Often, listening is confused with tolerance. Teaching people to be tolerant of persons who are different from them is not a helpful substitution for the authentic love and reconciliation necessary for the work of equity and justice. We are not called to be tolerant of our neighbors, but to genuinely hold their best interests at heart. The aim is not to be tolerant in diverse groups, but to wholeheartedly be in community with persons from various perspectives, heritages, and opinions.
Diversity comes in many descriptions, assortments, distinctions, and mixes. Understanding diversity can be challenging, so this exercise encourages you to be courageous and to listen to people. But learning the lessons of equity requires we learn to listen to persons who are different from us. So, how do we do that? Often what gets in the way are stereotypes, and our reliance on and belief in them.
A stereotype is:
- a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person;
- a negative labeling of a person based upon previous encounters with similar people (not based upon that particular person);
- used to uphold bias;
- used to negatively categorize a group of people;
- used to classify a group of people we do not understand;
- oftentimes demeaning and humiliating;
- a term used to define all people of a certain belief, characteristic, or group that may only reflect a selected few of the demographic;
- a way we categorize a whole group of people based on one person we do not like.
All stereotypes are unfair and never lead to justice or equity.
Examples of common stereotypes:
- Young white women want to get married to wealthy white men;
- Native Peoples are alcoholics;
- Jews are greedy;
- African Americans have children without being married;
- Asians are good at math;
- Muslims are terrorists;
- Black men are sexual predators;
- White men are trustworthy;
- Women are bad drivers;
- Latino men are all about that machismo.
The delicate and precarious aspect of stereotypes is that they often possess a measure of truth. Some women are bad drivers, and so are some men. Some Asian people are mathematicians, and some are drawn more passionately to art. We must develop the sensitivity to listen to people rather than label them.
Too often we do not listen to people. We simply rely on our preconceived stereotypes to wrongly inform us about our neighbors’ likes and dislikes, their dreams and fears, and our similarities and differences. One way to break the stereotypical thinking is to deeply listen to people. We break stereotypes when we listen to people who we previously labeled without getting to know them.
Listening matters! It takes courage to listen to someone who is different. It is the kind of courage talked about in 2 Timothy 1:7, “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love, and self-discipline.” (NIV)
LIVING IT OUT: Create a Vin Diagram (also known as Venn Diagram – see image)
- Interview 8 to 10 people who are different from you in some significant way. Talk with them about their identity. Create a vin-diagram which depicts those things you have in common with another person and those things which are different. (One circle represents you, the other circle represents them, the space that overlaps between them represents aspects of your identities that are similar). Create one diagram for each interview. (Examples: 1. How do you self-identify racially? 2. How did you first learn about race? 3. Name your top 3 values and why they are important to you. 4. How do your values connect with your identity? 5. How do you think people can connect across differences in racial identity? 6. How can we respect one another better?)
- Look at all the diagrams you created. What similarities do you notice in many, most, or all of them? Are there any characteristics that all diagrams have in the “shared” sections? What surprised you most while doing this exercise? If in a group, share your responses with each other.
- With a group, together create a diagram for your church and the church’s immediate community. What do you notice?
Written by Dr. Lynne Westfield