Mural installation by the Mural Training Program in Philadelphia. Photo by Steve Weinik.
As a writer and a former Language Arts teacher, I know the power of a strong adjective. But even a really strong descriptive word isn’t enough by itself to define a place, a historical figure, a feeling, a food, or even another word. It would be completely inadequate. You might say “tasty” in your recipe review… but then you give more detail by adding: “But the lemon flavor is a little too overpowering.” Or you might tell someone, “I’m bored”… but then you describe why: “Because I miss my friend who is away on a trip.”
There is almost infinite variety in the words that we can use to describe ourselves and our surroundings.
And you don’t need much exposure to art or design to know that there are pretty much unlimited color choices in our world. Every try choosing a paint color for your bedroom? And curtains to match? Or picking a font color that is just the right shade to coordinate with a picture? How about trying to match up the endless combinations of pink shirts and shorts in your daughter’s drawer? Oh, and you want to paint that dresser “white”? Ha! Which white – antique white, linen white, cloudy white, vintage white, pure white, dove white – or white dove – or one of the hundreds of other white varieties? It’s an impossibility best reserved either for paint experts or those who can let go of the limitless choices and just grab one blindly and go with it.
And yet… somehow we feel justified in defining an individual’s culture, language, heritage, family, neighborhood, religion, education, personality, history, values, or potential by one word and one color. We are content to describe a person as “black” or “white,” and to leave out any variety or shade or description beyond that. How very… monotone.
Don’t get me wrong here, the words “black” and “white” carry incredible value. Part of our identity will always be defined by the color of our skin. But these two words leave gaping holes when used as the sole definition of a human being.
Although I didn’t realize it yet as a kid growing up in a primarily Jewish neighborhood with a Nigerian-American best friend, Bolivian exchange student “brother,” and diverse high school, we live in a world where, sadly, the words “black” and “white” have become enough for us. In many cases, we have deemed them to be sufficient descriptive words all by themselves.
We have allowed these two words to take a position of honor in our language and in our culture that we have not given to any other words or colors… even though they are missing the story, the context, the descriptive phrases, the shades of variety that could fill in so many gaps in what we know about each other.
Most of us do one of two things when we grapple with this dilemma. We either assume that one word tells the whole story (which often includes a trunk-full of assumptions and prejudices), and we remain stuck in a mostly homogenous world.
OR, we choose to take it one step farther and just ignore “black” and “white” altogether – trying to focus only on those internal things that everyone on the planet has in common. We insist that “black” and “white” don’t matter at all, and that since they are inadequate descriptors, we will dismiss them entirely.
But both of these paths are missing out on something crucial. It is the infinite variety inherent in words, colors, and PEOPLE that makes the world multi-dimensional and beautiful.
What if a rainbow was made up of only two colors? Or a sunset? A rainbow and a sunset aren’t beautiful because of their sameness, but because of their contrasts. I don’t usually prefer the color purple – but when I see it spread across the sky next to a bright orange below it and a pale blue above it? Stunning.
When we dismiss the varied traditions, experiences, backgrounds, fears, memories, and hopes of people and settle for one-word-definitions (along with all of the assumptions connected to those words), we miss out on all of the shades of variety that color us in. The lines may be crisp and simple, but there is very little beauty.
Getting to know someone who looks or sounds different from us by listening to their story, sharing a meal, dancing (or at least tapping your foot) to their favorite music, being a guest in their home or meeting their friends, experiencing something new together… these are the things that color in the lines and bring the full picture to life. Only then can we exchange the black-and-white sketch we’ve been living in for a colorful mural full of detail, variety, and interest. A mural where 5-letter definitions just don’t cut it anymore, because now we see in full color – with all of the diversity and dimension and contrast and beauty that come with it.
When we become students of someone else’s culture, we gain more than an understanding of “why they are the way they are.” We gain access to new ways of thinking, new ways of processing, new mindsets, new proverbs, new strengths, new teammates, new revelation that our ways are not always the “right” or “best” or “only” ways. And while that can be scary, it is also freeing. It means that the world is a lot bigger than we thought, that we don’t have to [and can’t] have all of the answers, and that we are not in charge. It means that we will have to trust the One who made us for the answers instead of relying on our own finite and fallible minds.
With as many adjectives as exist in every language in the world… with as many colors as exist in the world… we miss out when we use one adjective or one color to sum up a human being.
The Creator certainly didn’t make a world devoid of color. Let’s not settle for living in one!
Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us ApartFor a thorough, personal, and practical look at the ways we allow differences to separate us – and how to overcome them – be sure to check out Christena Cleveland’s book Disunity in Christ! I have been so thankful for the way this book has helped me to process and reframe issues around race and culture through a God-honoring lens.
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