Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Rap on race

Jeremy Pierce did a recent post on Christian racial consciousness-raising:

Jae Ran Kim writes about why she doesn't feel welcomed among groups of white moms. Some of this may well be bias against newcomers (despite official views that newcomers are welcomed) rather than racial bias. After all, white newcomers often experience the same sort of thing. I've certainly seen it happen many times among people who officially want to welcome and accept new people but are not comfortable doing so when they've already got their friends. But I doubt it all is that, since many people are a little intimidated by the prospect of doing all the work to initiate relationships across racial lines (particularly with certain racial groups).
But whether it is actual racial bias or just perceived racial bias isn't really the point. If it can even come across as racial bias, and it shouldn't be there to begin with, it's worth taking stock of that and seeking to avoid sending such signals.
Christians should pay special attention to her advice to those who say they want to reach out to non-whites but can't seem to do so successfully. I know a lot of congregations and Christian ministries that say such things without, to my mind, having a clue that many of the people they're trying to reach out to have exactly the kind of response she's describing here.

Jeremy often blogs on this topic, so I’ll use his recent post as a springboard for some of my own reflections on the same subject.

1.There’s a certain tensions in Jeremy’s advice. I assume Jeremy wants to promote interracial friendships. But what do we look for in a friend?

Is a friend someone I’m very self-conscious about being around? Do I have to choose my words very carefully when I’m in his (or her) presence? Worry about the possible impact of my words? Should I be fearful that I’m going to offend my friend?

Isn’t that the opposite of friendship? Isn’t spontaneity a feature of friendship? Isn’t a defining feature of friendship that you feel free to lower your guard when you’re in the company of a friend? That you don’t have to tiptoe around and worry about how he’ll take what you say?

Isn’t the ironic effect of Jeremy’s advice to create a disincentive to forming interracial friendships? If I have to be that self-conscious and studied and guarded in what I say and do when I relate to someone of another race, then I’m not really relating to that individual as a friend, but as a “project” or mission.

2.Another tension in Jeremy’s advice is the assumption that whites don’t understand minorities, and so we must be extra careful to avoid giving offense. But if my being white prevents me, at least initially, from understanding a minority, then how can I anticipate how my words and actions will be taken?

Isn’t Jeremy’s advice ironically prejudicial? On the one hand, I have to make certain assumptions about a minority. Impute certain attitudes to the minority. Then figure out a tactful way of not provoking a negative reaction. But isn’t that a classic case of stereotyping the minority?

On the other hand, if I don’t know what it feels like to be a minority, how can I predict his reaction? Jeremy generates a conundrum by first imputing ignorance to a white Christian, then advising the white Christian to act as if he can successfully identify with the minority experience for purposes of adapting to his audience. But wouldn’t a minority find that presumptuous and thereby offensive?

3.In yet another irony, isn’t this whole exercise rather patronizing? In order to follow Jeremy’s advice, a white Christian would have to view a minority as someone special. Someone who requires special treatment. It doesn’t seem to me that this is fundamentally different from the attitude of the Southern slave-master.

Likewise, isn’t it unconsciously—or even consciously—patronizing to insist that whites take the initiative? That whites reach out? What’s the underlying assumption?

Incidentally, I don’t object to the general idea of reaching out to people or taking the initiative. But I wouldn’t cast that in racial terms. Christians should befriend strangers. Reach out to strangers. Take the initiative in starting a friendship. Where that involves a minority, this would be a special case of a general principle. “Minority” Christians—who are actually in the majority in terms of world population—should also befriend strangers.

4.In still another irony, and this is true of identity politics in general, you create the problem in order to solve it. You have to begin with a very studied awareness of what it means to be white. You treat the minority as the “other.”

This is a necessary preliminary, for you can only treat a minority *as* a minority by being very self-conscious about your own racial identity, and treating him as the “other.” For racial differences are mutually defining. It involves a process of comparison and contrast. He is the other to you because you are the other to him, and vice versa.

Having first accentuated the racial division, you then devote the rest of your efforts to building a bridge. Of course, you’re bridging over a problem which you created or at least exacerbated in the first place. Dig a racial ditch, then fill it in.

Actually, identity politics never gets beyond the first step. It talks about the second step, but the second step, if successful, would dissove the need for identity politics in the first place, and there’s a vested interest in maintaining the divisions by constantly reminding ourselves of what one bunch of dead people did to another bunch of dead people.

5.Another problem with Jeremy’s advice is that I don’t know how to isolate my racial identity from my other identities in order to position myself in apposition to the minority. There are many different factors that feed into one’s self-identity: race, religion, family, nationality, gender, geography, occupation, education, social class, &c.

Suppose an individual is white, but he’s also a man, an American, a father, son, husband, and brother, a Southerner (or a Southern Californian), a blue collar worker (or a white color worker), a farmer (or an urbanite), a Christian, a twenty-something, &c.

I guess that, to some extent, his racial identity “colors” his outlook (pardon the pun), but that’s only one factor among many. Consider the following thought-experiment:

Suppose, in one of those Heaven Can Wait scenarios, a dying white man was given a chance to come back from the dead. Only there were no eligible white male bodies to commandeer. Instead, he could either choose to take the body of a white woman, or else take the body of some male minority. Which option would he go for?

I expect that, in this situation, every normal Caucasian male would choose to come back as a male minority rather than a white woman. A man’s masculine identify is far more fundamental to his self-identity than his race.

This doesn’t mean he has anything against women. He just doesn’t want to be a woman—not because he doesn’t like women, but because he does—the way a man likes a woman!

I use this example to illustrate the point that the importance of racial identity is vastly overblown. Among the various identities that configure our self-identity, sexual identity trumps racial identity by a wide margin. I can imagine still being me even if I were a different race. I’d have to make certain social and psychological adjustments to my new situation. But I can’t imagine still being me if I were a woman.

Once again, this is not to demean women, because I’m sure than normal women feel the same way about their feminine identity. This is not a question of which is better or best. Rather, it’s a question of either being you or someone unrecognizable.

6.We need to distinguish between racial consciousness and racial self-consciousness. We’re all thrown into situations in which we’re made aware of our race. But why should I go out of my way to cultivate a racial self-consciousness?

I am what I am. Why do I have to think about it all the time? If my racial identity is that studied and self-conscious, aren’t I playing a role?

7.Another problem I have with following Jeremy’s advice is that I don’t know what racial taxonomy he thinks I should employ. Take Latinos. In identity politics, whites belong to one racial box while Latinos belong to another racial box. And you’re only allowed to check on box.

Now, if I you force me to assign individuals or people-groups to a particular racial category, I wouldn’t classify Latinos as non-white. Latinos are ethnically European, just as I’m ethnically European. They hail from S. Europe while I hail from N. Europe.

It makes no more sense for me to classify a Latino as non-white than classify Sophia Loren or Franco Corelli or Maria Callas or Irene Pappas as non-white. It’s all Mediterranean.

And while we’re on the subject of women—which is always a nice subject to be on—when a normal man sees a movie starring Lena Horne or Delores Del Rio, is his first impression to exclaim, “Wow! That’s a person of color who happens to be a beautiful woman!” Or is his first impression to exclaim, “Wow! That’s a beautiful woman!”

8.Assuming, for the sake of argument, that I don’t know what it’s like to be a minority, wouldn’t the most natural course of action be for me to treat a minority exactly the way I’d treat one of my white friends? Not to second guess how he’s going to respond, but talk to him in the very same way I talk to my white friends? Invite him to do the same things I do with my white peer group. Isn’t that a way of treating someone as my equal?

And if he’s black or Asian or Indian or Latino, wouldn’t it make sense for him to do the same thing in return? Seems to me like that’s a good way to avoid patronizing or stereotyping an individual.

That’s also a natural way of learning about each other. If I invite you into your life and you invite me into my life, then we learn by observation and experience.

9.One more problem I’d like to mention is that a lot of racial tension in America is fictive racial tension. Let’s put it this way—suppose the present generation had no knowledge of the past. No knowledge of America’s racial history. In that event, identity politics would largely dissolve.

Past injustices, in and of themselves, having no conscious affect on race relations. Rather, it’s only the real or perceived memory of past injustices that poisons contemporary race relations.

But when we read about the past, it’s like reading a novel or going to the movies. We identify with the characters. Yet the way we bond with actors and characters is a form of fictive kinship. Their situation is not our situation.

Now, what happened in the past was real to folks living in the past. But it isn’t real to you and me because it didn’t happen to you and me. Yet people bond with figures from the past in the same way they identify with a sympathetic character on the silver screen—like Spiderman.

But this isn’t real. It’s memory. And it’s not a personal memory, but something you get from a book. The event may be real. But it’s not *your* story. It’s not your life—any more than Charlemagne or Alexander the Great is your life story.

Of course, the past affects the present. In a sense, the past effects the present. But if we weren’t aware of the cause, we wouldn’t mentally position ourselves in relation to the past and define ourselves by the past. The sense of camaraderie with figures from several generations ago is a form of fictive kinship. At that level, they’re no more related to you and me than Beowulf.

We’re psychologizing history when we make ourselves morally contiguous with the Civil War or the Yamassee War. This isn’t reality. Rather, it’s a reified psychological projection. It affects you because you believe it.

10.Finally, I’d like to close with three anecdotes:

i) Some years ago, John Perkins spoke at Westminster Seminary in California. I happened to be in the parking lot when he arrived, and so I gave in an informal tour of the joint. I’d already read some of his books. He’s a consummate Christian gentleman. Has some excellent practical advice for the black church.

In his chapel address he talked about the civil rights movement. That’s natural given his background. But it was also caught in a timewarp. The composition of the seminary was about half white and half Korean, while the composition of Escondido was about half white and half Latino. Yet his paradigm of race relations was locked conditioned by Jim Crow. Once again, I understand why that was a formative experience for him, but his talk on racial reconciliation didn’t bear any correspondence to race relations at the seminary or the city in which the seminary was located. He was subliminally talking at his audience rather than talking to his audience. It was a history lesson or museum piece.

1990s Escondido, California isn’t interchangeable with 1960s Selma Alabama. For that matter, I seriously doubt that 1990s Selma Alabama is interchangeable with 1960s Selma Alabama.

By contrast, I once went to a talk by the late Tom Skinner which was far more balanced. That may be due to the difference in his background—the difference between the rural South and the urban North. His upbringing was much more cosmopolitan.

ii) Like San Francisco, Seattle has its own Chinatown. Mind you, that’s not the official designation. The official designation is “The International District.” I suppose liberals would regard the unofficial designation as racist. However, since the Chinese residents of Chinatown call it Chinatown, I’ll be politically incorrect.

Anyway, I was browsing the merchandise in one of the stores when the proprietress struck up a conversation. I guess she didn’t get a lot of white customers, and there was something she was curious about. She asked me if I could tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese. Not the language, but the racial characteristics. Could I tell by looking at them if someone was Chinese or Japanese?

I mention this to make a point that is offered ignored in the “national dialogue” on race: racial awareness isn’t just a black/white thing.

iii) One time I was grading a term paper by an Asian student. The topic of his paper was “white privilege” and racial reconciliation. The irony of the paper is that he was naively oblivious to the affect that his radical rhetoric would have on the very folks he was talking about. It was obvious to me, as a white man, that he was getting his information about white Americans, not from interviewing white Americans, but from leftwing textbooks.

He honestly thought his paper was a wonderful exercise in correcting racial prejudice when, in fact, he was unconsciously stereotyping Caucasians from start to finish. You have conscientious men and woman who sincerely talk about racial reconciliation, and yet they have no inkling of *who* they’re talking about. Their “dialogue” is utterly insular and one-sided.

It’s as if they were reading an ebonic version of National Geographic, in which the cultural anthropologist from Howard University goes on an expedition with a nature photographer to study the lost tribe of the Caucasians in their remote native habitat.

(Parental advisory: beware of indigenous nudity at the beach on spring break.)

There’s no doubt that white Christians can fall into the same trap. But the trap is colorblind. Anyone can fall into this trap. And the folks who are most liable to fall into the trap are frequently the very folks who pride themselves on being especially enlightened and racially sensitive.


  1. Steve,

    What you say about Latinos is not entirely true. Granted, there are many Latinos who are more or less ethnically (southwestern) European (most of them belong to the old aristocratic class in Central and South America). But most Latinos (at least in the U.S.) are mestizos, some mix of Indian and Spaniard, more often with more Indian. It should also be noted that "Latino" is usally semantically limited to "of Latin American descent," which, while a broad enough category in its own right, is not as broad as "Hispanic," which encompasses all Spanish-speaking peoples.

    Also, at least in recent years, the official demographic category has been "Hispanic," with two subcategories: "white" and "non-white." Latinos, generally but not always, would be classified in the latter category. A native Spaniard, however, will be in the former.

  2. Thanks. Your distinctions draw attention to the ambiguities of racial classifications. "Hispanic" is, to my knowledge, a sociological construct.

    Also, the point at which someone of mixed race is classified as one race rather than another (e.g. non-white rather than white) is often arbitrary and driven by identity politics (e.g. how does one classify Tiger Woods?).

  3. To elaborate on your point, how would I follow Jeremy’s advice in relating to a Hispanic? Should I first find out whether he can trace his descent to the old aristocratic class in Central and South America, or if he’s a mestizo? If the former, I can relate to him as a fellow white man ("us"), but if the latter, then I need to treat him differently—as a minority ("them").

    This points up the problem I have with identity politics, both inside and outside the church.

  4. Steve,

    No doubt there are problems with the categories. You are right that "Hispanic" is largely a sociological construct, but it is partially rooted in the historical reality of the Spanish Empire, because of whose former dominance so many nations speak Spanish to this day and are predominantly Catholic.

    I think part of the problem may be that race has been more socially fluid in the former Spanish Empire than in the former British Empire. So you might say that in Latin America there has existed more of a racial continuum, from darker-skinned at the bottom to lighter-skinned at the top; whereas in Anglo-America the distinctions between racial groups have been thought much more rigid, more like distinct grades: you have blacks at the bottom, then maybe Indians, then whites on top. (And let me state plainly for others that I am not promoting these schemes in the least.)

    The actual difference is perhaps subtler than I've expressed it. But basically what I want to say is that, as part of the Anglo matrix, we have a bit harder time pinning down the "appropriate" category for the more racially fluid Latin Americans. Exacerbating this problem is that they possess certain commonalities (Spanish-speaking, predominantly Catholic), whether they be dark- or light-skinned, that distinguish all of them together from white Anglo culture, and they have frequently identified themselves in this "pan-Hispanic" manner. So, in spite of the fact that they are actually mostly mixed-race (red-white), they feel like a race distinct from all of the others ("brown"?).

    These are my amateur observations.

    I agree with you on the problems with identity politics. In rejecting the old order of racial hierarchy, our society has responded simultaneously in conflicting manners: on the one hand, racial distinctions aren't of great importance-we're all human, that should be our primary identity; on the other hand, if you are a member of one racial group, you can't possibly have a real understanding of what it means to be a member of another racial group (although we're all human and these distinctions are unimportant in the long run, right?).

    Reading Ms. Kim's piece, I found this tidbit of advice especially ironic: "Don’t expect me to be the spokesperson for my community."