Inter-Cultural Intelligence and Race

About a month ago I was talking with a friend and Intercultural facilitator in Atlanta. While discussing the definition of culture, the topic of race came up and how race fits into the culture paradigm.

I am white, a recent immigrant to the USA and live in the suburbs of San Diego in a city that is predominantly white and Hispanic. Because of that, the whole racial tension between Caucasian and African Americans is not so much in my face. I’m an expert in intercultural interactions, but obviously not in inter-racial interactions.

The few African Americans friends and neighbors that I do have, do feel the tension and it is in their face. The tension between black and white is a real problem that needs a real solution.

As an Inter-Cultural Intelligence (aka ICI) practitioner, I help people understand themselves and others from an (inter)cultural perspective and build their competencies to interact and communicate in a more productive and winsome way. The beauty of the ICI framework is that it does provide us with lots of helpful and unique insights and with a framework and verbiage that is neutral, void of emotion and focused on the future i.e. on building a third cultural space where all can thrive.

So, what is the relationship between Inter-Cultural Intelligence and Racial Justice? Where can ICI help bring solutions to a racial conflict?

First of all, Racial Reconciliation goes a lot deeper than providing skills and tools to interact in a more effective way. Racial reconciliation talks about bringing closure to a past where one group has been violated by the other through in this case slavery and systematic discrimination. Atrocities have been committed back and forth in response and forgiveness and healing needs to happen on both sides. Racial reconciliation talks about the tension between Individual Accountability and Group Accountability (we do talk about this dimension in ICI). Whether I as a person should be held responsible for the misdeeds of members of my group/race and our ancestors, whether I can hold you accountable for the sins of your group and ancestors. And yes, reconciliation needs to happen at both a group level and at an individual level.

The first and foremost requirement for racial reconciliation is a willingness on both sides to move on together without ignoring the past, but by bringing closure to it instead. The tension is between forgiveness, justice, restitution, restoration and (un)willingness to change the status quo. 

The cry for justice demands retribution and punishment for past and present sins committed against us (Group Accountability). However, justice also means not keeping children responsible for the sins of their parents (Individual Accountability). To manage these two polarities successfully, Justice and Mercy will have to walk hand in hand as we humbly live before the Lord. (Micah 6:8). Full repayment of the past is impossible, but helping each other build a bright and shared future is not.

Just as important is a willingness to see each other as equals with equal value, equal abilities etc. If American Americans really have a higher tendency to end up in prison, or do drugs, it’s has a historic reason (oppression), not a genetic one, and it can and should be solved. The same for Native Americans and alcoholism. Seeing the potential that God has put in the other is a choice, as is the decision to help the other reach this God-given potential.

Where ICI shines in the process of reconciliation is by looking at the situation from a different angle and uncovering the cultural drivers, cultural motivators and demotivators. ICI helps you first of all to understand yourself better. Then it hands you the tools to better understand the other and to modify your behavior and communication in a way that it triggers the right response instead of merely sending the right message. It enables you to build a common ground where we can synergize, instead of merely co-exist together. ICI helps you to identify and learn what trust means to each group (and each individual) and hands you the tools to build trust more effectively. Trust is a very universally understood word, but its meaning is very dependent on one’s worldview, cultural background and personality.

How can ICI do all that? Simply because culture is a very strong part of who we are and thus a very strong driver of our emotions and actions. But culture is also a very implicit part of who we are. By understanding and identifying culture, one can come up with better responses.

Why the switch from Racial Justice to Racial Reconciliation? Justice talks about bringing justice to a situation or conflict, either past or present. It talks about what retribution and repayment is needed to wipe out a crime committed. It doesn't in itself look at building a future together. Bringing justice may very well stand in the way of reconciliation. How many white lives should be taken to bring justice to all the black slaves that were killed by their owners? (The story in I Sam. 21 is an example of this.)

Reconciliation instead looks at bringing closure to the past with the intent of building a future together. “Building a future together” is where my personal interest lies. It could mean replacing retribution with forgiveness, so we can move on. This doesn’t mean a cheap escape from restitution or repaying for sins of the past. Repayment may still be part of the process, but the shift in focus is what is important. Building a future together means taking care of the past together and making the investments needed that will make the others reach their God-given potential. So we all can flourish as individuals, as groups and as a group together.

One of the things that is on my to-do list for 2017 is to add “Application Modules” to our Faith & Culture program that help with reconciliation in intercultural situations and help those involved in racial reconciliation efforts to unpack the intercultural dimension more effectively.

Together with my friend from Atlanta and fellow ICI practitioners, I’ll keep looking for ways to let the Faith & Culture Program be an instrument of reconciliation. 

Bart Heiligenberg – January 7th,  2017 


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