Cultural Blind Spot (Awakening #2)

Shortly after marrying Chelsea, she brought some things to my attention. She told me that I had certain communication patterns that she found difficult. In social settings I would interrupt, change the subject, and tell a separate story simultaneous to someone else’s. Essentially, I would speak over people. I was not actively trying to be a jerk. It was my M.O., the way I functioned. I loved it!

When she began expressing frustration about this to me, I could not see it. I didn’t think there was a problem. She did. Who was right? It seemed to me that her claims were misdirected and unfounded, but I decided to listen and tried to see what she was talking about. She would debrief with me as we left social settings, helping me to see when I co-opted the conversation or listened poorly (which was often). I slowly began to perceive the dynamics at work. I was blind to my own cultural habits. I was not trying to be ignorant. I just couldn’t see it. I had a cultural blind spot.

In seminary I had a class on race, gender, and ethnicity. The class itself had fantastic racial/ethnic diversity (white folks were the minority!), and in it I heard perspectives from people of color for the first time. It was also the first time that someone explained my white privilege to me. I had thought that racism was a personal issue that some people have, that other people have. I considered myself separate from racial issues because I thought I had overcome racism in my own thoughts and feelings. I felt confused, surprised and frustrated. I experienced what is called white fragility – when white people can’t emotionally cope with conversations about race and react in defensive and accusatory ways. I would notice my emotional responses and seek to suspend them and listen openly. I quickly found that I had some things to learn. Very specifically, my understanding of sin was far too small.

Sin, I was beginning to see, is not only a personal issue between me and God but has other dimensions as well. [1]  This is demonstrated in the creation story in Genesis. In that story we find 4 key relationships that are broken and need to be restored:

  1. Adam and Eve turn from and disobey God– sin is broken relationship with God.
  2. Adam and Eve realize their own nakedness– sin is brokenness in relationship to self.
  3. Adam blames and accuses Eve– sin is broken relationship to others.
  4. Adam and Eve’s decisions lead to a cursed ground and banishment from Eden– sin is brokenness in relationship to the entire created order and the systems of the world.

It is the last broken relationship that I found most significant for me as a white person. I realized that for a long time I focused on the first three and could not see systemic problems because the system worked for me. I couldn’t see patterns of oppression, and I didn’t know that working to overcome racial injustice is gospel work. I was stuck in a perspective that Jesus wanted to change.

So I slowly acquired ears to hear internalized white superiority everywhere. I would pay close attention to the ways that white people speak. I started to see privilege and superiority in my own assumptions and responses. And I began reading. I began tuning in to African-American writers and speakers, deliberately learning from them. I listened closely and put to death my own defensiveness in hopes that Jesus might show me what it means to follow him.

Some white people in America, no doubt, are evil racists who knowingly act in hatred. But my guess is that most of us aren’t.

Most of us are unaware that our assumptions are unjust. We have very large cultural blind spots, and when they’re pointed out, we need to listen, even when it is difficult.

May it be so. May we listen closely and come to understand our complicity in the hardships of our African-American sisters and brothers. May the painful images afforded us by iPhones and live streaming be a gateway into a more fully-orbed gospel – a gospel where Jesus Christ is conqueror of systemic racial injustice, extending his kingdom on earth (right now!) as it is in heaven.

[1] Scot McKnight’s expounds on the multidimensional nature of sin in his book,  A Community Called Atonement.