The Hard Work of Resolving Racial Tensions

Don’t be afraid of uncomfortable moments.
The Hard Work of Resolving Racial Tensions

Years ago I facilitated an internship program with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship designed to provide Christian community development and urban ministry training for college students. For an entire summer, students from sundry racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and political backgrounds lived together in Chicago. They worked as camp counselors, and tutors for inner-city children, and they had to shop, cook, eat, work, and worship in the neighborhood they served.

During the first week of the program I administered a pretest to establish a baseline for the group’s attitudes, knowledge, and skills in regard to race, ethnicity, and gender. All the students already valued cultural diversity and gender equality highly, and they all strove to be on their best “diversity behavior.” They used inclusive language and refused to tolerate any hint of racism. I remember one young woman who was very proud of the fact that she was the only white female in the gospel choir at her school. All of these students, in their own estimation, had already been reconciled.

Pressing In

Although this was impressive to my staff and me, we could see that it was ultimately superficial and we would need to dig a little deeper. So midway through the program, in an attempt to help them press further in, we took the group through an experiential learning exercise called the Race Reversal Fantasy. Little did we know that this exercise would prove to be a catalytic event for the group and nearly destroy the group altogether! The students were instructed to imagine themselves as a member of the racial group that they were least comfortable with. As they visualized this, they were guided through a typical day and asked to envision themselves in the life a person from the racial group they had chosen. As they progressed through their imaginary day they were asked to notice what their physical features were like, what foods they ate, how they spent their time, where they lived and what their family was like.

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