Thursday, February 08, 2007

My experience in “cross-cultural missions” (Part 3)

I have wondered if, perhaps, in tackling this subject of “cross-cultural missions” in a predominantly White, evangelical church, I was biting off more than I could chew. I have so much to say, but that doesn’t mean I want to write a book about it. In fact, I’ve spent 3 days trying to write this post because every time I started writing, I quickly realized I was heading in a direction that would result in a post that was far too lengthy. This post will be long, but know that it could have been much longer. I want to deal with these issues because, firstly, they have been on my mind for a long time; but, secondly, because I believe the White, American, evangelical Church is not dealing honestly and fully with its racial issues. To the extent that we fail to deal honestly and justly with race, to that extent we have allowed ourselves to be co-opted by the racially-conscious values of our surrounding culture rather than be governed by Christ.

In my previous post on this topic, I said I clearly see God’s sovereignty in bringing my family into our current church home. Our backgrounds have uniquely prepared me and my wife for fellowship in a predominantly White church. Our interactions and friendships in school, college and work have exposed us to people of various races and ethnicities, thus preparing us to relate with people who are not a part of our ethnic culture. My formal musical training, combined with my background in the Black Church, in general—and the A.M.E. Church, in particular—has given me the ability to “speak” the musical language of both the Black Church and the White Church, both evangelical and mainline (I’ve been privileged to play everything from out-of-tune storefront church pianos, to Hammond Organs, to multi-rank pipe organs in beautiful church “edifices”). When you include our life experiences outside of work and school, and particularly our interactions with White evangelicals during the time I was in seminary (which was our first up-close encounter with White evangelicalism), it becomes apparent that God, in His sovereignty, uniquely equipped us to bridge the cultural gap between Blacks and Whites.

However, our experience is not the experience of everyone. I would venture to guess that most people do not feel comfortable moving in circles outside their native ethnic culture. On this point, three general observations about Blacks and Whites come to mind. These observations are not at all scientific in nature. These are just my opinions as a Black man, based on over 43 years observing the world around me.

My first observation is one that I’m not sure many Whites (or teen and 20-something Blacks) have considered: To successfully navigate American culture, Blacks must learn how to work and interact with Whites, while White people can successfully get through life in the U.S. and never have to concern themselves with Black people. Think about it: In most cases, your teachers have been White (Although, attending a public school in a small city with a significant Black population, I did have several Black teachers over the years. My wife, however, attended a private school and never, to my knowledge, had a Black teacher. I only had one Black instructor in college.). On the job, most likely, your bosses have been white. The persons who manage the stores where you shop often are White. Most police officers are White. Even the President of the United States has always been White! The point is, in the majority of life situations, you will find yourself dealing with White people. A Black person who does not learn how to work with, talk to and interact with Whites will have trouble all through life, because you cannot live in the U.S. and avoid White people. On the other hand, if you’re White, it is possible to avoid Black people. One could, conceivably, go through life and never really know a Black person.

Speaking of not knowing Black people, I must tell this story: During the summer between junior high school and high school (I was about to turn 14), I spent 2 weeks in a summer youth music camp at the University of Illinois. My roommate for those 2 weeks was a White boy, my age, from an affluent Chicago suburb. We were informed of the names of our roommates ahead of time. My roommate admitted to me that he was surprised when he finally met me because he assumed “Wyeth” was a White person (in fact, I was named after a White person ). I later found out he didn’t really know any Black people at all, so I was a bit of a curiosity to him. This came out one day when I was combing my hair.

That happened to be the summer I decided to wear my hair in a “natural” style. I had let it grow out to about an inch-and-a-half to two-inches long (that’s as close to an “afro” as I’ve ever gotten, by the way). So, one day, while I was “fixing” my hair with my “pick” and “afro comb”, my roommate was watching. Soon, he started asking questions. Questions like, “What is that?” (Referring to my pick), “What are you doing to your hair?”, “Does your hair move?”, “What does your hair feel like?”, and such questions as that (How many Black people out there have been asked those questions? A lot of you, I’m sure!).

Well, finally he asked if he could touch my hair. I consented. He was fascinated. It was almost like he had wondered for years how Black people’s hair felt. I’m pleased that I could contribute in a hands-on way to the cultural development of a sheltered child from the affluent suburbs. I really didn’t mind, and we did get along very well. Incidentally, that wasn’t the last time I offered my head for the cause of racial understanding. I’ve had White students ask to feel my hair, and once a fellow teacher, who was White, asked to feel my hair. Actually, another teacher—who was Black—and I were trying to explain to this White teacher the difference between “good” hair and “bad” hair (By the way, I have the “not as bad” hair. It’s not “good”, but it’s better than “bad”. I’ll explain, perhaps later this month.).

Moving on…

My second observation about Blacks and Whites: A significant portion of Black people—mostly, but not exclusively, from the lower economic classes—never learn to relate with White people, or never become proficient at relating with White people. Those Blacks who don’t learn how to get along with White people usually adopt an attitude that communicates that they are merely tolerating White people. White people become to them one of those annoyances in life that you can’t avoid. This results in many negative encounters with Whites. The Black person in this position will probably conclude that White people are bad. However, I think the problem is one of communication: The Black person doesn’t know how to communicate with Whites. For instance, as a teacher, I see this scenario played out again and again: A Black student inadvertently acts or reacts or speaks in a way that puts the White teacher on the defensive. The White teacher, in turn, responds in a way that provokes the Black student. The student then responds in a way that is clearly wrong and offensive to the White teacher. That student gets disciplined in some way, usually by being sent to the Dean. All this could be avoided if the Black student knew how to relate with White people (I know there’s another side to this, and I’m getting there; just wait a second!).

Why do some Blacks not learn to relate with Whites? Some have little exposure to Whites. When in situations where Whites are present, they always seek to be with other Blacks. Some have been taught that Whites are bad, so there’s no incentive to get to know people you’ve been taught were bad (For instance, the parent or respected adult had some bad experiences with White people, so they teach the child that White people are bad. The child doesn’t know about Whites from personal experience; they just live by what others have told them.). Many of us have had bad experiences with Whites in the past, so future encounters with Whites are viewed in the light of past bad experiences.

There also exists Black peer pressure to avoid anyone and everything that would make you look like you were trying to “be White”. White America is just now starting to discover what many of us have known and experienced for years: To get good grades is to be accused of “acting White” and to speak correctly and enunciate clearly is to “talk White”. When I was a teenager, if a guy’s walk wasn’t “cool”—if he didn’t walk with a limp (called a “pimp walk”)—he could be accused of walking like a White boy. If you’re wondering, I was “guilty” of talking and walking “White”. Lurking behind all these false views was probably a fear of the unknown (i.e., you just feel more comfortable with “your own kind”).

Lest you think these kinds of things only happen to Black teenagers, let me share another story. For a brief time, I attended Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. My pastor, at the time, felt I needed to know more than Trinity could teach me. You see, Trinity, in his mind, was a “White” school, inadequate for teaching me how to pastor Black people (a point not completely without merit, by the way, but I think he overstated his case). “That school can teach you theology, but what you need to know is ‘niggerology’” (Folks, that’s what the man actually said!). The implication was, theological knowledge is all right for “White folks”, but you need something else to minister to Blacks.

One more story: Once, my evangelism class from seminary was at the community college doing “cold call” evangelism (which I don’t like doing, by the way). While out there I ran into a preacher I knew (“Jack-leg” preacher, actually). He struck up a conversation with me and the teaching assistant, who was with me. Finally, this preacher begins to talk about what a great preacher I was (he had heard me once). The teaching assistant asks, “So, Wyeth’s a pretty good preacher, huh?” My preacher acquaintance responds, “Yeah. He does a good job; just needs to put a little ‘gravy’ into it, though.” The teaching assistant looked thoroughly confused (Yes, I was embarrassed). You see, “gravy” refers to “whoopin’”, or preaching in a kind of musical key, with rhythmic cadences—in other words, “Black” preaching. To “translate”: He was saying I preached all right—my sermon had “meat”—but I sounded too White. I needed some “gravy” on my “meat”.

So, racial peer pressure continues into adulthood.

My third and final observation: Whites, generally, are more ignorant about the Blacks, than Blacks are of Whites. We are a total mystery to many White people. Remember, I said it’s nearly impossible for a Black person to live in America and avoid White people, but you can be White and get along quite well without Blacks. Blacks need Whites because most of the economic and political resources are in White hands, but Whites don’t need Blacks, because Blacks, for the most part, don't control anything that Whites need. So, because Whites seldom, if ever, have to depend on Blacks for support or be accountable to Blacks, they often simply ignore us. And, just like many Blacks, many Whites are unwilling to step out of their comfort zones. The result of all this avoidance and lack of interaction is that many Whites simply don’t understand Black people, don’t know how to communicate with Black people (and, therefore, misread and misinterpret Black people—witness the example above about White teachers and Black students) and, often, are even afraid of Black people. Why else would the occasional police officer shoot an unarmed Black male? I tell you why: They’re scared to death of a Black man.

If these observations are at all accurate (and I have over 43-years-worth of reasons to think they are), there is an almost insurmountable gulf between Blacks and Whites. For all the reasons I’ve mentioned, and more, there is no reason for Blacks and Whites to come together. Why?

We don’t know each other.

We don’t trust one another.

On some level, we’re afraid of each other.

Is there a solution to this dilemma? Is there a way to bridge the gap between Blacks and Whites? I think there is a way, and my family and I are living it out.

(To be continued…)


Pat Caulfield said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pat Caulfield said...

I just finished reading your post and I need to disagree in one regard, that Black Americans need to learn to live in White America, but White Americans don't. If White America was a single color/culture I would agree, but with the mixing of people and cultures I don't think it is a black and white issue (pardon the pun).

As a White right of center middle aged man who grew up during the racial changes of the 60s and 70s I may have acquired an increased sensitiviy to how I interact with different people, especially where there is a perception on my part of not having a shared or bonding experience.

This seems to result in one keeping thier distant so as not to cross some line and offend because of lack of knowledge.

This inablity slows the progress toward community (people harmoniously living together - my definition).

So although the aclimatization is different, at many different levels, not the least of which is intensity, it may in fact be the starting point of the needed shared experience/background that will allow us to move beyond this "walking on glass" stage.

My two cents - Pat