Now What? Steps toward building cross-cultural relationships

This past August, I married my beautiful wife Breann (in case you don’t know us, she's white). Sports initially united us, she being a swimmer for the University of Louisville and I a linebacker for "THE" College of William & Mary. Common interests and connections brought us together. Attraction brought us closer. Friendship added depth to our relationship. Our spiritual convictions created a greater depth. Love led us to make vows. Covenant will unite us forever. 

Race had nothing to do with our coming together, but we are not colorblind: it’s a part of our relationship, our reality. 

Before we were married, my vision for how I would react to racial questions was something like this: 

Breann: "But Dante, I've never been with a black guy before..."

Dante: "Haha, me neither," (smile, chuckle)

But when she asked me a question on the way back from visiting my family over Thanksgiving, my actual reaction was different. On a back road in West Virginia on the way back to Indy, she sheepishly looked at me and began to ask, "Dante, I ... I ..."

"What? Spit it out," I responded jokingly. 

"I noticed that everyone in your family has paintings of black women and people all throughout their houses ... ?" 

This was the first time that anything about race had been brought up in our marriage; and I didn't let her finish her train of thought. In an almost angry and defensive posture I snapped back, "Is that the only thing that you noticed about my family?" 

Of course it wasn't. But she had never seen art like that before. She’d grown up seeing – for example – Santa and Jesus as white. That conversation led to many more about our pasts and our families; the deeper understanding that came from that has brought us closer to one other. 

Uniquely Connected, But …

We live in a uniquely connected time, when we’re more exposed than ever to diverse cultures and perspectives. And most of us love that – we crave the ideas, perspectives, values, tastes, colors, shapes, and sounds that come from other places. Christians have an extra motivation to seek diversity, in that our final vision for humanity includes people of all races, backgrounds, and languages united in Christ.

But if we're honest, the gap between that desire and our actual experience of diversity is still great. Most of us still live, work, and play around people who look a lot like us. Most of us feel mystified or even uncomfortable when spending time with people from different backgrounds. And a glance at our national news shows that racial misunderstanding and tension are still very much widespread.

I'm an African-American male, and I have lived on the hyphen my whole life. I’ve lived between white and black, believer and non-believer, rich and poor, hourly and salaried, the marginalized and the accepted. I'm not an expert or a thought-leader on creating cross-cultural communities or racially reconciled relationships; but I am an expert of my own perspective, just as you are of yours.

So if you’d like to cultivate more experiences of diversity, I’d like to offer you some hope through the experiences, tips and practical advice that I've picked up in my lifetime.

Before I get into my suggestions, let me quickly add the reminder that race is more complex than color. We naturally sort people into groups by external markers like the color of their skin and the texture of their hair. But can we expect Jamaicans to have the same background as African-Americans born and raised in the States, though both are “black?” Does a couple who grew up in Nicaragua before migrating to America have the same culture as a Mexican-American born in the U.S.? Of course not. With all the suggestions below, we should approach each individual and each new culture with a fresh humility and open hands.

1. Dig for the “why” when confronting the “what”

Most of us don't have superpowers and can't see through walls. Our perception is limited to surfaces. But if we’re to really understand someone or something, we have to get below the surface. When my wife made that comment about the paintings, the next words out of her mouth were probably going to be, “Why is that?”

Which is exactly what we should do when we are confronted with breaking news, a tweet, or a rash response from a coworker. We shouldn’t be too quick to jump on a “what” until we can understand the “why” that lies beneath it.  

Digging for the “why” also helps us know, sympathize, and love others better. The more I've learned not only what my wife is like but why she is the way she is, the deeper my love has grown for her. The same is true for people of other cultures, races and ethnicities.

We must dig beneath the surface of someone’s preferences, appearances, posture, speech and perspective. Only then can we build a connection with the potential to change circumstances, catalyze community and create a culture that cares deeply about our brothers and sisters. 

If you want your neighbor to open up, find out what makes them tick. Do they have a favorite food, team, hobby? Where did those loves come from? Learning those “whys” will help you deepen a relationship with them; it will also help you confront the “whats” they have that seem strange or even offensive to you in a spirit of humility. 

2. Share Vision And Values

When it comes to social, racial, economic and ethnic diversity, sports and the military are the greatest equalizers. In sports, the only thing that matters is scoring more points than your opponent. If a lineman gets beat, you don't care because he's black or white; you care because he gets beat. There were just as many kids wearing Newton jerseys as Manning jerseys during the Super Bowl. And for soldiers in battle or training, your desire to accomplish the mission and protect your brother and sister trumps your differences. 

Sharing vision and values brings alignment.

When we seek diversity, we must begin to ask, "What does this person value?” and "How can I share their values with them?" We then must cast a vision that embraces both their success and ours and aligns them in the same direction. We can only overcome differences with one another when we have a common goal that’s more important than those differences.

For example: What led a white American woman from small-town Kansas to marry a man from Kenya during the racial tension of 1950s and ‘60s America? They were swept up in a narrative that was larger than them. That woman was Stanley Ann Durham and that man was Barack Obama, Sr. Their son is our president. 

Which leads me to my next point.

3. Share Stories

Durham and Obama, Sr., subscribed to a story presented through the Civil Rights Movement. That shared story helped them bridge two very different realities. 

A shared story helped them confront their past and navigate their present choices and fears. It allowed them to consciously live into a new narrative; it both reminded them of the stories that had shaped them before, and transformed them into being more like the people they wanted to become.

But just as we should look for a common, shared story, we also need to listen to the personal stories of others.

We naturally get swept into a rich, well-told story. We embrace its world. We feel what the characters feel. Our body may even feel the effects of our imagination simulating the events, as if we were experiencing it ourselves. We can never fully understand what another person has gone through; but by listening to their stories, we can empathize with their feelings and perspective.

This leads me to my final point and our greatest challenge: how to actually have these conversations.

4. Earn Permission. Give Permission. Then Talk.

Befriending someone who looks, acts and feels completely different from you is challenging; but I'm here to tell you that it's easier than you think. It does take time and it does take work. 

Discussion dissolves disagreements. 

How often are you in the presence of the people you want to be closer with? Here’s a quick and easy audit:

  1. Who have you had at your dinner table over the last six months? Do they all look, act, and think like you?
  2. Think about where you spend your free time – your gym, your coffee shop, your sports league. Does everyone fit a very similar mold?
  3. Scroll through your emails and texts: who are you communicating with?

These three questions will reveal a lot about your opportunity to engage in conversations with people that are different from you. 

You gain permission to have conversations by being around and becoming familiar. You don't have to speak to the people you wish to engage for a while; just being there is a start. 

Once you’ve established the trust that comes with familiarity, your first step shouldn't be to dive into a deep discussion about a potentially racially-charged topic. Start by being friendly. Start by serving. Start by being vulnerable. 

When you do this for long enough, you earn permission and are then able to give permission for them to ask questions that lead to the conversations. 

I have been a member of the Legacy Center downtown for several years and have lived on the Near Eastside for over a year. My lifestyle is completely different from most of the people I interact with. 

I own a new home in a low-income area. I have a salaried position and a college degree. My problems, my thoughts and perspectives are different from those of most of the people I'm around. 

But something magical has happened from just being around. I'm able to have conversations that go past the surface; I can now invite people into my home who would have never walked through my door otherwise. 

Would I like to see more of this? Yes, but it's a start, and I'm hopeful. You should be too. Engaging people of different racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds will at times uncomfortable and tough; but it’s worth it. 

Diversity enriches our lives; and it’s part of our calling as Christians. The Great Commission commands us to go and make disciples of ALL nations. That includes our brothers and sisters that are different from us. 

Next week, Soma Church is hosting The Talk, a panel discussion on building racial solidarity in Indianapolis. I will be attending, and I hope you will too. Although I have lived this more than many others, I have lots of room to grow in understanding brothers and sisters who are also created in the image of God but different than me.