I grew up in the rural towns of Central Minnesota.
While I knew a great many Germans, Swedes, and Norwegians, I didn’t know any African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics or Native Americans. My school was 100% white—well, strike that. There had been two bi racial students who had graduated before I entered high school. So, 99.9% white.
When I came to Minneapolis for college, I was giddy with the possibilities of meeting people different from the farmers and small town kids I had known. I choose to go to a Christian college right in the middle of it all– the Elliot Park Neighborhood, one of the most racially and culturally diverse neighborhoods in Minneapolis.
We walked by the neighborhood liquor store on the way to chapel and visited the bodegas between classes. I loved it all.
But I can’t say the same for the other small town white kids and suburban kids who came to my school.
There is always a “bubble” in college-towns, particularly Christian colleges. It seemed the bubble at my college extended into the school itself, with the white kids on one side and the few students of color on the outside.
That confused me. Weren’t we all here to meet new people and learn new things from the other students?
I began to see students of color sitting alone in the lounge and cafeteria and I started up conversations. I made many mistakes and asked stupid questions. But after having lived and been deep friends with people of color over the past 15 years, here’s what I have learned:
1. You will say dumb stuff.
I was so ignorant of other cultures, I said loads of dumb stuff. I asked people about their hair. I asked people speaking Spanish if they were all Mexicans. I said Indians when I meant Native Americans. And worst of all, I believed America was a meritocracy and that if we all worked hard enough we would find our own American Dream.
People of color either laughed at me, politely stifled a laugh or gently corrected me. I learned not to be offended when my ignorance showed through.
2. When a Person of Color tells you that you are saying dumb stuff, LISTEN.
I am so grateful for the People of Color who told me when I was being offensive. It is certainly not the job of Black students to teach White students about diversity about racial reconciliation. However, there were certain friends who cared enough to tell me what was up. And that’s when it is your job to shut up and LISTEN.
I had a million excuses and arguments running through my mind as to what I really meant and how it’s not really offensive, but I learned that when someone is giving me the gift of their perspective, I need to just LISTEN.
3. If you have a question about another culture, put in some effort to learn the answer
I had questions. Instead of just checking what my Facebook friends thought about race-related issues or turning on Fox News, I went to the library.
I intentionally took classes with professors of color and read optional books written by authors of color. I visited Black baptist churches, Pentecostal African churches, Hispanic Holiness churches and multi-cultural spaces. I watched movies showing the historical treatment of Asian Americans. I made it a priority to work with people from different cultural backgrounds and to learn from them.
4. When you start to feel uncomfortable, don’t back away from relationships
When you are in a cross cultural friendship, uncomfortable moments happen. Things don’t flow as easily as when you are talking with people just like you. Everyone doesn’t know the same movie quotes and listen to the same songs, so hanging out might not feel as natural.
When that happens, don’t back away. Keep finding ways to connect. Ask questions. Make memories. Forgive others and ask for forgiveness.
I promise you that these relationships will shape you and change your perspectives. It’s worth it.