“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.”
When your friend has just fallen and broken her arm, it is time to comfort her and get her care, not to offer a lecture on the dangers of skateboarding. That should come later, and perhaps shouldn’t come from you at all (depending on what your relationship is.)
– Alan Jacobs (How to Think, p. 68)
We’ve all seen it. Better yet, we’ve all heard it. Someone sincerely means to impart a helpful comment on a racial matter, yet unwittingly, the tone does more racial damage than good. They say one thing, yet the listener(s) hears quite another. It happens when a white sister says, “I don’t see color!” or a white brother criticizes some aspect of black life or culture—whether that’d be institutions (like the black church or black families), or certain communities or its members (neighborhoods, theologians, historical figures, everyday teenagers, women, and men).
Am I saying that these institutions and people are above critique? Not at all. But I am trying to help white brothers and sisters better understand why they should be slower to critique them, and here’s the reason: my white brother and sister, whom I love, you can easily say more than you mean to say on race and, in doing so, compoundingly hurt your neighbor rather than love them. Let’s flesh this out.
Meet Mark and Tim. Both love the Lord. Both hate racism. Both want good for the other. Both have the same level of education. Mark is white. Tim is black. They’re old friends catching up, and a racial issue comes up. Mark feels like society tells him he should listen to Tim on matters of race, but he’s not sure why. He gets that a listening posture is standard biblical wisdom and humility (Proverbs 18:12-13; James 1:19), and sure, this is reason enough. But don’t these Scriptural commands and postures also apply to Tim? Mark struggles because he feels like there is a double standard: He’s not allowed to say anything, but Tim is seemingly allowed to say everything. But Mark is intellectually bright. He has had racist things said to him in his past. He has an insight or two about black communities that might genuinely help them. What’s more, this is just a one-on-one conversation with his old friend, Tim! Isn’t the goal for them to be equals? It shouldn’t matter who speaks first, right? They should be able to let their hair down and chop it up.
What would you say to Mark at this point to help him in this conversation to avoid racial damage?
I would tell Mark he needs to understand that the conversation isn’t simply between him and Tim; it’s between them and their personal histories, experiences, and communities which in no small part shape who they are.
Mark, like many white brothers and sisters, sees some important aspects of life individualistically, and this isn’t always bad. But it means Mark likely misses the larger context that’s present and informing his conversation with Tim. You see, Mark simply feels like the narrative being written is that Tim should speak first because white people are dumb, foaming-at-the-mouth racists.
Well, that’s not true, and such a statement should anger someone. Indeed, many white people are angry and defensive in conversations about race because they feel this is how they’re perceived and represented.
And yet, Tim doesn’t see Mark that way at all. Why then should Tim, and people like him, generally speak first on matters of race? They should speak first not because they know everything (spoiler alert: they don’t) but because black voices have been marginalized for so long.
Mark needs to understand there is asymmetry, historically, between the races. Otherwise, he’ll scratch his head wondering things like, Why do we have black history month? Mark has not yet taken into account that we have black history month because in too many school textbooks, the other 11 months are white history month. But of course, this fact is assumed, unspoken, and standardized as what’s normal. Asymmetry.
Yet if Mark doesn’t realize that the weight of history lands differently on Tim than it does him, he’s going to struggle to love Tim well when it comes to race. You’ll remember Mark has had racist things said to him. And this is horrible! Racism is never OK. Mark equally bears God’s image as does Tim, and so we rightly lament what’s happened to Mark.
Yet we also understand that racism against Mark likely does not carry the same weight as the racism Tim has experienced. If Tim is called a nigger, it’s different than Mark being called a cracker. History compounds the insult to Tim, but not to Mark. Injustice compounds on the insult to Tim, but not so much to Mark. Masses of people have been lynched, mobbed, and discriminated against for being niggers, not for being crackers.
You understand this principle. It’s why we associate more care and attention on men abusing women than women abusing men. It’s not that women hitting men is better than the opposite, but that the opposite is far more prevalent, and the opposite reflects an abuse of power dynamics. Power abuses are especially heinous because they use authority and strength to serve themselves rather than bless others, and they lie about God’s authority.
So, there is such a thing as asymmetry in history, and it’s useful to remember as we seek to love one another across racial lines. If we don’t remember this, I fear my too many of white brothers and sisters will continue to engage in ideological debates and polemics on race as conversations that are largely intellectual, individual exercises free from the freight of history. Hence, white brothers and sisters can enter and leave conversations about race just as easily as other abstract, theological discussions.
But for the minority listener, not so much. And if white brothers are to put their neighbor’s needs before their own, they’ve got to keep the listener in mind (Philippians 2:3-4). Ephesians 4:29 says Christians are to speak as fits the occasion (so, context matters) so that what we say may give grace to those who hear (audience matters as well). Tone-deafness happens when a speaker does not give the proper weight to, or ignores altogether, important factors about his audience, and in so doing, the speaker says something he or she doesn’t mean to say. White brothers and sisters, may not mean to defend racism, but when they instantly critique MLK Jr. (for example), they seem to not be aware that they sound more concerned about MLK Jr. than they do the racism he opposed, the racism that ultimately took his life.
Again, Mark might feel this difficulty in critiquing MLK Jr. (again, for example) is unfair. Yet if Mark wants to blame someone for what he perceives as injustice, he shouldn’t blame Tim; he should blame those who enshrined the racial caste deep into America’s structure and psyche from Day 1. The strife and difficulties we experience today are, in no small part, the bitter harvest of past racist seeds sown. The division of our forefathers has it effects on us, their children, and our not participating directly in acts of the past in no way frees us from living in their light. My white brothers and sisters should take care, and I praise God for the many who do, to see whether their critiques sound like, or are at least downstream, from racists of the past (who I trust they have no intent or desire to sound like!) To put it differently, none of us are our own, independent, self-sustaining streams; we all are connected to the tides of the past, and these tides will wash up on the shores of our lives, communities, and hearts whether we like it or not.
So, my white brothers and sisters, let me implore you to remember that matters of understanding race, racism, and identity aren’t simply abstract, theological tenets. If you treat them as such, you may hurt your black brothers and sisters—many of whom are already very hurt, hence the compounding pain. Too many black brothers and sisters have been let down by churches that preach hard against every sin but turn a blind-eye to racism and its effects, however subtle that racism may be.
Could it be, my white brother and sister, that you’re not the best person to offer that critique of the black community, and that God can use someone else who the black community might more naturally trust to better speak to their issues? Hear me, I’m not saying you should never speak on them. There are, of course, exceptions to the general principles I’ve laid out here. That’s why they’re wisdom and not law. We don’t want to say that one must share someone else’s background to speak truth, unless we want to gut the church’s missionary charge altogether.
That said, tone is widely undervalued today and tone-deafness is widely spread. Why? Because too many evangelicals value truth only, and think so long as they have it, they have all they need for life and godliness. That’s why conversations with brothers and sisters like this feel so much like Sinai and so little like Calvary. Yet we should aim to speak from the foot of the cross that stood on that latter mountain because if we have all the truth, but not the love in which we are to speak it, we’re nothing.
Friends, when it comes to relationships: we ought to remember that encouragement is more powerful than critique anyways, but that’s for another article. Speaking of another article, you’ll note that this is Part 1 of what I’m hoping is at least a two-post series. Two posts are needed because tone-deafness cuts both ways. Despite whatever asymmetry exists, that’s not the only thing that exists, and so we who are on the other side of tone-deaf comments from white brothers and sisters ought to take heed lest we also fall.
There are pronounced differences between gender and race—the former being a God-ordained gift, and the latter being a man-constructed means of power—but I trust the analogy is still illustrative of the main point about asymmetry.
Here’s an example of an exception: When it comes to speaking on segregation, who should speak first: me or Douglas Massey, who looks as white as they come? Probably Massey because he’s an expert on the topic. See his work, American Apartheid (some of which is referenced here). One doesn’t even have to be an expert in order to speak, either. Indeed, the better your friendship is with someone, the more freedom you’ll have to speak. And yet, from my experience, I know of no friendship so close that personal backgrounds are allowed to be ignored altogether. In fact, the better friends you are with someone, you’ll likely seek to consider your friend’s background more, not less, as you seek to love them.
- Pray that conversations on racial matters in churches would be shaped and delivered by a humble love, not self-confidence, defensiveness, or self-righteousness.
- Pray that the Mark and Tim’s of the world would faithfully listen to each other, and when necessary, rebuke one another.
- Pray for those who are simply discouraged by racial matters, and who carry compounded pain.