I heard those words during a talk about raising culturally competent children given by Professor Hotchkins, who teaches at Texas Tech University and is one of the leading voices in the nation on the subject of navigating organizational + social cultural difference. He was the only black man in the room of white faces, and though it is sad to admit, one of the only black voices I have heard, in person, on this subject.
This made me wonder about how little I have invited diverse relationships into my life, even though I have lived in cities with a range of ethnicities represented. There is one time where I spent a considerable amount of time with latino families, two years during High School, when my parents helped with a hispanic church plant. Some of them became my friends, but I always felt as an “other” in the group. I didn’t fully understand their culture or speak their language, but I loved those people and I felt accepted by them. It is the closest I have ever felt to being a minority, but looking back, I realize there was still always a feeling of privilege and superiority – I could navigate the world easier for many reasons, and when I left that space, I could go back to my own sameness.
Five or so years later, when my husband and I were first married, we also worked with youth who were a mix of latino, white, and black kids when we lived in a more diverse neighborhood. I didn’t think about race much, none of that mattered to me, I told myself. But I wonder now how I imposed my whiteness on them or acted in a condescending manner, even subconsciously, as I look back.
Dr. Hotchkins shared many good points and I really am glad I made myself go, made myself sit silently for over an hour, and listen to his perspective and story. I am only beginning to grasp at the edges of this complex issue.
I left with 5 pages of notes and have many thoughts to allow to simmer, but there were a few things that stuck with me especially:
1.) He asked the question, “How many culturally diverse artifacts do you have displayed in your home? Do you have pictures or items tied to a specific culture?” I thought back to my childhood and remembered the shelves of books my parents had, and how I was drawn to those few portraits and photographs of indigenous tribes or cultures different from my own. I mentally pictured our own home – no. I may have a pot or a book with some pictures, but they are not strewn or displayed in a way that my children would notice. Our two large coffee table books feature white people (The Beatles). This is a gap, I realized. We have not been intentional in the display of other cultures in our home. I have not been intentional in my own education of those cultures.
2.) He shared a quote, the author and exact wording I don’t remember, but it went something like: “It is hard to hate a person whose story you have heard.”
It reminded me of a story I heard once about an older couple who were home in bed for the evening. While they were sleeping, a man broke into their house, held them at gunpoint, and told them he was going to shoot them. The man calmly said, “Alright, but first, how about we have one last cup of coffee together”. For whatever reason, the trespasser obliged, and they went down and sat around the kitchen table. While they drank their coffee, the man with the gun told the couple his story, about his loneliness and problems in life. In the end, the couple lived and the man became friends with them. The act of hospitality and deep listening de-escalated the situation and took away the cloud of hate between them.
As we are entering the season of Lent, our church is going through the book “Mending the Divide” by Jer Swigart and Jon Huckins, and within the context of peacemaking and really entering into relationship with our neighbors who look different from us, this quote is a beautiful reminder of how stereotypes can be changed and brokenness can be restored.
In their book, Swigart and Huckins suggest that the steps to being peacemakers are to SEE, IMMERSE, CONTEND, RESTORE. That first step, seeing – really looking and allowing ourselves to see the pain and conflict in the lives of those around us – is vital. Because once we have seen it, you can’t unsee it, and then you must decide what to do with that. One problem is that many times we ease our conscious by simply giving money or items to a cause or doing something ourselves for someone that has not been asked of us. Which can be helpful and good, but often we THINK we know what love looks like for someone, but we haven’t actually asked. So we impose our privilege on them, meeting needs that aren’t even there, to make ourselves feel better about their pain.
In reality, we need to immerse ourselves in their lives, even if it means we might be judged by it or our reputation will be questioned, hear their stories, surround ourselves with their pain, and then, once we have been invited into their lives in relationship, can we begin to understand what it looks like to wage peace in their context.
I wonder how many of us are actually willing to do this. There is a fantastic ethnography written by anthropologist Seth Holmes, titled Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies, which describes his journey immersing himself into the lives of Oaxacan migrant workers. I read it while taking a medical anthropology class and it deeply changed my perspective – even though I haven’t been there, I felt like I saw their suffering in a way the media does not portray.
We have to enter into their brokenness and even be willing to lose something in order to begin to understand and offer a voice as an ally and upholder.
3.) Your voice as an ally must be bestowed upon you and stay on the periphery of the discussion.
I have heard the word “ally” tossed around a lot since the Black Lives Matter movement was in the forefront of my Facebook feed. However, as my circle of friends were not diverse (read: almost all white), I never heard it being spoken by someone who was black. And I thought, “yeah, yeah! I can be an ally!”, but I didn’t know what that really meant. And I didn’t realize that as a white ally, I can’t be leading the discussion. My voice needs to be on the periphery, it needs to be a supportive voice, it needs to be informed by those in the center.
So, this Lent, I want to be intentional about listening to those who are different. Immersing myself before jumping to conclusions about what an individual or group needs from me or anyone else, and becoming an ally and friend in the peacemaking efforts.
Can you even imagine if everyone treated their neighbors this way? If every oppressed identity had someone of a privileged identity willing to lose something to make their lives better? There is so much work to be done, it is overwhelming.
But the first step, right now, today: Start listening with your whole body. Look deeply at those you normally pass by or you think you already have pinned down, because once you have SEEN the suffering, it is hard to look away. Once you have heard the stories, and peeled away the stereotypes, your perspective will change.