The (un)importance of cross-racial friendships

First posted to my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

This week, during an interview about Rediscipling the White Church, the conversation drifted into the role of relationships in the work for racial justice and reconciliation. It’s a tricky topic. As Emerson and Smith write about in Divided by Faith, relationalism is one of three characteristics of white Christianity (individualism and anti-structuralism are the others) which sabotage efforts at reconciliation. Relationalism is the belief that behind most social problems lies broken relationships. Fix the individual relationships and, ta-da!, the social problem will be fixed.

The reason this particular characteristic is so detrimental to racial reconciliation is because the sources of racial injustice are not fractured relationships but entire systems infected with racism. Christians of color who attend majority white churches, or culturally white multiracial churches, often find out that their presence alone defines success for the white people. In this (white) version of reconciliation, the material sources of racial inequality which impact people of color can be left entirely alone because now the white people have some friends of color.

The problem with this approach is, I hope, plain to see.

In Rediscipling I tried to take a very different approach by focusing on systems and structures which lead to racial segregation and injustice, as well as on corporate practices which can disciple us in a new direction. Even so, I still chose to include a chapter about relationships. I saved it for last, knowing our tendency to reduce systemic justice to personal friendships. But I couldn’t leave it out.

This is what we talked about during the interview this week. The host pushed me, helpfully, to be clear about the connection between cross-racial friendships and justice. Clearly they are not evidence of justice. But neither are they the means to accomplishing justice. As a Christian, it’s important to say that people are never a means to an end, however noble we make that end. So then, how can we think about these relationships?

Yesterday I participated in a Juneteenth march alongside faith leaders from around the city. My spiritual director, a lifelong resident of Chicago’s South Side was there as were many friends and neighbors from the community. To understand anything about my own spiritual maturing in the areas of racial justice, you’d have to understand my place within these networks of friends, peers, and neighbors. How I pursue systemic racial justice has been profoundly shaped by this relational network.

And that’s finally what I landed on in that interview. Cross-racial friendships have been a network from which I, alongside those same people, pursue racial justice and reconciliation. These friendships shape my memory and imagination. They have changed how I see the world, revealing both the ugly stuff and beautiful possibilities I’d have otherwise missed. They are not evidence of racial justice. Neither are they the means to that end. They are, instead, the ecosystem from which justice can be joyfully pursued in community.

So yes, relationships are really important for the work of racial reconciliation and justice. Just not in the ways many of us have assumed.

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