I recently finished Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir, Between the World and Me. I expected to come into a deeper encounter with the experience of being black in America—and I did. But what I did not expect was to come into a deeper awareness of my love and responsibility for you.
See, Coates is a journalist and a brilliant writer. He recently won a Macarthur Genius Award. But this book, although a memoir, is written to not only to convey his story, but also his love for his one and only son. By birth, Coates was thrust into the chaotic streets of Baltimore, where even his loving, unreligious, but strict home were living legacies, the ongoing fall out of the subjugation of “black bodies.” He went to Howard University, a historically black college, and found a safe place to explore the full spectrum of blackness. Yet even there, was reminded ‘safe’ is a relative word when one of his friends—a young man who turned down Harvard for Howard, whose mother was Chief of Surgery, a man who was bound for success—was shot by a police officer. Coates met his wife at Howard too—another black person, similar but different from him. They travelled to Paris and experienced not only a sense of foreignness by geography, but also because of they were no longer viewed as especially dangerous or suspicious, i.e., black; he felt like a fish out of its water; and even if that water was poisonous, it was familiar. But then he had his son. Not born into the same chaos Coates knew when he was young. Yet he saw how his boy, born into a new era, could so easily be pushed aside. He saw how his son ran into his room to weep when he saw Michael Brown lying in the middle of the street on the TV. And Coates realized that as far as he’d tried to struggle and live well into being a black man in America, that he would not ultimately succeed if he did not pass the baton to this son whom he loved.
I have not been the worst father, but I have not been the best either. It’s not fair to you guys that the person who is responsible for fathering you is still working out his own identity, his own insecurities, his own imperfections, his own demons. It’s not fair to you guys that Daddy isn’t perfectly selfless, that Daddy is still learning to be Daddy. I didn’t grow up on the chaotic streets of Baltimore, but I did grow up in confusion. I grew up in a loving Toisanese family, but felt embarrassed by them at school. I grew up in a world, that still makes me feel unwelcome. I look back with shame at how, in struggling to be an American teenager, I disrespected my hard-working immigrant parents and made them feel hurt and rejected. But, also unlike Coates, I found God, or better put, Jesus found me. And things have been changing. And the world continues to change too. But not that much. Even as an adult, even as someone who’s been following Jesus for over 20 years now, I am still someone who is just beginning to grasp the edges of self-knowledge, and far from self-mastery, and even further from Christ-likeness. Yet this is the Daddy you have.
There’s a part of me that wants to apologize. And I do. But what all of me wants to do is love you. And by love you, I do mean hug and play with you. I do mean teaching you ride a bike and run a route. But I also mean teaching you what I’ve learned about life, about being a Chinese-American Christian man. And ultimately to be better than Daddy. Because by default, you will be no better than me.
One day, you will read the Book of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, and you will at first think they are wise pithy sayings. But eventually you will learn that these are hard wrought lessons of a king to his sons, the future kings of Israel. And that’s what you are. You are my princes, you are the future kings of this world—even if the world will not have you. And I promise to not only father your strength, but also your mind, heart, and soul.
This has been a pensive week for me. Ferguson, MO has been on my mind. But more specifically, the ringing challenge of certain Asian American friends who have called the relative silence of their fellow Asian Americans unacceptable, saying we owe a debt to the Black community because of the freedoms we’ve all gained in their fight for civil rights. And while these calls have unsettled me, I have been mulling on their challenge. After all, wounds from a friend can be trusted, right?
At the same time, as a (recovering) news and political junkie, I’m keenly aware that not only are there many sides to a story, but stories are often used to persuade and politicize. This is not new. This is, in fact, the power of story. In fact, I daresay, there is no such thing as a truly objective story.
But thirdly, as I mentioned in my previous post, I am still testing out my voice in the public conversation on race. This is scary for me because I’m prone to not only be misunderstood, but also maligned. As a learner, my beliefs are still fluid. But not all will read my words this way. But in this spirit, here are some continuing thoughts:
I stand by my belief that the race conversation in America, continues to be irrelevant to Asian Americans. Again, I am not saying that racial reconciliation or racial righteousness is irrelevant to us, but the conversation, as it stands, continues as if we don’t exist or belong. We are, predictably, perpetual foreigners to the conversation. E.g., this great article: 10 Ways White Christians Can Respond to Ferguson is addressed to whom? White Christians, not non-Black Christians, but White Christians (I do understand the sentiment though, because White Christians have a unique responsibility in America because of their privileged race). But I think it goes deeper than that, because as Asian Americans, we don’t quite identify with the Black experience or the White experience. Our experience is Other. I think this is why I took such umbrage to the headline: The Unacceptable Silence of Asian American Christians in Response to Ferguson (I realize now that the title didn’t really reflect the actual blog post). Because I felt like I was being co-opted into a story, on the basis of my race – that never truly included me. And this is why, predictably, you see Asian Americans who sympathize more with Brown, others with Wilson, and many others who are Other: they got other things to do. And lastly, at least for me, when I think of race relations, I almost never think of Blacks or Whites – because both have been among the fastest shrinking populations in the Bay Area, my home base. E.g., I have a Black neighbor now, but before he moved in, the family living there was Ghanaian. The two White neighbors I had: a Lithuanian and a Brit. The rest are Afghan, Indian, Filipino, Guatemalan, Mexican, Japanese, and Chinese. The race conversation, re-ignited by Ferguson, isn’t really about this kind of world. The race conversation that is relevant to me is multi-cultural among equally powered peoples, not bi-cultural between unequally powered ones.
As Asians, we’re slower to speak up in general. You might think that is a stereotype – which of course, it is. But I challenge you to have a Bible Study with a equally mixed group of Whites, Blacks, and Asians. You might have one Asian who is always willing to speak up, but more likely than not, you’ll find that Asians wait longer before speaking, prefer to speak in turn or when they are called on, and may go through the whole study without saying much at all. We are less likely to be external processors, more likely to fear saying something that is wrong. And by the time we’ve figured out something worth saying, the group’s already moved on to the next question! We need time, we need space, we need to be asked for our opinion.
Tensions exist between Asians and Blacks too. Wouldn’t it be great if in times of pain, we could just forget the past and just rally around one another? Yes, but that’s not how things always work out. Reconciliation is a prerequisite to community, and right now, there is still too much crap between Asians and Blacks. For example – and I don’t mean to throw my family under the bus here – but I grew up with a fearful and disparaging view of Blacks. It was rarely taught that explicitly, but when you see your parents lock the car doors enough times, pull you in closer enough times when a Black man walks down the street; you hear enough stories about criminal activity or lazy people – and they tend to always feature someone who is African American; you get told enough times that certain neighborhoods are “bad” because of crime, poverty, schools, and oh, there are a lot of Black people living there — eventually, you get the picture (thankfully, my parents no longer share these views — one of the benefits of actually having Black friends). It’s no secret among Asians that our community harbors deep racist attitudes towards Blacks. On the other hand, as some of my readers have pointed out, the experience Asians have had with Blacks has been disproportionately bad. In 2008, the city of SF found that a stunning 85% of physical assaults were Black-on-Asian. In 1992, Korean-owned stores were disproportionately hit by African-Americans in the LA riots — 45%. And in Ferguson, Asian-owned stores were also disproportionately hit. I pray for White-Black reconciliation. But I also pray for Black-Asian reconciliation.
We do owe a debt. Scott Nakagawa outlines “Three Things Asian Americans Owe to the Civil Rights Movement.” (1) The freedom to marry interracially, which Asian Americans are more likely to do than any other ethnic group. (2) The right to vote, which was won for all races. (3) The Immigration and Nationality Act which ended racist discriminatory laws against Asians. Many of us would literally not be here if it weren’t for the sacrifices made by Black Civil Rights leaders. At the same time, many of us have also benefited from White privilege as well (which again, is why we don’t fit neatly on one side or the other). In fact, those of us who’ve achieved any measure of success have often done so through paths well-worn by our White neighbors.
I still believe the Good Samaritan is the best paradigm for Christian response. Another thing that bothered me about Erna’s post was that, in the end, she appealed to our common humanity: “It’s not a Black problem- It’s a mothers and fathers losing their babies problem…a human problem.” That sounds compelling. But I do think it glosses over a crucial truth, namely that Ferguson is about race. And attempting to de-racialize Ferguson in order to appeal to our common humanity does violence to the reason people are marching on the streets (see more below). Moreover, as I mentioned in my previous post, while I can imagine losing my son and the grief I’d suffer – it’s a whole other thing to see my son in Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin. That is a story and history my family and I have not lived.
But Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan doesn’t try to extinguish difference. It is based on the truth that our experiences and our previous animosities exist. God always begins with the world as it is, not as we wish it were. Jew v. Samaritan, Black v. White, Asian v. Black – it’s all there, it all sucks, but it’s all real. But Jesus teaches that in spite of these differences and past animosities, it’s not about who your neighbor is, but whether or not you are a loving neighbor. If you see your enemy beaten down on the side of the road, you don’t stop to check first who the guy is before you help; you just help! And then, of course, Jesus ate his own medicine on the Cross. Different histories and past animosities do not present a chasm too wide for Jesus’ cruciform love and the new kind of community he died to give birth to. If this is not true, the whole Christian story is not true.
To distinguish my conflicting feelings, I’ve found it helpful to parse Ferguson into three overlapping narratives: the legal narrative, the historical narrative, and the personal narrative.
The legal narrative is about the “facts” of the discrete event between Brown and Wilson, and specifically who was at fault: Why was Brown stopped? What words were exchanged? Did Brown assault Wilson? Why did Wilson shoot, and why six times?And with respect to the legal narrative, there are still too many unanswered questions. I also fear the politicization of this case might make facts harder to come by. This is also why many of my Asian American friends have had little to say. The grand jury investigation is just beginning, and I pray that the facts of the case will make things clear.
The historical narrative is the story of the Black community crying out: AGAIN? In the historical narrative, whether Brown assaulted Wilson isn’t the point. Because his death – as an unarmed young black man – is yet more proof that America is still not a safe place to be Black. And the fact that Brown’s body was left there in the blazing sun in public view for hours on the street, the fact that the local Ferguson police responded with such military-style force to protestors, the fact that facts have been so slow in coming, the fact that a number of voices have been so critical instead of supportive of the Black community’s response of pain – seems to confirm this suspicion. The historical narrative is bigger than the legal narrative. The historical narrative is why Ferguson has become iconic.
And lastly, there is the personal narrative. This is the story most of us overlook (but to which Erna rightful directs us) – which is that beneath the political and social narratives, there is quite simply, a mother who has lost her son; a community has lost one of their own. And the legal facts are completely irrelevant. I have boys of my own, and I can’t imagine how losing a guilty son is any better than losing an innocent one. Loss is loss. Death is death. There is also the story of Officer Wilson. Journalist are trying to dig into his background, but we really have no idea what is going on in his heart and his mind: fear, anger, guilt, confusion, regret, peace? In any case, I can’t imagine life being very easy for him anytime in the near future. And I hope against revenge.
So how do I think we should respond as Asian American Christians?
Learn. Some other places have suggested books. That’s a steep first step for something that might be new to us. Begin by just reading quality news and blogs. .
Check your latent racism. I’m not suggesting that we haven’t been recipients of racism too in the Black-Asian dynamic. But as Christians who live under the Cross, which is purported to have dismantled the dividing wall of hostility between racial/ethnic enemies, it’s not about what the other community has done, it’s about what Christ has done. That’s not enough for reconciliation, obviously – but it begins there. Otherwise we just perpetuate it. .
Mourn with those who mourn. I have a few Asian-American friends who can truly empathize with the Black community. For the rest of us, let’s not be disingenuous and pretend we do. Facebook is full of enough posers. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to understand. Most of my Black brothers and sisters, when it comes down to it, are asking not for more analysis but compassion. Two sources that have helped me: . This official statement from the African American leadership of our denomination, The Evangelical Covenant Church. It’s not just PR mumbo-jumbo. It’s real-talk with a glimmer of real hope. .
This video from the Washington Post & The Maynard Institute. Probably the most eye-opening thing I’ve seen that connects Ferguson to the historical narrative.
Pray: “Though I cry, ‘Violence!’ I get no response; though I call for help, there is no justice. ~Job. .
Talk. One reason that I’ve been relatively silent is that no one ever bothered to ask me what I thought. This is one reason why I’m blogging out loud. And one reason we spent a huge chunk of time learning and praying about this at our church this past Sunday. And while the fruit has been varied, it’s been good. The most common response is that most people have “heard of” what’s going on, they haven’t had time to really look into it – and now they will. Others have responded with tears. The most meaningful response was from one of our church kid’s ministry workers, who is Ghanaian-American teen; she has two older brothers and came up to thank me for sharing about Ferguson and leading us to pray. Seriously, that made my week. .
Advocate with God & Man regarding Ferguson. .
So much is yet to come, and most of it is beyond our control. A 2-month long grand jury investigation has begun. Let’s pray for truth. .
While protests are dying down, we should all be distressed by the violence shown by both sides. Many younger demonstrators, in particular – and many outside groups don’t share the enemy- and peace-loving ways of their forefathers. Even the Ferguson authorities have acknowledged that much of the violence is coming from non-Ferguson residents. I’m so thankful for experienced civil rights leaders and the churches in Ferguson who have been doing their best to advocate for peace. Let’s pray for peaceful protest. . Most – on both sides of the political aisle – believe that the various police authorities have much to repent for in response to this situation. Many are alarmed that local police forces now have hand-me downs from our Afghan military units. But imagine trying to maintain peace and order while fearing for your life. Let’s pray for the policing authorities. .
Advocate with God & Man regarding all expressions of injustice. As news cycles work, before long, Ferguson will fade into the past. While I do not share as grim of a view of our nation as some do–e.g., I think most minorities are happier to live in the America of today than the America of 50 years ago–I do believe that sin and injustice are stubborn weeds. God hates sin in all its forms. So with the energy and influence we’ve been given, let’s do what we can to pray, vote, advocate, and rally for a more just and peaceful society. And let’s always remember: our means must always reflect our ends.
Grant us, Lord God, a vision of your world
as your love would have it:
a world where the weak are protected,
and none go hungry or poor;
a world where the riches of creation are shared,
and everyone can enjoy them;
a world where different races and cultures
live in harmony and mutual respect;
a world where peace is built with justice,
and justice is guided by love.
Give us the inspiration and courage to build it,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
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.
I’ll admit that race & ethnicity is something that I’ve only thought superficially about.
This might be surprising considering that I was born and raised in a rather diverse neighborhood; my playground friends were Filipino, Chinese, White, Hapa, Indian, Vietnamese, and Japanese (for some reason never became friends with my Latino & Black classmates). There was racism growing up, but there was also just friendship. This might also be surprising since I am a son of Chinese immigrant parents. Which meant that I led a dual life — outside the home: an assimilated American life (albeit hodge-podge); inside the home: a HK/Toisan family life. Sometimes the transitions were seamless; sometimes it was awkward and embarrassing. And lastly, because I pastor a predominantly Asian American congregation — and I also teach Christian ethics.
I can spend a whole post analyzing why this has been the case. But it’s enough to say that over the past few years, I’ve been experiencing a shift. A shift as a Chinese American within this world. Within the broader circle of the American Church. And shifts – that I attribute to God’s Spirit and the prompting from friends – within my heart. My reading of this now classic book is part of catching up to this shift.
Beverly Tatum, the author (and a psychologist & professor), begins with the provocative title: Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? I remember when I first saw this title, I was reminded of a recent time when I was talking with a fellow believer who is White – she not so subtly criticized our church: Why aren’t you guys more multi-ethnic? Why do Asians always stick together? And that question both incensed me, but also made me wonder as well. It is an honest question.
In the opening chapter, Tatum begins with a question one of her White students once asked her: “Oh, is there still racism?” She was startled by the naïveté. But at the same time, it made her recognize that conversations about race and racial identity cannot begin unless we are able to ask honest questions. Whites can often feel afraid or defensive. Peoples of color (her term) can often feel angry, helpless, or also afraid. So honesty is crucial.
But so is truth and clarity. And the reality is that racism in our country is real. Some of us just don’t recognize it because, as Tatum puts it, it:
Cultural racism—the cultural images and messages that affirm the assumed superiority of Whites and the assumed inferiority of people of color—is like smog in the air. Sometimes it is so thick it is visible, other times it is less apparent, but always, day in and day out, we are breathing it in. None of us would introduce ourselves as “smog-breathers” (and most of us don’t want to be described as prejudiced), but if we live in a smoggy place, how can we avoid breathing the air? (Kindle 300-303)
So racism isn’t just “in” the individual – it is embedded into the relational and structural systems of our society.
Tatum begins by defining racism. From David Wellman, she defines racism as a system of advantage based on race. Meaning, it’s not just prejudice. I found this point to be particularly profound. Because again, racism is not just about how you and I view other people – also the system in which we live. But also, racism isn’t just about prejudice – it is especially about how these prejudices consistently advantages one race over others. The most telling example came from an article: “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” The white female author, in the article, rattles off a long list of societal privileges that she has received simple because she is White – privileges she neither asked for nor earned:
Of course she enjoyed greater access to jobs and housing. But she also was able to shop in department stores without being followed by suspicious sales-people and could always find appropriate hair care products and makeup in any drugstore. She could send her child to school confident that the teacher would not discriminate against him on the basis of race. She could also be late for meetings, and talk with her mouth full, fairly confident that these behaviors would not be attributed to the fact that she was White. She could express an opinion in a meeting or in print and not have it labeled the “White” viewpoint. In other words, she was more often than not viewed as an individual, rather than as a member of a racial group. (Kindle 343-348)
Wow. This immediately drove me to consider all the privileges that I have been unwittingly been afforded because I am male. Yes, people may have prejudices against me because I am male (he’s such a typical guy) — but the system of our society, on the whole, does not advantage women/disadvantage men on the basis of sexist prejudices, but the opposite — almost every time.
Moreover, I have, for the most part, been unaware of how our society is set up for my advantage as a male (who is also well-educated, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-class, and of course, stunningly good-looking). Sexism that benefits me as a male is simply part of the smog-filled-air that I breathe. Hence, only males can truly be sexist.
And this answers the understandably honest question: Are only Whites racist? Because most Whites abhor the image of Klansmen, skinheads, or Archie Bunker. This question is usually understood as, “Are you saying all Whites are bad people?” To which she says, of course not. But she still says, provocatively, that only Whites can be racist. And the reason goes back to the definition of racism. Blacks and Latinos and Native Americans and Asians can and are prejudiced (trust me, we are). But the system of our society does not offer preferential treatment based on those prejudices. “Despite the current rhetoric about affirmative action and ‘reverse racism,’ every social indicator, from salary to life expectancy, reveals the advantages of being White” (Kindle 338-339). This is where I plug, once again, comedian Louis CK’s brilliant bit on how he loves being white and even better bit on how great it is for his two White American daughters. Anyone can be prejudiced. But only certain prejudices lead to any advantage. And people of color, instead of Whites, are almost always on the short end of that stick.
My only quibble with Tatum is that while this is most definitely true nationally and even regionally, I have generally tended to think that our lives are most affected locally. What is true in one enclave, ghetto, or barrio may not always mirror what’s true nationally. I’ll just say it: Blacks won’t do too well in Chinatown. Latinos might not fair too well in the Hood. But for the most part, I think her point holds true. Even where there are areas where the local system consistently disadvantages Whites, it’s hard to imagine that they constitute a majority. More common are places where Whites, while still comprising the minority, still hold the majority of the power, privilege, and advantage.
In any case, Tatum says this question misses the point. The point is what will Whites do with racism? She compares racism with those conveyor belt style walkways at the airport — by default, it moves you forward in a direction towards White advantage (i.e., racism). So the question isn’t simply are you racist, but will you be actively racist (walk or run forward on the belt), passively racist (just stay on the belt, passively going along with things), or be actively anti-racist (move in the opposite direction)? While I saw her point about Whites and racism, I found myself wondering where I stood along this continuum. I think most of us, regardless of color, are just passive, period. This is not good as a human being. This is inexcusable as follower of Christ.
Tatum closes with a final distinction between racial identity versus ethnic identity. Race is a distinction we’ve made up on the basis of physical criteria–usually color; race was also originally created in the service of oppression. Ethnicity is a distinction based on cultural criteria–e.g., language, customs, food, shared history. So, for example, our Asian American church (mostly Chinese, but includes Korean, Japanese, Filipino, and Vietnamese, and White) is predominantly mono-racial, but multi-ethnic. A helpful distinction that I suspect will come up again. I’m looking forward to the next chapter where she explores the complexity of racial identity.