A few weeks ago I got together with a few friends to talk about the recent events in Ferguson. We ordered coffee and crowded into a booth, discussing why most of the college students we know remain oblivious to the social movements and protests occurring nationwide in response to events in Ferguson and the non-indictment of Darren Wilson.
We talked about how best to educate (our mostly white and privileged) students. I confess that some part of me wanted to bring a little unrest to our campus, which is currently a hotbed of social rest. I wanted them to be engaged with what was happening nationwide and to share the sorrow and anger that many black communities feel.
“What I want most,” my black friend said, and of course I’m paraphrasing, “is for them to understand that people of color have had different experiences in this world than they have. Right now they have a hard time believing that anyone has had a different experience with law enforcement or racism than they have. And that’s normal - most people their age haven’t had anything happen that would cause them to see the world from a different perspective yet.
I don’t know what led you all to where you are now…”
She trailed off, and the conversation went on. How could we help students see beyond their own perspectives? How could we help them believe in the validity of other experiences?
But I kept thinking about her last statement. What was it that opened me up to the possibility that my perspective might not be the only true perspective?
As important as it had been, it wasn’t the racial reconciliation rally I had participated in as a teenager in Little Rock at the 40th anniversary of integration. At that time, I believed that racial reconciliation was important, sure, but the idea had no emotional heft for me -- it remained largely theoretical. I sang in the choir and got a t-shirt.
The moment that I remember first understanding that racism still existed, and not only in members of my grandparents’ generation, happened later, while I was a grad student at Wheaton. Two things combined to open my eyes.
First, one of my professors told us a story. A colleague of his, an African American professor at Wheaton, was regularly pulled over by the police while driving around the very small, very white, very Christian town. No one else was regularly pulled over - just this guy. And the problem wasn’t just one cop, either. I felt angry and embarrassed.
Second - and this was what primed me to hear that story - I had just returned back from a year teaching English as a Second Language at a university in Southeast Asia. While living in a small farming town near the coast, I’d also been completing coursework for a degree in intercultural studies. And through my relationships with southeast asian friends and the reading for the degree, I understood that sometimes, the very truths that seemed so self-evident to me were clear falsehoods to others.
Let me give an example. In America, I was taught to always say thank you when given a gift. This was polite, but it was also a spiritual discipline (“In everything give thanks”). However, to say thank you in the country where I worked was rude and insulting to the giver of the gift. In that culture, saying thank you was the equivalent of saying, “We’re not really friends; we have a formal and stilted relationship.” Rather than saying thank you, the appropriate way to show gratitude was to continue the reciprocal relationship by, at some later point, giving that friend a gift in return.
Saying thank you was not polite: it was rude. My understanding of what was right was upended.
Over and over again, I learned that my way of understanding the world was limited by my specific experiences growing up in the culture I grew up in. It wasn’t that my perspective was wrong; it was incomplete, partial, constrained.
It was those experiences overseas that taught me to listen. That taught me to withhold judgement. That taught me to question my own understanding of a situation. That taught me to challenge my own assumptions.
The student I had coffee with that morning organized a group of students to make a statement of solidarity at our most publicized annual event. I was there, wearing black, to be the photographer.
When I say #blacklivesmatter, I'm not saying that other lives don't matter. I'm saying it in the same way that pro-life advocates say that fetuses are people: of course they are, but whole segments of our population don't treat them as people. I'm saying #blacklivesmatter because our culture repeatedly acts as if they don't, or as if they somehow matter differently than other lives. Of course black lives matter, but how awful is it that we have to say that?
And this is my prayer for our students, and for all of us in the Body of Christ: that we would listen. That we would connect relationally with people from different cultures and different worldviews. That we would develop humility, recognizing that our perspectives are limited, and that we would develop compassion.
Cross-cultural relationships are key to reconciliation in the Body of Christ. I'm thankful for the Asian friends and the authors and theorists who helped me to begin to understand that, and to feel the weight of it, so many years ago.