In Multiethnic Community {Book Club}

In Multiethnic Community {Book Club}

I read this week that in the United States, the average white social group is 91% white. Nearly everyone in these groups, be they social groups from neighborhoods, churches, or schools, are white Americans.

When this statistic was shared, it was accompanied by an explanation that many white Americans say that they can’t build relationships with people of other ethnicities because everyone around them is white. However, to an extent, we (especially those of the privileged classes in a society) choose where to go to church, where to live, and where our kids go to school. Thus, it becomes apparent that white Americans are segregating themselves. Maybe they aren’t consciously deciding to stay in those neighborhoods, schools, and churches because everyone looks like them, but they aren’t making cross-cultural relationships a priority.

Most of us in this group don’t live in the US, and many in this group are not American, so what do these stats have to do with us, in this book club?

Ever since the Tower of Babel, humans have been segregated on ethnic lines. People have a tendency to trust those who are like them, to build relationships and find things in common with people who have a similar culture. In the colonized world, ethnicities were segregated intentionally by colonial powers in order to divide and conquer.

The point is, people are ethnically segregated by their own choices and the choices of others, choices made consciously and subconsciously. And this makes people naturally deficient in cross-cultural skills.

We have taken the step of living cross-culturally. We are surrounded by people who are not like us. But are we communicating well across ethnic and language barriers? Are we handling conflict graciously? My bet is that we all have growing room in these areas. In this week’s reading of Beyond Colorblind, Sarah Shin gives us some tips for developing and improving those skills.

“Cross-cultural skills are needed in order to make a diverse, multiethnic community work.” Shin was talking about a church or work team that has members from many ethnic backgrounds. But even a team of several Kenyans and one American (that’s me) needs these skills.

Chapter 7 focused a lot on communication within a group. The descriptions of meetings reminded me of our discussions about the book Sacred Siblings. Back then we were talking about communication and expectations between people of different marital statuses, genders, and life stages. Here, it is between ethnicities, but the principles of humility and listening well still apply. We are adding the layer I will call “paying attention to cultural and ethnic differences”.

Shin described a group discussion model which made room for only one ethnicity’s style of communicating. And I would go further to say that it only made room for certain personality types within that ethnicity to share. Anyone in a position of leading meetings and group discussions needs to consider the ethnicities involved as well as the personalities of those in the group, and gender, age, socio-economic status. We should reflect on which voices we always hear and which voices we don’t hear at all. How do group discussions and meetings proceed in your host culture?

“Be yourself” is the motto for individualistic cultures. Some feel that to stay true to themselves, they must not change for anyone. When asked to change the way they communicate or act while in a multiethnic group, to make space for other people, they feel they are being asked to present a facade, a false self. But Shin says, “Being authentic to your ethnic self means not acting as if your cultural values are the norm.” In what ways have you had to change for cross-cultural communication and relationships?

In Chapter 8, Shin presented Acts 6 as a model for cross-cultural conflict. This blew my mind! I considered copying and pasting that entire section right here, but it is too much. Even if you haven’t read the rest of the book with us, find a way to read this section. I have heard this chapter taught and preached multiple times, but always from the angle of what deacons are and what they should do. Looking at it through the lens of cross-cultural conflict brings out something totally different and beautiful! And timely!

When believers in a position of privilege ignored the needs of those without that privilege, the apostles responded humbly, immediately, and effectively. How wise to put those from the under-served part of the community in charge of the distribution. Shin summed it up with this: “The most loving thing to do is show up and listen, without judgment. We can ask leaders to make space to care for the hurting.”

These two chapters were packed with good general ideas as well as specific tips for communication and conflict in multi-ethnic groups. Which did you need to hear most? What stood out to you this week? Join me in the comments!

P.S. Here’s the schedule for the rest of the book:

November 17: Chapter 9

November 24: Chapter 10

Photo by Gemma Chua-Tran on Unsplash

1 Comment

  1. Sarah Hilkemann November 11, 2020

    I thought the background and discussion of Acts 6 was so fascinating too! I hadn’t ever looked at the story that way.

    Communication across cultures can be messy, and hard work. I remember the weight I often felt while I was on the field- wanting to communicate well, with kindness, with respect, in ways that made sense to the others around me. It was hard to sometimes be misunderstood too, or feel like I couldn’t be fully myself. But even though it’s hard work and sometimes messy, striving to keep learning and being intentional is so important.

    This quote struck me from Chapter 7: “Cultural learning is not a trophy to be waved around like a flag or bragging rights. It’s something that’s meant to be shared”. There are times when I DO want to brag about my cultural learning or experiences. 🙂 I appreciated the examples she gave of calling someone out with lots of grace- creating space for learning in a respectful and gentle way.

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