Last week, I touched on the idea of institutional racism. The key point we learned was that, “If you don’t think there’s a problem, then you’re part of the problem.” Overcoming institutional bias in any manner is certainly not possible without the perspective of the affected minority groups, nor is it possible if members of the majority group are simply too comfortable to take a step out of their circle.
Midwest boy in Africa
I look to my younger days as an example. I grew up in a county in Northeast Wisconsin whose idea of a cross-cultural venture was to drive 35 miles to Green Bay. Our county consisted of about 20,000 year-round residents, three of whom were black. We had some migrant farm workers who would help during cherry-harvesting season, but that was about the extent of my multi-cultural exposure. I attended a private, Catholic college in the area, and that had its own insular qualities. And today I still chuckle at a post-college moment which revealed my own cultural ignorance.
I had just graduated college and decided to spend a year as a short-term missionary in Zaire (today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo). I worked as an electrician in a mission hospital which was home to dozens of Western missionaries, and the hospital compound was a thoroughfare for scores of other missionaries who came and went to other remote areas. Friday nights we always had a social gathering, and it was a good time to meet people from around the world.
“Normal” is subjective
On one of those evenings I was chatting it up with some folks from Great Britain, and in the course of the conversation I explained that “In America, on Friday night, everyone goes out for a fish fry.” My memory is that the room then reached “absolute zero”, with all conversational life ceasing to exist. The place became quiet, and American missionaries gave me more than a curious look. It was then that I learned that my northeast Wisconsin culture was not a full representation of all of America at large. We ate fish on Friday nights (and we still do), but not everyone did. I was 22 years old.
Sure, you could argue that this form of bias didn’t have much of an effect on the world, but it goes to illustrate the point that, what seems normal to us may not be normal for others. As church planters, we should always be looking for ways to expose ourselves to new cultural norms. That way, we won’t end up talking about fish fries with people who’ve never heard of them.
What practical tips do you have for overcoming personal bias? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.