A white girl’s lens on why culture matters

I never realized culture mattered. Perhaps that’s because I never had to think about it. There are some sad realities in there about privilege and European mono-culture. I never ever imagined marrying someone who wasn’t white - it just wasn’t in my realm of experience.

Yet, I was curious about the world and the people in it. I dreamed of travelling and working overseas as a young child. Perhaps somewhere in Africa. I realized that I lived in a very sheltered and safe world when I travelled to South America in grade 12, discovering that people had to live with bars on their windows with military commonly walking around cities holding giant machine guns.

In university I thought I knew about culture through studying history, politics, and development. I thought spending 4 months travelling and studying in India gave me some street cred. It probably helped bump my cultural awareness up a few notches but I was still the white girl from Barrie. Totally basic.

Looking back I realize that there were non-white students at my (mostly) white school. I just didn’t notice them. One of those students ended up becoming my current boyfriend, but we didn’t really “meet” until several years later through work.

I say “meet” carefully. He was involved in another Christian club on campus, Asian Christian Fellowship, and their office was across the hall from ours. He knew who I was, the loud, outgoing student leader, and even thought I was pretty. Even though we probably passed in the hallways hundreds of times, or even attended the same events on campus, I never “saw” him. I first heard of him in my last semester of school when he applied to go on the same mission trip I attended the summer before. But I couldn’t even pronounce his asian last name properly.

I’ve painted a grim picture of my cultural awareness which is probably embarrassing, and yet I think one of the first freeing moments I had in (really) exposing myself to others cultures was to just acknowledge: “I live in a white world. I really don’t know about other’s experiences living in other cultures. But I don’t want to choose ignorance, I want to learn.”

I realized this during my first job. I moved to a much more diverse city and campus and was faced with the reality of my own ignorance. I thought I “knew” about culture from classes but I had no idea.

I needed to hear the stories and acknowledge the voices of those who lived very differently from me. I needed to understand that even though we lived in the same city, some of my friends were treated very differently on the bus. I needed to learn to try Pho, and dim sum, bibimbap, and bubble tea.

I had some growth moments and some challenging moments (mostly of understanding that my cultural perspective aren’t the only narrative and that it actually hurts others). An important moment for me was realizing the level of fear that many of my white friends had in discussing culture and race (including myself). There was this pervasive fear of saying the wrong thing, or being accused of being “racist” or even saying stereotypes by accident, that they just didn’t say anything. They shied away from conversations about race because they didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about it.

A coloured friend of mine was explaining her frustration with her white friends who never discussed the racial tension and issues that were hitting our society really hard. I told her that they probably cared but didn’t know how to talk about it. It was too scary to bring up and admit ignorance or instilled negative beliefs. They needed to be invited into the conversation and taught how to discuss these things.

Is that a sad and tragic reality? Yes. Do we have an opportunity and responsibility to be learners despite the attitudes in our upbringing? Yes. Is it hard and awkward and uncomfortable sometimes? Yes. That’s okay. Often the right path isn’t the easy or natural one.

A posture of listening and learning is humbling. But so freeing. It looks like asking more questions than offering answers. It even involves acknowledging ways we may be wrong. It gives understanding to preferences and palettes - two things that can grow overtime, and yet we so often limit ourselves out of fear or thinking “I won’t ever like that.”

Culture matters because it’s over sharing culture that we build trust with others and build vulnerable relationships. It’s one step of being fully known and accepted. Culture matters because people matter. Their voices, stories, and narratives in the world. Culture shapes our views on the world. Our innate trust and distrust, and what we deem “acceptable”.

What I love about the gospel is that it doesn’t just speak into one culture, but came through a culture to speak into all cultures. The truth about Jesus isn’t limited to the white way, or asian way, or coloured way. God created people and culture and loves diversity. God isn’t “colourblind”. He sees colour and celebrates diversity. All people in all cultures are made in the image of God.

To support diversity and culture doesn’t equal universalism. I am not saying that “all paths lead to God”, or “all ways of life are good and true.” All cultures have terrible sins and brokenness, baggage and expressions of evil. And all cultures have beauty and value, and voices worth hearing. All cultures need redemption, to be made new. And to learn how to support and live in harmony with each other.

So let’s be lifetime learners. Not satisfied to stay within our boxes of comfort, walling off people and things that are different from us.

Let’s ask, “Will you introduce me or teach me about this? Will you share your story? I’m interested in hearing and learning.”