1. General Christian

The Problem of Cultural Comfort Zones

When we are interacting with people of another culture, many of us correlate successful engagement with simply not being mean to them. And that’s a good start. But that really is the lowest standard you can have and still have a positive interaction. It requires almost nothing on our part, yet everything is on the other person. We tell ourselves, “I’m open to meeting new people,” but built into this approach is an expectation that people should come to us and do the heavy lifting in the relationship. If we’re serious about pursuing deep and meaningful cross-cultural relationships, we need to put in a bit more work. 

We can’t just live in our own lane and interact when someone different from us happens to occasionally show up where we live. Instead, we need to step outside our cultural comfort zones and go to where people are at. We need to initiate. 

Most of us don’t like doing this. Whether we’re Brown, Black, or white, we like staying in our bubble and doing things with other people like us. The whole point of a cultural comfort zone is the construction of mental security. By definition it is comfortable, a space where our activities and behaviors fit a routine and pattern that minimizes stress and risk. It’s our happy space, where we feel like we can be ourselves. And making friends with other people on our turf is always easier. 

The problem is that most of the time our cultural comfort zones equate to monocultural communities. Think about your neighborhood, your favorite coffee shop, your school, your go to grocery store, your workplace, your church, or your local park. In these places, if everyone looks like you, talks like you, and is in the same socioeconomic bracket as you, it’s most likely a cultural comfort zone. If everyone enjoys the same activities, throws parties in the same way, and has the same views on friendships, politics, marriage, and punctuality, you are living in a cultural comfort zone. If everyone in your sphere listens to the same pastors and theologians, reads the same books, does the same Bible studies, and watches the same news channel, it’s definitely a cultural comfort zone. 

I’m not here to bash cultural comfort zones or monocultural communities. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a white neighborhood or a Black neighborhood or a Brown neighborhood. I’m not trying to wholesale label the community you live in as good or bad. These kinds of spaces are simply part of our natural state—and there can be beauty in these cultural communities too. But as a follower of Jesus, you have a mandate to make friends with people of other cultures. It’s one the most important changes you can make in your life in pursuit of the vision Jesus has for this world. And if you want to do this, you’re going to have to step outside your cultural comfort zone intentionally. 

I want to add a caveat here, because a community can be multiethnic and still be monocultural. Multiethnic does not automatically translate to multicultural. You might live in a neighborhood or attend a church or be part of a workforce with multiple skin colors present, but if you are all middle class, the odds are that you share more cultural values than differences. Remember that culture, at its core, is a set of stories, and typically, people of similar socioeconomic brackets end up merging their narratives together. This is especially true for wealthy communities, which is where TV shows like Black-ish find their comedic edge. The family in this show, if you have never seen it, has lost some of its traditional African values precisely because they are middle class. 

So when I suggest you need to step outside your monocultural community, I don’t mean finding someone of a different skin color who happens to live next door to you. I mean finding people with real cultural differences from you. This involves searching out people who hold different values, people who see the world differently than you. When these people do something, your first response will probably be: “Well, I wouldn’t have done it that way.” 

Find those people and make friends with them. 

Having friends of the same cultural background will always be easier. We don’t have to switch gears, and we can just be ourselves. There’s stability and reassurance in these relationships. But this same comfortability can lead to stagnancy when we get too comfortable. We lose the sense of urgency that drives us to meet new people. We become apathetic to the distance that lies between ourselves and other cultural groups. Or we let our imaginations get the best of us and start to fear people we don’t come into regular contact with. 

Many white people feel like they’re in danger around Black or Brown-skinned people, and it’s this feeling of discomfort that leads them to label communities of color as dangerous. It’s not necessarily because the crime rate is high, but simply because the people look different. I once told a white woman that I lived on the east side of Austin, and she instantly said: “Oh my gosh. That’s the barrio. I would never go there.” Barrio is a Spanish word that simply means neighborhood, but when white people use this term, it comes with an implication that it’s a ghetto—a bad place that looks different from our own neighborhood with people of different skin colors and socio-economic backgrounds. If you feel this way, you need to own that and work on deconstructing your fear. As author and social work professor Brené Brown explains, one of the worst things we can do is pretend our fear and uncertainty do not exist. Just because we are nervous or scared doesn’t mean we should ignore those feelings. We should fight to deconstruct our racial prejudices and lean into the discomfort we feel. Increasing our contact with another culture creates a context in which our racial prejudices and false ideas of the other can be challenged and corrected. 

If we want to begin the hard work of forming real cross-cultural friendships in which we don’t make everything about ourselves, we have to break out of our routines, comfort zones, and monocultural spaces to explore uncharted territory.

 

Taken from Becoming All Things by Michelle Reyes. Copyright © 2021 by Zondervan. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.

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