A white pastor complained to Matt, my husband, and me that people of color visited his church but never stayed. He said he was heartbroken because he longed for a more diverse congregation. In the next breath, he told us that he preaches that we are all the same and that we should not “see color.”
Matt and I exchanged knowing looks.
It is impossible to teach colorblindness and value diversity at the same time. Diversity, by nature, requires that we see and value differences, while colorblindness demands that people purposefully ignore those very differences.
But I’ve understood that the impulse to be colorblind is often tied to low cultural competence.
Cultural competence is a fancy, academic way to describe someone’s ability to interact comfortably with people of a different culture. Culture, in the context of this article, means another race, ethnicity, or nationality, although culture is more complex than that.
Unfortunately, like any skill, we are not born with it, and many people lack it. Thankfully, like any skill, it can be developed and strengthened if one is aware and willing to grow. And because I teach cultural competence, when I meet someone from a different culture for the first time, I can’t help but assess their level of cultural competence by how comfortable they seem interacting with me.
I realize it is a flawed method, but through enough life experience, vicarious observation, study, and conversation with others, I believe that people not used to being around others who are culturally different “tend” to follow into three categories:
One group, I call them the curious but misled group, asks the “wrong” kinds of questions, such as “What are you?” instead of “Where are you from?” and/or tends to generalize things about me based on my color and background like assuming I like spicy food or that I am Mexican. They are interested in getting to know people from other backgrounds but have not had enough experience to learn how.
Another group, the silent group, pretends there is no difference between us, that I don’t have an accent, that I don’t clearly come from somewhere else, and that I don’t obviously belong to a different ethnic group. These folks believe that one should be colorblind and that asking questions about our differences is disrespectful and divisive.
The third group is people who are simply and utterly uninterested in people who are different than them, have no desire to get to know them, and prefer to maintain their distance. Of that group, I have nothing else to say.
But I much rather meet people in the first group’s category: the curious but misled. Because, as obnoxious as some questions can be and as flattening as assumptions can feel, their questions and comments allow me to educate, tell my story, and have a conversation about the beauty of diversity. These folks just need opportunities to practice cultural competence.
The silent group, as much as they think they are being respectful and preserving a (false) sense of peace and unity, makes me feel unseen. Erased. I am aware that I have an accent. I love it! If you ask me about it, you give me a chance to tell you about Ecuador, my homeland, and my love for languages. If you ask me to give you the recipe for enchiladas, I can explain to you that not all Latinos eat alike and tell you about some of the differences in our cultures.
I know people say they are afraid to ask questions and offend the person. And I won’t tell you that if you ask a question in a disrespectful or offensive way, you will not be called out on it, even if you didn’t mean any harm. Intention does not erase impact, and getting called out is not fun. But in my experience, if you accept the call out and keep an open mind and a spirit of humility anyway, the majority of people I know will still answer your questions gladly and with a desire to help you.
To that white pastor, I would say: first, you must become culturally competent yourself. Notice and appreciate diversity instead of ignoring it. Learn about cultural humility by becoming aware of your own biases and privileges. Listen and learn about racism and oppression from those who experience them. Become comfortable with uncomfortable conversations about race.
Then use your unique position to teach your congregation to do likewise.
People of color will not stay in your church until we feel safe there. And we won’t feel safe until we feel seen. And we won’t feel seen until the rest of the congregation knows how to develop relationships with people who are not like them in acceptance, respect, and appreciation of differences.
And you have to lead them by example.
By Gabriela Buitrón