Color and Consciousness

Steve Rhodes, via Flickr

At the beginning of his book But I Don’t See You As Asian, Bruce Reyes-Chow, a Presbyterian minister and active public speaker on faith and race, narrates a few cringe-inducing anecdotes from his life, each illustrating a moment when race was thrust into his consciousness. Nosy women asking his wife about where their daughter “is from”. Graffiti on the wall of his neighborhood café reading “Fuck that Chink.” Comments left on his blog saying “go back to your country” (Reyes-Chow was born in northern California). But the most devastating anecdote is from his own childhood. In response to an assignment to draw a self-portrait, what came out was “a coolie-hat-wearing, buck-toothed, slanty-eyed character named Pup E. Chow with the tagline, ‘I like dogs.’ ” It might as well have been subtitled “Why We Need to Talk About Race in America, Right Now.”

When George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, as the news scrolled across my laptop, my reaction wasn’t rage, but actual nausea, a sickening, chilling feeling that has only increased throughout the following days. But in the spirit of But I Don’t See You As Asian, in which Reyes-Chow puts his own race and history of dealing with racism up front, let me say this: I am white. I am so white, in fact, that in junior high, when I played basketball on a team where I was the only white player, I was regularly asked whether or not I glowed in the dark. Growing up in Oakland, California, one of the most diverse cities in America, and in my 14 years of teaching at UC Berkeley, race is and has been at the forefront of many conversations throughout my life. However, I am still white. So that sick feeling in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict was more than just a sick feeling about injustice and inequality, neither of which I have frankly been a victim of very often (unless we’re talking about gender, but that’s an issue for another time). It was a sick feeling about the way some white people reacted to Zimmerman’s freedom. They celebrated.

Reyes-Chow’s book arrives as a necessary corrective not only to those white people who see Zimmerman as a heroic figure, but also as an opening salvo in conversations we should have been having all along. Reyes-Chow says that he sees the book as a “dining room table around which we can gather, rather than a university classroom or political rally.” That humane tone persists throughout the book, and it’s a welcome one. In a moment when both progressives and conservatives want to talk about race from their own self-perceived stances of correctness, Reyes-Chow aims not for a middle ground or neutrality, but for speaking from a place of compassion both for people who’ve been on the receiving end of racism and for people who’ve been both inadvertently and consciously racist. “Because of the ways the world understands and interacts about race,” he writes, “this is one issue that we cannot give up on, get tired of, or believe we are past.”

That stubborn insistence that race remain at the forefront of conversation continues as a theme throughout But I Don’t See You As Asian. Reyes-Chow breaks the book up into a few longer sections at the beginning to unpack the idea of privilege, then shifts into shorter chapters for the latter half of the book, each of which could serve as the trigger for discussion or further writing. It’s in the opening section that he presents the most challenging ideas for many readers. Privilege is not something often discussed even in the most progressive and PC circles. And it is exactly this fact, Reyes-Chow writes, that is the first thing those of us who have privilege of any sort need to recognize. We need to challenge privilege in order to understand that it is something that ultimately needs to be shared. “When privilege relating to language, access, or setting is called into question, those who have occupied these preferred realities may feel like things are being taken away,” he writes. But the notion of privilege being “threatened” is unrealistic: “in reality, the settings [of privilege], which are only theirs because of circumstance, are being equalized and balanced with those of others.”

This discussion is not explicitly Christian until Reyes-Chow brings his own Christianity to the table. And there, the connection to race as a part of Liberation Theology becomes clear when he argues that “people can be liberated both from institutions that bind and personal attitudes that marginalize.”  He admits that his own church has often failed at this. Witness the embarrassing anecdote about the pastor of a well-intentioned, historically white church who called up the pastor of a multicultural church and asked if some of the congregation could be bussed over and “borrowed” for the day. “You can’t make this stuff up,” Reyes-Chow admits. But you can’t ignore it either. Lip service paid to diversity in religious institutions gets us nowhere. As Reyes-Chow writes, “the church must find ways to see this diversity as a gift that, when lived out well, can open societies up to living together in more magnificent ways, to seeing one another as God created us: diverse, beautiful, and holy.”

But one does not have to be Christian to get something out of Reyes-Chow’s book. Nor is the book only addressed to white people, though for obvious historical and contemporary reasons, we are the most culpable in the issues it raises. The classic trope of “white guilt”, Reyes-Chow writes, is not the answer, because it risks the idea that tokenism might be an acceptable solution. And it allows people to get away with “having a black friend” or “living in a Latino neighborhood” without entering into real dialogue with the people around them, and can even lead to the idea that white people suffer because of racism. Here in Oakland, the increasing influx of young white people no longer able to afford San Francisco rents has lead to real tensions. When yet another vegan cupcake shop opens next to a tamale store, and its proprietors make no effort to to learn a few words of Spanish or talk with their neighbors, who have been in the neighborhood for twenty years. That kind of apathy allows the idea of “passive otherness”, as Reyes-Chow labels it, to continue, instead of moving toward a real sort of unity. “All compassion to White friends and strangers for the emotional and physical struggles around your experiences of race,” Reyes-Chow admits, “but the social understanding that racism is now worse for White folks than for others must be not only be shed, but challenged by you and by the rest of society if we are truly going to move forward to a place of genuine racial wholeness.”

So what is the real solution in moments like this one, in moments when Trayvon Martin dies and George Zimmerman walks free? For the past few weeks, it has seemed like white people have been telling other white people how to feel about Trayvon Martin. And that’s an extremely myopic world to choose to live in. When we try to understand race from that self-limiting perspective, we fail to move forward as a society. Within the last few years, I’ve had white students say in class that Obama “isn’t really black,” that they understand multiculturalism “because we had ethnic food day in high school,” that their math teaching assistant is too hard to understand because he speaks “Engrish.” What is a white person to do? “Unless you want to face a lifetime of frustration,” Reyes-Chow argues, one should “explore your own culture. This will help expose the breadth of our racial realities and in turn will help us appreciate the realities of other racial groups.” It’s also crucial for white people to remember that when people of color around you seem to be gathering “without you,” they are not cutting themselves off for your sake: you need to “remind yourself that it might not actually be about you, but rather about the needs of the group.”

In 1969, the theologian James Cone wrote that “if the Church is a continuation of the Incarnation, and if the Church and Christ are where the oppressed are, then Christ and his Church must identify totally with the oppressed to the extent that they too suffer for the same reasons persons are enslaved.” Reyes-Chow’s book encourages us to enter into a dialogue that might help get us closer to the real freedom that comes with understanding. But there will be suffering along the way, and mourning, and a sorrow so deep it gouges. In the end, liberation is possible. But first, we have to talk. And talk. And talk.

Kaya Oakes is the author of The Nones Are Alright: A New Generation of Seekers, Believers, and Those In-Between (Orbis, 2015), the memoir Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church (Counterpoint Press, 2012), and a social-science based exploration of independent art and culture, Slanted and Enchanted (Henry Holt, 2009). She teaches creative nonfiction, narrative journalism, expository and research writing at the University of California, Berkeley.