How Do We Keep from Defaulting to White Culture?


This week, we continue our series Ask Mission Central, where we tackle real questions on spiritual life from emerging Christian leaders. Subscribe to get the next post in your inbox!

Ask Mission Central: Question Nine

“How do we pursue multi-ethnic community without defaulting to dominant white culture as the ‘lowest common denominator’?”


—Karen Grace
Chicago, IL


Answer


This is a great follow-up question to Austin’s from our last post. As we each individually build relationships across ethnic and cultural boundary lines, we also need to think about the cultures that are coming together in our communities. In the U.S., where white culture is dominant, it can be easy even for ethnically diverse groups to treat white norms as a “default setting” for group interactions. Why is that?


We’re Diverse, But We’re “Fluent” in White Culture

There are so many dimensions to culture: What language(s) do we use for our events? What kind of boundaries are there between personal life and work life? How “family-oriented” are we, and what does that mean? How do we celebrate people? Each of these questions has to be answered in the way that we live our life together in community, and there is no “culture-neutral” answer to any of them. In this regard, culture mirrors language. There’s no “language-neutral” way to communicate; you have to choose which words to use, and that choice will make it easier for some people and harder for others. Imagine that you have a room full of bilingual and trilingual people in multiple languages, but the only language held in common is English. People will default to what everyone is fluent in, even if it means some nuances and beauties of each language will get lost in translation. In the same way, we can default to what everyone is “fluent” in culturally, choosing what seems to work the best for the most people . . . which often turns out to be white cultural norms.


Welcoming Outsiders

To be fair, we should acknowledge that there are settings where defaulting to white culture makes sense. A small business in rural Iowa serving a community that’s almost entirely white probably doesn’t need to worry too much about whether its practices are geared too much toward one cultural or racial demographic. That being said, even in largely homogenous communities, there will at least be the occasional guest or visitor who doesn’t fit the typical pattern. The way such outsiders are treated is a measure of the community’s cultural hospitality.


For example, my father was once invited to a Chinese-language wedding by a Chinese American friend. He wasn’t sure he should go, as he didn’t know the bride and groom, but the friend insisted. At a transition point in the service, the officiant paused, looked at my father, and summarized everything that was going on, in English. As the leader of a community hosting an outsider, he went out of his way to make the guest feel welcome. Then, at the reception, everyone complimented my father on his awkward attempts at using chopsticks!


This example shows a community not just passively tolerating an outsider, but bending over backwards to welcome, affirm, and include him—even in the middle of an important family event in the life of their community. This kind of active inclusion of the outsider is a constant theme in Scripture; hospitality isn’t optional, it’s something the whole Christian community is called to and a requirement for those who serve in positions of leadership. So, at a minimum, every Christian community needs to be ready to welcome people from any cultural background if they happen to come along.


Why Cultural Norms Matter

Although your question shows you care about moving beyond treating white culture as a default, others might wonder, are white cultural norms really a problem? If it’s what works best for the most people, why try to change? It’s possible to be friendly toward outsiders without trying to overhaul every single one of our cultural habits.


The crux of the matter is if a community wants to go further than that. For many Christian communities, it’s not that people from certain backgrounds would be met with hostility when they happen to come along; it’s that they still feel like outsiders when they do. Even if they stick around, there may be a significant cultural gap between them and their brothers and sisters. Although welcoming outsiders is a Christian non-negotiable, it raises the question: Why are certain people “outsiders” in the first place? Who is our community really for?


This is where cultural norms come in. Whose culture determines how you do life together? That’s who your community is really serving. I’ve never heard of a church planting team setting out “to plant a white church.” They have no overt hostility toward any particular group. But in the way they structure their community life together, the “language” they’re speaking is white culture. They answer each cultural question with a white answer, whether they realize it or not. And, to your point, this is often true even in groups that include people of color or people from many different cultural backgrounds. Having a diverse range of people in the group is no guarantee that the culture of the group won’t be white-centric. You can end up with a white church, or even a diverse church that’s fastened to white cultural norms, without planning to or meaning to. If it’s the “default” setting of the leaders and influencers of the group when it’s first coming into being, it will become the “default” setting of the community.


Culture matters because people matter. What makes people feel “at home” is connected to sensibilities that were shaped early on in life for most of us, deep-seated habits and perspectives that are often hard to put into words. These patterns obviously don’t always fall along racial lines, but they often do. Someone raised in a Black Baptist church where “talking back” to the preacher is normal will probably not feel at home where speaking at all during the sermon is met with saintly side-eye. For many people of color who navigate predominantly white communities, it can be emotionally exhausting to never unwind and be “at home,” instead having to constantly filter their behavior through the grid of how it will come across in the white cultural setting. In contrast, many white people (not all) have relatively little experience being cultural outsiders, and so may have a hard time taking the emotional effects of cultural norms seriously. The sense that “things can’t be that bad here” in turn reinforces those same norms.


Getting “Particular”

So, what’s the alternative? How do we push back against treating white culture as the default?


By getting specific. We can’t promote “diversity” by itself, but we can name and make space for the particular cultural backgrounds, stories, and practices that our people are bringing to the table. This will look different in different communities. For example, a church that’s bringing together Black and Latino Christians will experience a different cultural synthesis and struggle than a church that’s bringing together white and Asian Christians.


As Christians, we shouldn’t be scared of naming the particular ethnic and cultural identities and traditions that we’re trying to celebrate and integrate; we have good theological reason to do so. Scholars sometimes use the phrase “the scandal of particularity” to describe the uniqueness of Jesus. The center of our faith rests on Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, and resurrection—particular events that cannot and should not be separated from the Jewish, first-century, Roman-occupied, contentious world in which Jesus lived. It’s because he’s the Jewish Messiah, the most particular One, that he can save everyone from every kind of background who puts their faith in him. As ethicist and theologian Russell Moore explains, “As Christians, we are, all of us, adopted into a Jewish family, into an Israelite story. We who were once not a people have been grafted on, in Jesus, to the branch that is Israel.” God’s plan to rescue people from every tribe, tongue, and nation was to call a specific people and a specific nation into covenant with himself—and then to become incarnate as the Messiah of that people.

This is also a key theological reason for rejecting colorblindness (the attitude that racial and cultural differences are best handled by ignoring them); as pastor Daniel Hill writes, “Just before Jesus’ death, Pilate had inscribed over his heads the words ‘King of the Jews.’ To be colorblind would be to risk missing some of the deepest meanings of Christ’s incarnation.” Jesus’ particularity redeems every kind of particularity. It gives us warrant to speak to and celebrate the specifics of human life and culture. Just like with the particularity of Jesus, championing one another’s cultures may scandalize some people. Let’s do it anyway.


Questions to Bring it Home

All this might seem a little abstract. The trouble about particularity is that it has to be addressed by each community in the nitty gritty realities and relationships of their shared life. I can’t tell you in a blog post about how your community needs to push back against the white default with something different. But I can maybe help you find a way forward by asking some questions.

  • Which specific cultural and ethnic groups are already a part of our community? What about in our broader surrounding community?
    • This is a question that could form the basis for a leadership team prayer time. Write down the names and backgrounds that come to mind, and share the stories that are present within the leadership team itself. Then use that to pray for the kind of changes you want to see.

  • How can we make opportunities for people to share their diverse range of stories and experiences?
    • Beyond your leadership team, events where vulnerability is appropriately encouraged can build trust and help everyone to learn from each other. I’ll never forget the event I attended as an undergraduate following a racist incident on my campus, where students of color just sat and shared their stories with whoever wanted to listen for a couple of hours.

  • When we’re making decisions, do we have people from different cultural backgrounds weighing in?
    • This obviously touches the challenge of fostering diverse leadership. But don’t wait for your team to get more diverse to solicit others’ input. Reach out to those in your community or to partners outside your organization to get diverse feedback.

  • Are there less efficient but more inclusive ways to do certain things?
    • For example, can we literally translate our materials in more than one language, even though just doing English would be the most convenient? More broadly, what can we “translate” by doing more than one way? Maybe for a youth fundraiser, you could host a barbeque and a kermes, rather than just “defaulting” to a bake sale (the favored fundraiser of my white, Midwestern upbringing).

  • When was the last time I asked forgiveness for a cultural blunder?
    • When you realize you’ve done wrong, owning up to it swiftly and directly builds trust. At other times, you can sense something went wrong, but it’s hard to know what to apologize for. Recently, I texted a friend after a conversation like that, “I’m not sure if anything I said—or the way I said it—felt awkward or ‘off’ to you. I wanted to open the door for feedback if you have any.” Their gracious response helped me better understand what was going on for them and what I can do better in the future. A posture of humility and openness to correction is vital, especially for those serving as leaders.


Particularity Is Love

Ultimately, we’re practicing love when we translate our cultural practices into the “languages” of everyone who’s part of our community. Think about the people you love most in the world. You don’t care about them in some generic way; you can name all the particulars about their personalities. I can tell you about how fearlessly friendly my goddaughter is and how much my friend Drew delights in burritos. (Actually, that delight may be too great to quantify.)  I know the shape of my wife’s hands and the tenor of my father’s voice. That’s what becomes true in our communities as we get to know one another’s whole selves, including the cultural identities and sensibilities that we each carry with us. Even if we speak haltingly in one another’s cultural languages, we speak to the heart.



Photo by Lauren P. Marino on Flickr

2 thoughts on “How Do We Keep from Defaulting to White Culture?”

  1. Marmee March

    This is a superb answer to what may or may not have been a careful question. A further question might be, how does one evaluate whether a minority-culture practice or understanding clashes with what you aptly call the scandal of particularity? In other words, does the practice in question arise from, or give credence to, an underlying theological idea which is at odds with Christian doctrines, or values derived from them?

    Also, I was amused by your example of fundraising ideas. The Roman Catholic church in my area has an annual carnival, which they call German Fest. Probably the parish was founded by German-Americans, although it is now also home to those of Irish, Italian and eastern European surnames. I also was raised with “white Midwestern” churches, but the default youth group fundraiser back in my day was the Saturday morning car wash. Later, I encountered “parish dinners” complete with salad course, glass of wine, and musical entertainment, in urban Episcopal churches, as fundraisers — although not for the youth group!

  2. Thank you for sharing!
    Your point of questioning cultural practices is an important part of the conversation. I think Christians of every culture—majority and minority—will find that the Gospel both critiques or challenges some aspects of their home culture while affirming others. It’s just often harder for those of us from a dominant culture to even “see” our own cultural biases.
    And I wouldn’t mind a wine-based fundraiser!

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