Sunday, December 02, 2007

282. preliminary thoughts on Faith and Race

I've mentioned before that through the past few weeks I participated in a class my church put on called Faith and Race. It was an eye-opening, challenging, paradigm-challenging experince. So much so that I hardly know where to start thinking/writing about it, but one of the first issues we discussed was that of privilege - White privilege in particular.

Now let me say up front that as an Asian-American who grew up in Hawaii, I come from a unique (compared to the mainland) background. According to what I could find on the U.S. Census Bureau website, in Hawaii, Asians make up almost 40 percent of the population while Whites account for about 26 percent. In contrast, even in a city as diverse as Seattle, Asians make up about 13 percent of the population while Whites account for nearly 70 percent. This means that my experiences growing up Asian-American were very different from that of Asian-Americans who grew up on the mainland.

I mention this because one of the things we learned in our class was the idea that more often than not, people who have privileges because of their race never have to think about, acknowledge, or otherwise be aware of their privileged status. In contrast, those without privilege are constantly confronted by the fact that their life is different from those who hold privilege.

Those are pretty loaded statements so let me unpack them a bit by talking about why I say growing up Asian-American in Hawaii is different from growing up Asian-American in the mainland.

In Hawaii, it was no problem for me to find people who looked like me and understood my cultural background. I grew up with lots of other Asian-American kids around me in school and in my neighborhood. Teachers knew how to pronounce my last name without asking. Among my peers, it wasn't hard to find role models who looked like me. The cool kids were Asian-American. The bullies were Asian-American. The jocks were Asian-American. The homecoming king and queen were often Asian-American. That's not to say that there weren't any White or African-American kids around, there were, but the point I'm trying to get across is that in Hawaii as an Asian-American, I didn't feel out of place and I never had to think about how my ethnicity affected me.

In the Faith and Race class, it was painful to hear some of the Asian-Americans in my group talk about their experiences growing up in the mainland. For them, their race walked into the room before they did. In other words, when they walked into a new classroom, the first thing the other kids would see was not another student but another Asian student - another other. They were instantly stereotyped - imprinted with whatever images non-Asians had of them - and they had to actively work past these stereotypes (often one person at a time) before they could be seen for who they truly were.

Growing up in such an environment takes its toll. And it's not like the problems are confined to high school. These experiences take on different forms in adulthood and only serve to reinforce the conscience/unconscience/subconscience idea that as an Asian-American, they are not the norm.

When we talked about privilege in the Faith and Race class, I felt like someone who had been on both sides of the fence. In Hawaii, I was part of the group that enjoyed privilege but now, in Seattle, I am outside of that group. One of our readings for that class was White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh, and in her article she lays out a long list of conditions that benefit her because she is white.

In our class, we used this list in an exercise where we looked at each item and answered "yes" or "no" as to whether we could claim that privilege in our lives. We tallied up our individual responses and the class facilitator asked those who were able to check off forty to fifty items to stand on one side of the room, those with zero to ten to stand on the other side of the room and also designated areas in between for those with ten to twenty and twenty to thirty. Most people were at the ends of the room, kind of like an inverse bell curve.

It was a stark reminder of just how divided we still are in this country because of race.

For me, the difficult and interesting part of this exercise was realizing how my responses would have been different if I were back in Hawaii. For example, the first quality of privilege listed was "I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time." And I could say "yes" to that in Hawaii but not in the mainland.

I make it a point to state up front that I grew up Asian-American in Hawaii because I don't know what it's like to be a minority the way Asian-Americans in the mainland do and because of that, I feel as if I'm in a kind of odd situation. I want to talk about my thoughts coming out of the Faith and Race class but my perspective is different from those of mainland Asian-Americans, so please don't take the things I write as definitive in any way in regards to the Asian-American experience. I'm just some guy who's trying to think through some issues of race through his blog.


But before I say more about faith and race and racism, I realize that I need to read up on the subject a bit more. I feel now the way I did years ago when I first started asking fundamental questions about Christianity. I knew there were ideas that I had about being a Christian that just didn't sit right with me but I wasn't sure why. It took a lot of reading, a lot of writing, and countless hours staring at my computer screen trying to think things through but I finally have some...not answers, but a kind of rough sketch of beliefs that have made Christianity more practical and real and livable for me. I've been sharing a kind of summary of my most recent thoughts about being a Christian in what I've recently called my Layman's Theology Series (ongoing...stay tuned for more episodes).

So to continue my education on issues of race and racism, I picked up Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum's book, Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? I'm only a few pages into it but I already feel my perspective on the world opening up.

I realize that I'm opening a huge can of worms, but I love living in America and being an American (and Asian-American). I think it's the best place on earth to live but there are a lot of huge problems that this nation will have to deal with if the American experiment is to live on. Race is certainly one such issue. As the racial makeup of America continues to change (census data project that whites will be a minority in America by as soon as 2040), issues of race and racism will continue to come into play.

If I have one minor criticism of my church's Faith and Race class, it's that while it did a great job of highlighting the problems (subtle and not so) of racism, we never went on to talk about potential solutions and how Jesus would have us (as individuals and as the body of Christ) move forward.

But I understand. Advocating solutions in issues of racism is a touchy subject but I believe that the metaphor of the Kingdom of God that Jesus speaks so much about is a kingdom where the problem of racism no longer exists. I also believe that as christians, we have an obligation to work towards this vision of the kingdom, and it would help to have some ideas about what that might look like.

But you can't deal with a problem unless you know what it is and for helping me take the first steps in better understanding the problem, I'm truly, superlatively grateful for the class.

No comments: