Worldviews, Race and Interracial Friendship: Being White and Some of My Best Friends

I have said in recent months that I am so glad that worldview scholar, advocate for discipleship of the mind and Christian intellectual par excellence, James Sire, has written Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept (IVP; $14.00) which I’ve called, as Sire implies, David Naugle for Dummies. Naugle has a wonderful website about these things and a tour de force of a scholarly book, Worldview: The History of a Concept (Eerdmans, $26.00), which helped Sire to revisit a topic about which he has written much. Naming brings his other such works, like The Universe Next Door and How to Read Slowly, into focus with a more frontal and intentional discussion about just what worldviews are, how they function, whose got “Ëœem and why we should care.

For those intrigued with the approach we have here at Hearts & Minds, we would commend this little book to you as an illustration of the sorts of things we struggle with, of the foundational stuff that animates our efforts here at the shop. It would, of course, be central to the calling of campus ministry organizations like the CCO as well, since so much of the context of higher education is rooted in fundamental questions about the meaning of life and learning.

More broadly, for all of us, debates about everything from worship styles to how to vote, questions about the ethics of ordering from or supporting Wal-Mart, and discernment about what sort of movies to watch (and what to think about them) are deeply, deeply rooted in the worldviews we hold, the ultlimate Story upon which we base our lives. Does the American Dream of the dominant culture shape our public consciousness? Are our deepest convictions and daily habits of heart and hands determined, really, by what we hear and do at church? How do the disciplines of Bible study and Christian reading regularly refine our attitudes and views of things too often considered secular? How can our imaginations be influenced so as to be fruitful for the reign of God? Sire is right: we need some help to “name the elephant.”

Oddly, my favorite worldview books, often mentioned in these pages (like Naming the Elephant, Transforming Vision, Creation Regained and
the spectacular new Nancy Pearcy book, Total Truth, which Sire says is the best he’s yet seen of this kind of a book), don’t mention much (if anything) about some of the most influential factors in shaping how we develop the lenses through which we see and how we subsequently “lean into life.” Without diminishing the reformational insight about first principles of the heart — our faith, our most fundamental loyalties to ideologies and idolatries — I want to remind readers that race, class and gender are also huge influences upon our vision of life. It is a long-standing interest of mine how these sorts of realities influence us and which are most close to the bone. Some would say that race and class are not basic enough to be considered worldviewish. It is worth pondering, I think.

Two recent books have helped me focus again on issues of ethnicity, multiculturalism, and racial justice. Although we carry a huge selection of books along these lines and we recommend many, two very different new ones strike me as very important and truly refreshing contributions. One, Being White, is explicitly Christian and a book I have long awaited. It comes from a very earnest and savvy gang of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) staff who, over the past decade, have put a considerable amount of time and talent into evangelical reflections on race and ethnic reconciliation and cross-cultural ministry. The other, Some of My Best Friends, is written with little if any reference to religious faith (a glaring and unfortunate absence) and tells candid stories of interracial friendships. Both are very important.

Being White: Finding Our Path in a Multiethnic World by Paula Harris & Doug Schaupp (IVP, $12.95) is obviously a collaboration. Each author’s chapters have different sorts of stories to tell and unique writing styles. They share a common vision and cause, though, and it is notable how well their efforts jibe.

Paula writes of her parents, former missionaries who worked for tribal and ethnic integration in the South Pacific, and of their long-standing advocacy for social justice, creating family practices which nurtured multiracial relationships. Doug was born into a middle class Anglo family in San Francisco ‘s Chinatown, a family who moved to a white suburb when he was in the fourth grade. He became a Christian in college and matured in discipleship amidst renewed interest in civil rights (somewhat due to the LA riots of 1992). As he puts it, he grew to become a man not only of tolerance but of conviction. Both of the authors have walked the path through the stages they outline in this book. They have earned the right to tell us their story, to draw forth principles, to guide us step by step towards deeper and more spiritually authentic racial reconciliation.

There are numerous books making the theological case against racism and showing the vast biblical demands of justice and God’s heart for multiethnic diversity. (I annotate a few good starters at our website; click here for one list or click on “Books by Vocation” and then on the list about race, for another.) We stock many sociological studies, too, especially popularly written ones such as the very, very useful Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum (Basic Books, $15.95).

Chris Rice’s important chronicle of his years of struggle and pain and blessing working with Spencer Perkins and others at Voice of Calvary, Grace Matters (Jossey-Bass, $14.95), is now in paperback; it is a great story and ought to be read as much as their popular More Than Equals (IVP, $15.00). We have long enjoyed selling memoirs such as My First White Friend by Patricia Rayburn (Penguin, $13.00) or the exquisite writing of Richard Rodriguez.

There are excellent guides for congregations to use, too, such as One New People by Manuel Ortiz (IVP, $14.00) or One Body One Spirit: Principles of Successful Multiracial Church by George Yancey (IVP, $13.00). Yancey worked on United By Faith: The Multi-Racial Congregation as an Answer to the Problem of Race (Oxford University Press, $14.00) the sequel to the much-discussed Divided By Faith (Oxford University Press, $13.00).

Being White is a book written by passionate followers of Christ and clearly guides white people into friendships with people of color, allowing for deeper reflection on white privilege and showing how to move beyond “being colorblind.” The few clear pages on why this is an inadequate response are worth repeated reflections by well-meaning folks of any color (although, as you will see, it is a response most typically suggested by whites). Studying this, and moving towards acts of understanding and solidarity, can lead to, in their choice phrase, “displacement at a path to transformation.” This is serious stuff, to be sure.

There is, according to a chapter by Schaupp, a point in our journey towards letting go of privilege and control and where — like that scary moment heading up the incline of a roller coaster — we have reached “the point of no return.” He suggests that

…many white folks who begin the displacement journey jump off the ride before the apex, before the good part. Why? There are a million reasons to bail out before the point of no return. The point is this: trying out the roller coaster of intentional displacement is very different from staying on past the point of no return.

In an important footnote, ruminating on the roller coaster analogy, he writes: “The safety bar releases only for white people on the roller coaster of displacement. Often our ethnic minority friends don’t have a choice about displacing themselves. They are a minority in a world that is not their own.”

This book has so much to commend it. Concrete stories, touching examples, articulate insights gained from years of involvement in this work, powerful biblical reflection. It is graciously written, yet unashamedly to the point. John Perkins says of it, “Being White is a book that everyone should read. It’s a book that whites in particular need to read to have a better understanding of the struggles of minorities.”

A brief footnote: this book has great footnotes. The authors cite the right books, know the important sources. They broach the question of the social construction of race, including some of the heavy University Press titles. They have paid attention to the voices of Generations X and Y and cite several Internet pieces (including, for instance, the much-talked-about 1999 Salon article, “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being.”

Being White will challenge and equip readers to become more dedicated anti-racists. But also, it is a good call to the most basic sort of Christian discipleship and spiritual formation. Who wouldn’t find it commendable to reflect on a passage such as this:

How do we step into this life of open-hearted love? In addition to praying daily for God to pour his love through us into everyone we come in contact with, we need to become aware of the straps and snags that hold our heart down. When I am feeling competitive or insecure around someone, it is virtually impossible for me to feel proper godly compassion for them. The same is true when I fear someone. Fear, anxiety, pride, confusion, indifference all snag and inhibit our hearts from expanding in love for those around us. What tends to hold your heart back from loving others?

* * *

Some of My Best Friends: Writings On Interracial Friendships (edited by Emily Bernard, Amistad Press, $23.95) is an incredibly powerful book. It brings together mostly exceptionally well-written essays, reflections and memoirs, crafted mostly by those who have thought long and hard about how racial and ethnic differences have influenced their friendships. I can hardly stop thinking about it. I really hope you read the excerpts I’ve included below.

Here, for instance, is how Emily Bernard starts her amazingly beautiful introduction:

My mother will deny this but it’s true. As a kid, whenever — and I mean, without exception — I came home from school and complained about some girl bossing me around, she would look at me and ask, “Is she white?” “Yes,” I would invariably admit. Point made, she would arch a knowing eyebrow, and I would understand the discussion was over. My mother grew up in Hazelhurst, Mississippi , and routinely endured the rocks and clumps of dirt white kids, sons of millworkers, would throw at her and her grandmother as they walked to the dry goods store. For historical reasons, among others, my mother believed white people were not to be trusted. You could hardly blame her.

Despite the lessons of her history, my mother tolerated the steady stream of white girls who came over to play with me, occasionally with pleasure and amusement, at other times with barely concealed irritation. Sometimes her irritation had to do with being the mother of three young children; sometimes it had to do with being the mother of three young black children who had exclusively white friends. On one occasion, my mother caught me imitating the speech pattern of one of my friends and said, “Emily, you are not a little white girl.” I had no idea what she meant by this”¦

Later, after telling a handful of good-hearted memories of her adult interracial friendships, she tells of Helena .

What I love about Helena, whom I have known now for almost twenty years, has nothing to do with race, but with the nearly primal space of comfort and acceptance that her friendship provides for me always, without hesitation or exception. At the same time, what I love about Helena has everything to do with race. Her racial identity must necessarily be as central to her as mine is to me, after all, so that loving Helena means loving her whiteness, too. In particular, I often take great private pleasure in the fact that she is Jewish, and proudly imagine that our alliance is blessed by the tradition of the grand historical connection between blacks and Jews. If Helena feels a similar pleasure about my blackness, she does not describe it in careful anxious grammar of the dogmatic antiracist. Some of these dogmatic types I admire greatly. Some of them I find extremely tedious, particularly when they exhibit symptoms of the illness I call “Racial Tourette’s,”
identifiable when the host is unable to speak about anything other than race when in the presence of a nonwhite person. Some of these people, even the ones who suffer from Racial Tourette’s, are my friends.

A few of the essays in Some of My Best Friends are more polemical, perhaps exhibiting a bit of what seems like the syndrome Bernard names. Several are about class issues and several are set in the rather highbrow world of the Ivy League, world class opera, writers, and such. As much as I loved even these, it would be a more useful book, I think, if there were more common folks represented. More small-town stuff, less stunning insights, a few stories written by those without much scholarly knowledge of these matters, perhaps some examples of decent sophomoric efforts. Few of my black friends speak much of James Baldwin or Langston Hughes or Frantz Fanon; no one I know, unlike the fabulous chapter “On the Possibility Filled Edge of the Continent,” has developed a friendship with Toni Morrison.

A few of the chapters are set amongst those involved in urban organizing, anti-racist movements and community development work. Bill Ayers — renowned as one of the infamous Weather Underground — tells of his relationship with a revolutionary black activist in the days of the late “Ëœ60s rage and rising Black Power. It is a good piece, but made me sad. I hope younger readers take insight from the heady idealism gone awry described in this chapter.

Japanese-American poet David Mura tells a somewhat similar painful story of how his friendships with white fellow poets changed as he became more aware of and outspoken about the experience of people of color. He is routinely accused of being too angry. He is, in fact. It is a painful and important essay.

A few of these pieces (though not enough) are a bit humorous or sweet. (Ahh, the “Repellent Afro” story.) A few are plainly tragic. And some are bittersweet, as many friendships are, whenever we recall long-lost friends, opportunities neglected, relationships severed or atrophied. The mix of class and race surely make these universal experiences more thorny and reflection upon them more poignant.

And, a few of these pieces are triumphant, nearly glorious, as, with candor and clarity, they show how our humanness and bonds of friendship can withstand conflict and differences.

Maurice Berger’s chapter, entitled “The Value of Things Not Said” tells of how he came to eventually share with a black friend the awkward truth of his mother’s prejudice, a prejudice which, in a circuitous way, affected his friend. He recalls,

This story neither surprised nor upset my friend. “I am relieved you told me this,” was all Shirley would say. I, too, was relieved, for protecting the secret of my mother’s racism always felt dishonest. It was a secret I always felt obligated to conceal from my friends, black and white, lest I offend them, or more to the point, lest they think less of me. But in keeping this secret, I was rendering invisible an important part of myself — the part of me that adored my mother but hated her thinking about race, the part of me that once believed she was right, the part of me that loved my father for rejecting her bigotry, the part of me that has struggled to be more like him.

This is not to say that Shirley was unaware of my racial politics. We had talked about race before. She had read my work on the subject. But knowing a person’s ideas about racism is not the same as knowing a person’s prejudices. Shirley was one of the first friends with whom I shared the story of my mother’s bigotry. By revealing the trust about my mother, I was starting the process of revealing to my friend where my heart and soul — not just my head — lay on the questions of race. With this honesty, I was telling Shirley a number of things: that my allegiance to whiteness was not so tribal and absolute that I could not see and understand white racism, that I was willing to confront my own racism and that of my family; that I trusted and respected my friend enough to tell her the truth.

As it turned out, this early demonstration of candor — which was soon followed by Shirley’s own frankness about race — was a turning point in our friendship. While we both needed a degree of intimacy to build up enough trust to be truthful with each other, the honesty that emerged from this trust ultimately helped us break through the emotional barriers that make interpersonal interactions between white and black Americans difficult. It opened the door to discussions about race as well as many other important and challenging issues. In the end, honesty has become a form of generosity and grace in our relationship, a gift that has spared us both the wearisome practice of listening for the words not said, the things not told.

Honesty has become a form of generosity and grace in our relationship. This is the sort of insight that is carried within these remarkable essays. And yet, there are those times when, despite seemingly good and mature friendships, full honesty is not yet possible. In the wonderfully interesting “Zachary Says Kaddish” Darryle Pinckney tells of his longstanding friendship — the wonderful kind that includes each person’s parents and extended families, too — with a white Jew. Zach’s family had suffered horrendously at under Hitler’s genocide. They are obviously Zionist. Pinckney believes Z is decent enough to have sympathies for the Palestinians, but is unable to broach the subject:

Zach has more in common with the educated, thoughtful refuseniks, the Israeli soldiers who don’t want to serve on the West Bank , than he does with the snarling settlers. I want to say that his mother’s family didn’t die so that her people could preside over apartheid in Judea. I want to say something like that, but I am afraid of offending a rare and good soul. I tell myself that I can’t understand what it means, in much the same what the white friends used to admit they’d never know what race means, because they couldn’t climb inside the skin of the discriminated against. But some of them could — and should now again, perhaps. I want to say such things, but the anxiety I saw in Zach’s eyes the last time we talked goes back too far, back to Poland, Russia, back to a history, to the question of whose history”¦.

One of the very good things about this anthology is its description of various sorts of interracial configurations. That is, there are Asian-American writers telling of their friendship with blacks; Hispanic men writing of black women; white and black women, et cetera. Although there are books about interacial dating, sexual attraction and marriage, this is an exploration of and celebration of friendship. That in itself makes it immensely valuable.

Two huge disclaimers: the first chapter by Jee Kim is exceptionally creative. Kim is a second-generation Korean American “from the “Ëœhood” who is more comfortable with Latinos and blacks than with Korean kids who grew up in the suburbs, and compares his friendship to bi-bam-bap, a Korean dish of “all different vegetables, meats, rice, hot sauce mixed in together like crazy.” His opening salvo begs us to believe that all of this is true; the remainder of the piece is exceptionally vulgar. The ghetto coarseness (including drug abuse and robbery) is violent and relentless. I don’t recommend reading it early on (and seriously wonder why Ms. Bernard placed it so early in the collection).

Secondly, I found Michelle Cliff’s “In My Heart Is a Darkness” unintelligible. I am admittedly not fluent in the post-colonial, deconstructive rhetoric of black studies. The chapter was non/sense. One line, though, screamed out and it is worth hearing, pondering. She writes: “Intimacy suffers. I have practiced my own version of safe sex. Protected myself with language, wit.”

Here’s to an otherwise great book of fine language, moving truths, hard realization, brokenness, and fidelity. Without the gospel, there is still common grace. Folks trying to live lives of authenticity and justice may have much to teach us. These serious essays are fascinating and, taken as a whole, are touching and helpful, rewarding and enjoyable.

For instance, savor this bit of brilliance, in a chapter called, “Cartilage,” where the author, a white woman who years ago married into a clan of primarily black and Chicano urban neighbors, tells of yet another holiday gathering of friends, extended family and tribe, noting that many of the older women host small scars from years of preparing meals. She writes,

On Labor Day, our knees met in a companionable semicircle, a crescent grin of white plastic chairs arranged on the slope of the depression under the pecan trees, where we can keep an eye on the food. We are in charge. We brought macaroni and cheese, pineapple upside-down cake, potato salads, and string beans with ham hocks. I brought rice and black-eyed peas and hot sausage, my dish, the one people ask if I am bringing. Along with the scars, you’d better have a dish.

I am still blond and small, and my women friends and sister-in-law and relatives are not, but our arms rest alongside one another’s on the chairs’ plastic smoothness, and they are all alike. Sun-marked, softer than when we were young, our knuckles bigger, our fingers sore. We talk about our hurts. My feet, Shirley’s wrists, Doris ‘ back, and Revia’s migraines”¦.

I hear the voices of their actual ancestors and their mother’s friends, the women who sit in the circle with me. We know it’s all about the scars and pain, the food and laughs, the secret code you can only understand when you’ve bumped elbows while standing at the stove, when you’ve sat by the hospital bed while someone you loved was fading away — places where it doesn’t matter what you wear or listen to or how your hair looks. It matters that your knees touch while you wait.