takedown power of racism

Watch that mouth! Michael Richards. Mel Gibson. Don Imus. These guys make a few off-handed remarks, and they’ve been stung big time. And now, Richard Gere discovers public kissing is very bad, very bad in India. Gere apologizes in kissing controversy in India, but forgiveness doesn’t come so easily in the arena of public perception when it comes to unintentional (or intentional) racism and intercultural ignorance.

Now mainstream media is not particularly known for transparency, but maybe blogging culture’s alternative voice is rubbing off, and small wrongful remarks can be blown out of proportion. If a racially-charged remark can take down a talk show king, it can take down anybody. Here we are in 2007, decades after the Civil Rights era, and there is still so much racism beneath the surface. Volatile little sound bites indicate a lot of racist junk still in the hearts of people.

Lesson to learn here? You’re being recorded all the time in the public eye via video (tv camera, cell phone camera), audio (the mic could be live even when you don’t expect it, right, Mr. President?), and eyewitness reports (bloggers). You’d better learn to live a transparent life, and be consistent when the lights are on and when they’re not. Best way to go: character and integrity all around.

3 mini-episodes from my past Atlanta weekend:

I visited an old seminary friend now living in Georgia, who I’ll name David 2 (Caucasian), and with me was David Park (Korean). We’re having delicious BBQ at Claude’s in Loganville, and we’re talking about “churching” and culture and more over the span of 2 hours. While talking about the Virginia Tech tragedy, David 2 remarked on his shock at discovering the shooter’s identity being Asian: “that’s what white guys do.” [at the 1:00 mark] He wasn’t white after he saw our loud reactions of laughter. He turned beet red. The conversation was recorded, so listen to the actual MP3 audio excerpt, so you can hear it in context.

I chatted with Kevin Kelly (founder of Wired magazine) at Q in a compressed conversation, not wanting to hog 5 or 10 minutes with him, knowing there’s many others who’d want to talk with him. I asked for his top-of-mind futurist perspective on racism, since the United States is now 30% non-Anglo and the world is less than 20% Anglo. His response: we have to break the white & black dichotomy in America, and bring in brown and yellow (referring to Hispanic/Latinos and Asians), and that triangulation will change and diffuse the interracial dynamics. Brilliant!

I walk past Mike Foster (ethur.org, formerly xxxchurch.com) as I egress from a pit stop and he’s on the way in. He’s wearing one of those hairline mic’s, and I nudge him and say, “Check the mic!” He checks it, and I think we averted a potentially embarrassing on-air moment. While I’d like to trust the sound board guys, double-redundancy safety-check is a better idea.

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  1. Suzanne says:

    Evolutionary thinking continues the false racial thinking…
    Biblical thinking causes people to realize that we all came from the same parents… we are all related… we have just taken on differing dominant DNA.

    The biggest difference in people is not the exterior, but the heart… do we still have the fallen nature of our first parents, or the new nature of Jesus Christ

  2. daniel so says:

    DJ — Great conversation. Add my vote to the regular podcast count!

    “You’d better learn to live a transparent life, and be consistent when the lights are on and when they’re not. Best way to go: character and integrity all around.” In this age of media spin and information control, this is a great reminder. I often find myself puzzling over why race seems to be the default attack for many people, and I think you’ve identified the heart-issues going on here. We don’t necessarily need more censorship (although a little bit of discretion goes a long way in public discourse); we need inner transformation.

  3. djchuang says:

    Daniel, thanks for the comment.
    It does go down as a matter of the heart, and yet there are systemic and societal issues also at play that aggravate the tension between majorities and minorities, and those are just as difficult to deconstruct and address. So what I find people doing is avoiding the racism issue all together, as if we can all just get along by blind avoidance because “people are people”. In most ways, yes, people are people, but our social and cultural side do have differences too that cannot just be swept under a colorblind rug.

  4. daniel so says:

    DJ — I totally agree with you. The church has a bad tendency to cop out on issues of race. Phrases like “People are people,” and “We all love Jesus here, and that’s all that counts,” have some validity (as you mentioned) but miss the bigger picture.

    If we are going to move toward genuine reconciliation and unity, then we must begin to recognize that we are different — our background, heritage, experiences… Instead of being “colorblind”, we must understand and affirm our uniqueness. In the end, this will deepen our understanding of the unity that Christ alone offers to us. He really can bring together widely diverse people, and not by squeezing out our uniqueness and forcing us into some strange homogeneous mold (though no one says this is easy).

  5. Andrew says:

    With the phenomenon of blogging – this thinking out loud way of learning from one another – it is important for there to be a level of grace and room for people to ‘change their mind’ or for their thinking to develop – as they learn from other people’s stories. What I like about blogging is that I get to learn from other people’s stories – their perspectives – which if I am listening should give me a fuller understanding than my limited experience enables.

    There is a lot of value in being able to say I’m sorry I didn’t understand things from your perspective. Whilst I agree we need to watch what we say and do – equally there is possibly greater potential for growth when a mistake is made – and corrected with grace. I am not sure that the idea of infallibility is biblical – and sometimes we end up trying to stay on the pedestal that others put us on (I recognise we need to be mindful that if we have the potential to cause greater damage we need to take greater care).

    Many of Jesus’ teaching moments were from the ‘opportunity’ presented by ‘mistakes’ – no doubt Peter would have been a great blogger! But he would have annoyed / offended a few people. We might have blacklisted him!

    It is easy to end up in a little circle of friends all thinking the same way because we can quickly write someone off who is only starting on the journey and may be at the stage of thinking in terms of ‘colour-blind’ issues etc. I am enjoying reading CONVERSATIONS: Asian American Evangelical Theologies in Formation (see http://www.lulu.com/content/493155) to try and widen my understanding.

    A particular area of interest for me is the whole interracial or mixed race children – sometimes wonder whether such people end up being treated like the Samaritans – impure etc when we see culture as being such a critical part of our self-identity. My own kids have a Chinese mum and a Caucasian dad – at the local Chinese Church they are a bit of a novelty / welcomed loved etc but not Chinese if they speak some Cantonese everyone is like WOW because it is not expected – at the predominantly Caucasian church they were held up as examples of the churches diversity – which was not true either.

    My thinking is definitely a work in progress and I hope it continues to be. Love the thoughts that you all put forward and the robust yet welcoming debate.

  6. djchuang says:

    Andrew, thanks for your thoughtful comments. There are mistakes to be made along this navigating of cultural milieus. There is room to make those mistakes unintentionally and to have restorative apologies and confessions in the context of relationships and friendships. Apart from a solid friendship between 2 (or more) people that can withstand occasionally innocent unintentional mistakes, there’s much less hope for getting through racial offenses. I do think just our being human does open us up to making mistakes from time to time, so I don’t mean my remarks to be entirely ungracious and expect people to live impeccably perfect error-free lives. What I do think is possible and doable is to be more measured in public speaking and when you know the mic is on.

    As for multiracial children, the church by and large has yet to breach that topic, though it is an obviously growing demographic in American society. Very few churches now embody and openly talked about the implications of a multiethnic society.