Idolizing Diversity

Special thanks to Pastor Joseph Randall of Olney Baptist Church in Philadelphia for submitting the great question that inspired this post.

Mary Joseph Retreat CenterDuring the spring of 2012 I attended one of the best retreats ever. The speaker was insightful and engaging, the other attendees were kind-hearted and genuine, the local scenery was breathtaking, the amenities were plush, even the food was good! I should have been having the time of my life. But I wasn’t because there was one glaring problem: the retreat attendees were racially homogenous.

And I rather dislike homogeneity.

My God-given passion for reconciliation (coupled with my psychological understanding of the harmful effects of homogeneity) drives me to long for mutually-honoring diversity everywhere and at all times.

But the people at this particular retreat were not diverse…and unlike me they weren’t all that worked up about their lack of diversity.  They didn’t seem to “get it” like I did.  They didn’t seem to have a vision for God’s diverse kingdom like I did.  They seemed perfectly content to remain in their homogenous world and this. made. me. angry.

I couldn’t physically leave the retreat at that time so I walked away emotional and mentally. I didn’t try very hard to connect with the others. I unenthusiastically participated in the retreat activities. I spaced out during the talks and worship time. I was a grump.

About halfway through the retreat, one of my friends pulled me aside and said, “I know you’re really passionate about diversity and I know this group isn’t diverse at all and that’s a bummer. But I wonder if you’re making an idol of diversity right now.  Your passion for God should determine how you view people and interact with people, but right now it seems like your passion for diversity is determining these things.”

Ouch. In that moment, the only thing my heart could say was YES.

Yes, I had allowed my “righteous anger” to morph into unrighteous pride.

Yes, I had become prideful about my passion for diversity, using it to compare myself to others in ways that flattered me and dogged them.

Yes, I had allowed the lack of diversity around me to take my focus off the Creator of diversity.

Yes, I had idolized diversity. My actions and thoughts were in service to diversity, not God.

I’m so thankful to my friend who spoke truth to me and prayed with me as I repented of my idolatry of diversity and pride. Now, whenever I enter homogenous and/or unreconciled spaces (which is often) and am tempted to respond like I did at the retreat (which is also often), I’m reminded of that powerful moment when God spoke to me through my friend and invited me into the freedom of serving God rather than diversity.  Now, it’s fairly easy to choose freedom.

Those of us who righteously long for diversity can easily make an idol of it.  For me, the hardest part is recognizing idolatry when I see it.  Here are some markers that suggest that perhaps diversity idolatry is lurking around:

1. Pride (like the type I just described) that creates unhelpful divisions between “diversity people” and everybody else.  I discovered that my own pride was rooted in unresolved pain from a previous experience with an oppressive homogenous group.  Here are some tips on working through this type of pain.

bgp1742. Tokenism. This is simply putting diverse people at the table so that the group looks diverse or seems inclusive (but it’s actually mutually honoring.) This is a type of lust in which real people are reduced to apparatus that support the homogenous majority’s public relations campaign and agenda.  The classic Christian example:  the Christian college with 12% students of color that creates a brochure in which 40% of the students pictured are ethnic minorities. When in fact most of the students of color feel neither included nor supported at the college and wonder to themselves if the administration actually cares about them.

We idolize diversity when we place higher value on the perception of diversity than on actual diversity.

3. Exoticism. Ahh, the ugly cousin of tokenism.  This can start out as a genuine appreciation for cultural uniqueness, but can easily turn into valuing diverse people simply because they offer something unique to the group or conform to a cultural trope.  For example, we engage in exoticism when we expect diverse people to do a “song and dance” that meets our expectations for their culture. If they’re black, they’re supposed to be both hilarious and a choir director.  If they’re Puerto Rican, they’re expected to know how to dance salsa and also teach everyone else to salsa. If they’re the sole woman on the retreat committee, they’re expected to run the kids programming at the retreat.[i]

When we exoticize diverse people we put them in a rigid cultural box that typically limits the amount of power and influence that they can exert on the group.  We want them to be part of our group, but in a relatively powerless role that’s entirely dictated by our terms.  And we tend not to like it when they try to lead in ways that defy our cultural expectations or go beyond the power we’ve allotted them.*

WHAT? The hilarious black choir director wants to be on the church board? WHAT? The Puerto Rican wants to preach? WHAT? The woman wants to offer a constructive critique of the retreat committee?  WHAT?

We idolize diversity when we limit the terms of diversity to cultural stereotypes.

4. Allowing the injustice around us to take our eyes off the God of justice. (My next post is on this!)


[i] These are just a few cultural stereotypes I’ve run across on an anecdotal basis.

* Indeed, mere violations of cultural expectations are troubling to us. Research shows that people experience social discomfort and show physical signs of stress when they encounter others who violate their cultural expectations. (Mendes, W.B., Blascovich, J., Hunter, S., Lickel, B., & Jost, J. (2007). Threatened by the unexpected: Physiological responses during social interactions with expectancy-violating partners. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 698-716.)