Race and Space: Black History Month, Linsanity, and the Church

“If I were really asked to define myself, I wouldn’t start with race; I wouldn’t start with blackness; I wouldn’t start with gender; I wouldn’t start with feminism. I would start with stripping down to what fundamentally informs my life, which is that I’m a seeker on the path. I think of feminism, and I think of anti-racist struggles as part of it. But where I stand spiritually is, steadfastly, on a path about love.” -bell hooks

A lot rolling around in my brain these days with Linsanity – the lincredible ascent and both the good and terrible, thoughtless reactions of various media – and then the end of Black History month, and thoughts about the GAMC meeting, in particular one little piece about some recommendations made by a racial/ethnic women’s committee.

I’ve been swept up in the phenomenon of Jeremy Lin, at times annoyed with the bombardment on my Facebook wall and Twitter feed, but mostly excited. An Asian American, a Harvard grad, a “third-stringer” leading the NBA in scoring in the last few weeks. It’s kind of mind-blowing, but more importantly, huge in terms of turning a certain (persistently prevalent) cultural stereotype on its head. And it’s opening up sooo many possibilities. That’s compelling to me.

But, always, there’s going to be a “slip-up” as we saw this last week with the recent debacle at ESPN and surely one can spin it so many ways, and we’ve read all those explanations (oh, I so loved the sad excuse that the writer didn’t mean it, and in fact his wife is Asian), so I’m reminded that for all our advances we still have a long way to go as citizens of the free world.

I am constantly inspired by Black history, and am actually a little sad that we only spend a month a year to highlight it, though I suppose I could take the initiative on my own. But, I’m thinking in particular of a couple of my favorite people – MLK Jr and bell hooks – who in their own ways challenge and inspire me to speak out about these issues when possible. There’s a tension between letting go of those definitions and still making room for them when it comes to one’s identity and interactions with others. There’s no easy answer or formula, but the key is always engagement and dialogue even if it’s uncomfortably awkward.

I have a good friend from seminary who was part of the team that initiated anti-racism training at the seminary. I remember the resistance and struggle, so many didn’t think it was necessary to talk about it, that it was a made-up issue or one in the past. I remember thinking how sad it was that many of our future colleagues in ministry didn’t want to make space for dialogue about something they would not be able to avoid in their own ministries. And then, this past weekend with all the talks about forming racial/ethnic task forces, and raising up racial/ethnic leaders, and supporting racial/ethnic women, I wondered, “Is it enough?” Is it enough to have task forces and mission plans and even anti-racism training materials but not encourage/mandate our governing bodies to actually make space that deals with it?

It’s as simple as communication. Even though that communication might not always be easy that shouldn’t preclude us from the effort.

“People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”

What would it look like if this kind of dialogue was engaged on a regular basis – not to judge or to blame, but to check-up on each other, to check-up on ourselves? Because, cultural proficiency is increasingly becoming a necessity, and not only for the media, but for every other sphere in our culture, and particularly the Church, a place that I believe should be leading the way. And I think we’ll discover that it’s not just about race, but about gender, generation, and even geography.

Eugene Cho wrote a thoughtful post and ended with:

Instead, a leader with a high cultural IQ has developed a sensitivity to other cultures and handles those cultural contexts with honor and respect…Cultural change is not a possibility, but an inevitability. The leaders who will have the biggest impact in this shifting cultural landscape are those who possess a teachable spirit, flexibility, and humility….You can be “relevant” or you can be a reconciler: make the intelligent choice.

I think some kind of mandate for cultural proficiency training is going to be something I want to pursue during my time on the GAMC. These incidents, like with Lin and the ESPN headline, they may seem small – some may say we’re making a mountain out of a molehill – but they’re symptomatic of deeper issues that can’t be swept under the rug. My hope and inspiration continue to be my babies, and helping to create a better world for them, a place where they can be who they are without any worry about others’ definitions of themselves.

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