I don’t even like to use the word “race” when talking about people of different ethnicities and nationalities. There is only one race—the human race. To call white people a different race than brown people is inaccurate. But I use the word sometimes because it has worked its way into the American lexicon, and it is widely understood.
There is only one race, but there are many cultures. People in a given culture share traditions, values, language, history, cuisine, and more. Often, when you grow up in a particular culture, you assume the whole world shares the same values and traditions. It’s not until you bump into other cultures that you become aware of the variety. And it’s not until you explore the variety that you become aware that “different” is not necessarily “wrong.”
For example, American culture places a high value on individualism—we love the “self-made man” and the Lone Ranger and the iPhone/iPad/iTunes way of life. Many African cultures, on the other hand, place a high value on relationships—consensus is more important than winning an argument; generations of families live together in the same house; asking for help is an expectation of friendship, not a sign of weakness.
Neither value system is inherently right or wrong. But it takes time to see the advantages of a system that is different from yours.
The nice thing is, when you start exploring the differences, you often discover that there are underlying values we all have in common. Sometimes different cultures are just different expressions of similar values. I may not like how l-o-o-o-o-n-g it takes to make a decision in Africa, but I can appreciate the underlying value of giving everyone a voice in the discussion. I get impatient sometimes with a slow process, and I have to be intentional about remembering that people are more important than processes.
All this is on my mind because I am part of a program called Common Ground, and it is about to launch. The program pairs two people of different races, and then equips them to meet monthly for a year and talk about themselves, their families, their cultures. We have about 80 people enrolled this year, and I think that’s a testament to their willingness to learn new things and re-evaluate old assumptions.
We may not be able to solve longstanding, systemic problems that flare out in places like Ferguson, but having mutually respectful conversations about them is the best way to start.
I like being part of a program that assumes we do have common ground. I like being part of a program that believes in the basics of conversation and relationships.