On having substantive conversations about race relations


Maybe it has always been this way, but it seems harder these days to have substantive conversations about race relations. I think the same struggle exists when you try to talk about sexual identity, gay marriage and anything else that is a hot button issue today. Does it seem that way to you?

In the realm of race relations, we have dueling images (Baltimore burning v. images of a black man being beaten by police), dueling sound bytes (Baltimore mayor portrayed as giving permission to rioters “space to destroy” property v. Franklin Graham’s “Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else, Listen up” comment) and dueling diagnoses (racist cops v. thug culture). These seem to generate much emotion and quick reaction but little in the way of deep conversation and understanding.

Who should we blame?

It is easy to lay blame at the feet of ideologically-focused cable “news” programs. Their incessant demand for sound bytes and finding “breaking” news requires that they pump up anything that might be controversial to keep the viewer on the channel. But the only reason these stations need to do this is because of the proliferation of choices from where we get our news. If the show doesn’t deliver, we’ll find our news elsewhere on the television or, more likely, online.

We could also blame twitter and other micro-blogs that allow us to make a point in less than 140 characters. These formats provide “data” but without context enable us to believe we have facts when we only have a single data point.

But in truth, we need to lay most of the blame at our American culture’s feet. We want sound bytes. Like fast food, we want ready-to-consume information pre-packaged and simple. And we are an increasingly angry culture, angry and feeling lost in a sea of divergent opinions. Maybe this is because the comfort we once had living in a homogenous society where everyone appeared to think and believe like us is no longer present.

What can we do?

First, let’s be honest, in some settings and with some people, we may not be able to have substantive conversations about race. The environment may not be right, the other person(s) may not be interested or able due to their pain. In these cases, let us follow the advice of Solomon and remember there is a time to keep silent (Eccl 3:7a). Of course, if  you do remain silent, remember not to gossip about it later.

When we do decide to try dialogue, let us endeavor with God’s help to do the following:

  1. Be quick (first) to listen. Our temptation is often the opposite. We have much to say and we want a hearing. Follow the admonition of James to be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry (Jas 1:19-20).
  2. Listen to the story behind the opinion. Sometimes we jump to debating facts, especially when those facts are part of the other’s experience. We may be quick to dismiss experience as anecdotal. Yet, the story of pain, confusion, and racializations are worthy of our attention because we are listening to the life and challenge of an image bearer.
  3. Give the best interpretation of what was said. When emotions run high, it is easy to react to things we hear that sound wrong to us. When trust is low, it is likely that we will provide the worst possible interpretation rather than the best. 1 Cor 13:7 reminds us that love “believes all things.” So, give the best possible interpretation of what was heard. If you aren’t sure what the person meant, ask, but do so without thinking you already know the answer. Assume your partner has truth to tell you.
  4. Avoid equalizing pain. Sometimes we fear giving credence to another’s opinions for fear of negating our own opinions. It is quite fine to acknowledge systemic abuse against one people group in one sentence without needing to equalize pain by pointing out an opposing fact (even if it is true). When we try to equalize, our dialogue partner will likely believe we have just negated their point.
  5. Avoid using some impersonal extreme case you heard to make your point. While extreme personal stories need to be listened to and cared for, we can be tempted to tell of an extreme case or fact to make our point. Remember, there are fringe stories but these fringe stories rarely tell the main problem. However, if you believe the other side is using an extreme case, don’t jump on your dialogue partner but listen for substance that you can agree with.
  6. Be willing to confess corporate sin. Both Nehemiah and Ezra confess sin that is not really their own but owned by all of Israel together. Be willing to own and confess the sins of your “people” even if they are not your own sins.
  7. Underline shared truth and shared goals. While you may disagree on most things, be on the lookout for where you can agree and highlight shared truth or goals.
  8. Finally, determine one way to move the conversation to action. Dialogue and understanding are good. Action is better when we work together. Find one thing you can do with your dialogue partner.

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Filed under Christianity, Civil Rights, Race, Racial Reconciliation

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