I use the terms race and ethnicity interchangeably even though technically race is categorizing people genetically and ethnicity is categorizing people by shared history, cultural roots, and a sense of shared identity. I do so because in popular culture most view them as the same thing, even though categorizing people by biological race has been scientifically refuted. The only people who quibble over the definition and how to properly use the terms are academic nerds like me.
Regardless of the academic debate and definitions, we must accept the fact of race being an influencer of American life. Historically racial discrimination became a way of life within our foundational institutions. American historical record suggests we should start with the premise race influences everything we do in society, including leading Christian organizations. Sociologists call this phenomena racialization.
According to sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a racialized society is a society wherein race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships. It is one that allocates different economic, political, social, and psychological rewards to groups along racial lines. Basically it is the process in which people impose a racial element into a social situation oftentimes to oppress people.
As leaders we must morally manage and define what this means within our personal lives and the organizations we lead.It is impossible to overestimate the importance of this basic realization. Possessing a different moral compass from society is what is supposed to set us apart as Christians. Because we live in a racialized society dismissing ethnic identity through colorblindness is akin to taking an immoral action.
For centuries race has been a cause for a tremendous amount of human conflict. Some have no idea how their racial profile naturally forms a basis for historical distrust. And it is almost unavoidable to at least partly misjudge the actions of people based on falsely learned racial expectations. Therefore to successfully lead people to manage the meaning of race we must be intentional.
Ethnic groups are outgrowing our white population, mainly because of immigration and birthrates. The trend may be new to you but it is not new to demographers. They have been observing this development for years. For years I have told Christian organizations they need to prepare because racial diversity is coming. That is no longer accurate – racial diversity is here. In light of this fact, here are some principles to follow for having civil conversations about race:
Humility. It is significant to consider what I mean by being humble when we see color. Unchecked racially arrogant attitudes are the quickest way to destructive stereotyping. People tend to frame humility as denigrating their self and that is not what I mean. Real humility is to decline the temptation to put ourselves God’s place. It is to take the lesson of Job and figure out our submitted existence in God’s world.
Truth-telling. With people we truly care about, we’re honest about what matters, regardless of how potentially offensive the situation may seem. I contend for most people politeness is not the real reason they skirt acknowledging racialization. The real reason is they want to protect themselves from conflict.
This natural reluctance must be overcome if you and your organization are going to make serious strides. In many cases, the fear of being uncomfortable is what most hinders reconciliation efforts. We must own the fact if we refuse to speak the truth because of fear, we are operating as hypocrites. We may be polite hypocrites, but still hypocrites.
Patience. A big reason people don’t discuss race is because it can quickly become emotional. It is ok to be emotional, but not in a destructive, all-consuming way. This requires we work hard on keeping our emotions in check. When it comes to racial issues it takes time to “get it.” None of us “got it” overnight. If we keep this in mind it will go a long way in helping others realize the significance of racialization.
One thing that has helped me is the realization people can make honest racial mistakes. They really don’t know what they said or did was harmful. It is possible for someone to perform racist actions but not be a racist. I work hard on giving people the benefit of the doubt, marking them innocent until proven guilty.
Encouragement. Too much time is spent on the negative side of racial dynamics. There is a term called “jaundice eye.” It means to approach people with caution. I am contrarian on this. We have to work hard to suspend our root assumptions about people. If we don’t it will lead to stereotyping, which is not good.
We need to be careful to not build an atmosphere filled with a constant diatribe on what is wrong and short-changing spending time on what is right or how to move forward. I won’t end a conversation about bad racial dynamics until the other party and I have some dialog about proposed solutions.
Respect. All ethnic groups need to be treated with dignity. One killer of reconciliation efforts is paternalism — the intrusion of one group on another against its will. The intrusion is justified by a claim that the group intruded upon will be “better off.” What results is a one-sided relationship.