How to talk to black people?

Disclaimer: This a tongue in cheek title! A more accurate title might have said something about communicating with those who are different from you or perhaps cross-cultural communication.

Friends and colleagues have for years been telling me “you have a real gift for building cross cultural relationships.”  This has always seemed to me somewhat ridiculous

I don’t do anything special, and like most people I struggle with all kinds of relational issues most of the time. But these somewhat regular comments did pique my curiosity.  I began watching other people (particularly white people) interacting across cultural barriers. And that was an eye-opener!  What I regarded as common sense, what I did unthinkingly, people really struggled with. And often just opted out of trying because it was so confusing and difficult for them.  I also noticed a similar, although often not as pronounced struggle among black people.

So in a similar to asking my wife to teach me how to cook (she is an instinctive, brilliant cook for whom recipes are inspiration not rule!) I am going to attempt to share “my secret” to cross-cultural communication:

1. Black people are people: Lurking behind skin colour, or cultural barriers is surprise, surprise a person. And most people worry about the same things – money, food, family, work etc. Most people long for love and acceptance. Most people are hurt by rejection and long for significance. Most people like to laugh often at much the same things. Most people like to talk about themselves or their family. For most people their home langauge is special to them – ask them to teach you a basic greeting, and the next time you meet use it.

Look past the differences, the skin colour, the dress, the language and engage with a person – you may be surprised at how easy it is.

2. Don’t pretend: In my experience too many white people are embarrassed to admit they know nothing about rap or kwaito or local football or the history of South Africa. And so they fake it… they try to pretend that they know more than they do. It’s mostly not hard to spot a fake! And this kind of attitude is self-defeating. If the aim of relational engagement is understanding and a new relationship, pretence can never achieve that and can only add to the superficial veneer of racial integration that is so often painted in our country.

3. Engage as a learner: This is key to cultural engagement. Humility is the recognition that this is not your culture & you are ignorant. Engaging with other cultures requires being willing to set cultural presuppositions aside. It will require you to recognise that many things about your (and their) cultural way of doing things are not right or wrong, but merely different. Be willing to learn why other cultures do things differently.

People can overlook a great deal of ignorance when humility is present. When you are genuinely prepared to ask questions, look stupid (remember even a child probably knows these cultural things in another culture) and seek understanding – people are prepared to both teach you and enter into relationship with you. For many of us this is difficult as our pride will not allow us to be anything but an expert, perceived or real. But true cross-cultural relationship building demands you give up this right. Like God and money – pride and cross-cultural relationships cannot be equally served.

4. Be patient: We want instant results but relationship do not work like that. Relationships across colour and cultural boundaries even less so. A persevering heart can be a great breaker of cultural walls. There are no short cuts, no quick fixes, just time, humility and willingness to persevere.

5. The gospel helps: Cross-cultural engagement without the gospel may well break you. Turning you into a cynic rather than a friend. It is the model of Jesus who laid down his life for those who are not like him that inspires us to do the same. But the gospel is not only our model, it is our motivation.

It is the gospel that has redeemed us, broken down the walls that exist between races and cultures and called his people into one new humanity. It is the gospel that is at work in the world renewing all things, making them whole through the death and resurrection of Jesus. We love because he first loved us. We try to break down the barriers because he has broken them down. We work for reconciliation because he has reconciled us first. We give up our rights because he first gave up his.

And in the cauldron of building relationships across racial and cultural boundaries we remember that it is the gospel that justifies us. It is not being liked or accepted by black people (or any other people) that grounds our identity. It is neither cultural savvy nor mastery of language that gives us worth but the gospel of grace that justifies us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

(PS: you could simply change the word “black” in this post for any other cultural group or “people not like you”  – and the same principles apply)


One thought on “How to talk to black people?

  1. mezmcconnell

    Very Good! I enjoyed this very much. I find the same is true when I instinctively engage with people from schemes because I am one! People are always baffled by my ‘special gift’ which is just intuition! On the other side, change the title to middle class people and this is where I struggle. so, as you said, helpful stuff, across all cultural divides.



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