When a white person is confronted by a racist attitude, comment, or action, they frequently contend that they could not be racist because they have “a black friend.”  At the heart of this self-justification is a posture of defensiveness. As a result, the white person in question leans on past experiences to validate their belief that they are in fact tolerant and moral people incapable of racist actions. In an article in Psychology Today, author Eric Horowitz expounds on this phenomena:

Somebody feels their image of being racially tolerant is under threat, so they overestimate how much previous behavior—having a beer with a Black guy, for example—is a sign of their tolerance. But highlighting this behavior has the opposite of the intended effect because people see the overestimation of the behavior’s importance as a sign of prejudice.

The “I have a black friend” excuse illustrates the limited proximity people of differing ethnicities have to one another. When people lack these relationships, they become defensive and speak past each other.  Saying “I have a black friend” has the opposite intended effect because it shows how little proximity, and oftentimes prejudice, one has toward that people group.

 On April 17, 1960, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. noted that, “the most segregated hour in this nation is Sunday at 11:00 am.” Sadly, most churches in America today are so homogenous that their racial compositions resemble those of churches at the peak of the Jim Crow era. As Christians, we believe every human has inherent dignity because they bear God’s image. Furthermore, we believe Christians are saved solely by the grace of God through Jesus. Because of this reality, we should clothe ourselves in humility and become the first to pursue healthy relationships across ethnic lines. However, our doctrinal confessions and real-world actions appear to be at odds with one another. Though we believe that black and white people hold the same intrinsic value, we so often fail to live lives that reflect this truth. If we are to begin changing this narrative, Christians from every ethnicity and culture should take a step toward one another in genuine Christian love. Here are four ways to pursue genuine relationships across ethnic lines.

1. Identify a safe environment for people to get to know each other

Essential to creating opportunities for people to build relationships across ethnicities are hospitable spaces where everyone feels seen and welcomed. As a leader, you should take the initiative needed to build these environments and  bring different people together. There is going to be awkwardness. The goal is not to create a “sanitized,” comfortable environment, but to learn to embrace differences and continue to pursue the relationship. Hospitable environments can take place in homes, restaurants, coffee shops, parks, or any other space that can be shared. 

2. Authenticity

After the environment has been shaped, relationship building can begin to take place. Before pursuing cross-ethic friendships people should do the heart work of understanding their shared identity in Christ. We should also contemplate and reflect on our personal narratives - the events in our lives that have shaped our views of race, racism, and people different from ourselves. Understanding our own personal, family, and cultural narratives is key to empathizing with someone else’s story. Furthermore, we have to fight to find our identity in Christ when we are confronted with our own sinful thoughts and behaviors. Furthermore, we have to fight to find our identity in Christ because the pursuit of racial justice and reconciliation is not easy. In fact, it is often messy, but absolutely worth the effort.

It’s been said that the greatest apologetic to Millennials is “authenticity.” Many have  come to church, listened to sermons, and read the Bible for themselves. Those that decide to follow Jesus are often struck by the multi-ethnic reality of the Bible and left disappointed by the church’s failure to live out this same diversity. We must begin to tell a different story by lamenting when we fail, repenting regularly, and genuinely prioritizing the pursuit of ethnically diverse relationships and churches.

3. Humility

As Christians, we demonstrate humility when we assume the posture of a learner. As you seek out ethnically-diverse relationships, asks more questions than you make statements. Be willing to look silly or awkward in the honest pursuit of understanding and relationship building. Again, resting in your blood-bought identity in Christ is crucial.

4. Proximity

How can we build bridges and relationships to others without regular and consistent proximity? Examine the spaces in which you live, work, and play. Are they filled with people who are basically the same as you? Can you change your environment to engage people who are different? Could you shop at a different grocery store? What if your children played soccer for a city team instead of a club team? Pursuing long-term consistency requires you to get creative and think outside the box.

Pressing Forward With Hope

To practice authenticity, humility, and proximity well, white Christians should come under the leadership of qualified minorities in church and the workplace. If you don’t have proximity to minority leadership, a great first step is to begin listening to minority voices, reading works written by minority authors, and learning history from a minority perspective.
We should pray for the day that the need to call out racist incidents and issues become the exception rather than the norm. Until then,  were are to glorify the Lord through  multi-ethnic friendships, families, churches, and institutions. It will be through gospel heart change and community that we learn to discard our “black friend” excuse and  lament, hurt with those that are hurting, repent, and praise Jesus for the diverse, beautiful community he’s given us.

james hart circle
James Hart

I lead our Resource Development Team and have been a part of the For the City Network since 2017. I have an M.Div in Missional Studies and a M.A.R in Intercultural Studies from Liberty University. I am married to my beautiful wife Angela and we have four kids. I am a native of San Antonio, TX, and now live in the inner-city of Austin, TX.