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.
The afternoon that I set aside to write this review began with a trip to the Home Depot to pick up 10 bags of gravel for a project on the homefront. The nice man at the checkout counter asked if I’d like help loading the bags into my car. I gratefully accepted the offer, and as we walked across the parking lot I joked that my 14-year-old daughter was unlikely to be nearly as happy to help in the unloading as he seemed to be in the loading. He off-handedly responded, “tell her it will help her get skinny.”
I left the lot with way more to unpack that a few hundred pounds of rocks. I’ll begin by mentioning that the store employee happened to be a young African American man; I am a middle-aged white guy. Did his offer to assist have anything to do with assumptions about my age and relative health? Did he figure it would be easier to load rocks than pick me up off the parking lot? If he made any such assumptions, did they have anything to do with my being white? Middle-aged? Did his joke about my daughter rest on assumptions about the body image issues of teenage girls? Of teenage white girls in particular?
This was the internal monolog of my drive home. I blame that on Bruce Reyes Chow, or, at least, on his book But I Don’t See You as Asian. Of course, a monolog is not really what the book hopes to encourage, but I was alone so it was the best I could manage. But I Don’t See You as Asian is a rich, accessible invitation to think about race and, more to the point, to talk about it.
Full disclosure: I first met Bruce at a conference a decade or so ago, and we are friends and colleagues in ministry in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Fuller disclosure: I’m an over-educated-southern-progressive-straight-white-father-of-three. I could go on in this vein (or you can read the attached bio!) But I Don’t See You as Asian encourages precisely such self-reflection and disclosure because situating ourselves socially is a critical first step in engaging challenging and sometimes difficult conversations about race.
Just as the ground you stand upon determines what you are able to see of the physical world around you, the background you emerge from influences how you see the social world. Unlike certain Alaskan politicians, I cannot see Russia – or any other foreign land – from my front porch. To begin with, there’s a maple tree in the way. I can’t see the life experience of the young African-American clerk at the Depot either. To begin with, there’s my white skin in the way. I can’t see race, gender, sexual-orientation or myriad other social distinctions from any other skin but my own.
But I Don’t See You as Asian argues convincingly that we must acknowledge our own social location in order to engage constructively in any productive conversations about race. As important (yet still too often ignored) as that foundational point remains, Reyes-Chow’s book is much more than an effort to convince readers on that basic idea.
As the book’s subtitle – “Curating Conversations About Race” – suggests, But I Don’t See You as Asian catalogs aspects of such conversations with a sharp focus on possible pitfalls such as the one underscored in the title. Reyes-Chow collects and unpacks a series of 20 conversational gaffes ranging from “But I don’t see you as Asian” to “I don’t mean to be racist, but …” to “if they can say it, why can’t I?”
These are not statements spoken with the intent to hurt, but, instead, statements that stop conversations. As Reyes-Chow puts it, “At some point we have all been there. We said something that we later found out was not received in the way that we had intended, we learn something about our own thinking that needs to be corrected—or we hear someone else say something that brings the conversation to a screeching halt and we have to decide how to respond.”
The statements will ring true to anyone who has engaged dialogs about race or made the common error of reading the comments in any on-line article remotely related to race. (But I Don’t See You as Asian does not address comments that are intentionally, overtly racist and hate-filled. This is not a guide to responding to hate speech, but rather a resource for helpful speech about race.)
Reyes-Chow unpacks these common statements with good humor and a collection of anecdotes that gently nudge the reader to self-recognition. As helpful as self-recognition is as a first step, Reyes-Chow also provides numerous specific suggestions for guiding dialog past these conversation stoppers. Most of the suggestions involve simple questions aimed at uncovering experiences, stories, perspectives and motivations. While there’s no simple “how-to guide to fix conversation gone off track” the practice of asking non-threatening questions can certainly help get us back on track.
Some 20 years ago I was part of a team interview and hiring process for a new staff person at the nonprofit association where I worked in the 90s. I recall one particular candidate stuck out in my mind above any of the others we interviewed. In the internal deliberations about candidates, I was struck by questions raised about this particular candidate, who happened to be black, by a colleague, who was not black. He called into question the candidate’s resume and achievements in a way that had not been done with any of the other candidates we had interviewed, each of whom was white.
I recalled that long-ago experience while reading But I Don’t Think of You as Asian and wished that I could have a do-over for my part of that process. I recall remaining silent in that internal process because all I could think of to say was my own conversation-stopper: “that’s just racist.” Such shaming language inevitably does more harm than good. In the spirit of But I Don’t Think of You as Asian, I wish I’d had the presence-of-mind to ask a few gentle questions along the lines of “what makes you wonder about this candidate’s particular achievements?” or “was there something specific in his resume or presentation that raises these questions?”
I can imagine a challenging conversation may have followed such questions, but the situation called for a challenging conversation. As it turned out, in case you’re wondering, such a conversation would have made no difference in the outcome of the process because the candidate withdrew to accept another job before we had reached any decisions. In this case, though, the outcome did not disturb me nearly as much as the process. The process did not serve the organization well, much less serve any higher aims.
As Reyes-Chow puts it:
Striving to avoid exclusion and discrimination based on skin color is a noble endeavor. However, in that pursuit it is also important to gain a nuanced understanding of color, race, and ethnicity. While navigating the world to gain this understanding might require more effort—it is hard work—if the end result is that we can truly see, know, and embrace the complex beauty of humanity that surrounds us, it is worth it.
But I Don’t See You as Asian is a helpful resource for such work. Difficult conversations are precisely what we need more of in schools, workplaces, churches, and neighborhoods across the country.
As the subtitle, “curating conversations about race, ” suggests, the book aims to equip its readers “with illustrations and general insights that they can transfer and translate into personal interactions and relationship that are nuanced, particular and expansive.”
Surely that goal is important, and But I Don’t See You as Asian accomplishes it well. Still, I would like a little more from the curator. Sticking with that metaphor, some museums go beyond collecting and interpreting artifacts to facilitating their continued use in the world. I would love to see Reyes-Chow add to this work a “users guide to creating, cultivating and facilitating conversations about race.” The present work is an excellent starting place that invites readers to take next steps. As a reader, I hope Reyes-Chow takes a next step as well.
Ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 1999, the Rev. Dr. David Ensign has served as pastor of Clarendon Presbyterian Church, in Arlington, VA, for 10 years. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from DePaul University and a masters in religious studies from the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. He also attended Lexington Theological Seminary in Lexington, KY, while undergoing “the trials of ordination.” Over a beer or two he can explain precisely why they are called that. Prior to his service to the church, Ensign spent 10 years at the Council of State Governments in Chicago and Lexington, serving as publications manager and senior policy manager. He currently serves on the board of People of Faith for Equality in Virginia and the national committee of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. He lives in Arlington with his wife, Cheryl, and their three children. He blogs when the spirit moves him at http://faithfulagitation.blogspot.com/ and has a well-earned reputation for snarky commentary on Facebook. (His middle child, Martin, took the moody author photo in a cemetery in St. Andrews, the motherland of Presbyterians.)