One of the scariest things that people can do is interacting with people of another culture. The differences in language, food, customs, values, music, humor and dress can all be so intimidating that it's hard for us to get up the nerve to travel to another country, much less spend time with other Americans of another ethnicity. There are some similarities between crossing cultures in other parts of the world and in doing so here in the U.S., but there are some significant differences.
Most notably, those of us that are Americans have a shared history and are raised with certain prejudices towards others that are different than us. In our own country, we have strong convictions about how people should act, dress and talk. Whereas when in another part of the world, we are more likely to try to adjust to the dominant culture rather than requiring them to conform to our way of life. For those of us in the majority (white) culture, we can neglect to reach out cross-culturally for fear of offending or of being rejected. We allow fear to dictate our actions rather than living by faith in how God would want us to live.
In order to cross cultures, there are a few fundamental principles that we need to live out in order to be effective in befriending those of a different cultural background than our own. Though these principles apply to anyone, they are written with the majority culture in mind. Since ethnic minorities have to interact with the majority culture on a regular basis, many of these principles have already been learned. Here are six areas that, when put into practice, can help us have more positive experiences in cross-cultural relationships within the U.S.:
1. Sincerity - The most important element to crossing cultures is to just be yourself. Don't try to be someone that you're not. Don't change your language, clothing, etc. to just try to "fit in." If you come across as not being genuine, others will see right through it and your credibility will be lost. So don't try to do a complicated handshake with an African American if you don't know what you're doing; don't try to rap or "beatbox" if you don't have experience with it; don't comment to Japanese-Americans how much you like Chinese food. As you build friendships with those different than you, you need to be vulnerable in asking questions. It is within those "safe" relationships where you can ask questions that will help you gain greater insights into their culture.
2. Emphasis on Relationship - Family connectedness is a high value within Latin, African and Asian cultures. Tasks are not nearly as important as relationships. If people feel like you're trying to befriend them simply so that you can be their "cultural tour guide," they will feel more like an experiment than a friend. You can't really call someone a true friend if you've never spent time with them in their world, with their family, in their home or if you don't even know their last name. No one wants to be your token black, Asian or Hispanic friend. Please do not utter the phrase "I can't be a racist. One of my best friends is (fill-in-the-blank)" if you just happen to have a co-worker or teammate of that ethnicity. My question is: "Would they say the same about you? Would they consider you one of their best friends?" True relationship and friendship involves you being a part of someone's world, not just them always meeting you on your "turf."
3. Trustworthiness - Due to historical oppression of ethnic minorities in America, there can be a distrust towards those of us of the majority culture. As a white person, it's really not me as an individual necessarily that has caused mistrust, it is what my face represents. Therefore, it's important that others know that you are not spending time with them for personal benefit (i.e. to alleviate white guilt), but rather because you really want to get to know them. You may have to go out of your way to demonstrate that you are trustworthy. Inevitably, as in any relationship, conflict will arise in cross-cultural relationships. Will you stay and work it out when the going gets tough or will you end the relationship because of a disagreement? You can earn trust by working through conflict and, again, by spending time in your friend's world.
4. Sensitivity - You can be sensitive to those of other cultures by getting to know the history of their people and their way of life. Find out what things are important to those within their culture. Spending time with them in their world is the most tangible way to learn about their values, but you can also learn a lot through reading books and articles, visiting websites, and watching movies pertaining to their culture. Find out if there are certain words or phrases that can be "hot buttons" to them. Ask if there are ways that you come across that can be demeaning. There is a plethora of little things that happen each day that can rub ethnic minorities the wrong way. By learning about these things and avoiding them, you can demonstrate a sensitivity to them.
5. Teachability - Be willing to learn from their culture and their experiences. American history does not just involve those of European descent. We have a rich history that is represented through many different people groups. Most children are required to learn about European American history, but do you really know the history of other people groups that helped to build this country. Do you fully appreciate the role that African Americans played in what America has become? Do you understand how Asian immigrants helped to build this great land? Do you know about the things that Native Americans taught the early colonists? We need to be intentional about learning about other ethnic groups and the current social and political issues that affect them. We all have a lot to learn from one another and no one people group contains all knowledge and wisdom.
6. Servanthood - Having an attitude of service can help counter any tendency towards superiority or ethnocentrism. An attitude of servanthood says that I am making myself available to you to help you meet your objectives and goals, not my own. You're asking, "How can I serve you?" instead of, "How can you serve me?" There is probably no greater contemporary example of this than the response among college students in coming to the gulf coast to help serve the residents there who were affected by Hurricane Katrina. Instead of years past when black New Orleans residents were forced to help clean out the homes of white people, thousands of white, college-educated students willingly gave of their time, energy and money to serve the black residents of New Orleans.
I hope these principles will help you as you step out in faith to befriend those of different cultures than your own.