How White Christians Can Deal with Racial Insensitivity

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I’ve been following a controversy over a racially insensitive video, poster, and book cover put together by two white Christian men. The gist of the controversy is that the book’s art work and video content both exploit Asian culture and promote demeaning stereotypes.

Two Asian American leaders (Cho and Rah) asked for apologies. Edward Gilbreath also offers clarity and empathy. At first one of the makers of the book and video didn’t seem all that willing to hear out Professor Rah. Thankfully they later wrote an apology note and apparently a phone conversation took place at some point on November 4th between the concerned parties.

Things seem under control, but I wanted to share a few thoughts based on how we can use this situation to clarify our beliefs, correct misconceptions, and to make our communities stronger when dealing with racial insensitivity (not necessarily “racism” in every case).

It’s never comfortable to find out that you’ve offended someone, especially when it has to do with race, and ESPECIALLY when that offense is created by something as permanent as a book in print. I can see how one may initially become defensive. However, the only position for white Christians on this issue is to open ourselves up to critique, to admit we’ve been wrong when necessary, and to confess that even in our attempts to make things right we may make things worse. In fact, I fear that even in writing this post I may have some large elephants in my own room…

Case in point: I initially wrote at the start of this post that Asian Americans found the video and book cover offensive. That was partially true, but I missed the point right off the bat that all Christians should be offended when one part of the body of Christ feels wounded. So even in dealing with these matters, I can see I have a long way to go.

As I examine my own heart and what I’ve seen online over the past few days, here are a few of my observations about white Christians and matters of racial sensitivity:

  • We don’t want to think of ourselves as racists.
  • We generally aren’t openly or overtly racist. It’s far more subtle than we expect, taking the form of jokes, etc.
  • When we mean well, it’s hard to admit we hurt feelings.
  • Those in the majority should never ask victims of injustice to turn the other cheek.
  • We don’t realize that racial insensitivity demeans the offender while also demeaning the offended.
  • It’s embarrassing to be wrong and to admit failure publicly.
  • It’s difficult and painful to right wrongs.
  • Those in the ethnic majority have a non-binding vote on what’s offensive. The minority gets the binding vote.

If I was one of the guys who designed that book and video, I’d be feeling crushed right now. So crushed, that I probably would have a hard time understanding how it feels to be a mocked ethnic minority. If I learned that a book I’d invested significant time and resources into offended a significant part of the population with its central motif, I’d probably have a hard time entering into a dialogue about it at first. However, if I was an ethnic minority, I’d probably have a hard time sleeping until the matter was resolved.

I’m more concerned about the way we resolve future matters of racial insensitivity than in examining the minutiae of this current case. This convinces me that white Christian leaders, writers, and whoever else can start by doing a few things:

  • Seek the counsel of diverse perspectives that will surprise, challenge, and even unsettle us. In writing Coffeehouse Theology I sought out readers from a variety of backgrounds, regions, and denominations who made it a better book. I am continually surprised by my own limitations and need for Christians who see the world differently.
  • Ask those in the minority to identify the problem and to suggest a solution. That’s something one of the men involved in this did that I think is worth emulating: he asked Professor Rah to outline a way to make things right.
  • Make “listening” our first response to critiques of racial insensitivity. Some white Christians whined about the way Asian Christians handled this is, and it borders on Pharisaic legalism that strains a gnat and swallows a camel. Saying that a critique of racial insensitivity fails to follow proper confrontational protocol and is therefore somehow invalid borders on the absurd. I think our critiques of one another have mixed results at times, but when someone says, “You’ve hurt me!” We need to listen, rather than picking apart exactly how they did it. We can discuss the details of “critique protocol” down the line, but in the grand scheme of things, racial injustice and insensitivity are far more destructive for Christian community than a blog post that strikes some as angry or critical. Of course he sounds angry and critical! He’s been deeply wounded! Failure to listen only creates a frustrating spiral of accusation and counter accusation that does no good for the body. The least those in the majority can do is listen.
  • Insensitivity Can Crop up Elsewhere. The other elephant in the room here is the way Christians treat women, to say nothing of Asian women (which is something I’m only mentioning in passing because I don’t have the chops to address that one). If you now have some insight into the ways we can be offensive and patronizing toward Asians, then I don’t think it’s too far a  stretch to apply these lessons to the ways that women are stereotyped, patronized, and mistreated in the Christian camp, especially by white males in leadership. The conversations we’re having here with our Asian brothers and sisters in Christ also need to happen with our sisters in Christ.

That’s all I’ve got for now. I’ve already written more than I ever intended. I hope we can prayerfully move forward in our dialogue with one another. If I’ve made some glaring errors in this post, I’ll begin my apology now and end it after you e-mail me at edcyzewski (a) gmail (dot) com.

However, whatever this post’s inadequacies, I hope it’s a useful stone in the road toward reconciliation.

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19 thoughts on “How White Christians Can Deal with Racial Insensitivity

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  3. Jackie

    I applaud you for taking a good look at the controversy and suggesting solutions however, there was one point that I think should be approached very carefully:

    Ask those in the minority to identify the problem and to suggest a solution.

    On a certain level, you’re asking those who were already hurt and angered to put themselves in that place *again* in order to find a solution. I know how that feels as a Black woman. It’s like adding insult to injury in some cases because you’re asking that person to make themselves even more vulnerable for your edification. And when the dogpiling and the whining starts (“OMG, you’re being sooo mean, sooo oversensitive!” “It’s just a book!”) very few people are willing to step back into the crucible for another go round.

    There are those who are able to step up and say, “Okay, here’s what you need to do. You need to start with X, go to Y, and go back and look at X again before proceeding any further.” That’s where the listening kicks in. Understand that the person doing that is acting from a place of love – putting aside some of their own feelings in order to educate.

    It’s never a simple thing to ask someone who has been wronged to hold a hand back out in friendship. I hope it’s something people think about.

  4. daniel so

    Ed – Thanks so much for posting these thoughts. I landed here via LT’s blog. I appreciate your ability to see things from different perspectives and urge us toward reconciliation. These are some great ways to get off the same treadmill of wrongdoing/accusation/defensiveness/anger/inaction that we so often get stuck on.

  5. ed Post author

    Jackie,

    That’s a great point. We don’t want to lay too heavy a burden on anyone after they’ve been hurt.

    The balance I suppose we’re looking for has something to do with those in the majority needing to be clued in. So hopefully if there’s dialogue going on the first place and relationships have been built with a diverse group of friends, there will be a ready group who can offer direction and counsel. However, for those cut off from a diverse group of believers, there’s a long difficult road ahead in pursuing reconciliation.

    Thanks for sharing your insights!
    Ed

  6. Hannah

    Wow, I really appreciated this, thank you for sharing your thoughts! Even if you felt there were elephants in the room w/you when you wrote it ;) It takes some real humility and self awareness to write what/how you did. Blessings!

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  8. Justin

    Thanks for writing this, Ed. Some very thoughtful and insightful perspectives, and lessons not just for white Christians but, I think, also for all Christians.

  9. ed Post author

    Thanks Hannah and Justin! I think I may explore some possible angles for Christianity and gender along similar lines as well. We’ll see where this takes us…

  10. Yvonne

    these are really excellent thoughts. as an asian american that was very much offended by this book, this has helped me to see how white christians might see the situation. i really appreciate the christ centered view point.

    racism is still very pervasive in america, so much so that people would never consider race an issue can still offend thousands of people with a kitschy advertisement.

  11. ed Post author

    Yvonne, I’m glad I could add some perspective to this situation, hopefully without justifying any wrongs. You’re right, racism is more real than us white folks realize. I didn’t want to fill this post up with those examples, but then again, my friend LT has some pretty heart-wrenching experiences to relate that drive home the importance of this discussion:
    http://www.abcpastor.com/seeking-god-in-deadly-vipers/11/

  12. Pat

    Thank you so much for this article. Just a few months ago in my own church, a pastor showed a video that can be found on You Tube under the title, “Muslim Demographics”. I as an African American was so offended and angered by the video and the fact that it would be shown during a church service to make a point that I was unable to talk to anyone about it for at least two weeks. Now, I am not Muslim nor have I ever been. However, the narrator’s voice on the video along with distorted statistics presented an ominous picture of Muslims who are procreating at such a rate that we in the Church need to wake up. As an ethnic minority, I’m sensitive to how other groups are portrayed because if one feels comfortable putting down or denigrating one minority group, chances are, my group is fair game also. As someone who knows many Muslims, I don’t know any that fit the profile presented in the video, but again, the aim of the video was to push an agenda and to prey on people’s fears about Muslims. This incident brought so much out of me. I questioned whether I could continue to serve this church which is predominantly white. I dreaded walking in the building and even was angry at myself for feeling as though I hadn’t been true to my own race by being in this church and on and on the feelings went. I’ve finally come through all of that, but it remains a sore point and I’m sure the issue will raise its ugly head again. Hopefully, when it does, I can be a voice crying in the wilderness to appeal to people’s Christian values of looking past one’s exterior or faith practices to see with the eyes of Christ. But I can tell you, you hit the nail on the head with the woundedness that is felt by those on the receiving end of such insensitivity. Thank you for tackling this topic.

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  14. lizziewriter

    What a kind and thoughtful article. I think the racism issue is not going to go away though; in fact it will get worse, and I think the keys are in these words “minority” and “majority.” As “whites” find them/ourselves to be the minority, or anticipate being so, there will be more fearful and threatened responses. I have seen this happening already. (WHY are we threatened??) Also.. someone once quipped (and I wish I could find the citation) that “minorities” is a word made up by one group of people to describe those who constitute most of the world population. Right now, whites are “only” a majority in terms of economic power and that sort of thing.

  15. ed Post author

    Thanks Liz. You bring up some additional elements to this discussion that are certainly worthy of consideration. There is a lot of fear that drives racism.

  16. Holly B

    This is not hard to believe that Zondervan pulled Jud’s “Deadly Viper” book. I have attended Central Christian Church in Las Vegas (Jud Wilhite’s church) on numerous occassions. I have found that Church also makes fun of other ethnic groups, the Latinos and Italians, in their videos. During one of the Christmas videos (before Deadly Viper came out), they even portrayed Italians tieing up one of their family members, duck taping his mouth, and throwing him the truck of a car. They were portraying them as mafia. I tried to address the issue with the powers that be at Central. All I got was a backlashing from them, or a “go away” attitude from them.

    Also, they play secular music which in no way worships God. They are worshipping themselves for being able to play the songs (such as I Want To Hold Your Hand, Rocking Around the Christmas Tree, and Don’t Stop Believing). I truly believe that those songs do not belong in a church.

    After attending there, it’s hard to believe that there is a God who loves and cares for you.

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