Can People of Color Really Make Themselves at Home?

There's a big difference between being a guest in a largely white organization and being able to "move the furniture."
Can People of Color Really Make Themselves at Home?

In the early 1990s, during my first years of ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, I worked with a thoroughly multiethnic campus ministry team in New York City. We had two to three members from each of several major American racial and ethnic groups—black, Latino, Asian, and white. Our team believed that God loves people of every ethnicity and culture. Frankly, if we hadn’t, we wouldn’t have had much of a student ministry in New York City. And during our city-wide conferences, when students gathered in worship, we looked like that picture of the new creation in Revelation 7: every nation, tribe, people, and language gathered in praise.

As a Chinese American who grew up in Hawaii, I deeply appreciated InterVarsity’s commitment to multiethnicity and racial reconciliation. In InterVarsity, my ethnic background felt like an asset, not a path to being a somewhat abnormal would-be white person. InterVarsity, some said, was the most multiethnic campus ministry in the country, and we were the most multiethnic team in InterVarsity.

One of the ways our ministry embraced a multiethnic vision was sponsoring ethnic student conferences—opportunities for black, Latino, Asian, and white students to work through issues of ethnic identity, community, and faith in a safe environment. The first year we ran all the conferences at the same time in the fall, the students at my predominantly Asian American Columbia University fellowship promptly delved so deeply into their ethnic journey, especially what I call the “angry stage,” that they forgot to welcome new students. Obviously, this didn’t help the growth of our fellowship.

I spoke with my colleagues of color who ran the other ethnic conferences about how it would be more helpful to have a discipleship conference in the fall where we could all focus on our unified identity and growth in Jesus, and host our ethnic student conferences in the spring—after all the new students had been welcomed. They agreed.

However, the leaders of our ministry team, all white at the time, decided the fall worked best for the region’s ministry as a whole. I felt frustrated, but more than that, exploited—being asked to run conferences that actually hurt the chapters that hosted most of our students of color.

So I brought it up with my supervisors. There’s nothing like a person of color using words like “exploited” in InterVarsity to get a meeting organized!

Not long into our meeting, I realized I was talking far more than my teammates of color. Not only was I talking more, I was saying things they had said privately, but weren’t voicing publicly.

I finally called them on it, and we started having a different and more important conversation: about what prevented them from speaking up. And in the course of that conversation, I believe God gave me a picture, one that has continued to be helpful in the many years of multiethnic partnership since.

Owning the House

InterVarsity was like a house with all sorts of staff living in it. Most of the white staff felt like they owned the house. They felt free to move the furniture, decorate the walls, put their feet up, and cook the foods they liked to eat. But others on our team, though they “lived” in the house, were just guests. As a guest, it’s impolite to move the furniture or criticize the decor, and if you don’t like the food served, you don’t complain—because if you complain, you’re not invited back.

Why did I feel more like an owner in InterVarsity, not a guest, even though I’m a member of an ethnic minority? There were all sorts of potential reasons. I had grown up feeling “normal” in Hawaii, where Asians/Pacific Islanders make up 70 percent of the population—maybe that gave me more confidence than my mainland teammates. Maybe the privileges of my upper-middle class background and elite education gave me a sense of entitlement. Maybe InterVarsity had welcomed me so well that I had actually absorbed the message that I was part of the family. Maybe I’m just brash—or arrogant—by temperament.

Whatever the reason, I felt completely free to move furniture, discuss the decorations, and serve my own style of food to make our ministry feel like home.

The picture resonated. My colleagues of color admitted they didn’t feel like they owned the house. They felt like guests, and at times like unwelcome guests. The metaphor of the house and the furniture gave our supervisors a way to make clear their true desire—for every one of us to “own” the house.

Discovering You Are a Guest

I’ve spent my entire life in predominantly white institutions: white churches, white universities, white neighborhoods and (obviously) a white nation. Although I would guess that every single white space I’ve inhabited has wanted to be a welcoming community, I can’t emphasize enough how often I’ve discovered others see me not as an owner but a guest:

  • Being asked to leave a campus ministry (not InterVarsity) where I’d been a student leader because new staff didn’t like my views on gender or social justice. At the same time, they desperately tried to keep my African American friend (who had the same views) involved, because they knew it looked good to have blacks in their group.
  • Serving on a committee that was examining issues of race and undergraduate education at my college, raising questions relating to Asian Americans—only to have faculty and administrators on the committee confess they’d never thought about us (though we were probably the largest ethnic minority on campus), and continue to ignore those issues.
  • Finding myself the only campus minister on a chaplaincy board who wasn’t invited to share something in a meeting with the new president of the university, even though I led the largest Christian student movement on campus.

Of course new folks can’t expect to move the furniture immediately. There’s a proving ground for showing competence, collegiality, and shared mission. Yet white institutions too often, as Jesus warned, are “ever seeing but never perceiving, ever hearing but never understanding” (Mark 4:12). Too often those who don’t “fit” the picture of leadership (often ethnic minorities and women) aren’t granted access or voice no matter how much they buy into the mission and show their competence. Too often voices that speak in a different cultural style can’t be heard at all—especially if they’re angry or speak hard truth (both of which get filed under “poor collegiality” or “bad cultural fit”).

As I’ve told the story of a house with owners and guests over the years, I’ve usually focused on what happens in the house—the decorations, food, furniture, who lives in what room. But lately I’m realizing that being an owner involves the ability to change the house’s structure itself. To blow out walls, to build an addition, to tear it all down and rebuild if necessary, or even to sell and move. I may not like that my husband wants to build an addition I think we can’t afford, but he gets to raise the possibility because he owns our house! And, because I’m also on the deed (and mortgage), he doesn’t get to blow out our foundation (or bank account) until I agree.

How do I know when I’m a guest? When my concerns and needs—no matter how persuasively stated—have the same impact as my child’s socially awkward friend telling me what color I should have painted my walls.

How do I know I’m an owner? When someone has explicitly given me power to bring change. Even though my desire to move a wall may not win the day, at least I get to make the case for it, sway other owners and have a vote.

Welcoming and empowering more owners can be challenging and painful. It requires far more discernment, and more careful decisions about process, than a simple, “The majority rules.” And a house that welcomes all nations will feel somewhat uncomfortable for everyone. It might even look tacky to some tastes. There may be a kente cloth hanging from the wall, feijoada in the fridge, a Japanese screen next to the clean lines of a Scandinavian sofa. Rock and roll might play in the living room, hip-hop in the family room, salsa in the kitchen, and a Beethoven concerto in the den. Walls may have been demolished to create more communal spaces, and additions may have been added to accommodate all the relatives.

But it will be worth it. Because according to Revelation 7, it’s where we’re headed anyway.

Kathy Tuan-MacLean, PhD, serves as Associate Director for InterVarsity’s Graduate & Faculty Ministries (GFM).

May
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Can People of Color Really Make Themselves at Home?