When we enter the multi-ethnic conversation, a lot of times things get awkward for white people. They may be subject to targeted attacks attempting to provoke guilt and shame. They may be completely ignored or silenced. And when they are engaged, they may be told that the only good thing about being white is that they have lots of power and privilege to share with others.
The fact that so many white men and women engage in conversations about ethnicity, given this situation, speaks volumes about their courage and about God's work in their hearts.
I've been blessed to be directly supervised by four wonderful, white managers over my years in InterVarsity.* And during their supervision, I've developed some positive stereotypes for amazing things that white folks bring to our ministry. Here are a few ...
Dean Miller helped me grow in appreciation for history. He had this amazing sense that he and I were a part of something amazing that God had been doing for millennia in the world. He drew a great deal of wisdom and joy and identity from his connection with the church that lived in ages past. I've seen this love for history echoed time and time again in my white friends.
Jimmy Long is a genius at building systems. Under his leadership, the Blue Ridge Region of InterVarsity has developed rock solid ministry structures on the sifting sands of collegiate campuses. Everyone in InterVarsity - whether they know it or not - is influenced by Jimmy's wisdom. The realm of infrastructure, systems and strategy is a place where the wisdom of my white friends really comes in handy. I'm so grateful to serve in ministry with folks like Jimmy.
Evan Keller helped me pay attention to God's abundant provision. Evan showed tremendous financial acuity when he was my boss, negotiating contracts and raising strategic funds for the ministry. But through it all, he demonstrated a confidence that there was always going to be enough, that people were generous and that God would provide. I've found his example - and the example of my many white friends who truly believe that God will provide - challenging and inspiring.
Stacy Gaskins is currently my supervisor with InterVarsity. She brings many strengths to the table, but there's one that's super-relevant here and that's her willingness to take risks. I've thrown out some off-the-wall ideas to her over the years and she not only considers them, but green lights them most of the time. She's willing to take big risks for Jesus and with Jesus. My white friends are some of the biggest, wildest risk-takers I know and I admire that about them.
Now, you may be wondering: history, systems, confidence and risk ... what about those things has anything to do with being white? And you may be thinking: I know lots of non-white people who do these things and have these qualities.
But isn't that the way these conversations often go? The mechanisms are murky and the stereotypes could apply elsewhere. I mean, sure, Latinos are communal and hospitable and not time-oriented, but so are the Peavyhouses (and they are not Latino).
Stereotypes are useful. We use them to navigate the world. And we're going to use them whether we want to or not and whether we talk about them or not. If we are going to use stereotypes in the multiethnic conversation, we should honor God's work in blessing ethnic identity by pointing out the ways God blesses us through our white friends.
What other strengths have you seen flow out of white identity? What do you think about the practice of talking about positive stereotypes?
*My best and longest supervision experience was with Joe Ho, InterVarsity's new National Director of Asian-American Ministries, who was my Staffworker at Duke and supervised my ministry for four years at W&L. Joe's ministry to me has been immensely formative. I could write a book about how amazing Joe is and barely scratch the surface. My comments about Dean, Jimmy, Evan and Stacy aren't intended to minimize in any way Joe's influence on my life.