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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.