"Race Stuff" and the Stages of Community Building

One of the first questions I get after having initiated a conversation on racism, privilege and the need for reconciliation is, “Doesn’t bringing all of this ‘race stuff’ up create more division than unity?” Usually the question comes from a well-meaning White person who is being challenged to remove their “color-blinders” for the first time. But occasionally the question also comes from my well-meaning Black brothers and sisters who also want to believe in a post-racial society.

I think this is an important question and I’ve wanted to tackle it in a blog for a while. So here are my thoughts.

Seven years ago while participating in a summer-long urban ministry training program, I was introduced the work of M. Scott Peck, a psychiatrist and spiritual guide. He posited that when strangers come together to build community, they go through four specific and distinct phases.

The first phase is “pseudo-community.” This is the stage in which individuals come together and are primarily driven by the need to avoid conflict and conflict is avoided by diminishing and ignoring individual differences. People in this stage withhold parts of themselves, both out of fear of rejection and out of a desire to keep the peace. While this stage is fun and certainly enjoyable, reality is that most people in this phase aren’t telling the truth about who they are – and where there’s no truth, there’s no real community.

The second phase of community building is called “chaos.” Sounds dramatic, right? But it’s what happens when individual differences begin to rise to the surface. You’ve probably experienced this before – it’s like when you’re dating someone for the first time. In the first few months, it’s as though they can do no wrong. But over time, the reality sets in that you actually don’t have everything in common. This is when chaos ensues, and people respond to discomfort of this chaos differently. Some try to go back to pseudo-community; others try to fight it out and prove that their way is the best way. Some rebel against the leader of the group, and others check out of the process altogether, retreating to community spaces where people aren’t so different from them.

As you can probably tell, chaos is the tipping point. But, for those who are serious about building community, the chaos is actually an invitation to be emptied.

“Emptying” is the third phase of community building. This is the phase where people put down their weapons and their shields. This is where people confess their brokenness and their blindness, and it’s where individuals begin to humbly enter into the pain of others’ stories. In the emptying, individuals forego their need fix, to control and to have-it-all together. In a biblical sense, I understand emptying to be the place where individuals meet as their most vulnerable, and yet most beautiful, selves: at the foot of the Cross.  

The fourth and final stage is called “true community.” This happens when a group is able to live into both the blessing and the brokenness of what it means to be human. It’s a stage marked by deep joy but also carries with it a real awareness of how each other’s stories lead us all to operate differently in the world. This kind of community is only born through the “little deaths” of the individuals, and true community is reborn each time the group itself dies to what it’s been to become something new.

So what does this have to do with race? Everything.

For individuals, especially white individuals, who are new to conversations on racial disunity and the need for racial justice, the initial discomfort that is experienced represents the beginning stages of “chaos.” Many people in the majority culture don’t understand that people outside of that majority have been assimilating into the majority culture to simply keep the peace. What this means for minority races that are represented in majority white contexts is that people of color are constantly having to downplay what it means to live life in their skin to maintain the status quo of pseudo-community, all for the emotional sake of their white counterparts. This is exhausting. Not to mention, it’s degrading, demoralizing and it blatantly dishonors the beautiful and unique contribution that each person of color is to their community. Yes, I know this may be uncomfortable, but the reality is that if you’re in the majority culture, people of color have been living in discomfort day-in and day-out as they navigate spaces that are not hospitable to who they are.

Ultimately however, there really is an invitation in this journey for all of us, regardless of your skin color, to move towards true community. For my white brothers and sisters who are frustrated by the ongoing “race conversation,” there is an invitation to be emptied of the fear, privilege and emotional fragility that keeps people of color from truly flourishing in your majority white spaces. For my brothers and sisters of color, there is an invitation to empty the pain, sadness and fatigue of hiding yourself when you’re in spaces that weren’t created with you in mind. This is a tall order, I know. But my conviction is that with humility, grace and a widened capacity to tell and receive the truth, maybe we can start living into this whole new heaven, new earth, new humanity thing that Jesus Christ died for.