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Color and Culture Separate Us: How Relationships Bring us Closer

Our collective capacity for equity, justice, and peace relies on relationships.

Key points

  • We are always in a particular perspective that influences our understanding the world and relationships with other people.
  • Acknowledging the prejudices of our subgroups allows us to grow beyond them and our beliefs and behavior to become differentiated from them.
  • Realizing new potential perspectives and meanings makes a real difference in our grasp and experience of truth and reality.
Hannah Busing/Unsplash
Source: Hannah Busing/Unsplash

Within the culture, expectations and norms go nearly unnoticed; they are forces spinning thought, emotion, and behavior into a pattern. A sputtering flow of formative anxiety shapes us, for better and worse.

Acknowledging the prejudices of our subgroups allows us to grow beyond them, our beliefs and behavior to become differentiated from them. As awareness increases, so do our capacities for understanding and relationships and, perhaps, our collective capacity for more significant equity, justice, and peace for all.

I am a white man from a small East Texas town where race came primarily in black and white. I grew up in a place and time where the desegregation of public schools was not a too distant memory. The difference between mine and the prior generation was that all I knew was being together. Yet society has its own memory, and memory has a way of lingering.

In my sophomore year of high school, my locker was next to Reggie's. The year before, his junior year, he had won five gold medals in the state track meet. I looked up to Reggie. One day in the locker room, he told me about the church he attended, how his father was a deacon. He told me he had never been to a white church. I told him I had not been to a black church. I asked him if he wanted to go to mine sometime.

He said, "Sure."

I asked, "This Sunday?"

I was trembling with intermingled excitement and anxiety as I drove to pick him up at his home in the predominately black part of town. As I pulled to the curb by his house, a black man dressed in a tuxedo came over to introduce himself as Mr. H., Reggie's father.

Before I knew it, Mrs. H. sat me down on the couch and asked if I wanted anything to drink.

"No ma'am," I said, gripping my seat, especially when Reggie's older brother walked through the living room and into his room, where I heard him yell to Reggie, who was in the shower,

"Hey, Reggie, why you have a white boy coming to see you?"

Mrs. H. brought out her mother-hoard of photo albums, pictures of Reggie's entire life. She gave me a play-by-play while she fixed breakfast in the kitchen, finished getting ready for church, and reminded Reggie his company was here.

In the mix of it all, Reggie had come out in his towel to apologize for running late and let me know he would be ready soon. Before I knew it, he was ready and dressed fancy. It may have been the first time a black person had come to my church's high school Sunday school class. And maybe the first time anyone had come in a full suit and tie. Other students knew who Reggie was. I was so proud that he was my guest.

Irina L/Unsplash
Source: Irina L/Unsplash

Then I was reminded to perform in a creative movement group to "Great is Thy Faithfulness" in the worship service. Think Napoleon Dynamite. I had forgotten. I almost wriggled my way out of it, not wanting to embarrass myself in front of Reggie. I looked out at four hundred congregants and Reggie, the only black skin in the room, thinking how out of place he looked and looked back anxiously at him over and over again to gauge his reaction to the unusual event.

I have remembered that experience with Reggie at times–these years so persistent–when our awareness of and attention to racial disparities emerge from the collective unconscious. In it, I find something of getting to know one another despite differences and fear, of speaking up and stepping into each other's lives in more intentional, meaningful ways.

The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer cast our lives as an interpretive venture—"To be a human is to be constantly structuring [one's] world in terms of meaning" (Strenger, 1991). We are always in perspective, understanding and configuring the world, especially in relationships with other people. We necessarily bring ourselves—with our world experience as pre-understanding and meaning generating context—and step into situations or the world of the other. Gadamer (1975) reflected, "If we place ourselves in the situation of someone else, then we shall understand him, i.e., become aware of the otherness, the indissoluble individuality of the other person, by placing ourselves in his position,” (p. 272).

We understand the meaning of an image or event, just as a work of art, concerning our own situation and in the light of our own concerns. Realizing new potential perspectives and meanings makes a real difference in our grasp and experience of truth and reality. Think of perspective as standing in a place and looking out over a horizon. As we move about, so changes our available horizon and, thus, our perspective. And we can take the previously seen horizons with us. In our mind's eye, in our understanding, we integrate them into our inner map of the world.

Our horizons are being continually formed. Gadamer (1975) contended, "We have continued to test our prejudices," and in so doing, adjust our understanding (p. 273). Interpretive understanding is, in this sense, a whole-person endeavor and not purely rational. We can only understand the gravity of privilege and the velocity of racial disparities by reaching beyond ourselves and our echo chambers in ways that subjugate our conditioned impulses and biases to the love of neighbor.

The psychologist Martin Buber taught that we find ourselves too quickly engaging one another as "Its." Only in relationships can we transform our misperceptions. We can hardly move toward wholeness and peace as individuals or groups unless we also move toward wholeness and peace as a community of persons and groups. We can only do so as we transform our biases and behaviors and our institutions and systems to those that promote the kind of collectively secure attachments between groups characterized by responsiveness and safety and implicit trust, and deepening respect. And we must rid ourselves of the notion that we can talk ourselves into it from a distance. We can't.


Gadamer, H. (1975). Truth and method. London: Sheed and Ward.

Strenger, C. (1991). Between hermeneutics and science: An essay on the epistemology of psychoanalysis. Madison, CT: International Universities Press.