Where Cultures Meet (Dr. Anthony Stringer)
As a male in this culture, one of the most embarrassing confessions I
have ever had to make is that I'm not into sports. I am quite
seriously not into sports. I am, in fact, so not into sports that
until more recently than I would care to admit, I actually thought the
Superbowl was bowling. Even now, I couldn't tell you who played in
the last Superbowl, let alone who won. My daughter, to my horror,
likes basketball. After five years of dance lessons she would actually
prefer me to take her to see the Atlanta Hawks instead of the Atlanta
Ballet. I don't know where I went wrong?
Now don't misunderstand me. I'm not a complete whuss. Six out
of every seven days, I work out. I run. I swim. I lift weights. I
sweat. I just don't enjoy watching other people do these things.
Many mornings, I'm in the locker room, showering with men who are
talking about sports. And I have nothing say. I can laugh at the right
times. I can nod knowingly at the right times. But I've got very
little to contribute to the conversation.
Fortunately for my marriage, my wife is also not into sports. With the
one exception of the Olympics. This year, the Winter Olympics
galvanized her. Particularly the skating events in Nagano. I
didn't watch. At least not in the intense way that my wife did.
Even when the Olympics were here in Atlanta, even when I had a role as
a drummer in the Opening Ceremony, I still didn't watch.
Characteristically, when the men in the locker room were bragging
about the various Olympic events for which they held prime tickets,
the only tickets I had were to the plays, musical performances, and
art exhibits of the accompanying Cultural Olympics. Of course, I
didn't mention that in the locker room.
But when my wife is transfixed by one Olympic event or another, I
can't help but catch an image or two from the television set. What
I notice in those occasional, fleeting images, is not so much what
sport is being played as the physical characteristics of the athletes.
By and large, the Russians look like Russians, the Chinese look like
Chinese, the French look like the French, the Nigerians look like
Nigerians. But the Americans look like everybody else in the world.
That athlete who looks African, Jewish, or Japanese, could be from
Africa, Israel, or Japan. Or they could be from America. For good or
ill, this country has always been and will certainly always be a
mongrel nation. The image of America once was a white male. And in
many places in the world it was an ugly, vilified image. But that
image is long gone.
We have not dealt well with our mongrel status over the years. I
won't recite a litany of past and current prejudices, acts of
discrimination, outrages. You've heard that litany before. You
know the evils that have been done and that still are done. But I do
want to go to the question of why? Why there is so much friction in
this place where cultures meet? In this place where disparate ethnic
and religious traditions rub up against each other?
There are a good half-dozen answers to the question of why
intercultural contact, inter-racial contact, inter-religious contact
can engender friction. A half dozen answers to the question of why we
develop prejudices. Why we discriminate.
Psychological theories suggest that we need scapegoats. People on whom
we can project blame for whatever we are unhappy about. And there is
no better scapegoat than the person who seems least like us. Our
schools would be a lot less violent if it weren't for the African
Americans. The neighborhood would be a lot cleaner if it weren't
for the Puerto Ricans. Taxes wouldn't be so high if it weren't
for having to support the welfare mothers. All good scapegoats for
what ails us.
There are also sociological theories. Theories that posit we learn
prejudice against other groups as part of being socialized into our
own group. Maleness for example, is not just biologically defined, it
is also culturally defined. The biological part happens naturally
enough, but the cultural part we have to learn. And as we learn that
being male means being strong, rational, unemotional, in control, and
yes, into sports, we also learn that femaleness is the opposite. It is
being weak, flighty, emotional, powerless, and unathletic. Hence, we
learn our prejudices as we acquire our identities. Men make good
presidents, but not women. Who wants a president with PMS? Men make
good hockey players, but not women. At least Nagano consigned that
particular prejudice to the scrap heap of history.
Other theories are economic. We hold prejudices against groups of
people because it makes it easier to exploit them for their land, in
the case of Native Americans, or for their labor in the case of
African and Chinese immigrants. But perhaps the most disturbing theory
is simply that prejudice is a part of our very nature as human beings.
To be human is to be prone to prejudice.
In the 60s and 70s, a social psychologist with the good old American
name of Henri Tajfel, conducted a series of experiments that seemed to
show the inevitability of human prejudice. Tajfel would divide people
into entirely arbitrary groups. Groups formed on the basis of whether
you preferred one painting over another. Or, when you had to make a
rough guess of how many dots were on a page, whether you overestimated
Why anyone would care about a distinction so trivial is beyond
comprehension. Yet, in experiment after experiment, Tajfel found that
such distinctions were sufficient to trigger prejudiced behavior.
Prejudice in favor of people like you- that is, dot over-estimators.
And prejudice against the Evil Empire of under-estimators. Such
prejudices, formed in a laboratory experiment lasting only a few hours
were in fact sufficient to overwhelm any impact of prior positive real
life experiences with the person now viewed as belonging to the
foreign group. It doesn't exactly make you feel good about the
human capacity for intelligence. Perhaps another way of dividing
people, however, is into those who perpetually see the glass half
empty vs. those who are bound and determined to see the glass half
full. I suspect I fall into the latter category, because I actually
find cause for hope in Tajfel's seemingly damning experiments.
Yes, Tajfel's experiments point to the human propensity for
prejudiced behavior. But they also point to human malleability. For an
experience as artificial and trivial as dot counting to have such a
profound effect on our behavior, we must be mutable creatures indeed.
Prejudice so easily formed can not help but be vulnerable to
corrective experience. A sense of oneself and to what one belongs that
is so easily contracted, can not, I believe, resist being expanded.
We have sometimes seemed, in our brief history on this planet, to heap
one disgraceful act on top of another. To pile evil on top of evil.
But our saving grace as a species has always been our capacity for
change. We have seen how easily we can change for the worse. I have
not stopped believing, however, in the possibility of our changing for
the better. I believe, our large capacity for prejudice is
well-matched by a generous capacity for change. Our saving grace has
always been that capacity for change.
How then do we respond for the better in this place where cultures
meet? One response certainly is to flee from this place. Since 1960,
the demography of our cities has largely been determined by race. The
entrance of African Americans into formerly all white neighborhoods,
schools, and churches has fueled the quiet exodus of European
Americans out of these places. I've experienced white flight twice
in my lifetime. First, not surprisingly in 1957 when my mother moved
us into what was then a largely white neighborhood in Detroit and
which by 1960 had only two remaining white families. And second, in
1986 when I moved my family into a largely white neighborhood in Stone
Mountain which by 1995 had only a single remaining white resident – a
white woman who happened to be married to a black man.
I also experienced the equally curious phenomenon of black flight when
Rev. Dan Aldridge and I founded the Thurman Hamer Ellington Percussion
Choir, at first a racially mixed performing group which quickly became
all white as an increasing number of black members decided they
didn't want to drum with white drummers. The black membership of
T.H.E. Church itself has fluctuated over the years as black members
and visitors assess the import of worshiping in a church more diverse
than they expected.
Flight certainly is one response to diversity, though I doubt we'd
characterize it as the better response we are searching for. Perhaps
closer to that better response is the de-emphasis of diversity in
favor of universality. This certainly fits with our UU Principles,
with our goal of world community. Must we be Jewish Americans, African
Americans, Japanese Americans, European Americans, and Native
Americans? Isn't it far better to simply be Americans? Don't
the cultural distinctions obscure us from the clearer view? From the
view of ourselves and others as first and foremost human beings with
more that joins us than separates us. More to share than to hold
The litany says: "If you are black and I am white, it will not
matter. If you are female and I am male, it will not matter." But
I strongly suspect that in fundamental ways, it always will matter. As
virulent as racism and sexism sometimes seem, I think our prejudices
are nonetheless malleable. The foundation for prejudice is virtually
always shaky. Nearly always it is ignorance, misinformation,
half-truths, and out and out lies, that form the basis for prejudice.
A foundation that eventually will be just as weak and vulnerable as
the artificial divisions Tajfel created in his experiments. But the
foundation for culture, for ethnic identity, for religious identity is
far stronger than the foundation for prejudice. I believe we will lose
our prejudices long before we lose our cultural identities.
It is so amazing to watch the resurgence of religion in Eastern
Europe. In one country after another, where governments took a hard,
repressive stance toward religion, religion didn't disappear it
merely went underground. And as repressive governments crumble into
decay, they seem to fertilize the reflowering of those dormant
religious beliefs and practices.
Decades of communist rule could not stamp out the ethnic identity of
Serbs, Muslims, and Croats in Bosnia any more than over a century of
colonial rule could stamp out the ethnic identities of Hutus and
Tutsis in Rwanda. And there is hell to pay in those countries as a
consequence of trying to forge a uniform national identity that
overrides ethnicity and culture.
I was approached not long ago by a Jewish member of UUCA who needed a
place to pray and wondered if T.H.E. was perhaps the place she was
seeking. I suspect, like many here of similar backgrounds, she
oftentimes bore her Jewish identity lightly. This was her
congregation. She was a Unitarian Universalist, not by birth, but by
choice. There was no longing for Temple or Synagogue. This was her
spiritual home and she was content with it as such. That is until
death took someone important in her life. Then the yearning for those
traditions which partly define what it is to be Jewish, the yearning
for those practices, religious and cultural, became too great to
ignore. She would find herself wondering, as she drove by the Temple,
if that wasn't the place for her to be now, in her time of grief.
It's not that we have any shortage of caring people. There is care
aplenty in this place. But there can be a yearning in those
challenging moments of life that we must acknowledge. A yearning for
the comfort that the rituals of our childhood can bring, a yearning
for the comfort of the culture which birthed and laid the earliest
claim upon us.
You don't have to be Jewish to feel that yearning. Most of us do
not come here from Unitarian Universalist families. Most of us are
religious and cultural immigrants to this faith. Glad as we are to be
here, I suspect that each one of us has something that we occasionally
miss. It may be the bells and smells of the Catholic mass. Or it may
be the passion of the evangelical traditions. For me, its the sway.
The motion of the black congregation in song.
As a child, from my seat in the balcony of my grandmother's
Baptist church, I could look down on the congregation and see them all
on their feet with that certain sway, that special rock, side to side,
in time to the music. I sometimes miss that sway. The sway that comes
when you know the songs so well that you don't need the hymnals.
The sway that comes when the music is so good it rocks you some place
deep down in your soul. I miss the men in their dapper Sunday go to
meeting clothes and the women in their colorful dresses and wide,
flamboyant hats. I miss my child's view, looking down on that sea
of motion. Looking down on that sea of emotion.
Culture is important. In life and in religious expression. Must we be
all things to all people? Certainly, we can not be. Should we dabble
culturally, here and there, skimming the surface of one tradition
after another. No, of course not. Nor should we lose sight of what
makes us a unique religious movement, of what makes us different from
all those traditions we left when we individually chose to be U-Us.
But should we be mindful that there is more than one way to be a UU,
more than one way to celebrate and give expression to our chosen
faith? Must we nurture those who seek a bridge between the traditions
they left and the traditions they found here? I think the answer to
all these is in the affirmative. And so we choose, this First Sunday,
and in some Sundays to come, to draw upon and draw together the
patchwork quilt that makes up our multicultural heritage. I think we
will find it to be a quilt broad and warm enough to shelter us all.
What happens in the place where cultures meet? Certainly, sometimes it
is prejudice that happens. Certainly, sometimes it is painful conflict
that happens. The friction of disparate cultures and traditions
rubbing against each other can lead to a conflagration.
But sometimes, in the place where cultures meet, something special and
good happens. Strangers and strangeness disappear. There can be no
estrangement when all who come find something from their home. When
all who come, find that what they culturally bring is viewed as an
enrichment rather than as an intrusion. In the place where cultures
meet, there is richness. There is sharing. There is joy.
And sometimes there is growth. The growth that comes from seeing your
own culture fresh and perhaps differently as it's reflected from
the eyes of someone encountering it for the first time. The growth
that comes from finding sustenance in places you never expected. From
finding divergent perspectives that cause you to look anew at long
accepted beliefs and practices.
And so in this church, right here, in this place where cultures can
and do meet in welcome, a Jewish woman finds a place to pray amongst
African Americans. An African American does a sermon at Rosh Hashanah
and in the process learns something he never knew about forgiveness
and beginning again. An Iranian woman from a fundamentalist Muslim
family learns that there is another way to be in a marriage than being
powerless and subservient. And learns this without giving up being
In the place where cultures meet, there is richness. There is
amazement. There is sharing. There is joy. And there is growth.