Does your church have a Swedish Jesus?

It can be difficult for people in a dominant group to understand the experiences and perspectives of those who are in subordinate groups.  If something works really well for me, and others seem to be struggling, my first impulse may be to wonder, “What’s wrong with them?”

In addition, dominant group members may not have many opportunities to get to know those who are subordinate, or to hear first-hand accounts of their experiences.  Because those who are dominant nearly always segregate themselves in residential and social enclaves, they often are profoundly ignorant of others’ lives.

Continue reading “Does your church have a Swedish Jesus?”

Two Racial Tipping Points?

I’ve been wondering lately whether we’re moving toward two very different racial tipping points, both at the same time.

Tipping Point Number One:  Not Your Mother’s Civil Rights Movement

A student asked me after class Wednesday where I thought the most racial progress is being made today.  Interesting question!  I told him that the post-Ferguson coming-togethers, loosely organized under the Black Lives Matter hashtag, have the potential to create meaningful, significant progress.  It’s a large, distributed network of mostly young, mostly Black people all over the country helping us think about what it would mean if Black lives really did matter to us.  There is energy, interest, and vision, as well as thoughtful discussion of ends and means that has the potential to reshape how the nation conceives of racism and, therefore, how we go about ending it.

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Segregation means that the similar is also the familiar

An international research team has been studying racial bias in children—how it develops and how it can be addressed.

We have known for a long time that babies and young children look longer at things they like, and not so long at things they don’t like.  Pretty straightforward, right?  More recently, we learned that when it comes to adult faces, babies like the kinds of faces they already know more than they like the kinds of faces that are new to them (Bar-Haim et al., 2006).  White Israeli babies prefer White adult faces.  Black Ethiopian babies prefer Black adult faces.  But Ethiopian babies living in Israeli resettlement campus don’t show a preference, presumably because they are living in a multiracial environment.  It’s a matter of favoring the familiar, not the similar.

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Getting un-befuddled

#BlackLivesMatter has become a national force in the year since Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri.  Businesses are scrambling to adapt to the new work force, and the new customer base.  “Social justice” is the subject of sermons and studies in churches, synagogues, and mosques around the country.

And 51% of likely American voters want to build a wall along the Mexican border.

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Are those kids our kids?

Back in the ‘80s, there was a lot of concern about the coarsening of U.S. culture, especially in entertainment, including the use of violent, crudely sexual, and misogynistic lyrics in both heavy metal and rap music.  At the time, heavy metal was considered a genre mostly for young White men, and rap a genre mostly for young Black men.

Sociologist Amy Binder (1993) studied the ways in which journalists and others expressed their concerns about both heavy metal and rap during those years, and discovered a very important difference.  People were concerned that the messages of heavy metal would in some way harm its White listeners.  The concerns about rap, however, were not about its effects on the listeners themselves, but about the possibility that rap music would motivate its Black listeners to harm others.  “I’m worried about those (White) kids” vs. “I’m worried about what those (Black) kids will do to the rest of us.” Continue reading “Are those kids our kids?”

Who’s in the room? Who isn’t? Why?

I was talking with a physician recently, a specialist, really good at his work and a darn nice guy.  He asked me about a book I was reading on health disparities by race and class and then commented, “That’s really interesting, but come to think of it, all my patients are White.”

He’s been practicing medicine for 20 years or so, and from what I could see, that conversation was the first time he’d thought about the racial make-up of his patient population.  He works in a county in which 25% of the population is not White, and he draws patients from all over.  People of color are just as likely as Whites to need his particular services.  Like most of us, however, he’d never stopped to think about the people who weren’t there, the ones not sitting in his waiting room.  And therefore he’d never wondered why. Continue reading “Who’s in the room? Who isn’t? Why?”

Is it clear that we expected them?

We had friends over the other evening.  I excused myself a bit early from an afternoon gathering, saying, “It’s my experience that when you have people over, they expect a clean house and a decent meal.  I need to go work on that.”

Yesterday afternoon, about 50 Hope College folk gathered for a webinar on racial climate on college campuses, presented by the Rev. Dr. Jamie Washington of theWashington Consulting Group, and a co-founder of the Social Justice Training Institute.  I am grateful to the Office of Multicultural Education and Counseling and Psychological Services for making it possible. Continue reading “Is it clear that we expected them?”

Code-Switching for Success

There are lots of stories, and a lot of research, about people who are adept in two different cultures.  There can be a cost to that—knowing two or more ways of being can make it difficult to feel completely at home in either place.  But there are advantages, too, to being able to move in and out of different contexts and operate well in both of them.

Sometimes that skill is called code-switching.  It takes practice.  After returning home from a semester teaching in Japan, I went to the bank to get some things settled.  Upon completing my transactions, I bowed deeply to the teller.  On the way down, I realized my mistake.  I thought about wheeling around and walking out so I didn’t have to face her.  But I came back up and, as I expected, she seemed both puzzled and worried.  I offered a brief explanation and walked quickly out the door. Continue reading “Code-Switching for Success”

The Battle over the Battle Flag

I spent my adolescence and young adulthood in Tennessee, but I’m no expert on Southern history or culture.  With all the talk about the Confederate battle flag in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Charleston on June 17, however, I do have one small observation that might be helpful.

In the New York Times video, below, about Southern reactions to the flag, one brief shot shows a wall plaque that says, “It’s a Southern thang.  Yankees wouldn’t understand.”  That’s at least partially true, I think, and for several different reasons.  “Is it heritage or is it hate?” is an important question logically, but psychologically, there’s a whole lot more going on than that.  Understanding that can bring a bit of empathy even in the midst of profound disagreement. Continue reading “The Battle over the Battle Flag”

Race as a Bundle of Sticks

One of the very first things researchers need to do is define their terms, to develop “operational definitions” of the things they are studying.

When it comes to race, however, very few researchers have taken the time to do that very difficult, but very important, task.  Maya Sen and Omar Wasow have made that much easier with a recently-published article entitled Race as a ‘Bundle of Sticks’: Designs that Estimate Effects of Seemingly Immutable Characteristics.  (You can also read a synopsis and analysis at

Their essential point is that race is a catch-all term that refers to many different things.  They are all bundled together into a single package, but it still is possible to tease apart the individual pieces–and essential to do that when you are using race as a research variable. Continue reading “Race as a Bundle of Sticks”