Module 4

Expand Knowledge of the Obstacles That Impede Effective Intercultural Relations



  • To identify the processes of in-group and out-group perception and behavior
  • To examine the ways we view the "other"
  • To explore the dynamics of racism and better understand its effects on its victims
  • To learn how to positively influence the healthy dynamics of living together in community



  • Increased awareness of the presence of racism in intercultural relationships and how it affects those relationships
  • Increased knowledge and understanding of racism
  • Renewed willingness to confront one's own experiences of racism
  • Acknowledgement and ownership of one's feelings about racism
  • Strengthened resolve to find one's voice to speak out against racism

This module addresses some of the obstacles to appropriate and effective intercultural communication in ministry. It focuses on the processes of prejudice—that is, how we stereotype the "other." The module then explores the dynamics of racism. It also provides insight into how we can move from ethnocentrism (solely focusing on our own group as normative for society) to healthy interaction between ethnically and culturally diverse groups.

The Dynamics of Prejudice and Stereotypes

Prejudice involves thinking differently about those outside our own group in one or more negative ways. Infants do not discriminate against other infants who are different from themselves. Discrimination is something that we learn from our culture.

According to evolutionary biologists, prejudice is interwoven with very old instincts in group behavior that go back some ten thousand years, to the time when people lived in small groups of hunter-gatherers. Fear of outsiders and groups other than our own was often warranted, because the other group could attack and harm us. This idea conforms to the Darwinian understanding of nature as being merely "survival of the fittest," but recent research suggests that cooperation was as important among our ancestors as competition and protection.

Our goal in the following portion of the module is to examine how negative reactions to outside groups occur and manifest themselves.

In-Group and Out-Group Dynamics

Contact with people unknown to us often triggers the dynamics of in-group and out-group formation. The "in-group" is made up of people we know and trust and people we deem to be most like us. With the in-group, we feel relatively safe. Those we do not know or trust and those who seem different from ourselves in whatever way (e.g., skin color, language, customs) constitute the "out-group."

We judge these individuals by different standards than those we use for our own group. Thus, if someone in our own group does something wrong, we are more likely to condone the deed or attribute it to outside factors. The 1970s comedian Flip Wilson's famous line "The devil made me do it!" is an example of shifting the blame away from ourselves.

However, when someone in the out-group does something bad or wrong, we are more likely to attribute it to malevolence: that person did something wrong because he or she wanted to do it.

Psychologists call this willingness to think badly of other people "projection" because we project our negative feelings (or even things we do not want to admit to ourselves that we ourselves do) onto the unknown "others."

When we feel insecure or under threat, our suspicions about the out-group intensify, and we are more willing to make quick judgments about them.

Here are some examples of common projections onto the "other":

"They are dirty." They do not maintain proper hygiene. Their food would be dangerous for us to eat. We should not have contact with them for fear of picking up some disease.

"They are lazy." They do not have the same habits and values that we have, so they are not to be trusted. We must keep our distance from them.

"They can't control their emotions." They are aggressive and dangerous. They cannot control their sexual impulses. They do not keep proper boundaries.

Specific Ways We Judge the "Other"

Jesus enjoined us to love our neighbors as ourselves. This is a considerable challenge, because it seems we are generally unable to see the "others" as ourselves. This may be because we do not ever entirely know ourselves, and our own uncertainties end up getting projected on those we do not know. It may also be a way of protecting ourselves from the unknown.

Here are some of the common ways of dealing with the "other" in this manner:

We generalize about them: "All those people are exactly the same." We recognize a great deal of difference and variation within our own in-group, yet we can make the broadest generalizations about members of the out-group. We can even lump all out-groups together through the use of negative stereotypes about them.

We demonize them: We treat them as dangerous and out to get us. They are powerful and to be feared and are plotting against us. Consequently, they should be excluded from society. We, on the other hand, are kind and benevolent. But they wish to take advantage of our kindness and benevolence to ultimately take away what is dear to us.

We see them as helpless children: They are all poorly educated and are simpletons. Hence, they need our guidance and direction. In this way, we colonize the other: we rescue them from their ignorance by our benign power over them.

We trivialize painful differences: We refuse to recognize neuralgic points that divide groups against one another. For example, some Caucasians tell African Americans that they are color-blind and treat everyone alike, regardless of race, but their behavior toward African Americans tells another story. Trivialization is a way of refusing to acknowledge how differences divide people.

We make them invisible: We refuse to acknowledge their presence and treat them as if they were not there. Think of Ralph Ellison's classic book Invisible Man.

There are additional ways in which we judge the "others," but these are the most characteristic, especially within powerful in-groups.

The Reality of Racism

This section of the module addresses the challenge of talking about racism in secular and Church circles because of shared cultural anxiety about the subject. In their pastoral letter titled Brothers and Sisters to Us, the Catholic bishops of the United Statesreflect on the reality of racism, which unfortunately exists in the Church as a human—and thus sinful—institution in need of conversion as well as in secular society. Consequently, Catholic leaders need to develop the skill of finding their "voice," or the words appropriate for capturing the reality of racism. They are called upon to give insightful, effective, and reconciling guidance in the sanctuary and the streets.

This module on race and racial privilege frames its content around the scriptural precedent in the early Christian community of identifying racism as a by-product of racial privilege. This frame of reference is transferred to the present reality we find in our church community, which mirrors the cultural dynamics of European American, Latino, Asian, and Native American responses to the culture of white privilege in everyday America. This module discusses the dynamics of ethnocentrism as the energy of a particular form of privilege by the in-group having the power to define by description as well as the power to determine how to regard and treat those who are the "others." Racial privilege in America today is characterized by the regulating of Church and society to maintain, advance, and secure the future of white privilege over and against the "non-white others" who make up the out-group.

Understanding and Processing Racism

1.  Identify racial anxiety as the culturally learned behavior that cripples intercultural leadership from casting its gaze on "the elephant in the center of the living room" of the intercultural/multicultural discussion.

2. Briefly review how cultural anxiety affects the intercultural leader's ability to speak about his or her reality.

3.  Suggest a means of developing the intercultural leader's capacities to assist others on the path to leadership within the cultural context of white privilege.

4.  Present a framework for intercultural engagement that includes white privilege as a useful concept within the dialogue, and also suggest the pertinence of other variables (e.g., gender and social class) that sometimes are relegated to the margins of the intercultural dialogue.

5.  Demonstrate the transformative effect of group learning that arises from expressing and sharing the reality of racism as a lived experience among diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural communities.

Intercultural Leaders with Voices That Capture the Reality of Racism

The challenge before us to deal with various kinds of racisms is as old as the Church. Racism, as used in this context, is a social dysfunction in which people do not see others as their brothers and sisters in the same human family. Racism denotes the reality that there are many ways of depersonalizing people as the "others," not just one means. There is the "otherness" of race, gender, class, religion, ethnicity, and culture. Let us begin our experience with a reading from our family history as Christians as we engage our present reality. This reading is used as an example of the timelessness of the human struggle in dealing with matters of racial diversity.

St. Paul's Letter to the Galatians, particularly 2:1-13 and 3:27-29, provides a clear illustration of how racial and cultural diversity was a source of controversy for the Church in its infancy. St. Paul confronts and reproaches St. Peter for not consistently following the understanding the Church had come to regarding the evangelization of the Gentiles. This episode reveals that part of the challenge of cultural diversity in the Church is to not deny that we who are framing the question are also influenced by the unperceived racism around us. As members of our cultures, we are directed to effectively deny this challenge by simply imposing a "Don't Talk" rule:

  •  We must not talk about race.
  •  We ought to deny any feelings that we have regarding race.
  •  We should not trust ourselves with the subject.

How do we as leaders in the Church break the "Don't Talk" rule and transform the proverbial elephant in the room into a house pet? We begin by developing the cultural competence to find our voice in a racialized culture. We begin by practicing the "Do Talk" rule:

  •  We must talk about race.
  •  We ought to express our feelings about race.
  •  We should trust our own efforts to express the reality of racism to guide our journey.

To begin our journey and growth in competency, we have to find our voice. Our first exercise to find our voice in opposition to racism calls for us to identify the obstacles. The FIG Complex was developed by Fr. Boniface Hardin, OSB, to assist those seeking to free themselves from racial anxiety when discussing racial issues. Fr. Hardin sees that our racial anxiety arises from three areas: fear, ignorance, and guilt—thus, the FIG Complex.

The FIG Complex

  • Fears when speaking about race or racisms/discrimination
  • Ignorance that I have when speaking about race or racism/discrimination
  • Guilt when talking about race or racism/discrimination

Framing Intercultural Conversations on Diversity and Race

Intercultural leaders are called to move beyond fear and anxiety as they lead the Body of Christ into the beloved community of the Fatherhood of God. This is the work of the Gospel that all disciples of Jesus are called to in our day. When we find our voice for expressing the reality of racism, we fulfill the prayer of Jesus in the Gospel of John: " . . . so that they may be one just as we are" (Jn 17:11).

Framing Our Terms as We Find Our Voice

The term "multicultural" frames the conversation with terms supplied by the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) context of the racial "other."

Multicultural" became the umbrella to collect "non-white" realities and avoid the four-letter "r-a-c-e" word for whites and non-whites alike in our "Don't Talk" culture.

Consequently, a conversation about diversity begins with the assumption that one's social representation in the cultures of the Americas starts with racial framing in a U.S. culture that is strongly influenced by white privilege.

The leader in the field of diversity, however, goes beyond the "multicultural" framing of the question. Such a leader possesses a dual awareness of his or her own cultural description provided by white privilege as well as how he or she simultaneously participates in numerous diverse cultures that are described within the larger context.

In the second chapter of Galatians, St. Paul criticizes St. Peter for his ethnocentrism against the Gentile converts and his hypocrisy in regarding them as the "other." He reminds Peter that we are reborn in Christ, not as Jews and Gentiles but as people of a new creation. This kind of conflict threatened the future existence of the Church; it can and does do the same damage today if left unchecked by leaders. The plurality of racial groups in U.S. society will require a pluricultural lens to build the bridges of interculturality. Leaders who have found their voice have assisted the Church in playing its proper role and in overcoming cultural, racial, and ethnic barriers. Intercultural leaders of the twenty-first century will find St. Paul to be a role model for identifying and naming the reality of racism as well as building bridges between all God's children.


Massingale, Bryan N. Racial Justice and the Catholic Church. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010.

USCCB. Brothers and Sisters to Us: United States Bishops Pastoral Letter on Racism in Our Day. Washington, DC: USCCB, 1979.

USCCB. For the Love of One Another: Special Message on the Occasion of the Tenth Anniversary of Brothers and Sisters to Us. Washington, DC: Bishops' Committee on Black Catholics, 1989.

Williams, Clarence. "Beyond Multiculturalism: Engaging Pluricultural Ministry." CHURCH Magazine, vol. 24, no. 2 (Summer 2008).

Williams, Clarence. Racial Sobriety: Becoming the Change You Want to See. Detroit, MI: Institute for Recovery from Racisms, n.d.