Ask a racial reconciler….(response)

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

While it’s important for all of us to be engaged in the difficult, redemptive work of racial reconciliation, some people have made it their day job. Last week you posed some thoughtful, challenging questions via our “Ask a…” series to Austin Channing Brown, a woman of valor who does just that. 

Austin serves as a counselor and adviser within dominant culture Christian ministries and churches. Her journey as a racial reconciler began in college with an experience called Sankofa- a three-day bus trip exploring Civil Rights sites throughout the South. Since then, she has worked with national speaker and consultant Rev. Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil, earned a Masters in Social Justice, and directed a short-term missions site on the west-side of Chicago, where she created interactive opportunities for young people to engage issues of poverty, injustice and race. Now Austin works with Christian churches and organizations like Willow Creek Community Church leading and collaborating on multicultural initiatives, alongside a team of fellow reconcilers. Austin is married to Tommie.  You can check out Austin’s blog here. Or follow her on Twitter. 

You submitted some excellent questions last week, and I think you will be really pleased with Austin’s wise and practical responses. Enjoy! 


From Alyssa Bacon-Liu: How do you balance your passion for true reconciliation while also setting boundaries that help well-meaning privileged people understand that you are not obligated to teach them about racism/privilege and that you are not a spokesperson for the entire Black/POC community?

I am purposefully starting with this question because I think it’s extraordinarily important to stress it at the outset of this interview. I cannot and will not speak on behalf of all people of color, nor all black people, nor all women, or any other people group of which I am a member. I will not disrespect any of these communities by declaring that I have summarized our collective thoughts and can deliver them now. All I can share is my personal experience living at the intersection of ministry and racial reconciliation. I hope that is okay. 

Believe it or not, this is exactly how I make sure that I don’t become the spokesperson for “all people." I just say it! I always want to make it perfectly clear that we are not a monolithic people who can be easily ascertained. When I am teaching, I also try to show this fact by including the voices of other black folks who may or may not agree with me. Nothing makes clearer that I am not speaking for all of us, than having two different perspectives in the room! 

I love having conversations about race, culture, identity, and Christ, but I have specific forums where that conversation takes place. I once was coming out of a church service when a gentleman stopped me to ask how he can increase the diversity in his life since he lives in an all white neighborhood. Rather than answer his question on the spot, I told him that I would love for him to attend our church’s race class, where he’d be free to explore his questions in community with others. Simple. Polite. Direct. But we did not have a deep conversation about race that night. I will also set up meetings, plan phone calls, or suggest other resources when I am stopped randomly. Race conversations can be incredibly life-giving conversations or incredibly taxing- either way I want to be fully prepared and fully present! The only way I personally can make sure that happens is planning for the conversation in advance- boundaries! 

From Ford1968: In practical terms, what does racial reconciliation look like? What are its hallmarks?

One of my favorite tools to explain what racial reconciliation looks like on an institutional level is a tool developed by Dr. David Anderson, pastor of Bridgeway Community Church and CEO of BridgeLeader Network, called the Multicultural Matrix. If you ever have an opportunity to attend his teaching on this- please go!

His team has continued to elaborate on the matrix, and Robyn Afrik (member of that team) has on her website a number of hallmarks that indicate where a church is on the journey of racial reconciliation! Check it out here! I highly recommend this tool as a starting place for understanding what racial reconciliation looks like beyond the flowery words, where we sometimes get stuck as churches. 

From Rachel:  One of the biggest obstacles I've observed in moving forward in conversations about race is that folks from the dominant culture are afraid of saying something "wrong" - of offending someone or sounding racist - so they avoid the conversation entirely. How do you create conversational environments that feel relatively safe for everyone involved without sidestepping the tough realities of racism and privilege? Are there certain methods, phrases, questions, or dialog strategies that help set people at ease so that the conversation is productive, even as it involves confronting difficult truths?

I could write a book on this question! I love facilitating conversations about race and consequently spend a lot of time thinking about this. So I will try to keep it short by giving you just three methods today.

Every class is done in partnership with at least 2 team members (sometimes we have 4 or 5) and we are racially diverse. That way there is not a singular expert in the room. No one person has all the answers, all the experience, or all the important opinions. We model the community that we want to create, and doing so allows people to be themselves. 

We use a shared experience at the beginning of every class. The shared experience is never a “kumbayah” moment. These activities go straight to the heart of privilege or stereotypes or identity. We have found that creating safety and creating comfort are not the same thing! Our activities are hard, uncomfortable, and the responses/reactions are always on display. But these activities force a sense of vulnerability, display that we are all broken, and it’s truthfully why people come. Few people chose a race class if they don’t really want to talk about race. It also kick-starts the hard conversations because we’ve set everyone up to dive right in!

The last one I’ll share is about speaking our emotions. After each activity, when leading the discussion, we always ask the same question first- “How did that feel?” Common answers are anger, sadness, guilt, and shame. We don’t try to change the emotion, we just ask that everyone commits to a productive and respectful conversation even as they continue to feel the emotion (because lets be honest, my team is only reproducing the exact same emotions that are felt when race conversations happen randomly. If we can teach participants to name the emotion and still have an honest, respectful, messy conversation, we have truly achieved something!)  

There are many more, but I hope that’s a helpful start! Anyone wanna help me write an ebook for the rest!? 

From Suzannah:  What are some of the blind spots harbored by progressive sorts that hinder the work of racial reconciliation? 

There are two that drive me crazy. One is the assumption that there is nothing left to learn from those who are just beginning. Nothing will kill a conversation faster than someone who speaks like they have nothing to learn from others in the room. And it doesn’t really matter what color they are! Whoever comes into the room closed to learning risks ruining the safety in the room. They make vulnerability impossible for everyone else. 

The second are progressives who become so enamored with their progress in the conversation that they forget I can speak for myself. The danger contained in the word “ally” is the ever-present possibility that he/she will start speaking for me rather than creating space for me to speak for myself. Having an ally that doesn’t see a need for my voice to be present is in many ways of no greater help to me than a declared racist who doesn’t think my voice matters at all. 

In my opinion, it doesn’t create a desirable picture of reconciliation for one person to be consistently telling everyone’s story. I would rather that reconciler create space for more voices. 

...And what kind of posture and partnering do you desire from would-be allies and white Christians, and how can we avoid white saviorism? 

At its core, the white savior complex is the result of a distorted view of people of color and of self. The savior complex first makes people of color hopeless, helpless and in need of a savior. It assumes that we are unintelligent and incapable of creating change. It denies the success we have historically had in creating change for ourselves (in partnership with various allies), and robs us of the ability to continue leading that work. (I have to also admit that I am really weary of the storyline of the white hero who saves all the people of color, while in the meantime all the people of color working in their communities are largely ignored. But perhaps that’s a post for another day!) 

The second overarching problem with the white savior complex, is that it is racist! I know, we are not fond of that word, but consider the above. If there is an underling attitude that people of color are inferior (less capable, less creative, less intelligent, less knowledgeable) and therefore in need of a savior… that sounds like a clear hierarchy of race. And this hierarchy is a distortion. God did not create an inferior race; we are all made in the Imago Dei. That is what makes reconciliation so beautiful; together we represent God!     

So, how do we keep the complex at bay? I think there are many ways, but the one I’d like to promote today is being the learner rather than the leader (or if the leader, do so in shared leadership with a person of color). By placing yourself under the leadership of people of color who are your mentors, teachers, supervisors, or pastors you may find it hard to fall into a savior complex; instead you will be constantly listening, learning, and being guided by someone you need… rather than someone who “needs” you.

From Dana:  I have two beautiful black daughters. They have regularly experienced discrimination and mockery by black people because they were adopted into a white home. Why does this exist, and what is the best way to deal with it?

This question saddens me tremendously, and while I could give 1,000 guesses about why this happens, the truth is not one of them will make you feel better. No possible reasoning I offer will ease a mother’s heart as she watches her children in pain. So rather than try to guess at the motives of these individuals, let me say this: We live in a broken world, and there is a lot of hurt around identity, culture and history. The best thing you can do as a mother is offer as much healing as you can for your girl’s identity. Tell your girls how beautiful they are, just as they are. Tell them how intelligent they are… how brave they are… how incredible they are… how they are fearfully and wonderfully made. Tell them that their version of black is beautiful. Tell them about black ancestry, about how much has been overcome. Love them. Love them hard. And if you can, counterbalance the negativity with positive black role model(s)- pastor, teacher, neighbor, or youth group leader. (I still remember a young, black, female role model I had at 8 years old! I have not seen her in almost 20 years but I love her still for how she treated me- with love and dignity during a time when I was unsure about the meaning of my black identity.)  

From Alyssa Brooks-Dowty: I go to a pretty white church. It isn't COMPLETELY white, but there are a LOT of white people there. It's an awesome and real community, open to working on things. We have worked to include folks with disabilities, homeless folks, and folks from other cultures. We have a few non-white families, and some families with non-white children, but it feels like there's an invisible barrier to becoming more racially diverse. What can we do?

Without knowing the specifics of your church (denomination, location, demographics, staffing, etc), I can’t provide a lot of specific detail, but in my experience here are the vital components: 

#1. Committed Leadership. 

Your leader must feel called to this work because he/she will likely have to make changes to their leadership team or share leadership with someone who has different cultural norms. Becoming a multicultural church will also challenge (and change) many of the church’s cultural norms. The stress of both to your leader will be too much unless he/she is truly committed. That leads me to….

 #2. A Diverse Team. Typically, pastors are much too busy to implement a strategy for achieving multiculturalism!  So you need a committed group of people who are modeling reconciliation and moving it forward within the staff and congregation. 

#3. An Outside Voice. The outside voice (ie-consultant, mentor, guide) may seem like a luxury, but race conversations get sticky and tricky. Having an outside voice will provide clarity, inspiration, and accountability when you need it most. 

#4. Dollars. It simply cannot be ignored… you need a budget. You need to be able to purchase books, attend conferences, offer the congregation tools, bring in speakers, hire new staff members, or provide for whatever goals your team determines to implement. If you’d like to talk more about your specific context go to my website!  


Thank you, Austin!

Keep up with Austin by following her on Twitter or subscribing to her blog. Check out the rest of our “Ask a…” series here


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