In Daniel Hill's new book released this year, White Awake: An honest look at what it means to be white , he explores and shares about his own "awakening" and understanding of white culture in America. It has been both a profoundly helpful, and a challenging read for me.
His basic thesis of the book is that often times as white people (and perhaps especially white Christians?), we are unaware of our "white culture". We often don't think that we have one, and that is primarily because it is the dominant culture, so we don't recognize it.
"White culture is very real. In fact, when white culture comes in contact with other cultures, it almost always wins. So it would be a really good idea for you to learn about your culture."
I have never really considered learning about my culture as a white man if I'm honest. Where would I even start? Unfortunately it's a bit like a fish trying to learn about the water that he's swimming in, while he's still in it! But a fish that knows that he is in water is a smart and better equipped fish for sure.
Hill comments on a term that has been hot in the media recently, white privilege. He quotes J Kwest (Rev. Julian DeShazier), who has done a lot of great work with racial reconciliation in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, for a helpful definition of the term white privilege. J Kwest simply defines it as "the ability to walk away". This is one of the essential truths we as white people need to remember (or become aware of, if it's new) as we contend with the normalization of whiteness. When the journey begins to feel like any combination of scary, confusing, disorienting, or even painful, we have a privilege that people of color do not: we can walk away; we can go back to "normal", if we choose. We have the ability to bury our head back into being a part of the dominant culture.
"White privilege is the ability to walk away, the ability to go back to "normal" if we choose."
So what does this have to do with being a disciple of Jesus? Through him aren't we able to be one? For in him there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female ... we are all one (Gal 3:28). That is true! And it is precisely this process of identity transformation through Christ that makes it so important for us to be aware of our cultural identity of origins, for it is these identities that can hinder us from being transformed into Christ's new identity. One of the distinctive traits of Christianity is a commitment to God's revelation of truth in Scripture, so that should be the starting point for a Christ follower's journey toward our new cultural identity. Consider some of the biblical concepts of identity transformation: being born again (Jn 3), being baptized and being in Christ (Rom 6, Col 1, Acts 2), becoming a child of God (Rom 8), being a disciple of Christ in which we take on the characteristics of our Master Jesus and our will, attitude, and behaviors are then all informed by our new identity in Christ (Acts 11, 26).
"Yea, all that is fine and good, but I'm colorblind", you might say. But "colorblindness" minimizes the racial-cultural heritage of a person and promotes a culturally neutral approach that sees people independent of their heritage. A Christian version of this type of "colorblindness" might go like this: "As human beings, we share more in common than difference. We have all sinned, we are all in need of redemption, we are all equals at the foot of the cross, and through faith we are all one in Christ." And while all of that is theologically accurate; sin, salvation, and redemption are equally applicable to people of every race and creed, the problem is that those same truths are incorrectly applied to cultural identity, leaving us with a dangerous form of Christian "colorblindness". Consider just a few reasons why "colorblindness" is a dangerous ideology for Christians to subscribe to and why it can thwart authentic engagement with cultural identity:
Colorblindness minimizes the role of cultural identity played in the story of many Old Testament heroes (Heb 12:1) - consider Joseph, Moses, Esther, Ruth, and Daniel and all of their cross-cultural identities and realities and how God used them.
Colorblindness minimizes the incarnation of Christ - Jesus as a human being was a Jew, likely with dark skin, that lived in a particular cultural climate and reality, Jesus was not culturally neutral.
Colorblindness minimizes the overtones of cultural identity throughout the early church (Mat 28 - ethnos) where from the very beginning cultural identity manifested itself as a critical dimension of the church - Acts 2; 6; 8; 10; 13.
Colorblindness minimizes the ways God recognizes and celebrates cultural diversity - just take a look at heaven in Rev 7:9!
Since as Christians, the old has gone and the new has come (2 Cor 5:17) we should actively choose to engage in self-reflection, theological reflection and expose ourselves to perspectives outside our comfort level. Here is a practical exercise to help us; carefully catalog the primary voices that inform you as a person and shapes your thoughts and values. Here are four common groups of "voices":
Your closest friends (not just acquaintances)
Your mentors that you look to for guidance
The preachers/teachers/theologians that you rely on for spiritual guidance and formation
The authors of the books that you read
Comprehensively list them, then take note of the cultural backgrounds they represent. If we are truly going to be disciples who make disciples of all nations (ethnos), then we must be aware of the cultural identities that play into the process, (especially our own) otherwise we run into the risk of having churches all look like one skin color, and that is not the "one" that Jesus prayed for in Jn 17.
*Excerpts taken from: Daniel Hill, White Awake: An honest look at what it means to be white