A group from my church goes to a conference every summer in Chicago every summer called Legacy Conference. It’s a conference that focuses on making disciples and being a disciple (follower) of Jesus in an urban setting. One reason I love this conference is that I get to sit under the teaching of church leaders who are from different backgrounds, cultures, and ethnicities. While I’ll focus more on that next time, I want to show how a college class taught by someone from a different background helped me sort through my own identity.
When I was in college, I took a required class called Diverse Populations taught by Dr. Rhonda White. Being the nerd I am, I used to keep every piece of paper from every class. When I put an end to the paper hoarding, I still held onto everything from this class because of the impact it had on me. My goal at the time was to teach PE in a low income neighborhood in Phoenix. Since I grew up in a lower middle class, mostly white suburb, I knew that I needed help to figure out how to teach students in that setting. What I didn’t realize is that I had to learn more about myself first.
I already loved learning about other cultures and wanted to spend my life among people who were different from me. However, sorting through my own cultural and racial identity was messy. Doing the work of the process has kept me grounded as I have spent time among other cultures and races (Google Rachel Dolezal and you’ll see what I mean). When I worked through journal entries, I struggled through my negative feelings about white American culture and worked through concepts like white privilege and dominance (if you’re struggling through terms like this, check out this list of resources). Here are some examples from a journal entry:
- “Whenever I think about my own ‘Whiteness,’ I want to be someone else.”
- “I feel like my culture doesn’t really matter. The only things I’ve ever heard about middle class White culture have been negative.”
- “[God] decided that I should be the descendant of a man who owned a slave. He decided that I should be the descendant of a couple from Prussia. He decided that I should be the descendant of a Cajun family. While my identity ultimately lies in Jesus Christ, I was placed in this particular lineage for a reason…because He is the One that placed me here, I think wishing I was someone else is like saying that God made a mistake.”
When Dr. White had us create a cultural family tree, I thankfully started to see things about my cultures of origin to celebrate. As a whole, I don’t think white people in the United States take enough time to recognize this. Often, they just think that what their family does is normal and not connected to any culture or history. It’s like when people who speak English in the United States don’t think they have an accent (if this is you, please let me know and we’ll talk more).
During the process, I realized that not everyone’s family makes fry bread or sings together at Thanksgiving. I started appreciating things like my Scottish ancestry and the story of the Huguenots from France moving to the country to escape religious persecution. I started telling the story of my great uncle picking weeds called poke salat and bringing them to a family potluck with a little more fondness. On the health side of things, seeing my family’s view of food as love and how deep that goes gave me a good place to start understanding my relationship with food.
Another thing that I took from the class was how white American culture as a whole compares with other cultures, especially something called value orientations. Ironically, one of the key value orientations of white American culture as a whole is an emphasis on the individual. People who value the individual over a focus on a group perspective may not realize how much their culture affects them.
Understanding the different cultural influences in my family has given me a framework for understanding other cultures without trying to toss out my cultural and racial identity all together. I’m grateful that I had people like Dr. White in my life to guide me through the process.