Cultivating conversations about race
Finding beauty and challenge in our differences
August 21, 2013
While at Big Tent this month, Erin Dunigan sat down with the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, moderator of the 218th General Assembly (2008). The spoke about his new book, “But I Don’t See You as Asian: Curating Conversations About Race.”
Erin Dunigan: Tell me how this book came to be. Why race?
Bruce Reyes-Chow: My wife said to me, “You’ve been writing this book in your mind for the last 20 years.”
For the most part it really was, ‘Here are all the things I want to say about race.’
It began at the Wild Goose West festival. I was asked if I would come speak at this gathering. The crow is mostly white, progressive.
They asked me to present. They said, ‘You can talk about anything you want.’ I asked if I could do race. I’ve wanted to push the group a bit, gently — they have progressive values, while not reflecting real diversity in the ways they wanted to.
I think there can be this element with progressive white communities who love to be told how horrible they’ve been. But that is not my style.
I began to wonder, Why don’t I think about things that people have said to me, without malice, but have said things where I have had to decide, how do I respond to this? Such as, ‘Where are you from?’ or ‘Do you know martial arts?’ The kind of things that happen to me all the time, even today.
Maybe this is a vehicle to talk about race in a way that is not threatening. My style tends to be accessible — to use humor and disarm folks, to realize, we all have elements of this in us — how do we reframe the conversation?
ED: You decided not to go the traditional publishing route, but instead chose self-publishing and to fund the project using the online site Kickstarter. Why?
BRC: I love the concept of ‘kickstarting.’ I love the idea of a person claiming an idea and seeing if other folks are willing to support that. This brought together all loves of mine — social media, race, crowd sourcing.
ED: Now that the book has been out for a few months, how is it being received?
BRC: It is doing what I hope it would do. Folks are saying it is accessible, disarming, fair, an easy way to access conversations on race and inspiring people to talk about it.
What I have heard from folks so far, from white folks who have said the best part has been the realization ‘Oh no, I’ve said that.’
One response I’ve gotten is that, “I’m never going to ask, ‘Where are you from?’ again.” It sounds like an innocent question, but you just don’t know what that says to somebody.
Someone can read it and it can reframe the language that they use.
If folks are slightly open to talking about race it is a great entry point.
ED: What is your hope for the book?
BRC: I hope it inspires people to talk about race in a way that isn’t so conflicted and aggressive. It is not about avoiding conflict but about talking through conflict to the other side.
The more we don’t talk about it, that doesn’t make it go away. It’s the same with a marriage or a relationship. I would challenge the notion that by talking about it, we make it worse.
If we really think about that, it is more that we want to avoid conflict.
ED: Can you give me an example?
BRC: One thing I talk about in the book is privilege. But I use my own sense of privilege to illustrate the point.
For instance, if you travel a lot, you begin to get upgraded. I have found this with myself — how easy it is to begin to assume that this privilege is mine because I deserve it. I deserve that first class seat.
This is not just about white male privilege, but how we look at privilege as a concept and then, how do you translate that for yourself, for your own situation?
It isn’t just about you are a bad white person or a bad brown person. It is really about the fact that this is part of our humanity that is going to happen, and we need to take the time to sit and talk. I try to do it all with stories from my own life. Hopefully this gives people permission to adopt some new tools for how to deal with these issues.
ED: What about the intersection with faith, with the gospel — how does that come into the conversation?
BRC: I do a very small part on faith because it is not a church book. But I need to own that because it is where my fundamental understandings of race come from.
One component on faith, about Martin Luther King was his statement that 11 o’clock is the most segregated hour in the U.S. — this wasn’t about ‘everybody be multicultural,’ but was a push on white churches and churches of power to change the system.
I also talk about the passage in Galatians that we are no longer male or female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. This text wasn’t saying let’s forget about gender, economics and culture, but a challenge to issues of marginalization around those very issues. It was a challenge not to divide along those lines.
Often people respond by saying, ‘Shouldn’t we just all see each other as brothers and sisters in Christ?’ But that is not what the passage is about. It is about don’t marginalize and exclude based on these things.
Part of the beauty of our creation is what we look like. Male, female, tones and hues and sizes. That fulfills this body of Christ in a way that is much more exciting than ‘we are all the same.’
I don’t think anyone says diversity is bad. But how we live that out is the question. If diversity is good then we have to see diversity and figure out how that flavors how we are church. That is a struggle.
The more complex, the more beautiful we are. But it is hard. These conversations are not easy. We might like to think that it would be easier if we were all the same. But that is not who God has created us to be.
Erin Dunigan is a freelance writer, photographer, and pastor who lives in a small coastal community in Baja California, Mexico when she is not following her wanderlust out into the world.
- Agency: Presbyterian Mission Agency