Tips for Moving Toward Racial Reconciliation

Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?’

-Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Image: moritz320/Pixabay

Image: moritz320/Pixabay

White people live very segregated lives, benefitting from NOT knowing and engaging with their racial reality. When white people don’t understand some of the basic tenets of whiteness, it’s hard to fully engage in the work of racial reconciliation. The starting place is to interrogate whiteness. We have to understand what whiteness is, how it functions, and how we can dismantle its harmful effects if we want to pursue racial justice and unity. Here are 16 tips to get the conversation (and hard work) started.

1 - Don’t expect Persons of Color (POC) to be your only source of education about race.

Black, Indigenous, and people of color get exhausted explaining the same ideas over and over again, every time a white person “joins the conversation.” Read a book instead. Watch a documentary. Google terms and ideas. If you must hit up your friend of color for insight, at least buy them dinner, and really listen to what they have to say.

2 - Don’t take up too much (metaphorical) space in the conversation.

Yes, this is hard for verbal processors. We know you have important things to say, but White people’s ideas and stories are prioritized everywhere else. Take this opportunity to sit quietly and elevate the voices of POC.

3 - Don’t compare your experience of oppression or suffering with a POC’s experience with oppression or suffering.

Although you might see similarities between your circumstances, resist the urge to interpret a Black, Indigenous, or person of color’s experience through your limited lens. Your suffering is real, and it might help you feel more connected to or empathetic toward your friend of color, but your experiences are not the same. Continue to listen and seek to understand.

4 - Don’t “Whitesplain.”

Do not explain racism to a POC. Do not explain how the microaggression they just experienced was actually just someone being nice. Do not explain how a particular injustice is more about class than race. It is an easy trap to fall into, but you can avoid it by maintaining a posture of active listening.

5 - Don’t make the conversation about you.

The needs/feelings/questions/priorities of White people are centered most everywhere. If you feel silenced or undervalued, use that experience to inform how you treat POC in other spaces instead of developing a victim complex. The falling of “White tears” does not build bridges and it shifts the focus from the true problem (racism and inequality) to how you feel about having to learn about it.

6 - Don’t equate impact with intent.

Yes, we all know your heart was in the right place and you meant well. But your words or behavior had a negative impact on those around you, and that is what matters. Despite the best of intentions, as you navigate conversations of race you will make mistakes and missteps and hurt someone. Humbly apologize and do better next time rather than dig in your heels or try to justify yourself.

7 - Don’t explain away a POC's experience of oppression.

They are the expert on their own experience. Don’t play devil’s advocate or provide an alternative explanation for what happened. Take their word for it. Maybe ask a follow-up question like, “How did that make you feel?”

8 - If what you are about to say starts with “Not all…” (…men, …White people, …evangelicals, …police officers, etc.), don’t say it.

Conversations about race and racism are about systems, institutions, and ideologies more than individuals. Though this is contrary to White cultural norms, it is not helpful or necessary to force the conversation to fit our culture. There will always be “good” examples which fall outside generalizations, but do not derail the conversation by bringing up the exceptions when discussing the rule.

9 - Don’t demand proof of a POC's lived experience or try to counter their narrative with the experience of another person of color.

The experiences and opinions of POC are as diverse as its people. We can believe their stories. But keep in mind: just because one person of color doesn’t feel oppressed, that doesn’t mean systemic, institutional racism is not real.

10 - Don’t believe the classic trope that behavior modification on the part of POC would eliminate racism.

In other words, don’t blame the victim. POC changing how they dress, what music they listen to, how they speak, or any other number of excuses, will not eradicate White supremacy. Belief in such is a historical shift from biological racism (POC are inherently inferior) to cultural racism (POC are culturally inferior). Expecting Black, Indigenous, and people of color to act more in line with White cultural norms is not the solution.

11 - Do not chastise POC (or dismiss their message) because they express their grief, fear, or anger in ways you deem “inappropriate.”

Understand that historically, White people have silenced voices of dissent and lament with our cultural idol of “niceness.” Provide space for POC to wail, cuss, or even yell at you. Jesus didn’t hold back when he saw hypocrisy and oppression; POC shouldn’t have to either.

12 - Don’t attempt to equate your experiences visiting, serving, or living overseas with the experience of being a POC in America.

You may have been a minority in your setting, but it is not an equivalent experience. Being a POC in America includes a different set of dynamics. White supremacy is not unique to America, but rather a worldwide phenomenon.

13 - Don’t underestimate the impact of your words.

You have the power to inflict real, lasting damage in these conversations. Be careful; melanin is not a protective shield. Decide if you want to be a balm or a battering ram.

14 - Don’t forget: racism is our problem.

Our people created and sustained it, and now it’s our job to dismantle it. Only by the grace and mercy of God are POC willing to walk this road with us toward racial healing and reconciliation. Honor that reality in how you treat those with whom you want to build bridges.

15 - Don’t get defensive when you are called out for any of the above.

When a person of color tells you that your words/tone/behavior are racist/oppressive/triggering, you stop. Don’t try to explain yourself (see #6.) Don’t become passive-aggressive or sarcastic. Don’t leave in a huff. (It may be helpful, however, to inconspicuously step outside/go to the restroom and take a deep breath.) Remain cognizant of the dynamics of White fragility, and take note of how it usually shows up in you. When you get defensive or leave the conversation, you reinforce to POC that White people are not a safe people with which to have this conversation.

16 - Don’t give up!

This will be a hard, lifelong process. Take care of yourself. Find community. Take time out to disconnect and process. Abide in the Word. Pray. Laugh. Cry. Yell. Sit quietly. Sing. Dance. Remember that our hope is in Jesus, who is present, and who sees all, and who grieves more deeply than you over racial oppression. Then come back and work hard again tomorrow. POC don’t get to step out of their skin and walk away the way we can. Remain, even when it’s harder than you imagined it could be, in solidarity.

By: Be the Bridge

Reprinted with permission, from Be the Bridge.


An Improved Way to Start Transforming a Place

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It is critical that we start with what people feel comfortable doing and are willing to do. They are the ones that are going to be entering the neighborhood and beginning to learn about the community. This is before we have done any asset surveys in the neighborhood to find out the neighborhood people’s skills, knowledge and passion and what they want to see different in their place. That means starting with very small pieces of their time, with things that are easy to do and requiring no continuing commitment.

In many churches, their members never get outside of the church’s four walls to reach out to nearby neighborhood people. The key is to get everyone in the game at the level they are willing to participate. This means we should:

  • Provide regular easy-entry opportunities that give people the chance to change the world. What if everyone in your church at year-end had a story to tell how he or she changed the world? Awesome!

  • Combine opportunity with inclination. Giving motivating sermons is one thing but people need the immediate opportunity to become involved, to put what they heard into action now.

  • Make it personal by people inviting their friends to join them in this specific, one time opportunity. Use the words “Do this with me.” There are three I’s necessary to attracting and asking volunteers

  1. Identify specific people who would do a great job in this activity.

  2. Inform them personally what they can be doing, in specific terms, if they join you.

  3. Invest by giving people a chance to try out something with no strings attached before they make any greater commitment.

  • Begin with the willing. It is important to realize that not everyone is willing. Work with the early enthusiasts who are willing to get involved. Let them then tell their stories and others will come along.

This means we must give people the opportunity to do things in which they feel comfortable.

One way to do that is look at people fitting into three different groups.

  1. Doing for Others: Some feel comfortable doing things for people.

  2. Coaching and Empowering: Others feel comfortable developing relationships and helping people to change their lives in areas that the person wants to change.

  3. Multiplying Ministry: Others desire those changed people to become multipliers by equipping them to equip others who equip others who equip others, which spreads what is happening exponentially (2 Timothy 2:2).

Another way is by accessing what type of person they are:

  • A Belong Person: You love to get people together for a BBQ or a party. You like being on the front porch with neighbors. You enjoy helping people find a place where they can relax and be themselves.

  • A Grow Person: You love to help people go deeper in their faith and relationship with Christ. Opportunities like a Bible study or discussing spiritual growth are what get you energized.

  • A Serve Person: You love to mobilize people to be the hands and feet of Jesus. You ‘d rather get sweaty mowing someone else’s lawn than get cozy in a small group discussion. You are looking for ways to help and get others to help

Both ways are similar but slightly different. Our main way of encouraging people to get involved in Transforming a Place in the past was for them to get to know their neighbors by walking around and talking to them as they see them, which is scary for many people.

Also we have suggested that a person hold a spontaneous barbecue in their driveway or yard. Both of those relate to people who are belonging types of people or people who are very relational or an empowering person, which is a similar type. That leaves out the other way of getting people involved.

We have been very aggressive in Neighborhood Transformation in encouraging groups to become involved in their local elementary school. This is a way to get different people to walk their own 2-3 blocks together, via the school where they can begin to minister on a broader neighborhood scale. But this is further along in the steps for a Neighborhood Transformation.

We need to begin Transforming a Place after they have chosen the neighborhood they will minister in, they begin to bless their elementary school. This is done by asking by the school principle how can they bless their school and then do whatever they are asked to do. This allows people who love to serve or do things for others to participate. It is felt that working in a school is safer then walking in a neighborhood. It requires no commitment on the part of the person unless they want to get involved at a deeper level, such as developing relationships with kids, which many see as easier then developing relationships with adults.

We highly recommend that you find out where the different people are who will start Neighborhood Transformation and then give them a variety of multiple, regular opportunities with different levels to participate in where they are. This means opportunities for those who develop relationships by walking around and other opportunities for people who do things by blessing the school.


By: Collaborative for Neighborhood Transformation

Reprinted with permission, from Collaborative for Neighborhood Transformation.