[Editor’s Note: Jody Wiley Fernando, who blogs at “Between Worlds,” originally posted this appeal for cultural humility last week, in the wake of a hurtful Facebook posting by a prominent American evangelical Protestant leader that offended many Asian American believers. Her original post, edited for content here for TWI’s Missio, was entitled “When White People Don’t Know They’re Being White.”]

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks, with many Asian Americans challenging Rick Warren for an offensive Facebook post that featured a picture of the Chinese Red Guard. (See Kathy Khang’s blog for more details). Some of the ensuing comments asked how people could be so easily offended, suggesting they needed thicker skin or more forgiving hearts.

Inside, I ached. This is not a new conversation to me – the ignorant assumptions, the temptation to just stay quiet in the face of such stifling, belittling language. But over the years, I have sat with many aching hearts – even those of my own family – over the ignorant, belittling comments of others. The feeling in the pit of my stomach grew as I watched the week’s events unfold. While I was grateful to hear of Rick’s eventual apology, the whole situation highlighted an all too common occurrence between the majority and minority experience that, in my observation, most white people don’t understand.

In case you’re white and are starting to feel defensive, please know that I’m white too. I hope this fact helps to lower defenses, because I want to address this post is to “my people,” to white Christians in the American Protestant church. I’m concerned because I know firsthand how good-hearted and well-intentioned our actions often are, and also how often we do not understand the sometimes harmful impact of that intent. I write as someone who has made the ignorant comment, asked the stupid question, made the racist assumption, and feared offending others by opening my mouth. I write also as the only white person in my household who, for well over a decade now, has had the great fortune to see through others’ eyes on a daily basis.

When the Rick Warren news broke, I was already chewing on the power dynamics of race and gender represented in this Christian music video that was popping up on my FB newsfeed. I felt conflicted after watching this video, for I could clearly see that the creators were trying to showcase the beauty of God’s diverse world, but I was also uncomfortable with the persistent pattern of a white man leading the world in song, and very random video shots of the non-whites doing things like carrying bananas and standing in mud. I understand why some are quick to defend the pure intention behind the video, but the hackneyed tropes still struck a weary chord in my heart of a sad song that echoes through our history.

These tropes feed into what is sometimes called the “white savior” mentality; and it is far too prevalent and accepted in the American evangelical church. We often don’t even see it because it’s such a significant part of our narrative. Without words, that narrative communicates that white people are better, smarter, more capable of holding the power strings. It places us as central, and others as peripheral. It is one of the cultural tragedies built by the variations of formal and informal colonialism that few of us want to face:

We didn’t do it, right?

That’s not our story.

My family didn’t own slaves.

But we still benefit. The system is set up for us, and it often gives us power without us even having to ask for it. We can be white without even knowing we’re white.

To be fair, the church is not alone in mindlessly offering this message. Hollywood also loves to tell white savior stories rather than stories from within cultures that represent strength unattached to the people group in power. Don’t even get me started on how the news media portrays race.

I could give numerous examples of ignorant cultural and racial blunders in the church, but for the white hands who hold the reins of historical and institutional power, it basically boils down to this: We want to say that everything that happens in church is about Jesus, but it’s simply not. There’s a whole lot of culture, power, history, and social structure in there as well. Until we acknowledge how these realities shape our thinking, we’re going to hurt our Christian family members.

We say we want to be a “church of many nations,” and we cheer for videos like the one above, but sometimes our arrogance, ignorance, and unwillingness to listen communicate that we really view “the nations” as our minions, not as our partners. In other words, they exist to make us look good, and we often use them to serve our own ends:

  • Put the black guy on stage to read the Martin Luther King, Jr., Day prayer = I care about civil rights.

  • Take pictures of all six minorities in our institution to display prominently in our publications = We support diversity, but may or may not support you, especially if you say things contradictory to what we already know we know.

  • Sing white hipster music in Spanish = You, too, can be just like me, even in your language!

  • Host an international event with ethnic food and clothing? Awesome, but this is only the top layer of who people are. Do we want to know the complex depths of people’s realities, or are we satisfied to simply skim the surface and maintain an all too safe distance to the complexities and harder realities of real relationship?

  • Send brochures with hungry-looking poor children = Give us your money. We know you feel guilty.

I know this all sounds harsh and a bit cynical. I’ve been right there with you, defending myself, confident of my pure intentions. But regardless of our intentions, the impact of our actions can be isolating and downright hurtful to people of color and cultures. White people, and especially those in church leadership, need to start acknowledging this and listening to others with utmost seriousness. This conversation cannot be in one direction only. If we do not listen to the voices that courageously share their experience with us, we are breaking the very body we so sincerely wish to build.

“Culturally competency” is a popular term these days, and while I appreciate the sentiment of the phrase, I wonder whether it’s helpful. When it comes to race relations, I think we should expect some failure. For instance, I recently mistook an Iranian student for an Egyptian and suspected immediately that I’d offended him. I hadn’t meant to; I’d really just confused him with another student. But I couldn’t take my words back either, and I didn’t know enough about Middle Eastern culture to know how my mistake could have been offensive. After stumbling around a little, trying to retract my words, I didn’t try to defend my competencies in the end. I simply said, “I’m sorry,” I admitted. “I didn’t know. Please forgive my mistake.”

A colleague recently introduced me to the term “cultural humility,” and I instantly connected to it. I think it’s far more helpful than “competency.” Even with all my hard-earned competencies–being married cross-culturally, earning a degree in multicultural education, speaking several languages, traveling on 4 continents, and spending my days with immigrants from around the world–I often feel culturally incompetent. I only speak two languages fluently, not six like some of my students. I grew up in a monocultural cornfield and have had to work hard to learn about the rest of the world, which still feels like not really enough. I have always lived in my country of birth, and don’t have near the depth of experience or insight about cultural adjustment that the world’s resilient immigrants know.

Culturally, I am far from competent. But cultural humility? That makes sense to me.

Instead of “Get over it!”, cultural humility responds, “I don’t understand. Can you help me understand more deeply?” Instead of replying with some variation of “quit whining” to some who feels wronged, cultural humility responds, “I’m so sorry this hurts you. How can I walk alongside you in this? What do I need to learn?” Instead of reading and listening to only the white megachurch types, cultural humility also seeks wisdom from Christian leaders from a wide variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Instead of saying, “Why do you keep causing problems?”, cultural humility responds, “I’m sorry I keep hurting you. It seems like I’m missing something big. How would you recommend I start to better understand your experience?” Instead of keeping quiet because you don’t know, cultural humility clumsily admits, “I’m a little embarrassed that I don’t know much about your background. I don’t even know how to ask you questions about it, but I really would love to learn more.” (God bless the dear man who actually said this to my husband.)

While all of this might sound a lot like a zero-sum cultural game, I want you, my white American evangelical Protestant brothers and sisters, to know that it does not have to be. While I have never lived in a different skin, I fiercely love those who do; their very DNA runs through my veins. I share my perspective here as a bridge between worlds. I long to see those on both sides listen to and love each other so much better than we currently do.

When white people don’t recognize how our position of cultural dominance influences and even benefits us – that is, when we don’t know that we’re being white – we can act like bulls in a china shop, throwing our weight around in damaging ways without even realizing what we’re doing. For us, this understanding begins with learning and practicing a discipline of cultural humility and seeking to understand another’s experience without judgment. May more of us boldly begin to walk on this long and winding path.