they do. And so myths often develop about those ethnic enclaves.
This is why the second step in our progression is to listen and immerse ourselves in another culture. Sure, it can be uncomfortable, but it’s Kingdom work.
John 4 tells the story of the woman at the well. You probably know it well. Samaria was like a ghetto in the mind of the Hebrew. Why go through it, even if it was the shortest route from Galilee to Judea? Bad things could happen to you there. Half-breeds lived there, dirty people. You could catch a disease or be mugged. Sounds just like what my parents thought about New York City—and why we never visited, although I grew up in New Jersey!
But Jesus, John writes, “had to pass through Samaria.” (I love that about Jesus!) He came to a village well and had a conversation with one who was not only a Samaritan, but also a woman. And not only a woman, but also a woman of poor reputation. Jesus listened, inquired, and immersed himself in her world. Meanwhile the disciples went to town to buy food.
The woman was so astounded by Jesus that she ran back to the town and told everyone to come out to meet him. The disciples returned and essentially said, “Let’s eat and get outta here. This place gives us the creeps.” Jesus responded, “I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored and you have enjoyed their fruit.” The townspeople believed not because they were convinced by anything the disciples had said, but by the testimony of the woman. I wonder if the disciples had any meaningful conversation with the Samaritans, or whether they simply treated the local shop owners the way I tend to do when I’m in a hurry.
One of my most significant immersion experiences was being a member of Second Baptist Church in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, for four years. The membership was about 2,000, mostly black with some Puerto Ricans. There were so few whites at that church that everyone knew when I missed church! The front wall of the sanctuary (a renovated movie theatre) was covered with an enormous portrait of Jesus. He was not lily-white, but rather dark skinned with thick, wavy dark hair.
But it wasn’t just the image of Jesus that was new to me; it was what we talked about in church. At Second Baptist we had job training workshops, seminars about drug addiction, dealing with debt; frequently politicians would visit, and we’d talk about injustice. I learned about the importance of black-owned businesses, because of the meager length of time a dollar stays within the black community. I learned why this was Second Baptist, even though it was the largest Baptist church in town. I was often uncomfortable being one of two whites in the congregation, but it was an education.
I’ve also learned by watching movies about other ethnic minority groups and through exploring films by black directors. My book shelves nearly sag with the weight of books about racism, South Africa, black history, justice and more. The Eyes on the Prize film series has opened my eyes and I regularly listen to Sweet Honey in the Rock, whose lyrics are often laced with topics of justice.
We can learn a lot by listening to and immersing ourselves in cultures different from our own. But we can also be a channel for change. Trevor Huddleston, a white Anglican priest, chose to live in a Black township in South Africa, something whites did not do. But he immersed himself into the lives of his parishioners. One day as walked through the dirt streets of Sophiatown he passed a black woman walking with her young son in tow. Huddleston simply tipped his hat to the woman in a show of respect and warmth. The little boy was taken aback by this “random act of kindness” and impressed by the priest’s side-stepping of the cultural norm. He found hope that maybe not all white folks were mean. The little boy was Desmond Tutu.
Beverly Tatum writes, “In order for there to be meaningful dialogue, fear, whether of anger or isolation, must eventually give way to risk and trust.” Fear, anger and isolation are all things that make us uncomfortable in a culture that is not our own. But as we grow more comfortable with that feeling of discomfort, we will move toward taking risks.
3. Risk and Relationship: It’s okay to hurt and be hurt.
My experiences over the last 11 years in South Africa have taught me much about racial reconciliation here in the U.S. But nothing has taught me more about racial reconciliation than my friendship with my best friend, Tania, who is Cuban-American. It’s not enough to gain information about another culture as if you are examining it under a microscope. That’s too “safe,” and besides, the lab coat doesn’t allow you to get messy enough. The real risk comes when you enter into a friendship with someone.
Tania came to the U.S. as a young girl. She taught me that because she is bi-cultural, when I interact with her in her apartment or at Rutgers University, I am seeing her American side. Only when she is in her family context does she let the fullness of her Cuban side come out. I took a major step in our friendship when I went to her family’s house to visit. It was very different from my own home. Hers was an apartment in a two-family house; I grew up in a single-family house. Hers was in the city; I grew up in the suburbs. She only had to walk two blocks to the store; I had to drive a couple of miles. Her mom had a master’s degree; no one in my family had advanced degrees. In her area of West New York you had to parallel park; we parked in a driveway. Most people in Tania’s community were bi-lingual; I can’t remember anyone speaking more than one language in my neighborhood.
Tania’s whole life was a different experience from mine. As our relationship grew, Tania related to me racist comments made to her when she came to college—comments from those she lived with and even from people in InterVarsity. Hearing her pain felt different from simply reading those same comments in a book. Here was someone dear to me who was hurt by the ignorance and callousness of her peers. I listened as best I could. Because of her experiences, Tania found it hard to trust me at first, and we both said and did hurtful things to each other. And did we ever have to work on communicating! But grace became our foundation, enabling us to say, “It’s okay to hurt and be hurt.” Dealing with our hurts and misunderstandings actually helped us build bonds of trust.
Two years ago, the fixer-upper house I’d bought was going through major renovations, and I was having contractor problems. I had to move out while the work was going on but had no idea for how long. I didn’t know where I could stay. Tania’s mom said, “Of course you have a place to stay. Come and live with us.” To this day we still jokingly refer to their spare bedroom as “Carolyn’s room.”
4. Risk and Structures: Caring about people means caring about the situations they’re in.
Luke 4:18–19 tells me that Jesus is not only concerned about people’s souls, but he’s also concerned about the situations they find themselves in: poverty, captivity, blindness and oppression. His redemption is about bringing wholeness where there is brokenness. And not merely wholeness, but also something completely new!
A 1992 Washington Post article says that blacks tend to see racism as an ongoing and pervasive condition of American life, while whites tend to think of racism as individual actions or attitudes of bigotry that are the exception rather than the rule. But racism is not just a matter of what’s in people’s heads, but about how the world operates. An understanding of white privilege is important as a foundation for understanding this step. But the concept of shalom will help even more here.
Shalom is more than a greeting of peace in the Hebrew language. Shalom is physical peace—well-being, “okayness,” abundance. Shalom is also relational peace—the removal of oppression, the establishment of justice and health-giving relationships between people and nations. But shalom is also moral peace—straightforwardness, freedom from deceit and hypocrisy, living with integrity. The Bible uses shalom to describe salvation, justice and peace [see Perry Yoder’s Shalom, the Bible’s Word for Salvation, Justice and Peace (Evangel Press)].
What Jesus is bringing is shalom, not merely personal salvation. And that’s far better than just personal salvation. He’s building a present kingdom, along with the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. A redemption, not just of individuals and relationships, but also of structures. And just as he uses us as vessels to bring the gospel to our neighbors, he equips and sends us out into the world to speak shalom to the structures and systems in our world: politics, economics, law enforcement, education, medicine, genetic research, community development and myriad others.
Shalom-makers strive for total reconciliation among people, putting an end to oppression and deception. Simply put, as Yoder says, shalom is making things as they ought to be.
Tatum uses the word ‘ally’ and I think it’s a helpful one here. The role of an ally is not to give handouts to victims of racism in a paternalistic sense, but rather to speak out against systems of oppression and to challenge other majority culture people to do the same.
As we come before the living God who made all of us—black, white, Asian, Latino, American, Afghani, eloquent or stammering, female and male—in his image, it’s my prayer that we be transformed into a people of ubuntu. And that we of the majority culture would not simply be satisfied with the status quo, allowing things to carry on as they have. We in the majority culture do have a seat at the table, but maybe we don’t need to talk as much as we have, or maybe we need to invite others to sit with us or maybe we just need to exchange our seat for another. Jesus had ubuntu and he wants us to follow him.
Carolyn Carney has spent considerable time in South Africa. She is an InterVarsity staff worker who now keeps house in Jersey City for her 90-pound Labrador retriever, Murphy, who likes to eat cantaloupe, tomatoes and instant cappuccino mix. Carolyn really doesn't care for the instant cappuccino mix but has been known to be easily distracted by an offer of a cup of coffee.