Race, ethnicity & culture

UPDATE:  Zondervan has pulled all the material from their shelves and has an official apology here.  I am surprised and in awe of their willingness to do this.


I will be the first to admit that I know so very little about race and ethnicity.  And being white, I think my admitting that point right away is the most important way to start (more important than saying what  little I may know.)

My parents (Dan & Shelby Harrison of Wycliffe & InterVarsity) genuinely loved many people from varied cultures and who were in our home some as friends and others as honored guests from all over the world.  I have shared meals with everyone from Chinese international students to high level Russian educators and everyone in between.  I enjoyed listening to their stories and sharing in laughter and good food.  It was an extremely good way to grow up.  It taught me culture is more than simply to food and conversation.

Sometimes I wonder if I truly learned something meaningful from those people and their life experiences.

I have always felt comfortable within other cultures, but  have never felt a part of them.  My dad always said we (Harrison Family) were Heinz 57 or mutts; not really from anywhere.  Now I’m labeled Caucasian and I have no ‘culture’ to speak of, except for the mix of traditions that my parents brought to our family.  My mother is Texan.  My father culturally Chinese.  (Yes, stories for another day.)  In third grade my best friend was Sarah Wakabayashi.  And over the years, with a few exceptions, my friends were diverse.  Because of my experiences as a missionary kid, even though my skin was white, I have always gravitated toward minority culture kids and I found these friends were more accepting.  Majority culture kids just wanted me to become homogenized.

Today, my best friends here in Madison are a first generation Japanese woman and a Malaysian/Scottish woman.  My dearest lifetime, soul mate and friend is African-American and Japanese.  I feel understood by them, accepted.  But sometimes I think about and wonder why I don’t know more about their experiences of race and racism. We have had some conversations but they were hard to say the least.

This week I followed a conversation over the web between some leaders of the Asian American Christian community and the authors of  Deadly Viper published by Zondervan.  [Deadly Viper is leadership book whose art and concepts use Kung fu and Asian-looking graphics, but the book wasn’t written by Asians nor is it about anything Asian.]  I have no way of knowing if I would have been offended by this book seeing it on the shelf without this context, because my first exposure was through the lens of Asians.  But just looking at it from a marketing perspective (which I know something about because of my job with Urbana & InterVarsity) it used Asian stereotypes and it was just plain stupid sounding. (Seriously, sometimes I wonder about the artists at these conservative Christian organizations.  They need a crash course in cultural sensitivity.)  But as I read (as a voyeur that the web strangely allows for) I realized how offensive it would be, & painful, for Asians, as they saw their culture caricatured and used to sell a book.

Some of their leaders called the issue to light including Dr. Soong-Chan Rah, who was one of the first and has received the most flack.  I was especially moved by Prof. Rah’s personal reflections and impressed by the good and gracious hearts of the Asian leaders.  Sadly, until organizations reflect the diversity of the kingdom of God, these blunders will continue. (more later).  “From a distance [it was] a great statement of how we can move positively in the direction of “authentic” reconciliation and journey towards multi-ethnicity.” (a friend Jimmy McGee on Facebook responding to Dr. Rah.)  I’d urge those of you who want to learn more about this, to read Dr. Rah’s blog, which seems to be a place where he helps people like me understand things from an Asian perpective.

All of this has gotten me thinking.

It got me thinking about my friendships over the years.

How well have I listened?  Have I asked the right questions? Or have I been so afraid of offending  and so fearful that I don’t know how to ask.  I am fearful of hurting my friends have I therefore committed the sin of omission?  I do know that acting casual about race wasn’t better than always talking about our differences.  It’s certainly easier (for me) but no, I do not think it is ever better.  I need to do more.

It got me reading.

There are billions of blogs (http://www.racialicious.com/ is a great one) out there where folk talk about their experiences of racism and being from a minority culture.  They are trying to help us majority folk to understand.  It’s out there.  I spent a few hours on Friday night, just following links.  I will post some of that in the future.

It got me feeling.

My sister Paula has written a book on being white in a multi-ethnic world and I haven’t read it.  I’m sorry Paula but it’s now on my bedstand!  See below for a description of the book.  And I personally own many books which speak to the topic, after working at IV.  I should read them.  Two that jumped from the shelf: Living in Color by Randy Woodley and A Beginner’s Guide to Crossing Cultures: making friends in a multi-cultural world, Patty Lane.  I have dozens more.  [guilt]  I guess I’ve always thought that having friends was good (enough.)

It got me listening.

It is important to listen to the painful experiences of minority culture folk, especially in this instance the Asian, and remembering some of the mistakes I made with Urbana communications trying to speak to many different audiences.

I feel profound sadness for the courage of these beautiful people and I don’t even know them.  I’d like to figure out how to ask my own friends about their experiences of race and racism, because I love them and I should know.

It got me remembering.

Nine years ago I wanted (and felt called in many ways) to attend a multi-racial church here in Madison.  It was hard to find one!  How difficult it was to find what “fit” our family.  Mostly my discomfort was my culture rubbing up against others’ and knowing I wasn’t ready to change.

[The only multi-racial church in Madison that I was aware of was Fountain of Life and for me it was very African-American and pentecostal and not as multi-cultural.  (Nothing being bad about African-American or pentecostal, just very different from my life experience.) It was so different from what we were used to, that my family wasn’t ready to sacrifice what was comfortable and known.]

I compromised, on both multi-ethnicity and the issue of women, by attending the church that I do.  I still need to think about this some more but it is a sad and startling realization.

And as for what happened with Zondervan Publishing (a major Christian publisher) .

Well, when will organizations learn that we offend by our ignorance. And we re-offend by our pride and unwillingness to change or admit our ignorance. We must be willing to say “I don’t know” and “I was wrong” and “I’m sorry.”  And even then, our dear friends are so gracious and so tired of saying ‘it’s okay.”  Because it is not okay.

And we can’t stop there.  I can’t stop here.  One week of being worked up about pain caused by whites is not going to change anything.  The Church needs to figure this out.  There’s too much pain here.  It was almost physical for me as I read these comments from dear, dear people.  My friend Noriko says I have a deeply compassionate heart.  She is so good at reminding your of the good qualities.  It’s a double sided blessing Noriko.

My heart is breaking.  The wrong people are at the tables of power. The wrong people are in charge.  What can be done?

I have to leave it here for today.  Dinner to cook.  Homework to supervise.  But before I go, if you are white and just beginning to think about what it means to be white, please read about Paula’s book below.


Have you ever thought about what it means to be white?  For me, I am often ashamed of being white.  Or to a lesser degree, I never know what to bring to school for the International Potluck, where you’re supposed to represent your culture.  Well, my own sister has written a book on the topic and below is a description.  — Melody

Are you white? Do you know what this means? Are you aware of racial inequality but have wondered, So what do I do?. Paula Harris and Doug Schaupp present a Christian model of what it means to be white, wrestling with issues of history, power, identity, culture, reconciliation, relationship and community

Being White, by Paula Harris & Doug Schaupp, InterVarsity Press.

What does it mean to be white?

When you encounter people from other races or ethnicities, you may become suddenly aware that being white means something. Those from other backgrounds may respond to you differently or suspiciously. You may feel ambivalence about your identity as a white person. Or you may feel frustrated when a friend of another ethnicity shakes his head and says, “You just don’t get it because you’re white.

  • How can you overcome the mistakes of the past?
  • How can you build authentic relationships with people from other races and ethnicities?

Paula Harris and Doug Schaupp present a Christian model of what it means to be white. They wrestle through the history of how those in the majority have oppressed minority cultures, but they also show that whites also have a cultural and ethnic identity with its own distinctive traits and contributions. They demonstrate that white people have a key role to play in the work of racial reconciliation and the forging of a more just society.

Filled with real-life stories, life-transforming insights and practical guidance, this book is for you if you are aware of racial inequality but have wondered, So what do I do? Discover here a vision for just communities where whites can partner with and empower those of other ethnicities.