Category Archives: Race

Obsession with race and classification

Cover of "The Troubled Heart of Africa: A...

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Why are we obsessed with the race or heritage of those we meet? Seems like we are overly interested in ethnicity…as is “”what are you?” kinds of questions that we ask those who seem exotic, different, or not clearly defined.

Am reading two books at once: Robert Edgerton’s book on Congo history, “The Troubled Heart of Africa” and Jean-Pierre Chretien’s “The Great Lakes of Africa: Two Thousand Years of History.” This obsession with lineage and ethnicity is not new. Both have numerous quotes from Europeans during explorations in the 1800s. Rwandan Hutus and Tutsis are variously described and “nilotic” (from the Nile), Semitic, Negroid, Greek in facial features, etc. Certain Congolese are described as Macaques (Monkeys) and those who hare “civilized” are described as “evolved.” Of course many described them as “hamitic” as in the tribe of Ham.

I know we are beyond (mostly) those dark days of abject, unabashed racism, but seems we still want to classify people. I’ve been asked, “What are they?” in regards to my kids (who are clearly African American). I imagine biracial folks get these questions in spades.

Why is it so important to know? What do we gain from asking? I think we ask for a couple of reasons.

  • Curiosity is probably one key reason. Some of us are attracted to different
  • Connection is probably another motivation. We’ve met someone who looks like this and want to feel close to this new person
  • Categorizing via racialization. We may want to know how to think about someone. “Are you Italian? Oh, so that explains why I think you are…” This is the biggest reason I think. It gives us clues (shortcuts and stereotypes) as to how we want to think about and respond to others. The ugly side of this is that we categorize in order to develop stratification or castes.

Are there other reasons we do this? Good ones?


Filed under Cultural Anthropology, Race, Rwanda

Place and Movement in cultural narratives

Am reading Ira Berlin’s, The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations (Viking, 2010). I’ve only finished chapter one but am taken with his way of juxtaposing place (rootedness) and movement (migration) as key narratives in the life of African American history. It is a “contrapuntal narrative,” says Berlin. Had to look that word up since I wasn’t familiar with it. It is point and counter point. Or, better, two independent, seemingly opposing melodies played together to form one new melody. In the book he covers migration from Africa to America and three other major migrations in US history. But he also notes how “place” and rootedness follow the migrants. The Barber shop, the church and other familiar places can help root the migrant in a brand new locale.

It got me thinking again about how certain cultural narratives shape our view of self, other; of God and country. Some of these narratives seem in opposition to each other. While I was reading this chapter, I was spending some time in Lancaster County, or the Amish country. All around I could see evidence of cultural narratives of these descendants of German Anabaptists:  hard work; family first; shunning beauty or technology or anything that might make one put trust in self rather than God. I would imagine that place and farming rhythms shape many of the Amish sense of identity.

What themes do you notice in your life? How much does place (geography, community, contexts) play into your sense of self? How much does movement (independence, migration, freedom, transitions) shape you? I would think that these narratives really do have a significant effect on your philosophical and theological views. I suspect that if you have lived in the same place where generations of ancestors have lived, you may be more inclined to emphasize tradition and sameness. However, if you have had a pattern of change (whether forced upon you or not) and experienced a transitory life, you might find yourself more comfortable with a flexible theology.

What do you think?

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Filed under Cultural Anthropology, Good Books, Race

Racial put downs compared to others

Two times in the last monthone of my children has been racialized. During an exchange amongst a group of friends where they were trading (not so) humerous barbs, the other child made a racial comment about my son’s skin color or hair. These comments were made by children having received from another some comment designed to make fun of their glasses, weight, height, and/or athletic ability.

What I find interesting is how unreactive my kids have been and how extremely reactive their friends were. None had any problems calling someone fat or stupid or short or slow or blind or whatever. But as soon as the race card was played, that changed everything. Alarms sounded, parents notified, etc. But my kids probably wouldn’t have told me that these events happened (even though they have no problems tattling on each other).

I know that racializations (generalizations, stereotypes, etc.) are extremely painful to the receiver. And whenever we hear them, we ought to confront them without delay. But lest our righteous indignation overwhelm us, let us not forget that other forms of objectification are equally painful. This is the message I am delivering to my kids: We do not tolerate making fun of other people, period. I think my kids get it but I’m not sure their larger community gets it. And the biggest problem we have is from other white kids looking to get others in trouble.

But here’s my dilemma. I notice that in much of the literature written by transracial adoptees concludes that their parents never talked about race, never understood the deep pain they felt from racializations and racism, and have no interest in living in their old neighborhoods. Now, I could conclude that those writers, now in their late 20s and 30s, grew up in an era where parents tried to be “color-blind.” But I do wonder if the message my kids hear from me as I confront them on their own use of put-downs is that I don’t really think racializations are that serious a problem.


Filed under adoption, conflicts, Race, Racial Reconciliation, Relationships

Does “Zero Tolerance” work?

The December 2008 edition of the American Psychologist takes up this question when their task force on the matter publishes the article, “Are zero tolerance policies effective in the schools? An evidentiary review and recommendations (pp 852-862).

What did they find?

1. “…despite a 20-year history of implementation, there are surprisingly few data that could directly test the assumptions. Moreover, zero tolerance policies may negatively affect the relationship of education with juvenile justice and appear to conflict to some degree with current best knowledge concerning adolescent development.” (abstract, p. 852)
2. Zero tolerance is based on several assumptions that the authors found wanting

a. school violence is at a crisis level and increasing still. No (is this because of the policies?)
b. Zero tolerance increases consistency of discipline and sends a clear message. Not found in the data.
c. Removal of violent children will create a better climate for those who remain. Data suggests the opposite, schools with higher suspension rates have lower climate ratings.
d. Swift punishment is a deterrent. Not borne out in the data. Opposite may be.
e. Parents are overwhelmingly in favor of the policy. Mixed data here at best, depending on whether your child is a victim or offender.

3. Impact on minority and disabled children? The assumption was the zero tolerance wouldn’t be a respecter of persons. Data suggests disproportionate discipline of students of color not based on poverty or wealth. The suspicion is that teachers may need some help breaking down cultural stereotypes.

There’s a lot more in the article but I’ll stop here. Interestingly, the policy was created to be more fair across the board. The article suggests more wise implementation with more options for psychological care (no surprise there) rather than immediately going to the juvenile justice route. Either way, the problem has to do with wisdom. If you give administration options (akin to Judges discretion with repeat offenders) some will use it well, others not so much. If you make rules, they work well in decisions IF making the decision the same way every time is the goal. But of course, no one really wants that since wisdom dictates different responses. But then underlying prejudices will come back into play. However, it appears the policy doesn’t really address prejudice and stereotype anyway.

Is there a better solution?

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Filed under Civil Rights, conflicts, counseling science, cultural apologetics, education, Psychology, Race

Multiethnic Churches II: Some background facts

Before considering a theological apologetic for multiethnic churches or some solutions, let’s first consider some background: 


Changing Demographics. The racial profile of near suburban communities are changing (those communities just outside of cities). In my community there has been dramatic change. In the last ten years, nearly 2,000 African Americans have moved into my town while some 4,000 have moved into a neighboring town.  Approximately 15,000 people of color live within 15 minutes of my church (not counting those that live just across the city line one mile away). While we have attracted a few interracial couples and African immigrant families, Black families have not shown up in significant numbers, and those that have may not stay long or become members. 

Lest we become too excited about the presence of interracial couples in predominantly white churches, we should consider why they say they attend these churches. Apparently, these couples find white churches an uneasy, but tolerable, fit. It is hard for either spouse to be a minority but it is less hard for the African American spouse, as they are more used to living in a white world. 


Economic Differences? Although census data provide excellent data regarding the change of racial profile of a region, the economic status of new arrivals to a community is a bit less clear. One African American church planter suggested that there are 3 general categories of African Americans in a diversifying suburban community: Upper Class, Blue Collar, Lower Class. The upper class, from his perspective are those who have been in the suburbs for some time and are primarily seeking status in work, house, and church relationships to prove their arrival. He suggested that these folks would be unlikely to attend a White middle-class church, as there would be little status gained in doing so. The middle or blue-collar class folk are those who may also have been in the area for some time and are working hard to maintain their home, and family relationships. The lower class consists of those recently out of poverty and out of the city environment.  He suggested that these individuals would be most inclined to return to church in the city in order to give a sense of familiarity and “déjà vu”. 


Worship Culture Differences. It is sobering to note that 97 percent of African Americans and 99 percent of Whites attend racially segregated churches. Some of the reasons for such a divide have to do with church culture differences. The Barna report, African Americans And Their Faith, sheds light on the multifaceted nature of Black worship and faith. People of color are much more likely to feel connected to their church when they perceive it to be a place of refuge, a place that understands and supports them in their struggle against subtle but very real forms of oppression. Would they find such a refuge in a predominantly white church? Would they hear words that communicate an understanding of what it is like to live in their world? Further, African Americans spend twice as much time at church than whites and are inclined to see the church as their extended family. On the whole, they seem less interested in small group bible studies at private homes and more likely involved in small groups that focus on specific ministries (e.g., music, child care, diaconal, etc.).


Racism, Stereotypes, Prejudice, Ignorance and the Church. Issues of racism remain at the forefront of minority life. While the more obvious and violent forms (e.g., baseball bats to bodies, burning crosses) are rare, the subtler forms of racism (e.g., institutional) and prejudice are alive and well. First, few whites understand the power of white privilege: the ability to move about in the community without being noticed or suspected of crimes, the ability to have one’s identity be based on more than skin color. Organizational prejudice (e.g., glass ceilings, suddenly filled jobs or apartments, etc.) continue. 

It is fair to ask whether Caucasian churches participate in this kind of behavior? The evangelical church, while not supporting racism and even speaking out against it (though maybe rarely), participates in institutional racism when it remains ignorant or silent about the current painful experiences people of color face. It participates in institutional racism when it individually repents of prejudice but ignores the need for corporate social justice so sadly missing in our society.[1]Dominant culture individuals tend to see reconciliation and justice through the lens of individual behaviors. But when the church ignores people of color in its own community while sending ministry teams to needy individuals in the inner city it may send a message that minorities aren’t in this community but only “over there.” The church participates when it treats minorities as strangers when they have attended the church for some time. The church participates when it sends foreign missionaries to training schools to learn how to contextualize the Gospel but seems unaware or unwilling to engage ethnic minorities living next door. Neglect of race issues, whether from ignorance or from seeing it as not pragmatic or important is a sin and minimizes the fact that the church should be a visible testimony to “God’s wisdom of making Jew and Gentile one creature in Christ.”[2]  Prejudice exists in many White churches today because of the inherent power of being in the dominant culture coupled with the sin if complacency and indifference.  In short, we white folk just don’t have to be concerned about race and racism. 

Next week we will look at some theological encouragement to reconsider the value of multiethnic congregations.

[1] For an historical and sociological review of the Evangelical response to racism, see Emerson and Smith’s Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America published by Oxford in 2000.

[2] Ware, p. 28.

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Filed under Christianity, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, church and culture, Civil Rights, Missional Church, Race, Racial Reconciliation

Multiethnic Churches I

I plan to put forward an apologetic for multiethnic churches (where possible of course) over the course of several posts. Here’s my start that ends with several key questions I’ve heard asked over the years:

Imperative or Immaterial?


Church fellowship is not an optional part of the Christian life. It’s the God ordained structure whereby we corporately worship him, are refined in our faith, and serve others. It is to be a place that exemplifies the character of God: united (i.e., as the Trinity is united and as God is actively breaking down the walls between Himself and his children and between his children), pure (e.g., leaders and members that honor God in all of life), full of mercy (e.g., care for those within and outside the body), lovers of justice (e.g., Matt. 23:23f, Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.), and lovers of the Gospel of reconciliation. The body of Christ is a complex organism, needing every member, every gift, in order to function properly. The church, when it functions well, balances discipleship, evangelism, and worship as a means to root the Gospel into the whole of every member’s life. Although the church is its own community, it always exists within a larger community and is called to love its neighbors both near and far. To reach that end, the church must be a welcoming community to all in order to bring the Gospel to all. The welcoming church strives to exhibit more of the culture of the Gospel and less the dominant human culture. This does not mean that human culture is somehow irrelevant or that any people can remove themselves completely from their own culture. However, it does mean that we do not pay homage to our human culture in ways that hinder others. Instead, we willingly respond to the cross by sacrificing our own comforts for the sake of the spiritual growth of others. So, we always labor to shape the church’s culture by questioning how we best serve the lost around us.


But, when the church no longer represents her local community, how does she create a welcoming environment that emphasizes Gospel culture and welcomes cultural minorities? Is there more to this than greeting new people and inviting them to join our groups? More fundamentally, we must ask ourselves why we do not attract the culturally different? Do we have the option of remaining a monoculture, instead only financially supporting those ministries that minister to a particular ethnic group (because we believe that those churches will minister more effectively to that group)? While funding other ministries is a good idea, the church that desires to be a welcoming community must be willing to enter the world of minority cultures in order to know its issues, concerns, desires, beliefs, etc. Only then will we know how to welcome them and how to point them to Jesus. This will require us to be uncomfortable and to work against the tide of indifference. If you are like me, you have to admit that we more comfortable supporting ministries half way around the world than we are crossing the street to reach the culturally different in our own world.



When people from the dominant culture begin to wrestle with the prospect of multiethnic churches, a variety of questions arise:

a)     Is multiculturalism part of the Gospel or a relativistic fad? Is it really practical?

b)     If “they” are most comfortable in their churches and we are most comfortable here, is it really necessary to work so hard to make us both uncomfortable?

c)     Won’t we lose our own culture and identity if we integrate with people from other ethnic and cultural surroundings?

d)     Are we really doing anything that would discourage others from coming if they wanted to be here?

e)     Is it really practical or possible in this racialized world?

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Filed under Christianity, church and culture, Race, Racial Reconciliation

Kids and political ads

Here in PA we’ve been under a barrage of political ads for some time now. The kids hear or see them quite regularly. When my now 10 year old was 4, he wanted to know why a certain candidate was so angry. He was seeing ads by the candidate’s opponent with less than flattering photos. He proclaimed that he would vote for the one candidate because he smiled more than another.

I suspect we adults choose using similar decision-making skills. Voting may be less intellectual than we would like to admit.

Now we come down to the wire and here are snippets of conversations with my kids

8 year old: Dad, who are you going to vote for? I hope it is Obama?
Me: Why?
8 year old: Well, he’s black.
Me: Why do you want a black president?
8 year old: White people are always being president and leaders and its about time a black person gets to be president.
Me: Yeah, I agree with you, its about time.
8 year old: Why do they have to be so mean to each other?

Conversation with my 10 year old this am:

Me: So, who would you like to vote for
10 year old: Obama
Me: Why?
10 year old: [after saying I don’t know]. I guess because he seems to have more ideas.
Me: Does his being black have anything to do with it?
10 year old: Yeah, about 50% of my reason.

FYI, my kids are black. It is clear that without any real influence one way or the other by their parents, they both really identify with Obama based on color. And I’m pretty sure that my youngest will be very crushed if Obama isn’t elected. He takes these things very personally when things don’t go the way he hopes.


Filed under cultural apologetics, News and politics, parenting, Race, Racial Reconciliation

Defining Multiculturalism

Jennis Brandon-Watson has a short pieceon her experience of whiteness. She is southern-raised, white, (possibly married to a black man?), progeny of a slave owner, schooled in both racialization and Christianity and a member of Theta Nu Xi sorority. She concludes her thoughts with this question,

“Who defines what multiculturalism is? Is it defined according to the dictates of those in power–whites–or is it defined by minorities? These are interesting questions to ponder, but we must reach beyond settling for an answer and we must consider why it is important to answer the question. The answer will determine who we are as a multicultural sorority. I will further direct this examination by posing another question to you, reader. Is multiculturalism the support of our present social arrangement with all of its institutional manifestations by merely declaring peaceful coexistence and railing against the concept of racial categorization, but without engaging in potentially self-sacrificial action? Oris multiculturalism the act of tackling fundamental issues of justice and perpetuating, in word and deed, the spirit of the Civil Rights era?” (p. 14)

All isms have a dream attached to them. What is the best dream of multiculturalism?  (note, not the downside or the unintended consequences, the best dream). Peaceful coexistence? Demurring racial categories (color-blindness)? Mutual submission and/or cross pollination? Justice for all?


Filed under Black and White, Christianity, Identity, Race, Racial Reconciliation

Movie suggestion: The Color of Freedom

Last night my wife and I watched “The Color of Freedom” (2007 movie starring Dennis Haysbert of 24). This is a movie about the true story of the relationship between a white South African guard and Nelson Mandela during 20 of his 31 years of imprisonment. The guard, James Gregory, is chosen to be around Mandela because he learned the tribal language (that Mandela speaks) as a boy playing with black children. The movie is definitely a must watch. Some of the accents are hard to understand at first and it is rated R for curse words but still a must watch in my book. The movie is based on the guard’s memoirs entitled, “Goodbye Bafana.”


Filed under Race, Racial Reconciliation

Race and Culture in America at the turn of the Century

My wife is working through her 3rd book on Teddy Roosevelt. This one (Theodore Rex) is about his presidency. Teddy was a many of many firsts. First president on a submarine; first on a airplane. But he was also first to dine with a black man at the White House (there had been plenty of servants in it, but not as invited guests to dinner).

Any guesses on who he had?

Booker T. Washington.

The reaction was pretty horrendous from some sectors in the South. He was called all sorts of names. The papers had headlines such as, “President has darkie to dinner” and much worse. A senator from the good ole state of SC stated that they would have to kill 1,000 Black men in order to put Blacks back in their place (the Black presses had the audacity of seeing this one event as a sign of hope). Another suggested he should invite Booker T’s son for Christmas so he could have him marry his daughter because he so much wanted the races to mingle or mongrelize.

But before we put Teddy on a pedestal. He also believed in the common view of the day that Blacks were behind whites by several hundred thousand years in the evolutionary process. While some like Booker T could ascend, most were only good for service roles. Throughout his presidency, he didn’t change this view. While he did see the need to stop lynching he didn’t think they should vote.

If it helps, he also thought the Irish were also a bit behind in the evolutionary process.

It doesn’t. While we’ve come far from the public and shameless racism and prejudice, we’ve got many miles to traverse in dealing with the subtle and pernicious forms of prejudice still active. I’m sure we’ll continue to see these come to the surface as Obama is the presumed Democratic nominee. 

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Filed under Black and White, Civil Rights, News and politics, Race, Racial Reconciliation