Who am I as a White American?

At River City the months February, May, and September are important ones.  The country as a whole celebrates them as cultural heritage months (African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Latino/a-Americans respectively) and we do as well.  We feel incredibly fortunate to have strong representation from each of those large racial-cultural canopies, so for the past 4 years a team has planned a month’s worth of events ranging from meals to intense seminars and discussions.

As you can imagine every facet of this is both wonderful and complex.  The planning team faces a series of dilemmas each time their month comes around.  Questions pop up like, “How do we invite people outside of our culture into a deepening understanding in just one month?”  “How do we cover the vast differences within this cultural umbrella?”  “How do we balance celebration and mourning?”   These are just a few of the vexing questions.

So two years ago the three planning teams came to me and said, “This is a good but complicated process that we each go through on an annual basis. But White folks never have to wrestle with these questions, and we think they should. So we propose we add a Euro Heritage Month to the annual rotation.”

At first I thought they were kidding, but I quickly realized they weren’t.  And in time I saw the wise thinking behind it. So, now at River City July is Euro Heritage Month.  We White folks also wrestle with those vexing questions, and of course have to add one more really vexing one to the list: “How do we balance the conversation in Euro Heritage Month in such a way that celebrates what is good about White culture while also embracing the history of White privilege and power?”

This post is not even going to attempt to begin answer that question.  But it is a lengthy setup to share a great testimony with you.  Testimonies tend to be a big part of each of our Heritage Months, and this July Bob Reamer kicked off with his journey.  I thought it was fantastic, and asked him if I could share it on this blog.  So here is Bob’s testimony of growing in faith and identity as a White American:

Greetings!  For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Bob Reamer and I’ve been a member of River City for about two years now, though I first visited the church four years ago when my lovely girlfriend, who is now my lovely wife, Danae Kovac, began attending.  I am a Euro-American, which is why I am before you today sharing a little about my story.  My oldest known relative, Johan Friedrich von Romer, emigrated from Germany in the mid 18th century.  Beyond that, I am known to be of English and Scots-Irish ancestry.  Most of those details were lost to history, however, as my family long ago joined the “melting pot” that America is famed for being, and we understood ourselves simply as Americans, which was as far as our idea of cultural heritage went.

I spent my entire childhood in Barrington, NJ, a suburb of Philadelphia, where I and my two sisters, one older one younger, lived within walking distance of all four of our grandparents and attended the same high school, and had many of the same teachers, as our parents had decades earlier.  I was raised in a Christian home, and have been trying to follow Jesus for as long as I can remember.  Christianity was part of our family’s history – my maternal grandfather led worship at a local church (at least until those trendy praise choruses gained ascendancy) and 3 of my uncles were pastors.

My mother had gone to a 4-year college, the first in her family to do so, but chose to stay home to raise us kids.  My father, Robert Reamer Sr., one of the smartest people I know, decided not to attend college after returning from his tour in Vietnam, and consequently ended up in a situation with little opportunity for career advancement,  working as a locksmith for my entire childhood.  The job didn’t pay particularly well, and we spent our early childhood hovering just above the poverty line, though we children had no idea how dire the financial situation was until years later.  We knew that we didn’t always buy new things, but that we didn’t need them because we were happy as a family and that was what really mattered.

Like many white Americans, I was not raised with a notion of having a culture.  We valued independence, responsibility, civility, and hard work.  These we understood to be values all people agreed on.  We had a few regional loyalties (I still love cheesesteaks and scrapple and get a little emotional when I hear the theme from “Rocky”), but otherwise we just considered ourselves normal Americans.  Other groups had “cultures,” and this explained why they didn’t always live the way that we did.  I did not understand then that the fact that I regarded myself and my family as the “default” setting for humanity, devoid of any specific cultural behaviors or beliefs, was itself a consequence of belonging to the dominant culture.  I did not think of the fact that we primarily saw God reflected in nature and the outdoors as a “cultural” value – it was simply something that was true.  When confronting issues like poverty, my individualistic paradigm of personal responsibility did not strike me as an element of my culture – it was an acknowledgement of simple, factual reality.  Coming from a family in which my father had to work two jobs at times to keep food on the table and pay the mortgage, it was natural to believe that if you worked hard enough, you could make ends meet.

My horizon was broadened at a somewhat unlikely place – Wheaton College.  I had an opportunity to make friendships with others from different backgrounds than my own, and through conversations and classes I was able to begin to understand God’s heart for racial reconciliation and justice.  This led me to change course, and instead of continuing my study of the classics abroad in Oxford as I had been considering, I chose instead to study “abroad” in Chicago my first semester senior year.  Here, living in community, encountering the realities of poverty and blight on a daily basis, we spent time praying about and discussing God’s heart for his people in the city.  I spent my days working at a Worker’s Center, where I experienced firsthand the cruel economic exploitation of some of the most vulnerable recent-immigrant populations in Chicago.  My experiences during this semester convinced me of the need to remain in the city, first as a community organizer and then as a high school math teacher, to further explore the new vision I was seeing of what God’s kingdom should look like.

The temptation for me, as a suburban white American entering into a multi-ethnic urban context, was to attempt to leave my white identity behind.  When I first became serious about living in the city, I began listening to gospel, hip-hop, and reggaeton, shopping at ethnic grocery stores, and changing the way that I talked.  I tried to distance myself from the aspects of my culture that seemed most ostensibly “white.”  I thought that if I was going to build relationships in the city, I had to turn my back on who I was and assume a new identity.  As I move further along my journey in understanding God’s multi-ethnic kingdom, however, I have come to regard this as a mistake.

As a white American, I am learning to grow into the person God has called me to be.  This raises a lot of questions for me.  Most obviously, how do I as a white American fit into a multi-ethnic context?  What cultural assets do I bring to the table that are of benefit, and what are the potential blind spots and shortcomings that my cultural background brings with it?  To answer these questions honestly means living with a lot of tension, learning to understand the cultural values that I have and understand how they fit into the life I feel God is calling me to.

The most important lesson I am learning is that knowing who I am as a white American is not as simple as merely embracing some aspects of my upbringing while rejecting others (hard work and egalitarianism – yes.  Individualism and meritocracy – no).  Sometimes the right approach is more complicated.  More often than not, there are both positive and negative elements within each value that I hold.  I am learning to honor the values I was raised with, while at the same time acknowledging that the version of them I possess is incomplete.  I am thankful for the values I have, but hopeful that in learning from those whose backgrounds differ from my own, I can come to a fuller notion of what those values can mean.

At times, for instance, having such a fond memory of my relatively homogeneous home town seemed like a value that was at odds with what God was teaching me about the rich diversity of his family.  I felt pulled in two directions, between the past that I remember and value, and the future that I felt God was calling me to.  But being at a church like River City has allowed me to see this as a false dichotomy.  I have come to understand that the notions of family and community that I grew up with are valuable and worth holding on to, but they represent an inadequate picture of what God intends for us to experience in those areas.  There is no shame in acknowledging that I love where I grew up and am happy to have lived there – there is only joy in knowing that by finding a church family like this one, I have the opportunity to experience the things I was raised to value in a fuller and more complete way.  As I continue growing with my brothers and sisters here, I look forward to continuing the journey of understanding in which we, together, can realize God’s vision for what His family and community can be.  Thank you.

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