“My parents raised me to be colorblind, so I see everyone as the same color,” one of my white friends proudly declared to me over lunch one day.
Colorblind. I’m going to have to admit that when it comes to discerning racial and ethnic differences, I am decidedly not colorblind. I am Asian American, I was born and raised in the United States by Taiwanese immigrants, and I have been aware of color all my life. But if colorblindness has been held up as a virtue and a way to certify oneself as “NOT RACIST,” then anyone who holds to that mindset may be nervously thinking that I just outed myself as a closet racist. Before anyone throws any stones at me, though, I’d like to ask: If we are all the same color, then what color is that? And what color am I? Same as you? What color are you? Something my friend Bill, an educated white male, said to me recently reveals a lot about how some people might actually answer these questions, as well as what the underlying assumptions behind these answers might be. He said to me, “You Asians fit in seamlessly with us white people. You’re the ideal minority.”
He likes me! He approves of me! He is granting me a rightful place in the prestigious hall of… honorary white people?!?!
Both of the above statements represent forms of a phenomenon known as racial microaggression. Columbia University psychology professor Derald Wing Sue defines racial microaggressions as “the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned White people who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated.” In their 8-year research at Teachers College, Columbia University, Sue and his team found that these racial microaggressions may appear at first like a compliment or seem innocent and harmless, but they actually contain “demeaning meta-communications.” For example, a good friend of mine who is African-American tells me that she frequently receives compliments from white mothers at her daughter’s school along the lines of, “Your daughter is SO well spoken and SO well behaved! She’s really exceptional.” My friend usually just says, “thank you” and smiles, but she clearly receives the underlying message that African-American children are not expected to be well spoken or well behaved. Likewise, although Bill’s statement about Asians being the ideal minority was genuinely meant as a compliment, it was based on the ethnocentric and status-centric assumption that seamless assimilation into white, middle-class American culture – his culture – was the ideal. Hidden message: Good job conforming to me/us. Keep it up and we’ll get along fine.
The unconscious nature of people’s biases and prejudices makes them particularly challenging to expose and very difficult for those who hold them to recognize or acknowledge. In fact, those who commit microaggressions “are genuinely not aware of their biases” and tend to “see themselves as fair minded individuals who would never consciously discriminate.” Colorblindness, for example, is a popular racial ideology that promotes “treating individuals as equally as possible, without regard to race, culture, or ethnicity.” At first glance, it appears virtuous. Its proponents even frequently invoke Martin Luther King, Jr. and his vision that his children would one day not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. Unfortunately, colorblindness is deeply problematic, as psychology professor Monnica Williams explains:
“White people, who are unlikely to experience disadvantages due to race, can effectively ignore racism in American life, justify the current social order, and feel more comfortable with their relatively privileged standing in society (Fryberg, 2010). Most minorities, however, who regularly encounter difficulties due to race, experience colorblind ideologies quite differently. Colorblindness creates a society that denies their negative racial experiences, rejects their cultural heritage, and invalidates their unique perspectives.” 
Colorblindness is a well-intentioned approach, but it actually implies that there is something undesirable or shameful about different (non-white) cultures and ethnicities. Instead of embracing the distinct characteristics that make other people who they are, its proponents render any conversation about those characteristics off-limits, impolite, or even painfully awkward. This non-verbal social contract can feel quite oppressive to people of color. A University of Georgia study from 2009 showed that “contrary to popular beliefs, workplaces that downplay racial and ethnic differences actually make minority employees feel less engaged with their work.” The study’s lead author said, “Minority employees sense more bias against them in these allegedly colorblind settings… For a long time whites have been told they should not pay attention to race. It’s best if we all assume people are all the same, right? But this type of colorblindness often is based on assimilation.” A blog post on the Chicago Tribune’s website explained, “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.”
Perhaps the most insidious forms of racial microaggressions are the non-verbal ones – subtle yet persistent forms that result from people acting out their conscious and subconscious social preferences; those that are impossible to prove but that people on the receiving end simply know are taking place. I experienced a fair amount of these during the first 2 years that my husband (who happens to be white) and I were in Atlanta, primarily in predominantly white evangelical settings. Conversations that I had with people after church services were frequently interrupted or abruptly truncated by a 3rd party without any acknowledgement of my presence. I spent a good bit of time in the midst of numerous playgroups, social settings, and women’s ministry events looking around and waiting for somebody to make eye contact with me and invite me into conversation. When I initiated conversations with people, I would often see a look of disinterest wash over their faces (usually at the 15-second mark) as they glanced around the room to see if someone else might be more worth their time and attention. I also had many one-sided conversations in which I asked a series of get-to-know-you questions and then walked away without having been asked a single question. Were all of my interactions like this? No, thank God. Were there wonderful exceptions in which I made genuine connections with people? Yes, definitely, and I still have friendships with those people. But there was without a doubt an overall culture that existed in which I was an outsider looking in. It was their reality show, and I was merely a spectator (or an extra with no lines). The cumulative effect of these experiences was that I was emotionally exhausted after very social event and increasingly angry over time.
Professor Sue explains, “Many racial microaggressions are so subtle that neither target nor perpetrator may entirely understand what is happening. The invisibility of racial microaggressions may be more harmful to people of color than hate crimes or the overt and deliberate acts of White supremacists such as the Klan and Skinheads… They are often made to feel excluded, untrustworthy, second-class citizens, and abnormal… Although they may appear like insignificant slights, or banal and trivial in nature, studies reveal that racial microaggressions have powerful detrimental consequences to people of color.”
What does the Bible say about color?
I have often heard people cite Galatians 3:28 to support the colorblind ideology: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” There is definitely truth behind the idea that we are all equally valuable to God. The problem with applying this specific text to the colorblind concept is that the passage is not about, nor does it recommend, the annihilation of God-given distinctions. Rather, it is about all comers being accepted solely on the account of Christ. None are accepted nor rejected based on the account of their earthly national or personal advantages or disadvantages. The Apostle Paul is addressing the major relationships in his time and culture in which significant advantage differentials exist: Jews have previously maintained an advantage over Gentiles because they have had the Law and the Prophets. Men have always enjoyed greater privilege and status than women. Masters have obvious advantages over their slaves. Before God, however, no one has greater standing than anyone else because all equally need Christ, and all who put their faith in Christ are equally accepted by God as his children.
So then, what does God have to say about ethnic and cultural distinctions? Does He value them? Does He even recognize them? Take a look at the following passages from the book of Revelation:
“…for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom of priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” (5:9)
“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!'” (7:9-10)
“Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people.”(14:6)
God is not colorblind. In fact, not only does He see color; He intentionally pursues a full representation of humanity’s color spectrum through proclamation of the gospel.
What is color?
It is important to have a discussion about what color actually is. For starters, it is much more than skin tone, eye color, and hair color. It is language. It is culture. It is heritage. I will focus on culture because I think it encompasses both language and heritage. According to James D. Hunter,
Culture is… a normative order by which we comprehend ourselves, others, and the larger world and through which we order our experience. At the heart of culture is a system of norms and values… but these norms and values are better understood as commanding truths so deeply embedded in our consciousness and in the habits of our lives that to question them is to question reality itself.
Every culture interprets, evaluates, and standardizes. In a fallen world, this means that cultures tend to compete, fight with, and attempt to subjugate one another instead of learn and benefit from one another. Yet there is no ideal culture. Every culture has both unique virtues and unique blind spots and therefore needs to be informed by other cultures. For example, African-American, Asian, Latino, Middle-Eastern, and Native-American cultures, and those of recent arrivals from around the world (even parts of Europe), tend to view things through a communal lens, while white Americans whose European ancestors arrived at least several generations ago tend to view things through an individualistic lens. Furthermore, while ethnic minorities tend to value interdependence, whites tend to value independence. Communal orientation and interdependence are consistent with biblical teaching about being in deep spiritual community and accountability, but they can also be a set-up for destructive and unhealthy group dynamics like rigid conformity, which is detrimental and unproductive, and public shame, which is destructive. Individualism and independence are helpful for developing an understanding of personal responsibility and each person having a personal relationship with God, but it can also lead to isolation and a lack of commitment to deep spiritual community.
Culture and the gospel unavoidably intersect because culture provides the context for all gospel communication. What is interesting is seeing the various ways that different cultures interpret and weigh different portions of Scripture and even different aspects of the gospel. Cultures that have historically experienced significant oppression, trauma, injustice, and deprivation tend to gravitate toward biblical passages about suffering, future justice, and having hope in a deliverer. There is deep identification with poetic passages expressing lament. They emphasize the more masculine traits of God: a warrior, a conqueror. They also have a collective consciousness of both joy and suffering. Cultures that have experienced relative comfort and abundance tend to emphasize biblical passages on good stewardship and contentment. They emphasize the more feminine characteristics of God: a nurturer, a caregiver. They also tend to individualize all of their experiences, a phenomenon that was observed in a recent study about the social consciousness of millennials that concluded: “when there’s greater wealth in a society, individualistic values go up and communal values go down.”
A great example of how these things play out in real life among Christians of different ethnicities is that when I discussed with various friends the experience I had with racial microaggressions in the church, responses varied tremendously between my white friends and my non-white friends. For the most part, my white friends recommended that I follow Matthew 18:15-17 and confront the individuals who were demonstrating discriminatory behavior toward me. Their interpretation of what I was experiencing was that I was being sinned against by certain individuals, and therefore, the problem needed to be addressed with those individuals. My non-white friends, on the other hand, lamented the experience as an expression of abiding cultural sin and found greater meaning in passages like Ecclesiastes 4:1: “Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them.” To them, it was a social justice issue – a problem that existed at the institutional and societal level. The reality is that it was both a social justice issue involving collective cultural sin AND an individual issue involving specific individuals who were committing specific sins and who could be lovingly invited into repentance and reconciliation through a Matthew 18 conversation. Biblically, both perspectives were relevant, and discernment was required in order to think through the best response to the situation.
So Why Is It So Hard to Talk About Race?
In my experience, one of the greatest obstacles to productive dialogue about race issues between whites and people of color is that whites often do not perceive their own culture as a culture. To the average white American who has not interacted regularly and deeply with people of other cultures, the perception he has of his life experience is that it is simply… the human experience. There is little to no consciousness of his experience being an Anglo-American experience the way that a black person is conscious of his experience being an African-American experience, an Asian person is of his being an Asian-American experience, a Latin-American person is of his being Latin-American experience, etc. Why is that? Timothy Keller explains:
Because ethnic minorities must live in two cultures – the dominant culture and their own subculture – they frequently become aware of how deeply culture affects the way we perceive things… In the United States, Anglo-Americans’ public and private lives are lived in the same culture. As a result, they are often culturally clueless. They relate to their own culture in the same way a fish that, when asked about water, said, “What’s water?” If you have never been out of water, you don’t know you are in it.
Chicago pastor Daniel Hill describes the first time he had an awakening to his own racial-cultural identity as a white man while attending the wedding rehearsal party of his East Indian friend. When Pastor Hill lamented to the groom that he wished he had as much culture as the groom did, the groom responded, “My friend, not only do you have a culture, but your culture wins almost every time it comes in contact with another culture. It would be a really good idea for you to learn about your culture.”
Some whites have had experiences that help them relate to the race-consciousness that most minorities constantly feel. For example, one of my white friends attended a high school that was predominantly black and Hispanic. Another white male friend played football in high school on a team that was predominantly African-American. They both say that they felt their “whiteness” in these contexts. And yet, both of them left their high-school world behind, went on to complete college degrees at schools where they were not ethnic minorities, and now work in a world that largely favors white men. African-American men, on the other hand, do not get to do that – i.e., they do not have the privilege of graduating out of their minority status and entering a larger society in which they enjoy privilege and favor. The fact is that people of color must learn white culture and its values and sensibilities in order to survive and succeed in the United States. And even then, people’s unconscious yet persistent biases and prejudices prevent it from being an even playing field for people of color. Although white people may have to adapt to minority cultures in unusual circumstances, and they can choose to learn about and understand other cultures for the sake of personal growth and curiosity, their survival and success in this country does not depend on it. I have made social and relational adjustments to white culture all my life since childhood, even before I could articulate what I was doing, because I intuitively perceived white culture to be the one that I needed to navigate with proficiency outside of my home if I wanted to secure good outcomes for myself. Sometimes I adjusted to the point of rejecting and denying my own ethnic and cultural identity. Virgilio Elizondo explains, “It is the dominant society that sets the norms and projects the image of success, achievement, acceptability, normalcy, and status. It is the dominant group that sets up the educational process that passes on the traditions and values of the dominant society.”
What Is the Solution?
The solution to stalemates in the racial dialogue in our country and more importantly in our churches is not more information, more racial reconciliation conferences, more diversity campaigns, more forums on multiculturalism, or more talk. While these things can promote awareness and provide a place for people to vent, they do not and cannot produce true healing among the estranged cultures and ethnicities. Neither does the proposal that I heard recently from a white friend, “Let’s just all move on from racism already” effectively or meaningfully address these weighty matters, especially for people of color. Only as people of different ethnicities and cultures do the hard and uncomfortable work of reaching across the divides and intentionally forming deep, authentic, Christ-centered relationships can these rifts be healed.
However, building such relationships goes way beyond simply being in a multicultural setting and having many acquaintances with different kinds of faces and backgrounds. My husband and I are part of an ethnically and socioeconomically diverse church here in Atlanta. It is the first church we have ever been a part of that provides constant opportunity to get to know people who are very different from us. But we found after worshiping here a while that it is just as easy for various groups to self-segregate and unwittingly reinforce ethnic and class divisions in this ethnically and socioeconomically integrated setting as it is in the larger society. We fallen humans still do what is easy and act out our own preferences.
Because my husband and I had always worshiped at predominantly white evangelical churches, we had never had much meaningful or consistent contact with African-Americans, so after a few weeks at the church, we made a conscious decision to start inviting the African-American people in our circle of new acquaintances over to our home for dinner. We didn’t pull out our “Top 10 Questions We’ve Always Wanted to Ask an African-American.” We just got to know them as people. And we let them get to know us. We also accepted their invitations to events that were meaningful to them so that social interactions were not always on our terms or on our turf. At the beginning it felt awkward, unfamiliar, and even uncomfortable, but as we shared stories about our families, our work experiences, and other life experiences, as we entered into and experienced their world, we began to form real connections. And things began to change in us. It’s hard to admit, but my husband and I started to recognize and divest ourselves of our previously held wrong-headed conscious and subconscious assumptions and generalizations about African-Americans. I think some might call it repentance. In fact, we embarked on an ongoing journey of repentance from ignorance and racial prejudice against our African-American brothers and sisters. Not only did we repent of these things, but we also started to identify with their unique perspectives on the world as we heard stories of the hardships and injustices they continue to endure simply because they are of African descent. Neither of us would have perceived these racial prejudices or been in touch with the ignorance in our own hearts if we had remained in our white evangelical bubble. I contend, however, that these prejudices could just as easily have remained intact in our new multicultural setting, even while sitting under the teaching of our African-American lead pastor, allowing us to believe and misperceive ourselves as being enlightened, progressive, and post-racial. But the relationships and pursuit of genuine connections are what exposed, disrupted, and uprooted those prejudices.
The change in us goes even deeper than what I just described, though. While we have come to understand and relate to black people better and to identify with their experiences more readily, more important is the realization that we actually need them in our lives. They – who they are, what they have experienced historically both communally and personally – make us more complete in Christ, enrich and strengthen our faith, and challenge and convict us in ways that no one else does. When people who have been through tremendous oppression and who continue to experience injustices on a regular basis have found a way not to become crushed under the weight of those injustices, it helps us to see and believe the reality of 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 in far richer ways than we could have without their witness: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes on not what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” When people who have experienced painful generational deprivations and inequalities that persist today because their ancestors were enslaved are able to find unshakeable hope and joy in the Lord and trust him to provide and come through, it makes me question my tendency to grow discouraged, frustrated, and depressed in the face of much lighter adversity. I have probably studied the book of Romans more times than I can count, but I now see Romans 5:3-5 in a new light: “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”
Here is the ultimate litmus test for whether you have experienced or are experiencing genuine racial reconciliation: If you are able to identify ways in which you have been fundamentally changed as a direct result of your interactions with people of different ethnicities and cultures, then you have probably experienced what racial reconciliation is all about. If, on the other hand, you are unable to identify a single way that you have been fundamentally changed by your interactions with people of different ethnicities or cultures, then you need to consider the real possibility that your friendships with them are nothing more than superficial, token friendships. Moreover, if you cannot yet identify a single reason why you personally need people of different ethnicities or cultures to enrich, inform, and transform your life with Jesus, then you need to ask the Lord to help you examine how profoundly you may be allowing your culture to shape your understanding of Christianity.
 Sue, Derald Wing and Rivera, David. Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: A new view on racism, sexism, and heterosexism. Psychology Today, October 5, 2010. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/microaggressions-in-everyday-life/201010/racial-microaggressions-in-everyday-life Accessed on 7/27/13.
 Williams, Monnica. “Colorblind Idealogy is a Form of Racism.” Psychology Today, December 27, 2012. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/colorblind/201112/colorblind-ideology-is-form-racism Accessed on 7/27/13.
 “Is Colorblindness or Multiculturalism Better for Minorities?” Chicago Tribune, March 25, 2009. http://newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/race/2009/03/is-colorblindness-or-multiculturalism-better-for-minorities.html#more Accessed on 7/27/13.
 Hunter, James D. Before the Shooting Begins, as cited by Timothy Keller in Center Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012, p. 110.
 Rah, Soong-Chan. The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009, p. 153.
 Brownstone, Sydney. “The Kids Are Alright: Millennials Want Meaningful Jobs that Fix Social Problems.” Co.Exist. July 21, 2013. http://www.fastcoexist.com/1682573/the-kids-are-alright-millennials-want-meaningful-jobs-that-fix-social-problems. Accessed on 8/1/13.
 Keller, Timothy. Center Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012, p.96
 Hill, Daniel. “7 Stages of White Identity.” July 1, 2013. http://www.christenacleveland.com/2013/07/whiteidentity/
 Elizondo, Virgilio. Galilean Journey: The Mexican-American Promise (1983), p.25 – as cited by Soong-Chan Rah in The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (2009), p. 72
1) I personally think that everyone who cares about race relations in the United States should carve out an hour-and-a-half in your schedule to watch the following video, “The Color of Fear.” It’s incredible. http://www.diversitytrainingfilms.com/films-2/films/
2) A great series by social psychologist Christena Cleveland on how people of privilege can listen well to non-privileged people. http://www.christenacleveland.com/tag/listening-well/
3) Great perspective on white privilege, written by a white male. http://www.dailykos.com/story/2013/02/28/1190420/-A-Little-Reminder-of-My-and-Your-White-Privilege#
4) Emerson, Michael O. and Smith, Christian. Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. Oxford University Press, 2001.
5) Gilbreath, Edward. Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical’s Inside View of White Christianity. IVP Books, 2008.
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