Editor’s Note: This post is part of the Red Letter Book Club, featuring Bruce Reyes-Chow’s latest book: But I Don’t See You as Asian: Curating Conversations About Race.
Think about the most cringe-worthy conversation you’ve had. Maybe it was talking with your parents about sex? Or, now that I’m a parent of teens, talking with your child about sex? Or what about when my staunchly Democratic mother announced at the Thanksgiving Dinner table: “I just want to talk to one thinking Republican about health care, ” in front of my staunchly Republican in-laws? Then there was the time we were eating at the neighborhood Japanese sushi restaurant with my father, who after liberally dousing his food with soy sauce proclaimed, “I just LOVE oriental food!” in front of my half Korean husband and the clearly Japanese waiter. Need I explain my family of origin is as white-bread suburban middle-class White as you can get? And that my father did not understand why this statement made the rest of us want to disappear under the table?
It’s that last cringe-inducing comment Bruce Reyes-Chow addresses in his book on how to have discussions about race, and what a relief to have such a book. With laughter and compassion for our humanness, Reyes-Chow takes us by the hand, and walks us through the tangled jungle of such discussions, pointing out all the elephants in the room, naming them and explaining how to address them with respect.
As an Asian-American (Philipino and Chinese) Christian minister, married to a White woman, and parent to three girls who are, to be simplistic, “brown, ” he claims his unique position to address the myriad of issues no one wants to name. While his faith in the Creator God and his courage as a disciple of Christ is woven throughout this book, this does not limit the audience to those of the same beliefs. His common-sense approach to why race and conversations about race still matter leaves wondering, “Why didn’t I realize that?” even as he gives us better language for talking with folk of different backgrounds from our own.
In spite of our longing to avoid the dangerous terrain of race relations, there is no escaping the role race continues to play. While off-hand remarks abound, true conversations about race are avoided, and with good reason: They are fraught with inadvertent but hurtful blunders and intentionally ignorant and belittling comments. As much as we wish we could cling to the ideal of a “color-blind” America, Reyes-Chow presents countering evidence that is right in front of our eyes.
There is no anger or malice here, but refreshing, practical and timely deconstructions of worldviews that insist “It’s Not Easy Being White” and why “It’s Not As Bad As It Used to Be” is no excuse for allowing ignorance to be unchallenged. (See his chapters by the same names.) Reyes-Chow’s overarching theme is that these discussions must take place in relationships, person to person, and his book invites us into such a relationship with him.
He points out paths some of us must never, ever take, no matter how hip and cool we want to be: (See the chapter on why no one except Black Americans can use the “n” word.) He points out the paths to tread with care, explaining the limitations and dangers of having a “token” brown person:; see “We need at least one, ” and the ridiculousness of asking “No, where are you from?” (His wife has a brilliant response when strangers ask that of her biological yet brown-hued children, “My womb.”) He explains the pain of the well-meaning “But I Don’t See You As Asian, ” pointing out how dismissive that is of who he is.
While many might find too much time is spent describing the lenses through which he sees the world, it proves his point that who we are shapes how we see the world. And this world still carries assumptions about race, appearance, and perceptions, as I know so well. My Irish-appearing daughter is asked if she is adopted, and where she got her last name, “Whong.” (Her answer, “Umm, my parents?”) My kids’ friends insist either she or her Asian appearing brother must be adopted. In counting racial demographics, people struggle with how to categorize my half-Korean husband. Yet few books approach these topics in such a down-to-earth, easy style, topics crucial for all of us regardless of our race.
Imagine having a friend who laughs at his own missteps in the land of language, like when he announced to a crowd of youth, “I know you are here for the same reason I used to come to youth conferences: To meet new people and hook up!” Not realizing “hook-up” means something completely different to today’s youth. This self-deprecating humor and honesty dissolves any paralyzing and painful “white guilt” with laughter.
This book is an easy, approachable read, neither weighing us down with the guilt of our clumsiness, nor laying a burden on us to tackle the institutionalized racist sins of the world. Instead, this book offers a delightful adventure with a good friend who points out the pitfalls and ridiculousness of race discussions, and gives answers to the questions we all wish we could ask. We end up not only laughing at ourselves, but such discussions seem possible, with his book in hand.
Amy Ruth Schacht has been a parish minister in the PCUSA for over 20 years, with a passion for how Christ’s transformative presence ripples out from one-to-one relationships to change the world, along with how our God-given brains can both trip us up and be harnessed to live the compassionate faith of our Savior. She recently won a grant from the Louisville Institute to study how faith practices of worship, prayer, and meditation shape and change brain function and faith behavior. She is currently the pastor of Laurel Presbyterian Church and blogs regularly at MyBrainsWorld.