Making sense of race, culture, ethnicity and class… part 4


Later in July I will be leading a seminar with the Mentoring Project of Minnesota and representatives of youthrive. It is the third of eight sessions titled the “Impact Exchange.” These monthly gatherings seek to help mentoring programs and all interested parties dialogue and strategize how to confront the issues of Race, Class and Privilege in their personal lives and the programs they lead. The July session is titled “Race, Class and Ethnicity Matters” Often times conversations regarding racialized issues get derailed for the following reasons (if not more):

    1. Fail to understand the definition, distinctions and context of the terms race, ethnicity and culture.
    2. Believing that people must belong to a group, and that by knowing the category a person belongs to we in turn, can know something about that person.
    3. Not allowing people to create their own definition or category.

I want to throw out my thoughts, and welcome you to reply with yours. Agree, disagree, expand and challenge, I want to throw this discussion onto the internet and then into your happy hour, book club, staff meeting, bed time chat, or frat list serve. Maybe we can all get to understand these issues better and traverse with a bit more confidence the Journey to Beloved Community.


These concepts deserve a complete post, yet within this conversation it is important to note one’s own power and privilege. The very act of defining and categorizing assumes one has the right to do that. Power is a very subtle and slippery social reality. Those with power, yet untrained in its reality, often assume everyone has the same access to power as they. Yet those without power see its use and abuse everyday and realize they are without.

There is a simulation of power and injustice that I have frequently led. Every time we do it the group with power and privilege begins by assuming everyone has access to the same tools. It is the disadvantaged groups which are the first to realize the game is rigged against them. In day to day life the oppressed are most aware of inequalities while those with power and privilege often believe everyone is able to experience life as they do.

Dismantling the systems that maintain inequity and oppression must begin with power and privilege looking deeply into the mirror and seeing how, and why, they have what they have and are who they are. Only then can we begin to have honest discussions of the power we hold, the dehumanizing categories we have seen as so important, and the damage they have had on our world. When power and privilege are seen for what they are, I believe efforts can begin to realign, share and leverage power in new ways to disarm the race-based bomb we have been handed by our ancestors. Privilege and power come from race, class, culture as well as education.

  • Do you understand the power and privilege you hold?
  • Do you see your power and privilege as your own, to use only for your own benefit, or as a tool to use for the community you are a part of?

Putting it all together –

Here in the USA, people often assume that the race of a person defines also their culture, ethnicity, and even class, this lie is the fruit of racism learned and internalized. If instead, we see race as a social construct that only has the power assigned by society, we can begin to appreciate ethnic differences and culture uniqueness without allowing the lies of race to force us into making false assumptions.

Our Latino American neighbors often have less of a problem with this as they know that a Honduran, Puerto Rican, Brazilian or … could have any type of skin pigmentation. Ignorance that believes that race = ethnicity = culture, is where conversations around these categories often become awkward and difficult. For example working in multi-cultural services in colleges I observed the following multiple times:

The young student, who as an infant, was an adoptee into a wealthy European-American home, from, for example, Uganda or Korea. While the parents have usually tried and done their best, this student will often struggle with identity, and their peers struggle to know where they “fit” into the categories we’ve been trained to assign people.

WHY? Typically, people would tend to visually categorize this person as:

Racially : Black, or Asian, and then assume they are also

Culturally : African-American or Asian-American.

But for this student, often raised in a small accepting community they are more aware that they are:

Ethnically Ugandan or Korean, and having been raised in mainstream culture –

Culturally : European-American.

For some reason we think if we can know what box they fit into we will better know, or not need to know, that person.

  • Do people of power like the categories because they give us a sense of control?
  • Do people from oppressed classes learn to feel comfort with the labels because they allow one to quickly identify so called allies and enemies?

It is proof that to some extent we have bought into the lie that one’s race tells can tell us something significant about a person. It is proof that we all have been impacted by racism, by benefiting from it or by internalizing it. However the lines of race, ethnicity and culture are blurry and frequently very imprecise. It is important to know the culture and ethnicity one identifies with, but will we allow people to define themselves, even when they defy the standard stereotypes? The cultures and ethnicities of our world are beautiful and complement each other in ways that can strengthen and expand us all, yet what happens when no traditional category fully encompasses how they view their own identity?

Can we allow people to just be people?

Can we assume we can’t know anything for sure about a person until we have spent time listening to their story, learning from their journey and sharing in their hope and fears?

Can we look our own power and privilege in the face?

Can we explore disinvestment and realignment in order to dismantle these systems?

Can we move beyond saying we abhor the systems that maintain injustice we while enjoying the fruit they have produced from the blood of the oppressed?

Can we begin to move toward “Beloved Community?

I believe we can.