By Jasmine Obeyesekere Fernando

Building Multiethnic Community: Insights from Sri Lanka on Navigating Privilege

When we come to know Christ we inherit brothers and sisters from all ethnic groups, from a variety of cultures. In Revelation we see a multitude of people from all languages and cultures worshiping God when Jesus takes his place as King of Kings (Rev 7:9). All our cultures in their redeemed form have a place in God’s kingdom where there is no hierarchy of cultures. 

Following Christ includes demonstrating God’s future in our relationships. This includes desiring multi-ethnicity and taking thoughtful steps to honor people from all cultures in the way we practice Christian community on our campuses and in our churches, and how we relate to people who are ethnically different from us — whether a lab mate, co-author, or students. 

Our impetus for cultivating multicultural communities isn’t only because of the eschatological future, it is rooted in God’s intentions for humankind at the beginning of history. Christian theology of human personhood begins with the declaration that everyone is created in God’s image — and "everyone" includes those who inhabit diverse cultures.  

In this piece, I will explore eight framing ideas for cultivating multi-ethnic community and a kingdom vision of mutuality that goes deeper than the diversity, equity, and inclusion work we encounter in our institutions. 

  • Doing things differently from what we are used to
  • Understanding (and responding to) unique challenges faced by the minority community because of their ethnicity
  • Appreciating and investing in authentic friendships across racial divides
  • Accepting that our cross-cultural friendships may bring us moments of discomfort 
  • Naming a reality that doesn’t feel ours
  • Realizing that our simple might be complex for others 
  • Walking in the shoes of the "other"
  • Beginning to engage our own communities

These ideas stem from my own journey of understanding innate privilege as a Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, and I hope they will give us insight to steward privilege and power in our university contexts as we ask ourselves what creating multi-ethnic community looks like.  

As we consider each of these ideas, there will be reflection questions in each section to pivot from my experience to yours.

A caveat before I begin. Privilege has many contexts. Privilege is not the perk of one group. Similarly, racism and prejudice don’t live exclusively in one group. Minority ethnic groups can also exhibit racism and prejudice to other minorities, including minorities in their countries of origin. All of us who have (or are working towards) an advanced degree are privileged because of the opportunities it affords us. Plenty of people of color are socio-economically privileged while lots of white folks struggle economically. The privilege I explore in this article though is about the privilege of belonging to the majority race or ethnic group, which shields us from difficult — even dangerous — realities minorities habitually experience.

In July 1983 thirteen soldiers (all from the majority Sinhala ethnicity) were ambushed and killed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE/ The Tigers). Their funerals in the country’s capital Colombo fueled anti-Tamil sentiment amongst the Sinhalese resulting in a day of mob violence against Tamils, the largest minority ethnicity. People, homes, shops, and vehicles were set on fire. Many Tamils died. Most others went into refugee camps that were set up overnight.  

A few days after the initial carnage there was mass hysteria due to rumors that the Tigers were coming to Colombo seeking vengeance and Tamils were attacked again. Among those who were killed were members of my uncle’s extended family, two of whom I knew.  Being thirteen, it made a profound impression on me to understand that gentle Uncle Shanmugarajah and carefree Niruthan (aged seventeen) had been set on fire alive. This experience at the onset of a twenty-five-year war helped shape me (a Sinhalese) to notice racial bias or injustice facing Tamils as I grew up.    

Growing up in Colombo in a family and school that fostered friendship across ethnic and religious divides, I had never viewed Tamils, Moors, and Burghers or Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus as "other."  Being both similar and different was normal. Our first-grade field trip was a visit to the nearby Christian church, Buddhist temple, Muslim mosque and Hindu kovil! Yet until I went to university, even amidst this rich diversity of friendship, I had never had friendships that reflected a much wider cross section of Sri Lankan society, since those of us who lived in and around the capital were mostly insulated from life outside the metropolis.    

Doing things differently from what we are used to

It has been said that culture is "the way we do things around here." Healthy multi-ethnic community happens when we are willing to let go of the ways that we’ve done things in the past — that may not necessarily be wrong, just more comfortable to us. Honoring multi-ethnicity in our Sri Lankan context involved giving up English as the privileged language and working primarily in Sinhala and Tamil.  

The college Christian community that I was a part of met for weekly Bible study, fellowship, and prayer. The first hour was trilingual — with segments of worship and prayer happening in Tamil, Sinhala, or English, followed by an hour of Bible study where we broke up into either a Sinhala or Tamil small group. Regularly connecting emotionally with God through worship songs whose basic meanings I knew, though they were in a language I did not understand, was a joy, as well as watching others connect with God in their heart language. 

For me, who had read the Sinhala Bible mostly for academic purposes (because everyone takes a standardized national exam in tenth grade and religion is one of the subjects) and had mainly studied the Bible in English, read Christian books in English, and worshiped primarily in English services, campus Bible studies looked very different. Preparing to lead a Bible study was still a challenge though — it would take me about six hours of work to lead a study for one hour — as I prayed, studied the Bible passage for myself in English, made questions that would nudge the group in the right direction, translated the questions to Sinhala, and then got the ‘flow’ into my head to lead naturally in Sinhala.     

Planning meetings took time with conversation switching back and forth among three languages, but it showed me that our best ideas, which most glorify God, arise when we intentionally include God’s diversity in our leadership teams. When I was leading the group, many of my leadership team were Tamil. Sometimes a lot of the discussions happened in Tamil while I listened in and a couple others who were trilingual translated for me. It was a great way to pick up smatterings of their language!  

We probably looked a strange lot as we talked, laughed, and ate together in the most centrally located cafeteria on campus: men and women, urban and rural, a woman recognizable as Tamil because of her Sari — the expected dress code for lectures for female students in her department — and women recognizable as English medium students by their jeans (because there was male peer pressure for the Sinhala medium women students to either wear dresses or skirts).  Often as we had our meetings, someone’s friend would come over to briefly say hello, curious as to why such a diverse bunch of people loved hanging out together.  It was a great visual of the diversity of God’s new covenant community. 

At national student conferences, sometimes we intentionally held our main Bible expositions in Sinhala and Tamil. This meant that the few students who were more comfortable in English had to listen via translation or just follow along. It was a way of helping our brothers and sisters to hear the Scriptures taught in their heart language, while giving our preference for English a back seat - as English speakers had more access to good resources.  

What visual of God’s Kingdom does your grad student Bible study/Faculty reading group communicate?  What would including God’s diversity in our leadership teams look like? 

Understanding (and responding to) unique challenges faced by the minority community because of their ethnicity 

Lived realities experienced by the minority makes it impossible to ignore justice and worship God by cultivating personal piety alone. After the death of George Floyd and others and the widespread outcry against police brutality, more people have become aware that trusting police officers vs fearing them depends on how our ethnic group has experienced encounters with law enforcement personnel.   

In the shadow of civil war, I saw the experiences the minority community had to go through that I was shielded from. Jaffna (the main theater of war) and the northern peninsula was cut off from the rest of Sri Lanka. No one could travel back and forth. The inhabitants (all Tamil) were controlled by the Tigers — who invented the suicide vest, pioneered using women in suicide attacks, assassinated two world leaders and possessed a naval fleet and even light aircraft.   

A senior who had led our fellowship had just graduated university. He was randomly picked up by the police one day.  As a Tamil from the North who had completed his degree, the police didn’t think he had a reason to stay on in Kandy, a predominantly Sinhala Buddhist city, home to the Temple of the Tooth, venerated by Buddhists and targeted by the terrorists. He spent the next week or two locked up in a cell at the police station. 

Of necessity, we began to understand that belonging to a diverse Christian community and learning to become family to one another included getting involved in the difficult situations around us. We couldn’t ignore the reality that Tamils could be randomly picked up if they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. 

Even though my ethnicity protected me from being considered a terrorist suspect, my friend’s ethnic identity invariably caused suspicion. So, we visited him while he was behind bars at the police station. The visits were not only to show solidarity with our brother, but also to silently influence the police to treat him well while in custody, as they saw their terrorist suspect having "normal" (i.e. didn’t fit their profile of terrorist) friends. 

As students, we could only resort to such soft acts of using our relative power. But Christian faculty used their influence, working fast to establish his bona fides, so that he could be released quickly before he became buried in red tape and had to go through the system to be released, however long it took.   

Who are the ethnic minorities in your campus/church? 

Has your ethnic identity protected you from being in dangerous situations? Or has your ethnic identity been a target on your back? If you are from the majority culture, how do you use your "safe" status? 

Appreciating and investing in authentic friendships across racial divides

If our deep friendships are only with people from our own ethnic/racial group, when we hear race related stories where ‘our people’ are the villains, we will be prone to believe folks who belong to our group rather than outsiders. We interpret reality to fit our ideas, rather than allow reality to challenge our ideas. Genuine friendships with people from minority communities help us discover disquieting truths.     

The joys of cross-cultural friendships in our group included becoming close friends with the "other" who felt comfortable enough to share stories that they wouldn’t normally share outside their own community, for fear of being misunderstood. A fellow leader of our fellowship from a war-ravaged area told me how the army had attacked passengers on a bus, killing civilians in retaliation for a terrorist attack on soldiers. She had known one of the young women who had been killed. These kinds of stories did not get reported in the media.

Over a decade later when I was retelling this story in an intimate Sinhala context, I was told that I had most likely been "played," that my friend must have made up the story to garner sympathy. I was taken aback — it did not occur to me that other Christians may not respond to the story in the same way, that their preconceptions would filter the information they received to fit their own viewpoint.  

How close are your cross-cultural friendships? Hearing about lived experiences of friends that you can’t relate to and make you feel uncomfortable is a great indicator.  Inviting an international  student to Thanksgiving doesn’t make for a friendship — but it’s a great first step. 

What steps could you take to enhance cross-cultural friendships — in your lab, your grad fellowship, at church?  

Accepting that our cross-cultural friendships may bring us moments of discomfort      

Inter-racial friendship is easier one-on-one and in small like-minded communities than as a normal part of your everyday life. It is not hard to hang out with your black/brown/white friend at a coffee shop or for your multi-ethnic grad community to have dinner together in someone’s house. But it might be hard to invite her to a gathering of intimate friends who are all from your ethnic group if you know that others will find this an unwelcome novelty. Including your ethnically diverse friends in your real life can become easier if you don’t worry about what people might think.  

Once a Tamil friend from our college fellowship needed a place to stay in Colombo while he followed a class for two weeks. It wasn’t hard to invite him to stay at our house. But it was awkward to leave the house together in the mornings or to wait together at the bus stop in view of neighbors who would assume he was my significant other rather than just a friend. For the same reason it was awkward for both of us to go to the police station with my mom to register his temporary residence in Colombo, required under the emergency regulations in force.  In my case, the more awkward factor was our gender difference, rather than our racial difference. 

In what kind of situations are you comfortable "showing off" your inter-racial friendship? Are there situations when you prefer hiding your inter-racial friendships? Why?  

Naming a reality that doesn’t feel ours 

Sometimes we need to step outside our reality, to fully recognize it. Even with all the exposure I had had, it took me a trip to an international Christian conference more than a decade into the war, to acknowledge to myself that Sri Lanka really had a civil war! We had had countless talks and discussions on the ethnic problem, its historical roots, and our response. But until then, I had mentally categorized our hardships as a "terrorist problem" rather than a "war" as that’s how the heavily censored media framed it. Sri Lankan soldiers were combatting terrorists fighting for a separate homeland in remote parts of Sri Lanka I had never seen. It affected the lives of people in Colombo only periodically when a bomb would go off. When I visited Kenya though, as people were asked to stand up and be prayed for if they happened to be from a country at civil war, I realized I needed to stand up. 

Our patriotism can blind us from accurately identifying complex social ills that don’t affect us personally. Seeing our nation through the eyes of people from other countries can be eye-opening. We may not be able to travel internationally, but we can listen to voices from the outside, and voices from the margins of our own society. 

Are we influenced by how our favorite news channel/media frames complex problems without nuance such that we find different opinions unpalatable? Where will you look for alternative narratives that may be uncomfortable but trustworthy?

Realizing that our simple might be complex for others  

If our lives are relatively comfortable, we need to recognize that asking others to make decisions that are simple for us might be costly to them in ways that we cannot imagine.   

After graduating university, I served on the staff of InterVarsity’s Sri Lankan counterpart organization for some years. Annually students from chapters across the country attended the national student conference. For students from the Jaffna fellowship the cost of attending was higher than for the other students. 

Lots of students had the shared struggle of making time for the conferences while school was in session, or a major exam was around the corner. But the Jaffna fellowship came to the conference braving traveling hardships and physical danger.  Since the LTTE functioned as the de facto rulers of the North, people needed their permission to cross over to the other side. Students would travel on bicycles, motorcycles and carts on land and then get into the LTTE boats guided by the terrorists to make the lagoon crossing at night with no lights, so that they wouldn’t be spotted by the Navy and shot at. 

What are norms that people from other cultures might find difficult?  Perhaps your grad student fellowship eats out a lot but not everybody can afford it. You probably have an international colleague who uses her stipend for her work, her living expenses and to support her parents overseas. What allusions do you refer to in class as you teach? Might some be cultural references accessible only to others like you?  Can scholars writing stellar content from places with few resources publish in your academic journal if the technical rules are not strictly followed?  

Walking in the shoes of the "other" 

Don’t ask people to take risks if you aren’t willing to take them yourself.  

Understanding the risks that students undertook when we invited them to participate in a national conference motivated me to take some similar risks to visit our students in the North once the main city was under government control. I ended up being one of the few Sinhala civilians and perhaps the only non-military Sinhala woman who ever visited Jaffna in the war years. I needed Ministry of Defense clearance and a permit from my local police station for that — and all the police officers gathered around to quiz me since such a visit was unheard of. We traveled in a small, old, low flying plane and I didn’t feel completely comfortable until we were safely on the ground. These flights took place despite the Tigers’ warning not to fly in.  A month after we returned the LTTE shot down one of the planes with no news of what happened to those on board.  

Taking the bus with a group of Jaffna University women for a day out by the ocean, at a routine military checkpoint my new friends drew attention to me being Sinhalese. The soldiers were so used to only seeing ID cards with Tamil names that they had glazed over mine. It caused quite a sensation and the soldiers insisted on radioing their commander to come meet a civilian Sinhala woman wandering about in Jaffna!  The bus couldn’t resume the journey until their commander drove over for the novelty of meeting me.  The long bus ride over a short distance, with checkpoint stops every couple of miles where passengers had to get off the bus and be searched reinforced the time-consuming hassles that Tamil civilians had to submit to every single day.  

On a visit to the Eastern University, I spent the night in the women’s hostel with the fellowship’s leaders — and had a stream of curious students finding an excuse to visit our room to look at their real live Sinhala friend. This was an area where the army ruled by day and the LTTE ruled by night, each side manning the same sentry booths! It felt surreal to realize that I was the only Sinhalese in the building – with the soldiers in their barracks and the Tigers controlling the streets - yet I knew I was safe among my Christian sisters. It brought home to me how the minority was dependent on the benevolence of the majority community for their well- being on an everyday basis, rather than being safe because it was their right. 

These visits to war torn regions were not just to be with the women students. I would speak at their mixed gender events, teaching in English with my older Tamil male colleague translating.   

As a majority culture person, what are your experiences of being the only/ of a handful in a large group setting? How did you feel? How does this help you understand what minorities might feel in "normal" large groups?   

Beginning to engage our own communities 

As we recognize that privilege is about the power, we inherently possess because of belonging to the dominant ethnic group, it is not enough to translate our knowledge to appropriate personal practices alone — we must begin to challenge bias in our own communities.   

Once an older woman was chatting with my mother and me. Into the conversation was added the comment that “those people are like that.” I don’t remember the specific comment, it was a negative opinion about Tamils, spoken with the assumption that all Sinhalese felt the same way.  At last, without holding in my frustrations, or worse smiling like I agreed, I worked up the courage to ask, “Why do you think that?” even though my stomach churned to get the words out. The time had come to more than just know and do at a personal level only, but gently challenge biases held by others.   

How has this article helped you learn about privilege that you might innately possess? What is a step you can take to engage your own ethnic community in conversations about race? 


Photo by Salvatore Ventura on StockSnap

About the Author

Jasmine is WSAP’s book club host and vocation specialist. She hails from Sri Lanka and has a thirty-year relationship with its national university ministry, the Fellowship of Christian University Students (FOCUS). She has also been involved with InterVarsity for twenty years. She has a BA (Hons.) in English from the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka, and a MA in International Relations from Syracuse University. She loves writing about theology impacting real life and enjoys British, Korean, and Chinese drama. Jasmine lives in upstate New York with her professor husband and two teenage children.

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