Hello, my name is Rigoberto and I’m diverse. Okay, glad we got that out of the way. I bet you’re dying to know if, as a Hispanic, I dream in English or Spanish. The answer is both. Anything else you’d like to know about my diversity before we continue?
Years ago, as a teenager, an older Caucasian woman asked me a question about my dreams. I don’t fully recall the context of the conversation, but I do recall what direction the conversation went towards: the emphasis of my “otherworldliness” as a Hispanic. I have no doubt this kind woman meant no harm, and luckily, I was too young to take offense.
Unfortunately, the trap of racial assumption, more eloquently termed by social psychologists as categorizing, is one that we as Christian leaders often fall prey to.
I recently met a student at a university. He described himself as a mixture of different races, including Indian and Turkish. Due to the fact that his prominent physical features resembled that of someone from India, fellow Indian students criticized his lack of proficiency in the Hindi language and rejected him.
Do you see where I’m going with this? Assumptions make donkeys out of you and me…Fortunately, no one is innocent of this! Categorizing is a normal process that helps us all make sense of our natural world, including interacting with diverse individuals. It’s only natural that we would identify individuals of a cultural group by our previous experience with that specific culture.
Christena Cleveland, a social psychologist, professor, and author of the book Disunity in Christ, writes that when we categorize individuals, we cease to view them as members of the body of Christ and perceive them as indistinct members of a cultural group instead. “By focusing on smaller, distinct categories for church groups, we erect and fixate on divisions that are far less important than the larger, diverse group of members of the body of Christ,” writes Cleveland.
Operating with an awareness of our natural tendency to categorize and to make sweeping racial assumptions can help us honor one another better. We must intentionally rise above our habits to pursue more personal levels of understanding that show us we are one body with many parts.
Here are three quick tips to help you avoid racial assumptions during first encounters:
- Ask personal questions before you ask cultural questions. It’s important for people to know that you are genuinely interested in them as a person, not just a minority; African American, Latino, Filipino, etc. Ask them about their personal interests, what their dream job is, and where they grew up before you ask them about their cultural background.
- Ask sensitive questions. Please don’t ask me if I grew up eating refried beans and tortillas as much as the orphans in Nacho Libre (the answer is yes, by the way). Ask significant questions—questions that are thoughtful, and questions that foster depth.
- Don’t focus strictly on questions about culture/race. Let’s make sure our conversation doesn’t single them out for their diversity. They have much to contribute apart from their cultural/racial experiences.
I’d like to emphasize that I’m no pro at this—even as a Hispanic I often get this wrong. I don’t always have the right answers. That’s why humility is always the key when interacting with our brothers and sisters from diverse backgrounds. In Humility, Andrew Murray writes that “humility towards men will be the only sufficient proof that our humility before God is real . . .”
Be willing to listen, be willing to apologize when you unintentionally offend, and, please, be willing to persevere when it gets tough and potentially awkward (can I get an “Amen,” somebody?). Love and humility will heal a multitude of sins.
In an increasingly politically correct mission field like the university campus, we need to get a better grip of loving well, lest we discredit ourselves with the first question we ask.
Now, tell me, where can I find the best taco truck in your town?