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There’s a great conversation going on at David Swanson’s blog regarding something I said in my commentary on Shirley Sherrod that was published at UrbanFaith.com. At one point in that commentary, I suggest that, to the minds of some white people, being called a “racist” might feel like the equivalent of calling a black person a “nigger.” It was just one of those secondary thoughts that occurred to me while I was writing that I decided to include in the article, but it turned out to be the line that David, and I’m sure many others, got stuck on. So, the discussion at David’s blog revolves around whether that observation is true. Most of the participants over there disagree with my suggestion, but I think their thoughtful responses prove that it’s a worthwhile idea to ponder.

Anyway, my good friend Shlomo chimed in at David’s blog to defend me against some of the mild criticism I was getting there, which I thought was very generous on his part. Thanks, Shlomo. But, as I noted in a comment that I left there, I’m not offended by those who disagree with my statement. In fact, I love it when folks can wrestle honestly with this race stuff.

All that to say, I thought I’d post the response that I left at David’s blog here too, just in case you’d like to read it.

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I was a bit reluctant to comment here at first, because I don’t want to come across as sounding defensive. But I do want to thank David for getting this excellent discussion going, and my dear brother Shlomo for coming to my defense.

But, I must say, I was not offended by Tomi’s statement. Part of my purpose in writing the Sherrod post (and most of the race-related commentaries that I write) is to get people thinking about the issue from different perspectives. I’m black, but as I write I try to place myself in the shoes of the white or Asian or Latino or Native American persons whom I hope will read my stuff. With the Sherrod piece, in particular, I was trying to imagine the situation from the perspective of the white conservative who has heard the “racist” label pointed in his direction for too long, even as he observes in our culture what seems to him to be racist and hateful talk coming from the very black folk who would dare accuse him of prejudice and hate.

As I’ve listened to Breitbart, Glenn Beck, and other lesser-known but still outspoken conservatives, it occurred to me that, to their minds, the “racist” tag must hurt in the same way that they believe the n-word hurts black people. How else to explain the fervent expressions of anger and resentment that the r-word elicits from some white conservatives? In making that observation, I was not suggesting that the two words are truly equal in their historical power to hurt and humiliate. But in this current era of racial change and upheaval (some of us might call it progress), where many whites feel threatened by what they sense as a loss of their rights and privileges, that r-word may feel to them like an unassailable weapon that smears and dehumanizes them and, more or less, shuts down the possibility of any further discussion.

So, on the one hand, I agree with Tomi that it was a “ridiculous” comparison for me to make. But I suspect it doesn’t sound as far-fetched to some of our more conservative brothers and sisters.

Last week, after the Sherrod story blew up, NPR’s Tell Me More had playwright Anna Deavere Smith on to discuss how Americans talk about race in politics, media, and personal relationships. As she chatted with host Michel Martin, she said something that really stuck with me. She said:

“Everybody thinks they know about race because everybody has one. But knowing about race has less to do with the race you have; it has to do with the race you don’t have. It has to do with the extent to which you seek out that which is different from you to have knowledge and to create collaborations. And I think that’s what we don’t know enough about right now.”

I thought that was a brilliant assessment of where we are in America with race—and where we need to go.

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Dear Reconciliation Blog friends,

Happy holidays to all. I’ve obviously been away from the blogging routine for a while. I apologize for my absence, but I’ve found more and more of my time being taken up by UrbanFaith.com (which I welcome you to visit often), as well as the busyness of life in general. I read somewhere recently that if you’re constantly apologizing for your lack of blog posts, that could be a sign that you need to shut down your blog. I don’t know if I’m at that point yet, but I do feel awful that I’m not able to spend more time updating this site—especially when there are so many hot and compelling topics to riff on these days. However, I’ve enjoyed keeping up with things on many of your blogs. I appreciate your patience with me.

In the meantime, I invite you to check out a Christmas reflection I wrote several years back that is currently posted at UrbanFaith. Though the event in the story took place way back in my college years, I think I’m still learning the lessons of that evening.

If I don’t post again before Christmas, I want to wish everyone out there a blessed holiday season.

Peace,
Ed G.

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In case you hadn’t heard, Zondervan made a major announcement yesterday regarding the Deadly Viper Character Assassins book that was the source of so much anger and controversy recently. Effective immediately, Zondervan undertook the courageous step of permanently removing all the books from stores and discontinuing all related curriculum and products. Quite a bold gesture, and a remarkable example of repentance. Hopefully, the pain and high emotion of the past few weeks can now give way to true healing and reconciliation. This is a wonderful start, but it will not be easy.

The Deadly Viper website and blog were shut down today shortly after Zondervan’s announcement. This is the message that now greets its visitors.

A search for the words “Deadly Viper” on Twitter brings a variety of revealing Tweets. Very common are messages like this one: “Irritated about the whole Deadly Viper thing. irritated. really? ya had to shut them down?” And this one: “The Deadly Viper issue makes my stomach turn. I need to think about something else because I’m getting ticked off.”

There likely will be some backlash against Zondervan’s decision and against the movement of folks, led by our very brave sisters and brothers in the Asian American community, who took a firm stand against the negative stereotypes connected with the DV book and promo video. Many will view this whole episode as the epitome of political correctness and as an unfair attack on two devoted Christian brothers. We need to show patience and grace to those who don’t understand the point of this outcome.

This has especially been a difficult time for Mike Foster and Jud Wilhite, the authors of Deadly Viper. They need our prayers and compassion.

And finally, we need to remember our Asian and Asian American brothers and sisters who have been at the forefront of this conflict. I think of Soong-Chan Rah, Kathy Khang, Eugene Cho, and Ken Fong in particular, but there have been many others who have led the way through their blog posts and comments, Tweets, Facebook updates, and letters of complaint to Zondervan. These women and men have felt the strain and sadness of this epic event.

Though I supported the protest from the beginning, I admittedly was a bit concerned about the overwhelming force of the initial admonishment of the authors. I always felt that Zondervan should be the target of the strongest protest. But blog posts like this one from my dear friend Helen Lee and this one from Soong-Chan helped me understand why the Asian community needed to act so decisively. They were tired of this mess. I needed to be tired of it, too.

Thank God for this good conclusion. I think He makes His church better through conflicts like this one. Let’s pray that it becomes the start of something greater—something profoundly redemptive.

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Very interesting thread happening over at Eugene Cho’s blog about the controversial Newsweek cover featuring Sarah Palin. I even shared my two cents over there. I’m not a huge Palin fan, but I do question Newsweek’s judgment in using that image. Would love to hear what you think.

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Deadly Viper coverOne of the toughest parts of being the author of a book about racial reconciliation is that when the latest racial incident flares up, everyone expects you to chime in with your two cents. I’m feeling a bit penniless on this current one, but here goes anyway.

The “current one” I’m talking about is the controversy surrounding a new book from Zondervan called Deadly Viper Character Assassins: A Kung Fu Survival Guide for Life & Leadership. The book, which was coauthored by Mike Foster and Jud Wilhite, uses images, symbols, and caricatures of Asian culture as a light-hearted vehicle for getting at the heavy issues of Christian integrity and character. Not surprisingly, the book has upset a fair number of Asian American Christians, as well as many of us who are not Asian but who identify with the pain felt by our brothers and sisters who are offended by the book’s use of stereotypical imagery and caricatures.

The book is clearly meant to be a fun exploration of character and leadership, and it has been praised by many for its fresh insights and clever presentation. But it appears the authors have inadvertently stumbled into thorny and treacherous territory that they did not know existed; they were simply trying to dispense timeless wisdom in a timely and accessible way. Well, now they know.

Ironically, one would think the book’s publisher, Zondervan, would’ve better anticipated the Asian community’s reaction to the book, given an earlier controversy that followed the publication of a book from its Youth Specialties branch. In that episode, Zondervan and Youth Specialities took heroic measures to publicly apologize and correct the offense at a considerable financial cost. Hopefully, this latest episode will have a similarly redemptive conclusion. Yet, I wonder if things could’ve been handled differently earlier on.

My friend Soong-Chan Rah, who has become one of the evangelical church’s most vocal (and effective) activists on these types of issues, inspired this latest movement with his initial blog posts about the Deadly Viper book and a promotional video on Facebook. Soong-Chan’s open letter to the authors and Zondervan is quite provocative. But what’s most fascinating, and perhaps even instructive, is the slew of comments related to Soong-Chan’s posts, as well as an evolving thread over at the Deadly Viper blog.

I must confess that I’m not totally comfortable with the way the protest has played out so far. It’s not that I disagree with the gist of it. I think it’s important to call attention to these types of things, especially when they’re happening within the Christian community. However, my initial impression is that the high level of “shock and awe” that Soong-Chan and others have brought to this issue probably has been a bit overwhelming and confusing for Foster and Wilhite (though I think Zondervan should’ve seen it coming). Maybe I’m just feeling a little squeamish about this necessary phase of protest. I know that hard and unpleasant honesty must often precede genuine dialogue, repentance, and reconciliation. Still, I get the sense that Foster and Wilhite had no clue that their earnest effort to create something entertaining and edifying would be perceived as being wrongheaded and insensitive by so many. I’m sure it wasn’t even on their radar that appropriating Asian culture carried with it an obligation to “take it seriously.” They were simply parroting the stereotypes and jokes that are now so common in American pop culture.

Parodying Asian culture has become so commonplace in America that many of us naturally assume that the Asian community is in on the joke. When I was a child, I would watch Hong Kong Phooey every Saturday morning. Every kid on the playground wanted to be Bruce Lee. The Karate Kid movies ruled in the ’80s. Last year Kung Fu Panda made hundreds of millions at the box office. And fried rice, egg rolls, and sushi are just as “American” as French fries, pizza, and tacos.

We take it all for granted, and I would surmise that many white Americans believe that Asians are now so assimilated into American life that they have no problem with the tongue-in-cheek references to their various cultural heritages. Asians, after all, are a peaceful people. They’re certainly not as hyper-sensitive about race as (for instance) African Americans are. There are no Asian American Jesse Jacksons or Al Sharptons—at least not any who show up on our televisions complaining about something every other night.

So, it must be rather jarring for some people to discover that 21st-century Asians can feel as marginalized and disrespected as other minority groups in America.

But, again, I don’t want to ascribe any ill intent to Mike Foster, Jud Wilhite, and their book. I believe they innocently waded into these choppy waters. As a published author, I know the excitement of coming up with a good idea, toiling over the computer to get the words just right, seeing your publisher get behind your vision, watching as the design team comes up with a great cover and the marketing team develops a winning campaign. Ah, and nothing compares to that day when your finished book finally arrives. Holding it, staring at it, flipping through its crisp pages is pretty much all you’re physically and mentally able to do those first few hours after receiving it. And when it’s a Christian book, featuring a message that you’ve prayed God would use to influence and transform lives, there’s just nothing that compares to this.

Deadly Vipers is a beautiful little book. It’s designed and packaged with superb creativity, and the content is the kind of relevant stuff that Christian leaders and laypeople everywhere need to hear. I’m hoping the outcry against the book’s cultural blind spots will be tempered by grace and humility and empathy. I really resonate with this post at the Next Gener.Asian Church blog.

Think about what Foster and Wilhite must be feeling right now. Over the last year or two, they’ve invested their lives into this little book. They hoped and prayed that it would help others, but now they’re feeling attacked by a passionate movement of folks whom they probably assumed would be on their side. I’m sure this has been an eye-opening experience for them. I’m sure there’s something for all of us to learn.

 

Update: An encouraging post at Soong-Chan’s blog this morning:

I have heard indirectly, that Mike Foster will be engaging in a direct phone conversation with several Asian-Americans about ways to progress forward.  This is very good news.  As far as I know, this will be the first attempt by Mike Foster to engage in a direct dialogue with those who find the material problematic.  Please be in prayer for this conversation and for ensuing conversations.

Let’s pray for a positive outcome.

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nextevangelicalismIf you haven’t seen it yet, I strongly encourage you to check out my friend Soong-Chan Rah’s provocative new book, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity. Today, African, Asian, and Latin American Christians make up 60 percent of the world’s Christian population. The United States and Europe will soon no longer be the center of evangelical activity in the world. With this in mind, the book calls the North American church to break free of its cultural captivity to a Western/Eurocentric/White American mindset and to embrace a new evangelicalism that is diverse and multiethnic. You can find out more here at the IVP site. 

For those of you who don’t know him, Soong-Chan is a brilliant theologian and pastor who for years led Cambridge Community Fellowship Church, a multiethnic, urban, post-modern congregation in the Central Square neighborhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Now a professor at North Park Theological Seminary here in Chicago, Soong-Chan has rattled a lot of cages over the years by calling attention to issues of racism and cultural insensitivity in the evangelical church and community. I included a story about the Rickshaw Rally fiasco in my book, Reconciliation Blues, and I blogged about Soong-Chan’s role in the Zondevan/Youth Specialities controversy a couple years ago. In addition, when I was the editor of Today’s Christian, I published an insightful interview with Soong-Chan about the Youth Specialities episode and his ministry of activism. Though he may have gained a reputation as a rabble-rouser in some quarters, I know him as a kind-hearted, passionate man of God who loves the church and lost people.

We’re planning to do an interview with Soong-Chan about his book for that other little blog that I’m involved with, UrbanFaith.com. If you have any questions you’d like to hear Soong-Chan address about the book or his ministry in general, please leave them in the comments area below, or send them to me directly through my website. We’ll publish the interview in the next couple weeks, so send your questions soon. Thanks!

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“Is colorblindness or multiculturalism better for minorities?” I missed this post by Dawn Turner Trice when it first appeared a couple weeks ago. Trice hosts an ongoing, and always lively, forum at the Exploring Race blog at ChicagoTribune.com. In the blog post, she talks about a recent University of Georgia study on “colorblindness” in the workplace. Anyone out there familiar with it? The study’s findings suggest that pursuing a colorblind culture may not be the best approach in a work environment—or in life. From the post:

The study found that “contrary to popular beliefs, workplaces that downplay racial and ethnic differences actually make minority employees feel less engaged with their work,” said [Victoria] Plaut, the study’s lead author. “Minority employees sense more bias against them in these allegedly colorblind settings.”

Plaut said it’s not clear whether the bias is correctly sensed, but research has shown that there’s a correlation between whites who profess colorblindness and racial bias.

“For a long time whites have been told they should not pay attention to race,” she said. “It’s best if we all assume people are all the same, right? But this type of colorblindness often is based on assimilation.” 

That means, in some cases, it’s easier for a white person to be colorblind if the person of color acts white, or fits almost seamlessly into the white norm.

Whoa, that last line is the zinger. I’ve actually been talking about the whole “integration vs. assimilation” issue at Christian colleges and conferences over the past couple years, so it’s interesting to see a report that adds a little academic heft to my anecdotal musings. On the one hand, colorblindness seems like the only way to have a fair and equitable workplace or educational system or insurance coverage or mortgage lending, etc. But when you think about the real-life relationships that go into making a job or a school what they are, it would seem odd and a little unnatural not to acknowledge the reality of race and different cultures. Indeed, I’ve often found some of the most fulfilling aspects of work or school to be chances to rub shoulders with and really get to know people who have cultural backgrounds and life experiences that are different from my own. To wear racial or cultural “color-blinders” would have deprived me of a lot of those rich interactions.

Though I see the wisdom of a colorblind approach on some levels, when it comes to getting along with a coworker or classmate or neighbor, I think we have much to lose by denying the reality of seeing each other as God has made us and, when possible, celebrating our unique gifts and attributes. In fact, I wonder if this is at the heart of the notion of loving your neighbor? It’s a lot easier to “love” people—or get along with them, at least—when we can fit them into our own neat little preconceived categories. And often, it’s just simpler to exclude race or religion or other cultural differences from the equation. But then are we really taking the time to know that other person, to value them, to see them?

Over the years, I’ve had white friends say to me at different times something like this (or its equivalent): “Ed, I don’t even see you as a black person; when I look at you, I just see a person.” On the one hand, that’s a very thoughtful and heartfelt sentiment to express—and I appreciate and receive the spirit in which it was shared. However, on the other hand, such a comment could suggest that there might be something inherently wrong with the fact of my blackness. What’s more, it’s a flagrant denial of a very real aspect of my personhood.

I have a white friend whose family traces its lineage back to Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War. One day, my friend shared with me a long story about these family connections. Though he apologetically acknowledged the fact that, well, Davis was a Confederate and that there’s some awkward history there for a person of my complexion, my friend was nonetheless proud (on some level) of his family history. As he shared, my first impulse was to say something like, “Come on, man! Do you think I really want to hear that?” But I didn’t. He was my friend, after all, and I could tell this was important stuff to him. Only later did I realize that my listening to his story, and trying to understand his complicated relationship to his family roots, was part of seeing my friend and knowing him in full.

This Tribune blog post on colorblindness actually was brought to my attention by one of my white coworkers yesterday. We chatted for at least a half-hour about issues of race and culture. He shared honestly with me about some of his experiences with people of other races and how one of his older relatives, a child of a more racially segregated era, had built relationships across racial lines even as he struggled with prejudiced thinking. The fact that my white colleague felt comfortable talking with me about race and culture in the workplace was a positive thing. I believe we both gained a deeper insight about the other person. This would not have been possible in a “colorblind” environment. 

So how would you answer Dawn Turner Trice’s question? Which is better, colorblindness or multiculturalism? Or, is that the wrong question to ask?

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