Six Postures of Ethnic Minority Culture: Duty, Pleasing, and Unity and Assimilation

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This is the fourth of five posts in a series on the newly released article, “Six Postures of Ethnic Minority Culture Towards Majority Culture“. After reading the fourth and fifth postures please join the discussion in the comments.

Posture #4: Duty and Pleasing

The fourth posture can best be described as Duty and Pleasing. Unlike the previous two postures, this one is actively engaged, seeking to work with the majority culture. On the surface, this often appears as a healthy spirit of cooperation and partnership; of “being in this together” and “making it work.” However, without an awareness or processing of power dynamics, ethnic minorities can often unknowingly find themselves in a paternalistic or dependent relationship with the majority culture, instead of a truly empowering partnership.

Because the majority culture has been in a dominant position for so long, there’s a natural tendency for ethnic minorities to assume a role of duty or dependence in a cross-cultural leadership context. We are so used to not being in positions of power, that our instincts are to defer to others, or step aside. Sometimes it’s a deference to wait for approval, before making decisions or moving forward with leadership decisions. Or it’s a sense of duty or obligation to depend on the majority culture for direction, resources, or validation — because we want so badly to feel accepted.

We want to be clear – we believe that we should listen to, respect, and honor our leaders, regardless of their ethnicity. We are not advocating separatism or disrespect in any way. But there is a world of difference between respect and deference. Honoring someone is not the same as being dependent on them.

As leaders ourselves, we don’t want to be in a paternalistic relationship with those we lead. We want them to grow as adults, who are taking full ownership of their scope.

For ethnic minorities, it can be tempting to assume this posture for several reasons. First and foremost is a deep-seated belief that their culture is inferior to the majority culture. Some minorities consistently see negative portrayals or devaluing stereotypes of their culture in the media. Others have historically assumed “service” roles that are considered to be of “lower” status in society. All of this can create a deep sense of shame, which can impact how minorities see their roles and worth in ministry contexts as well.

Another reason ethnic minorities may take a “pleasing” posture is that many immigrants saw themselves as visitors to the United States; this was not “their” country nor home.* Their primary hope was for a better job and life for their families. As a result, they didn’t want to cause any problems, and they taught their children based upon this philosophy. Thus, many minorities of today’s generation inherit a mentality to “not make waves,” but go along with what the majority culture might deem as good or right.

This posture can be very subtle. We can’t imagine many would claim that it’s what they desire, or are trying for. However, it is one of the most common and consistent relational patterns we have seen in ministry.

“Do you seek permission or approval from the majority culture for what you are doing, or need them to tell you what to do?”

Do you ever find yourself seeking permission or approval from the majority culture for what you are doing, or needing them to tell you what to do, even if you don’t really need them to? Maybe you place your primary hope in decisions or statements made by your leaders. Or when they don’t get what they prefer or want, maybe you change your stance or approach to appease them. When they disagree with your ideas, maybe you are quick to give in.

If you find yourself identifying with aspects of this posture, consider what it might look like to stay engaged with, but not dependent on, your leaders. Consider how your ministry can lead authentically out of its culture, without needing permission or validation from the majority culture. How might your leadership and culture even shape the future and direction of your greater ministry context?

Posture #5: Unity as Assimilation

The fifth posture is best described as Unity as Assimilation. As representatives of various ethnic minority groups, we desire as much as anyone to see true unity expressed and lived out. However, as the “Five Postures” article pointed out, efforts toward unity can often lead to uniformity, which devalues uniqueness and differences. While the temptation for the majority culture is to keep things the same, so they don’t have to face discomfort or adapt, the temptation for minority cultures is to conform (or assimilate) to the existing culture.

“… we can respond to these pressures by thinking we must leave behind our culture, and embrace a ‘new’ and ‘superior’ one in Christ.”

When many minorities enter a multi- ethnic church setting, they often encounter pressure to not discuss differences, due to fear that this may lead to division in the body of Christ. Or sometimes, cultural conversation is discouraged because people feel it “waters down” the gospel. Silence about an issue does not necessarily mean neutrality, as some people may assume. This kind of silence is not due to unawareness, but due to underlying beliefs about the meaning and value of culture and context.

Whether subtle or overt, many minorities respond to these pressures by thinking they must leave behind their culture, to embrace a “new” and “superior” one in Christ. This creates a misleading – and potentially damaging – dichotomy between culture and faith. Without the proper awareness and maturity, minorities may associate (or even equate)
“fallen-ness” with their ethnic identity, and spiritual conversion with assimilation into the majority culture.

We acknowledge that unity is complex, and that it needs to be discussed and pursued with thoughtfulness and care. Yet in the history of debates about the true meaning of contextualization and unity, we have noticed how little attention has been given to the concept of “loss.” As ethnic minority leaders, what of our family and culture’s story have we forsaken, in pursuit of an immature vision of unity?

Yet we can bring these stories to enrich the body of Christ! As we begin to see diversity as adding depth to our theological and spiritual community, rather than diluting it, we are freed to bring all of who we are to our ministry. As we begin to value complexity, rather than discourage it, we can lead as bridge-builders who help others to navigate the tension of multi-cultural settings.

Discussion Questions (please respond in the Comments below):

  • What stood out to you from these two postures, “Duty and Pleasing” and “Unity as Assimilation”?
  • For ethnic minorities, what part of your story or heritage do you feel like you’ve had to forsake to pursue an immature vision of unity?
  • It often benefits ethnic majority culture for ethnic minorities to be in the “Unity as Assimilation” posture because it means the ethnic majorities don’t need to change. In what ways can majority culture pursue genuine unity?
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Posted on November 10, 2011

About destinokristy

A Latina, DestinoKristy served with Destino from 2008-2013.

One Response to Six Postures of Ethnic Minority Culture: Duty, Pleasing, and Unity and Assimilation

  1. destinoeric says:

    This whole series has been very good for me as a member of the majority culture. I grew up as a White male in America so I honestly have very few experiences of being a minority (in ethnicity or gender). This article has helped to open my eyes even further.

    I can only speak from my experience, but I’ve found the most helpful thing for me to do to move towards true unity has been for me to learn that I have a culture. Before I thought I was just “normal” and everyone else was a hyphenated-American. I subconsciously thought that they needed to assimilate and become like me in order to have unity. I don’t think I ever would have said that out loud, but it was how I was acting.

    I think we in the majority culture bear much of the responsibility for the “unity as assimilation” model. The way we’ve taught spirituality in the Church has often left this as the only possible posture. We need to own our role in the process and begin to create spaces for ethnic minorities to live out who God has called them to be.

    For far too long I required ethnic minorities to have the “unity as assimilation” posture if they were going to interact with me. “I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.”