I’m still trying to wrap my head around this news and the significance Bourdain has had on me — a guy I never knew.
First, if you are in what feels like hopeless pain, deep despair — you’re not alone. I personally know what it’s like to have lived there. A couple Sundays ago, a member of our church shared about how God saved him from suicide through faith and his community. I beg of you to reach out.
About Anthony Bourdain: I remember coming upon him as I was becoming fascinated with restaurant cooking. I was becoming a “foodie” (I term I now regret). I cooked daily for my family, regularly for friends. And during my darker moments, I dreamed of quitting it all to become a chef. Sometimes I still do. Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” was my first tour book into the underbelly of the restaurant world: a world that wasn’t glamorous, where chefs were more like pirates than captains, where the best chefs were actually Latin American & N. African. And where we cooks knew how to switch between serving BS to the elites or demanding customer — while enjoying the truly good (often comfort) food himself and with his fellow shipmates. A favorite story is how he blew his culinary school teachers away with his “model consomme” — when in fact he just slipped in bunch of beef powder.
Along came his seminal show, “A Cook’s Tour”, the first cooking/travel show I know of that began with a parental warning about explicit content. He showed us not only the best food in the world, but food that I WOULD EAT. But he also resisted reducing people down merely to their food, something TV personalities often do, as if these foreign peoples were exotic animals, and their food alone was some tiny token of their true essence. Later when he moved on to “No Reservations”, I remember vividly his episode in Beirut that was interrupted by, well, armed conflict. He did not spare us the beauty of Lebanon nor the frightful reality of living underneath hellfire. Bourdain cared about food, but he was a lover of the world and the people who inhabited it. To be honest, I didn’t enjoy his more recent stuff. Sometimes it felt like even he knew he was playing into a caricature of himself, satisfying the very foodies he’s always despised. Except when he would mess with Eric Ripert. He delighted in taking his 3 Michelin star friend into the ghettos of the world forcing him eat weird stuff. I ate that stuff up.
Bourdain was no saint. He had a biting words for celebrity chefs. Sometimes I think he veered toward the unkind, esp for the Rachel Rays, Tyler Florences & Guy Fieris of the world. He also had personal life stuff that simply raised eyebrows. But he’s a distant celebrity, not some close friend. I only knew 1% of the story.
But perhaps the greatest impact he had, and I’m embarrassed to admit this, but he was the first universally respected white chef/foodie to unapologetically say that the best food in the world is in Asia. I know that as a Chinese guy, I should not need the white validation. But growing up in a food culture where even most of my Asian American friends were climbing over themselves for the next culinary peak — which were almost always French, Continental, or “fusion” — here was a respected white guy, hovering over a bowl of noodles in China or Vietnam and simply saying THIS is the best food that can be found on the planet. Not trying to make that bowl of noodles into some commentary on Asian culture, not comparing it to some European equivalent, but saying: Damn, it just doesn’t get better than this. Asian food doesn’t have to become “fusion” to be good. It’s already good. You just have to eat the real stuff. I’ve always believed that. My family & friends have always believed that. But it felt so good to hear him say it, not only with his words, but with his joy.
I visited Israel & Palestine this past June during my sabbatical. What I saw, experienced, and learned opened my eyes and heart in a way few trips ever have.
This wasn’t a pilgrimage per se. But as a student of the Bible, I was interested in exploring the lands where the biblical stories unfolded. But also as a lover of history and politics, I also wanted to learn more about the reality Israel and Palestine. Even by calling it ‘Palestine’, I am making a political statement. My tour guide, Sami, was a Jerusalem-born Palestinian Christian—a double minority—and I’m grateful for his invitation to see his home through his rare eyes.
If you’ve been following me on Instagram, this is just a compilation of my posts…
You’ll notice I began my trip feeling more like a tourist. Please also forgive the occasional Warriors posts—this was during the NBA Finals! Notice also my strong Anabaptist bent as I visit these illustrious church buildings and shrines. And my poor Instagram skills. But as the pictures progress, you will see how my experience evolved.
Those who say our country is more divided than ever forget that there was this little thing called the Civil War. The Civil War is the bloodiest war we’ve ever fought. And 11 states so detested Lincoln that they literally seceded. Talk about #notmypresident.
But in 1863, Lincoln did something remarkable. For the first time ever, he issued a national day of Thanksgiving. States had their own days, which were different. But this was the first national one.
Why was this remarkable? We were in the midst of a frickin’ Civil War! And 1863 was the bloodiest year of the war; and victory was still uncertain. Even so, Lincoln called on the nation to give God thanks for the relative peace and abundance that existed outside of the theatres of civil conflict. This wasn’t just silver lining, this was fact.
I personally don’t know if our country will ever be as united as we think it should. I hope for it, but honestly, I don’t know.
But I do know that Jesus commands the Church to be one. That’s right, we are called to be one with the brothers and sisters we like, but also the elitist or racist ones we don’t; who’ve hurt us. It’s messy business; individuals and communities have to listen, forgive, and change. And in the absence of change, we will have to love Jesus enough to accept each other. It’s hard work, but it’s not optional.
And Church family, if we can’t be one, don’t even dare ask our Nation to be one. But if we can figure out this unity thing in Jesus, what a gift that’d be to our country!
But being one must start with the heart, with desire. And I can think of few things that soften our hearts towards God and one another as Gratitude. And so…
I thank God, that despite this bitter election, we will have a peaceful transition of power and relative unity compared to so many other nations.
I thank God, that despite the continued fascination of the American church with political and economic power, we still lead great work in caring for the poor, the unborn, refugees, those in prison, those in forced labor, those affected by natural disasters, those suffering grave injustices, those who don’t yet believe, etc. in the US and abroad.
I thank God for my neighbors.
I thank God for all the unspectacular believers who will never make the news and who have no illusions of “making a difference”, but still made daily choices this year to love their families, to be good neighbors, to stand up to bullies, to share the gospel in word and deed.
I thank God for the Warriors and Andre Ward! And the many local and national diversions and sources of even temporary happiness that are available to us and all people regardless of their station in life.
I thank God for daily bread, clothes to wear, roof over my head, and indoor plumbing. And enough that we were able to replace some broken items this year.
I thank God for my church. We love each other. We’re small but strong in faith, hope, and love. Why our footprint is bigger than our foot, I can only credit Jesus.
I thank God for the Dragon’s Den. You’re my third family. You’re OUR third family. RIP Sifu Nico.
I thank God he called me to be a pastor. I’ve never felt the burden, but also the privilege of that as much as this year.
I thank God for my family. My wife still likes me. My kids still look up to me. These are miracles! My parents, siblings, and in-laws—we have great relationships. This is a blessing.
America is not the kingdom of God. And this election had reminded us of that.
I’d like to warn us of two dangers and offer a few thoughts on what it means to live under Jesus as king.
First, if your candidate won, you have reason to rejoice, but I caution against over-jubilation.
I came to Christ at a church that identified Christianity with a certain brand of conservative politics. And it was dangerous because it breeded hypocrisy, made us blind to injustice, but mostly because it caught us up in a narrative that if only we took America back for God, by voting for the right leaders or laws, then God would bless us or he’d make America great again.
This of course should have made us ask when did this country belong to God? When we slaughtered natives and stole their lands? When we enshrined slavery into the Constitution? Or when we preserved the subordination of women? Or when we excluded Chinese or interned Japanese-Americans? America is a great nation for a host of reasons, and has produced some truly great Christian leaders, but we should always be wary of selectively nostalgic tellings of history. And even if it was great, was it great for everybody or even most people?
In any case, this political view encouraged us to seek worldly power in order to make America into God’s kingdom (again). It is not. So if your candidate won, you may have reason to celebrate, but this man is only our president, he is not our king. And our hope is not in what we can make of this nation.
But for those who are dismayed by the election of Donald Trump, I also caution against too much despair, or too much “if only…” thinking. The Christian left on the face of it seems like a good corrective to the Christian right. But the error is the same, but instead of placing our hopes in a conservative America, it’s placing our hopes in a progressive America. If only we had enough social justice, or more progressive leaders or laws, then God would bless us. And the Christian left can be just as power hungry.
Being sad or angry is justifiable. But being overly dismayed suggests that our hopes are pinned too tightly to the politics of this world.
I do believe Mr. Trump poses a special danger to our country and the least of these. But we should not be surprised when our nation or it’s leaders disappoints us.
And if we needed further proof that we can’t place too much hope in our country’s politics: Without much notice, assisted suicide is now legal in California for the terminally ill – including those who are mentally ill. And the death penalty was reaffirmed by a majority of voters. Brothers and sisters, this is not what the kingdom of God looks like.
Does this mean then that we should withdraw from public citizenship and focus only on “spiritual” things? No. We should still engage our world to the best of our ability, but as people whose primary citizenship is in God’s kingdom, not America’s. We are called to live in this world well, incarnationally, but knowing full well we don’t ultimately belong to it’s leaders, or its politics.
So what does it look like to live under the kingship of Jesus in this nation?
1. Pray for President-Elect Trump and his Administraton.
2. Seek the Common Good. What’s good for all, especially the most vulnerable, will ultimately be good for you. Buck the political trends of fear and self-interest. Both Jeremiah and Paul taught us to seek the peace of our city because peace floats all boats. And peace promotes the flourishing of the gospel. And it’s an expression of loving our neighbor like good Samaritans.
3. Be a Prophet of Peace. The work of peace will sometimes call you to speak up, to take a stand, or even take action. Worshiping Jesus as King is dangerous business. Don’t be afraid. Do it peacefully. But be aware what kings have historically done to prophets.
4. Build the Church and Your Family. The early Christians of the Bible didn’t and most Christians today still don’t live in democracies. Most were and still live under persecution. Most had no access to the levers of political power. Let’s not be so full of ourselves. Building good or just societies are outside the reach of most Christians. We should do it. But our primary calling isn’t to build America but to build the church. Jesus said that our unity and sacrificial love is what will inspire social change. But unity and love is hard work, even harder when we have differing political views in a divided country.
And the same applies to our marriages and families. Don’t underestimate the power of a Christ-like marriage or making little rascals for Jesus.
Advent is just around the corner. And Advent means the coming of our King. Let’s prepare the way by waiting not for some president or some law, but by watching out for our King—and living like it.
As a (non-white) evangelical pastor, it’s not uncommon for me to see stuff on my feed about “how Christians should vote.” But this is actually a strange and complicated question. Let me rattle off a bunch of reasons:
1. Voting was not even in the imagination of the early believers. Christians, like most people in those days (and most people today!) didn’t choose their rulers. Most people in history were slaves or peasants.
2. Not only did Bible-time Christians not have the right to vote, most were persecuted; the opposite of political power.
3. Around 300 AD, when Christians finally got political power by some wacked stuff that happened to the Emperor Constantine (He saw a vision of the Cross leading him into battle—which, guys, the cross was how Jesus was killed, not how he will kill others! Hence: whacked), the Church lost its identity and we ended up with fancy clergy and churches and crusades. That’s why people became monks, to disconnect from the system.
4. There are really just two types of passages in the New Testament (NT) that speak about the rulers.
4.1. Those that ask us to pray for peace and live lives of peace. You can tell these guys were living under hostile governments. The idea is: If there is peace for everyone else, there will be peace for us and peace for the gospel to flourish.
4.2. Those that are critical of rulers for being cocky, oppressive, and persecuting. But even for these people, the idea was never “vote them out of office”, because, again, that didn’t exist. Instead, prophets wrote poems for the people to recite that promised these rulers would one day meet their Maker. Most Christians believed that justice was out of their hands (they had no power), but that the God of Justice would one day make things right.
5. The NT never thought about how to establish a Christian society (whereas the OT did, a Jewish one). The NT was about strengthening a viral network of tiny little living room societies, called churches, who were a part of something much bigger: God’s Kingdom.
6. The clarion call of the NT is not whom we should vote for, but simply that Jesus is Lord. And in a world that said Caesar is Lord, it’s no wonder the early Christians were deemed disloyal and even unpatriotic.
With the above in mind, I think we need to be much more humble and honest about the reasons for our vote.
Christians, most likely, you are voting the way you vote because of where you live. Or because of the media you consume. Or because of your demographics. Or your education. Or just because you’re liberal, moderate, or conservative. Not purely because of the Bible. If I’m honest, that’s true for me. Check it.
We are just as prone to voting for self-interest as anyone else. Check it.
At our best, we vote as an expression of loving God and loving our neighbors. But in reality, it’s not always that clear which is the more loving choice.
And there’s always the law of unintended consequences. Politicians lie. Or discover governing isn’t like campaigning. Or laws look different in practice than on paper.
I believe we should take our votes seriously. I believe as members of a democratic society, we should do our best to build a better society. I believe we should debate. And I do believe (collectively), our votes can make a difference. But as the late Rich Mullins once sang, “O, we are not as strong as we think we are.”
So I believe, if we want to take a biblical perspective, these three things remain:
1. Pray for peace and live like it
2. Love your neighbor like a Good Samaritan
3. Seek God’s Kingdom first
This is a truly unique book. And the best book I’ve read this year. Part memoir / sociology / theology / Asian corny hilariousness. It’s funny, it’s educational, it’s deeply moving.
Russell moves into and ultimately finds home in the Murder Dubs of Oakland. But it’s not a triumphant American superhero story. Nor is it a sappy romance about ‘the poor.’ It’s a complex, humble story about how he found community, identity, and ultimately Jesus in his mostly Cambodia refugee & Latino neighborhood.
It’s a story that asks: What if Jesus wasn’t as much an American superhero, but more like a Chinese Hakka exile (his ancestors)? What if Jesus was more like my Chinatown grandma than that powerful hipster pastor I’m always jealous of? He re-explores things like MISSION, JUSTICE, COMMUNITY, FAMILY & CALLING through this lens.
I finished this book richly proud of my Chinese ancestry, broken over the plight of disenfranchised non-model-minority Asians in the Bay Area, hopeful about what God is still doing through amazing yet mostly “invisible” people, but challenged to live my faith in a way that may run counter to the power and reward structures of our world.
I’m not wise enough to know if recalling the judge is the right thing to do. Mob justice feels right, but it also make me wary. That decision is up to you (read debate by law profs).
But what I do know is that the situation, the case, and the future falls on people like me. And by me, I mean a man. By me, I mean as a father of three boys. And if you’re white, it triply applies to you. And the responsibility ahead is a lot harder than signing an online petition.
First of all, if I had a daughter, I’d spend as much time making sure my daughter stays away from college drinking as you’d want them training for jiu jitsu. Not because if you drink and you get raped it’s your fault; it’s NOT. But for the same reason I’d say stay away from any behavior that dramatically increases your chance of getting assaulted: 80% of campus sexual assaults involve alcohol. Staying away from college drinking as a woman is just good self-defense. (Update: I learned the woman was 23 and not a student, so would’ve don’t nothing for her. And again: rape is always 100% the fault of the rapist.)
But I don’t have a daughter. I have three boys. And I believe it is incumbent on people like me to raise boys that not only stand up against rape culture, but perpetuate a better, safer, and more dignifying culture; a culture that I believe Jesus exemplified among men and women. And he put the onus of perpetuating that new culture on those with power, those with leering eyes and erections.
Which is why I’m writing about this. Because it’s not just women who should be speaking up, but equally, men. And thank you, sisters, for speaking loud enough so our deaf ears can hear.
Which is why I feel doubly committed to raising boys:
…who know they are unconditionally loved by God and us — so they don’t feel the need to fill some void with power, sex, or accomplishment.
…who develop a strong, healthy, and holy masculinity — so they are aware of their power and use it for good and not their own pleasures.
…who live in a rich network of relationships with God, family, church, and friends — so they have help during their seasons of rejection and insecurity.
…who are self-aware enough and rooted deeply enough in the Jesus story — so they are able to at least have a chance against a media culture that now objectifies women 24/7 on every screen through Michael Bay movies, Snapchat, beer commercials, and pornography. Because as a person who came of age at the beginnings of hi-speed internet and smartphones — guys, it’s not a fair fight.
…who respect all people, especially women, in public and in private, as just a baseline level of morality.
…who hate cheap alcohol until they hit their 30s and discover tasty craft beer that is too expensive to get drunk on like their Dad did.
…whose anger is well calibrated with the anger of Jesus.
…who do the right thing like the two nameless Swedes did when they saw Brock on top of the unconscious woman.
…who, along with other women, preside over campus clubs, social groups, ministries, workplaces, homes, neighborhoods, and cities that exist for the safe flourishing of all, not just themselves.
And which is why I try to remain honest, humble, and broken about when I fail to exemplify these things myself as a man, husband, father, pastor, and public citizen — because I do fail — but humble enough so I can change and become at least what I pray for my boys to become. And like all parents, I pray that they will become more. For ourselves, for my wife/their mother, for your daughters, and for the glory of God.
I can’t breathe
The unbearable weight of history
Of subjugation, segregation, stop-and-frisk-ation
Boring down into my back
Crushing my chest
Strangling our souls
Let me tap Uncle
I will let you win
I will surrender my cig
If you will just let me breathe
Now beneath the weight of dirt
I’m waiting for justice
I can’t breathe
The loss of another
Son of a mother, a father, a brother
This shitty record is broken
Injustice rolls like a motherfuckin waterfall
Away with the noise of your songs
I can’t listen to the music of you harping on
Why won’t you just stop and frickin listen?
Now beneath the weight of your laws
We’re waiting for justice
I can’t breathe
I’m choking on these fallen tears
I can’t breathe
I’m exhausted from the fight
I can’t breathe
I’m holding my breath
Because if there is no Advent
There can be no justice
If there is no rising again
There can be no peace
Just the status quo
Holding up the weight of the world as we know
And we will be waiting for nothing
But as for me
I will walk
A prisoner of hope
Waiting for that sigh of relief
Waiting for justice
I love the question which opens this chapter, a question Tatum’s daughter once asked her: “Is my skin brown because I drink chocolate milk?” Hearing kids talk about race is fun and sometimes even subversive. My kids have never referred to their friends as White, Black, Yellow, or Red – because, it turns out, none of us are actually those colors (except Brown). Race, I’m reminded, is a social construct. Another example: I just polled my three boys; oldest says he’s Chinese, middle says he’s English, and youngest says he’s Spanish (I asked him why, Because I look Spanish.) But these humorous conversations with kids about race remind me that while kids certainly have some wrong-headed ideas about race, so do we as adults.
Talking to our kids about race isn’t easy. Some parents fear that by introducing the conversation so early, they are raising questions and concerns that before didn’t exist. Even for patently racist parents, they know that they must speak about race in hushed tones, or at least behind closed doors. And yet passing on values about racial & ethnic identity and relationships to our children is vital, even if it happens non-verbally. I am convinced that there are a few places where we can see where our real values are. One is how we use money. The second is how we raise our kids. As a Christian, it’s almost cliche to talk about people who are Christians – until it comes to their money and their children. But this an untenable position before a Jesus who told his disciples: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Mt 19:14).
There are some stark differences though between Tatum’s world and my world. First, I am not Black; while I am a racial minority, there is something categorically unique to the stigma associated with being Black in America and something unique to the relationship between Blacks and Whites. Second, it seems like I live in a much more diverse neighborhood than Tatum does; where I live, Whites are as populous as Latinos, Filipinos, Chinese, and Indians; White normalcy seems to be more prevalent in her neighborhood, or at least at her children’s schools. Third, my kids already come home with messages about racial inclusion and equality–unsurprising given the racial diversity among their teachers. And for these reasons, I don’t naturally feel as nervous about my kids growing up as Chinese-Americans as Tatum does with her kids. This doesn’t mean that there is no racism in our neighborhood–there is, but not of the character Tatum writes about. At this stage, they don’t perceive that they are worse off or that they are weird because of their looks or their Chineseness. They don’t think they are yellow because they drank “too much” (insert yellow colored drink). In fact, they would be happy to bring their Chinese soy milk or yogurt drinks to school with a level of confidence that would have put my 3rd grade self to shame. As far as they are concerned they are as different and as similar as their friends who are Armenian, Filipino, Caucasian, etc. At least for now (or more accurately, as far as I know.)
Tatum advocates that FIRST, we should be happy to accept children for where they are at developmentally (often making broad generalizations, e.g., about one’s consumption of chocolate milk). SECOND, we as adults need to watch how we unconsciously transmit messages about race to and around our kids (do we mention someone’s race unnecessarily? especially in a pejorative way, or to express surprise?). And THIRD, we should help them develop a critical consciousness (e.g., using racial stereotypes in media as simple entry points to teach them).
At this point, as a parent, I find myself emphasizing three things with my children which overlap, but slightly differ from Tatum:
ACCEPTANCE: Like Tatum, I accept where my kids are with respect to their understanding of race and ethnicity. After that one conversation, I have never asked my kids what race their friends are. When they describe what’s unique about their friends, only once or twice have they ever referred to skin color; all other times they’ve referred to their hair color or curliness, their height or size, their raspy voice, and (when pressed) if it is a girl. I want to learn about their world as they see it. And even when my youngest insisted that he was Spanish because he looks Spanish (what does that even mean?), at this point, I see no reason to correct him. Because at this point, self-discovery is just too fun and fluid. The stuff my youngest says is wrong almost half the time. And rather than spending all my time correcting him and stifling the joy of discovery, I delight in seeing how he discovers things about himself. But with my older son, I do find myself correcting him because he’s old enough – but I always do it in a way that steers his understanding of the truth rather than making him feel embarrassed for being so “ignorant.” We laugh a lot when we talk about race, ethnicity, gender, or outer space aliens — and I hope, learn a lot too.
IDENTITY: Clearly, two of my boys have identity issues (but who doesn’t?). But that’s the freedom they have at this age. But what does it mean to be Chinese-American? I resonate with this question, because I am Chinese, and yet I’m not. I look Chinese, yet I don’t speak Chinese. I have Chinese family values, and yet I am also a Western individualist. I cook and eat Chinese food, but pretty much every other cuisine as well. My kids are the same. Unlike my grandparents, I don’t feel the need to preserve their Chinese-ness, and yet I want them to have a sense of what it means to be Chinese-American, especially in the diverse environment that they are growing up in. Recently, I’ve been reading through with my boys Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints, a marvelous graphic novel that approaches the Boxer rebellion from the Traditional Chinese perspective and the Catholic Chinese perspective. There’s also lots of gods, and magic, and knives, so my boys love it. I also read Yang’s American Born Chinese with my oldest – and to my surprise, he understood it’s meaning, despite not growing up wanting to be like the cool White kids. What I love about these stories is that they are both Chinese and Western. Yang offers a narrative that not only bridges those two worlds and their histories, but also brings the tensions to surface. I am resistant to the idea of imposing what it means to be Chinese-American on my boys, and story provides the freedom for them to discover that for themselves with some narrative anchors.
JUSTICE: Particularly out of my Christian convictions, I want my children to grow up being sensitive to anyone or any group that is being ignored, bullied, or singled out in a pejorative fashion–regardless of the social marker. I regularly ask them if there are people who no one wants to play with, that everyone laughs at because I want them to be the first to be their friend, to include them. Race has generally not been something I have specified as a reason to rile them to action, again, because they have not brought it up as a reason. More often, it will be because someone is smelly, or weird, or dumb, or mean (do these labels track with race, gender, or socioeconomic status? maybe/maybe not). A good friend of ours has a son who is autistic, so that is also on my radar. As they become more race-aware, you bet it will be a more intentional conversation.
If you’re parent, it’d be great to hear what’s on your mind when it comes to conveying messages and values about race to your children.
The author Beverly Tatum does something interesting in this chapter. She dives into the complexity of identity – but not merely to understand ourselves better, but as a possible path to understanding each other across the racial conversation.
Who we are, Tatum suggests, is not so straight-forward. We are multi-dimensional–e.g., I am a young, Gen X, middle class, Chinese Christian heterosexual male. But how we view ourselves is also a product of a multi-faceted process. A la Erikson, how we view ourselves results from this back and forth process between observation and reflection: All day long, I intuit what you think about me, I observe what is considered normal in the world, I observe what the world thinks about people like me — and I reflect, react, and internalize those things. So identity isn’t just this innate quality, rooted merely within myself – it is also located within my social context. How I view myself as a young Chinese man in 2013 America is very different than as a young Chinese man in 1013 China.
One of the biggest components of our self-perception, Tatum says, is our membership in either a dominant or subordinate group.
One of the interesting things she notes is that when she asks people to describe themselves, White people almost never introduce themselves as White, while people of color almost always indicate their color or ethnicity. The reason is because when we are in a dominant group, we tend to take that element of our identities for granted. When the external world already privileges this aspect of my identity – the harmony is so great that it falls back into my unconscious. On the other hand, when we are not in the dominant group – we know it. And we’ve all been there: when I walked into a room of all women, all well-dressed people, all tall people, etc. This experience of being “other” is so pronounced, that it tends to be the part of our identity that we become most aware of.
There are at least seven categories of “otherness” commonly experienced in U.S. society. People are commonly defined as other on the basis of race or ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, and physical or mental ability. Each of these categories has a form of oppression associated with it: racism, sexism, religious oppression/anti-Semitism, heterosexism, classism, ageism, and ableism, respectively. (p. 22)
The reality, though is that most of us belong to both dominant and subordinate groups. I am subordinate because I am Chinese, young, and (in our area) Christian (curious, in her area, it’s an advantage). But I am dominant because I am male, well-educated, middle-class, heterosexual, able-bodied, and once again, stunningly good-looking.
But to return to the contrast between dominant and subordinate groups – it’s pretty stark. Because the dominant group, by definition, sets the rules, defines what’s normal. Everyone else “is labeled as defective or substandard in significant ways” (p.22). An example that I run across frequently has to do with study habits/value of education. I’ve heard of people who bemoan how Asian parents for being “too strict” and putting “too much pressure” on their kids. Meanwhile, it’s insinuated that Blacks are “lazy” or otherwise less intelligent. Think about what is being said here. The implication is that Whites are neither too strict nor too lazy, they are, as we learned from Goldilocks: Just right. In any case, this is an example of the dominant group seeing what is “normal” as merely a reflection of themselves. (To be fair, my family was quite insistent that I never become as lazy as anyone because in their cultural mindset – their way was not only right, but normative). Another example is when men complain that women are “too emotional”. Who defines what is the right amount of emotion? The dominant group, which is men.
Of course, these are all stereotypes with only degrees of truth. But when someone in the subordinate group bucks the trend, they are merely seen as anomalies. That’s why Biden’s compliment to Obama was seen as backhanded: “The first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy” (read: because normally you guys aren’t!).
But stuff like this shouldn’t surprise us, because most dominants are clueless – most think their experience is normative. They literally have no idea. But who can blame them when the culture and media all simply parrot back their views and values ? Subordinates are familiar with the experience of the dominants because the dominants own the culture and the media, but rarely the other way around. That’s why if you want to go mainstream, you often have to “whitewash” yourself: Blacks lighten their skin, Asians change their eyes, Jews change their noses, etc. You have to suppress your identity.
Of course, this makes many of us want to reject the dominant culture altogether – which leads to ghettoism. The negative result, Tatum says, though is that it disconnects subordinates from the networks, skills, and resources that would otherwise help improve their plight — all of which are connected to the dominant group.
And so this where even earnest race relations have often fallen apart. Earnest Whites can easily become discouraged by the charges of still being racist. Meanwhile, people of color, are still angry by how clueless Whites continue to be.
From here Tatum says that the complexity of our identities can be an asset. If you are White, she says it might be easier to understand the perspective of minorities by drawing on your own experience of belonging to a subordinate group — as a young person, female, person with disability, growing up poor, etc. If you are a person of color, you might understand that cluelessness better if you realize you too are a clueless dominant — as a heterosexual, able-bodied person, a man, or some other kind of dominant person. Tatum says of herself:
If I am impatient with a White woman for not recognizing her White privilege, it may be useful for me to remember how much of my life I spent oblivious to the fact of the daily advantages I receive simply because I am heterosexual, or the ways in which I may take my class privilege for granted. (p. 23)
In other words, perhaps the first step is to realize that both the threads of clueless dominance and helpless subordination run through all of us. None of us are exempt or immune.
The thesis of this chapter resonates deeply with me as a Christian. People often say that at the heart of Christianity is love. Actually, it’s Jesus. But yes, love is central. But so is the belief that we are all sinners. More specifically: we are all victims of sin, but we are also all perpetrators of it. I cannot decry the corruption of politicians without also being humble about the greed in my own heart. I cannot turn my nose at Miley Cyrus without implicating my own pride and insecurities. I cannot point at the speck in my brother’s eye without bumping into the plank in my own.
There are sinners on both sides of the racial conversation. As an ethnic minority here in America (but certainly not the world!) – it’s so easy to just shake my head at the majority. I was recently talking with a friend about Rick Warren and also the Exponential Conference – and he said something that startled me: Most white people just don’t get it. That may or may not be true. But the Cross of Christ reminds me: I am a clueless sinner too. This does not negate the sins of the majority. In fact, I believe the Cross puts the onus on the dominant – not the subordinate; reconciliation and love, in light of Christ crucified, is always the ethical responsibility of the strong, not the weak. But even so, the Cross still stunningly calls me to humility and patience. Ponder this long enough and you’ll realize how offensive, yet radical this is.
Personally, I think the Cross takes us much further than Tatum does, but it seems promising that it’s in the same direction. Because my interest in this topic is not to stoke racial animosity or pride – but in seeking racial righteousness in the Church, and peace in the world.