Today I’m privileged to host Ben Emerson, of the irreverently reverent The Whole Dang Thing. What is the “Whole Dang Thing?” It is Ben blogging his way through the entire Bible–one chapter at a time. Please check out his blog. But only after you’ve read today’s post. Ben also works for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in the Pacific Northwest, and married the love of his life, Andrea, last fall.
A word about this post: not long ago, I wrote about The First Time I Saw A Black Person. Ben commented on that post, sharing a little of his story. I asked him to expand his comment into a full-blown post because I believe it’s important to understand how peoples’ different life experiences shape their views of themselves, others, and the world. If you have a story you’d like to share, please drop me a line (contact info is on my About page), I’d love to read it (and perhaps share it here).
Without further ado, here’s Ben:
Hi. My name is Ben.
I am a white guy.
And I am only beginning to see all the ways that this has colored and shaped my life.
One thing that happens to a lot of us white folk is that we don’t realize we are white. We don’t realize that we have an ethnicity and a culture. We fail to see that “white” is not neutral or “default.”
I’d like to share with you some stories of times when this became clearer to me. I’m not going to offer answers or tips or lessons. Not yet anyway. Just stories. The first happened when I was in a leadership meeting in college. The second happened while trying to develop leaders after college.
“Now, Ben and Dan probably think that Nathan is just like them. He’s just one of the guys. Right?”
Jon looked at us for an answer.
Dan and I quickly glanced at each other and then back to Jon. “Yeah. Of course. Why would we treat him or think of him any differently?”
“But Nathan, on the other hand, I’m guessing is acutely aware of all the ways that he is different than Ben and Dan. He probably notices many of these differences every single day.”
It couldn’t be true. Nathan wasn’t that different from us! Sure, he was from Hawai’i and was ethnically Philippino and Native Hawaiian, and we were white guys from California, but that shouldn’t make that much difference. Should it?
When Jon was done speaking the two of us looked over at Nathan. He was nodding his head up and down with this impish grin on his face. His look said everything. “Yep. And you guys have no idea.”
I was shocked. I had been friends with him for over a year! And I was just now realizing that his experiences at the University of Oregon, as a student leader in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and as my friend had been vastly different than my own.
And the reason they were different was because of his ethnicity and cultural background.
Fast forward eight years or so.
After graduation I began working for InterVarsity at Oregon State University. In one of my Bible Studies was a Black student named Camille.
She was having a difficult time being at OSU (there are about 300 black students there; out of a total of 24,000 or so) and was talking to me about her experiences.
I had grown a lot since my conversation with Nathan. I was aware that ethnicity matters. As much as many of us well-intentioned white people would like to think that we don’t see color, many minorities feel the differences every day of their lives. So I was listening to Camille’s story.
She was thinking of transferring to Portland State, a much more diverse and urban school.
“Well Camille, I understand that it is hard to be a black student here. And that InterVarsity doesn’t even feel like the most welcoming place to you. I’m sorry. But I do think that we need to grow in our cross-cultural ministry skills. Why don’t you and I start hanging out at the Black Cultural Center so we can meet more black students?”
Then Camille said something to me I will never forget.
“Why do ministries always wait until there is a black person around to start reaching out to black people?”
I had nothing to say. I mean, what can you say to something like that?