Have you ever started a conversation about race with a person who looks different from you and at some point found yourself recoiling and saying, “Why are you freaking out on me? What did I say?” Most of us have been there. We’d like for it not to be such an unpleasant and painful experience, but we’re not quite sure how to achieve that. Unfortunately, we as a nation will not make meaningful, transformative progress in interracial interactions if we cannot find a constructive middle ground between hostile accusations and complete avoidance.
I’ve written before about the importance of contextualization when engaging in cross-cultural communication. Using words and language are not enough. We have to know how to use them in order to benefit the people with whom we are conversing. On social media and in the comments sections of virtually any post, many folks use language not as a means to establish greater understanding but as blunt weapons. That approach requires no relational skills, self-control, thoughtfulness, or Christlike sacrificial love. On the other hand, two-way translation of culturally based concepts, perceptions, and values requires a lot of those things. First, it requires that each party be willing to suspend its most cynical presuppositions of the other for the sake of achieving understanding. Ultimately, it requires the kind of love that Jesus modeled for us: the kind that lays itself down for its enemies for the sake of their salvation and redemption. This is really hard. A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly… The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life… (Proverbs 15:1,2,4a)
If we don’t first grasp the concept that we have a culture that shapes our thought processes and that the people we are talking to also have a culture that shapes theirs, then miscommunication and misunderstanding are virtually guaranteed outcomes. When people of different cultures come together to converse about race – particularly after a racially charged incident – each group brings its own set of emotionally charged and heavily freighted language and ideas, all of which have been formed out of a rich history of unique life experiences; but before any of it has a chance to get adequately unpacked, conversation quickly degenerates into anger, mutual accusations, and finally, with each group dismissing the other in disgust as unreformable. We need better tools of communication and fundamentally more receptive postures toward one another.
I created the following set of infographics with the help of a friend of mine to illustrate the effects of failure to contextualize our understanding and our words across cultures, specifically with the Black-White dynamic in mind. Notice that the effect is not the same in both directions. That too is food for thought. Let me know what you think. I’d love to hear from you!