Unity: But at Whose Cost?


by Anna Stamborski
PT ’18 Speaker

“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” – 1 Peter 4:8

The aforementioned verse is often used in sermons around topics such as “diversity” and “unity”. We talk about how we are unified in Christ and if we can truly love one another then we will have reconciliation. However, this can be a dangerous statement, especially when it comes to racial reconciliation within the Church.

Many times the use of the word “love”, within the topic of reconciliation, implies asking the offended party to “let go” of what happened and be in relationship with the offender. It’s assumed that in this newly reconciled relationship there is no acknowledgement of power dynamics nor reallocation of power equitably. From a white person’s perspective life goes on as normal, no personal changes need to be made. But what for the person of color? What does this equation look and feel like for them? Is it honoring of their past traumas? Does it disrupt current social power dynamics and injustices? Is this an equitable relationship or one that allows trauma to continue under the guise of unity?

A relationship first occurs among two people when some common ground is found. It can be as simple as a similar sense of humor or a love for a certain sports team. As the relationship grows there are more “knots” tied as more things in common are discovered or co-created. When envisioning cross-cultural relationships, it becomes ever increasingly clear why it’s difficult for authentic relationships to occur. “Cross-cultural” means that you’re going into someone else’s culture, meaning you might not actually have a lot in common, to create those ties with. So in this relationship who will be the one to learn about the other, so that a “knot” can be made?

While attending the University of Wisconsin I was part of a student organization, specifically for Latinas. What first sparked relationships with these women was a shared socio-economic background. Our parents had similar jobs, we had similar passions, and we identified with similar core values. However, I grew up in white America and most of these women were Mexican/Mexican-American. How would we grow closer even though we were from two very different cultures? While I knew what el Día de los Muertos was and could speak Spanish, that was about the depth of my understanding of Mexican/Mexican-American/Chicanx culture. But my friends knew everything about white culture. They knew about Friends, they had eaten casseroles, and they knew that’d I’d arrive everywhere on time. They had spent their entire lives learning (out of necessity) white culture in order to navigate and survive in our white-centric society. As for me, I had never needed to learn about Mexican culture, it wasn’t necessary for me to survive.

But how would our friendships grow if they only involved “knots” made around my culture and not theirs? If we only spent time together doing what I liked to do and eating food that I liked and watching movies that I liked? That doesn’t sound like a friendship at all. At an even deeper level, what kind of friendship allows me to continue to express white supremist values (whether thinking my culture’s food, time management, music, interpersonal norms, etc. were better) at the cost of them having to mold to my norms? This is not what an authentic friendship looks like. A friendship is a two-way street, but in this case, one party has already done a lot of working understanding the other. This, I’d also argue, is why it’s so hard to have genuine cross-cultural friendships. Friendships come out of enjoying time with others, doing things that you both enjoy; but we have such different cultures so it requires a sacrifice on both ends to start trying things that the other enjoys in order to create those “knots”.

I stated at the end of my Passion Talk that I think it takes “mutual sacrifice” to create a truly multi-ethnic church (and in this case a cross-cultural friendship). One that authentically represents all cultures in the space. However, I want to go further and clarify that it shouldn’t be a 50/50 split of mutual sacrifice. The party that has the most to learn, repent, and repair needs to do the majority of the work. I imagine cross-racial relationships (both at the micro and macro level) looking like a 90/10 split, in which white folks, white churches, and white organizations are doing the brunt of the work. We don’t meet half way, we go 90%. In the case of my friendships with the women in La Mujer Latina it should have been me doing 90% of learning about their cultures, their hobbies, their language in order to build our relationships. On top of that, in order to make our friendships genuine I needed to be an accomplice in ending systematic oppression that was caused by my people towards them.

The danger in saying “let’s just love one another!” is that it allows personal and systematic power dynamics to continue, ignores trauma that has been inflicted, and forces the wronged party to do the heavy work of forgiving without reparations. I believe the perpetrators (in this case, white folks) are the ones who should be doing the work to correct the wrong. We need to submit to the authority and leadership of People of Color, believe their stories, learn about others cultures (and not in a “oh I love tacos and Despacito” way), practice cultural humility, and be accomplices in uprooting racism and white supremacy.

Recently my roommate (who is Mexican-American), shared that I was her first white friend. She said we liked the same music, we could make white people jokes openly, and she felt comfortable having me around her family. This doesn’t happen by accident. I’m not sharing this out of pride, but to share that I have spent years intentionally learning about Mexican culture. From going to mass in Spanish, learning how to play loteria, watching telenovelas, and growing to love a good corrido. I believe that we have a genuine relationship because (I hope) it’s not centered around white culture. She shared that she appreciated that I not only understood her culture, but also embraced parts of it, and am aware of my own privileges in society. I’m not saying white folks should co-opt and assimilate to cultures that aren’t their own (that can also be dangerous!) but to do the leg work in these relationships. We can’t have truly reconciled relationships, or reconciled churches, until we (white folks) do the work in ourselves. First starting the journey of understanding our white privilege, white supremist views, and (un)concious biases and then doing the work in deeply understanding others cultures.

Find Anna’s Passion Talks 2018 Talk “White ≠ Right:The Problem With Marrying Your Culture and Theology” here.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

One Comment Add yours

  1. Claire Stamborski says:

    LOVE – excellent work

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s