- race*: a group or lineage of people who share certain distinct physical traits
- ethnicity*: a race of people sharing a common culture, history or values
- racial reconciliation: the act of members of differing racial and/or ethnic groups that were once at odds with one another confessing sin, repenting, forgiving and building a new normal together in Jesus Christ
- multiethnic: to embody or include more than one ethnicity
- transracial: (in this article) referring to children of one race being adopted into a family of another race
- people of color: anyone who is not white
- culture: the history, values and norms that are generally understood by a group of people, whether consciously or nonconsciously
*Though distinct, this article will use the terms race and ethnicity interchangeably. Please read each use of these terms as encompassing the other.
Imagine a table. There are many faces, both black and white, seated around that table. Everyone present wants their stories to be heard and their hardships to be acknowledged. Rightfully so.
Sometimes I have the honor of sitting at that table. I sit beside my husband Charles and my best friend Melanie. Naturally, I gravitate toward their voices in conversations on racial reconciliation in our city. Their experience as people of color in our context gives them cause to speak on the issue while my experience as a white person often leaves me uncertain of how to contribute to the conversation.
Recently I’ve begun imagining what that table could look like, in say, fifteen years. My biracial son or daughter is sitting at that table. Maybe my dear friends’ West African son and daughter are there, too. My friend’s son, recently adopted from China, is also there along with my Pastor’s children who are a blend of African-American, Spanish, and Vietnamese—the definition of multiethnic. The table still has just as much black and white, but now a whole lot more color is present.
Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, nearly a year and a half ago. While it was hardly the first inflammatory incident in our country, it unceremoniously exposed one of America’s gaping wounds, that of systemic racial injustice. For Ally and me, the vision of a multiethnic group sitting down at a table together sounds like the cure for what ails us. If we could build relationships across ethnic lines so that our inner circles and our dinner tables become diverse, then maybe we could work together to change the systems that have kept us apart for centuries. But agreeing on an ideal and putting it into practice are two different scenarios. Too often we are willing to share our spaces with people who are ethnically different, as long as those differences will submit to our own rules of engagement. Of course people of other ethnicities can come to my place of worship, as long as our music style and other programming stays the same. I’m open to my place of business servicing a new demographic as long as it doesn’t require any extra work on my part. We would love for our kids’ school to be more diverse, as long as it doesn’t involve my family adjusting any of our values or aspirations.
If we took a step back to examine our motivations behind these types of sentiments I think we would find that many of the fractures in our community are due to fear—fear that people who are different from me could never truly love, understand or respect me; fear that people who are different from me can’t really have my best interests at heart; fear that no one will care for or protect me and my own unless I do it; fear of what it will cost me to let “these people” into the conversation; fear that there is only a limited amount of justice to go around.
When we see human flourishing as a scarcity we make every effort to protect our seemingly limited emotional, social, spiritual, and economic capital. And if there’s not enough for us, how can there possibly be enough to let others in? In other words, we believe that the cost of the unity of the table greatly outweighs the benefits. We want the best for our children, our families, our community. But at some point we bought into the lie that another person’s flourishing will always be to our detriment.
So instead of loving our neighbors, we are actually afraid of them. But you can’t truly love someone that you fear! And real, perfect love casts out fear. So how do we love our neighbor while we are still afraid of them? It’s amazing what you can do when you don’t have another choice. The vision of the table cannot survive as a good intention. Instead it has to be seen as essential piece of own flourishing. If racial reconciliation is just a topic we think deeply about, our thoughtful resolve may keep us going for a time, but it will eventually take a back seat to the issues that truly grip our hearts.
Before I married Charles I worked part-time as a nanny for a multiracial family created through adoption. I watched them navigate awkward questions and situations where people were less than friendly. One day I was playing with their youngest son, Evan, and he kept handing me a little black figurine and telling me I was supposed to play with him. Obviously, to Evan, the toy belonged with me because it looked like Charles. I was trying to figure out racial reconciliation and cling to hope in the midst of devastating current events, but to little Evan it was simple. This toy was supposed to be mine. Even at four years old he could tell from our interactions that Charles and I belonged together despite the fact that we didn’t look the same.
I realized then, and have since received a very clear word from the Lord, that the table I mentioned above with all of the different ethnicities represented is already taking form. We need to walk through the halls of our kids’ schools or the children’s ministries at our local churches and realize that a generation of transracial, multiethnic children is already with us. (Let’s also pause and acknowledge what a gift that is!) It’s urgent that we make room at the table by creating space for kids to encounter and express all aspects of their ethnicity and the cultures that follow. I want my future children to be able to experience and embrace both their whiteness and their blackness; but this work of reconciliation will require more than a conversation of black and white. For adoptees like Evan or the multiethnic children I mentioned earlier, making room means demonstrating hospitality in such a way that they are able to play with whichever toy corresponds to them and their family, whether black, white, or otherwise.
The challenges that arise in diverse contexts aren’t going away anytime soon; they’re only becoming more complex. Whatever your position on immigration, interracial adoption, and marriage, or even the new Vision 2020 plan here in Jackson, what happens when these topics we’re debating become personal? When the subject is now our new biracial grandbaby, our neighbors who don’t speak English, or our child’s new friend at school? Our mindset needs to change. Racial tension is no longer a problem to be eradicated but a journey to be walked.
Is there room at my table for one more? On most days, not really. I often feel rushed and too emotionally inconsistent to manage my own life, let alone bear with someone else. But if I go through life with blinders on, only concerned for myself and those in my direct line of vision, I’m sure to miss out on beautiful realities like the vision of the table. That vision will not happen organically. It is something we must deliberately stumble toward in order to experience.
When Melanie says this vision is something we need to stumble toward she really means stumble. And, man, what a relief that is! As a white person I often find it intimidating to approach the table we’re talking about or to even feel like I deserve to sit down. But I’ve realized that it is incredibly important for us to “set the table” before we sit. I want to challenge you, people of peace in Jackson, to take time to set the table both before and as you connect with folks who are different from you. Here is what I mean by “setting the table”:
- Acknowledge your fears. Keep in mind that your fears may be completely different than those of your friends of color and vice versa. As you embark on this journey you’ll find that new fears may creep in along the way. It is important to acknowledge those fears and identify the root of them, but continue moving forward. At different points in this journey I’ve feared saying the wrong thing or offending someone. I fear I’m not forgiven, I fear I’ll have to keep repenting and never be able to move forward. Sometimes I even find myself fearing that my husband will feel displaced in his own home. The roots of these fears are lies, but they are a characteristic of my experience as a white woman sorting through past history and current events. When I’ve allowed them to control me, my fears have hindered my work in reconciliation and my interactions with people of color.
- Make a habit of displacing yourself. I remember the first time I attended Young Life club as a new leader at JCM. I was one of three white people in the room and, for the first time in my memory, became very aware of my whiteness. In that moment I realized the that way I carried myself, my style of dress, and even the way I talked were different from everyone else around me. The book Being White: Finding Our Place in a Multiethnic World calls this experience “displacement” (Harris, 57)**. Charles and I talked a lot about this idea of displacement while we were engaged. We promised the Lord and each other that we would make displacement a defining characteristic of our marriage. Our practice of displacement included time together worshipping in one another’s church tradition. I have attended four-hour services at all-black churches, and he has experienced services at my all-white church back home that lasts exactly an hour and a half. The point is that both of us needed to be willing to step out of our comfort zones and experience displacement for the sake of the other. It could not be something we did to check off our list and immediately run back to our comfort zones; instead it had to become a practice for the rest of our lives together for our own sake, for the sake of our other relationships, and for the sake of the children we hope to have someday.
- Have patience on the journey (with yourself and with others). This discussion of racial tension and reconciliation is, as Melanie mentioned above, a journey to be walked. You may be ahead of your brother or sister or lagging far behind. There is grace for that. When you think of the discomfort ahead or the frustrations you have with the current pace you or someone you know is taking, there is grace for that. This journey is based on experience, and your experience will not be the same as those beside you. Don’t rush to change the minds around you without understanding their experiences, their stories, and their fears.
Ally and I were acquaintances in college, but we became sisters as we worked together in a ministry that was challenging and uncomfortable. We needed each other, so we bonded over that common ground. However, the biggest (and recurring) points of tension in mine and Ally’s friendship have come when we have been impatient with each other’s journey. At times we have each felt frustrated, unsupported, misunderstood, and/or offended by the other because we didn’t have respect for the other’s different story. Or because one of us was just wrong! We have gradually learned to trust our love and commitment to one another and give each other the benefit of the doubt in disagreements instead of giving in to our fears and assuming the worst. We have had to learn to fight for our friendship (sometimes literally) by engaging with conflict when necessary. The journey isn’t easy, but it is worth it.
At the end of the day we both believe that the table Ally described is a true vision of what is to come, not a dream or a wish. But that doesn’t absolve us of the need to build toward it expectantly. So now we’re both willing to let our guard down because our fear of returning to the status quo is far greater than our fear of offending or being offended. We long to see this vision become a reality, both for us and for the kids in our beloved Jackson community.
**Harris, P., & Schaupp, D. (2004). Displacement. In Being White: Finding Our Place in a Multiethnic World (p. 57). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Melanie Taylor is a transplant from God’s country, Chicagoland. A well-timed, Spirit-led Google search brought her to Union University in 2009. Since then she has developed a deep affection for the people of Jackson, but still lives in constant fear of developing a Southern accent.
Ally Currie has been in Jackson since 2009. After graduating with her art degree she changed her car tags and made herself an official Madison County resident, choosing to stay in Jackson for her church family at City Fellowship Baptist Church and the dreamboat Charles Currie who is now her husband. In Ally’s most recent move she’s gone from barista to enrollment counselor and headed back to Union. She’s most likely to be found in her midtown home drinking coffee while painting, embroidering, or watching reality TV.
Photography by Cari Griffith.