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.
Is it possible to have a balanced, sane, and useful conversation about race? Are you afraid to attempt such a conversation? Are you fearful of saying the wrong thing, or saying the right thing in the wrong way, or even possibly saying the wrong thing in the “right” way? How do you avoid this confusion? You need guidelines, intelligent help, and a toolkit. You will find all of these in Bruce Reyes-Chow’s book, But I Don’t See You As Asian.
The tense balance between instructive insight and enlightened empathy is found here.
Reyes-Chow combines personal anecdotes, widely published guidelines for discussing “differences”, and a clear message on the necessity of having “the talk about race”. Early in the book, the author explains his background of faith and church work, but these factors do not dominate his later discussion. The book’s content is approachable and useful for readers of most ages and interest levels.
Are there some things we should “never say” as we discuss race? What motivates our discussion? Employers, neighbors, “work buddies”, church members, business associates and clients will all eventually encounter either the sense or the certainty that a situation exists and the “situation” is racial in nature. This book offers some help for those attempting to honestly and fairly work on what’s perceived as a “racial” situation. According to Reyes-Chow, this work requires self-examination, an understanding of the changing racial demographics of North America, the need for bravery, and sustained, active listening skills.
The book gives insight into commonly asked questions: “Why do all of the Black kids sit together in the cafeteria?” “Are Asians the ‘model minority’?” “Why can ‘they’ say the N word, be ‘we’ can’t?” In his humorous discussion on the “N” word and who can say it, the author explains why those not in the African-American community need to tread carefully when using this word as a statement of solidarity. Why? Unless you are a deep and long-term member of that community, you do not really understand the whys of the word’s usage. .Odds are, you will stumble and fall in your usage of this word. Your attempt to show friendship with “the bros” may end up insulting everyone present and damaging an emerging or long established friendship.
The essential meaning of Reyes-Chow’s discussion of this topic is: you can be your authentic self in any community and to do so is the highest demonstration of respect for yourself and the “other” people in the room. You can be white and walk into a room of Hispanic or African-Americans and speak just as you always do, without the need to prove you received an A in your high school Spanish language class or without saying “girlfriend” every other minute when you speak with the African-American women in the room.
The author clearly teaches why it is not “open-minded” or “unbiased” to say “Oh, I don’t see color. I just see a person.” If you see a person, you must be willing to see their color because their color and all of the history and tradition attached to it are a part of that person. The challenge is to see that person’s ethnicity without assuming or imputing a meaning. This is not something we are programmed to do. Actually, seeing what’s there without assuming we know what it all means is challenging and feels like work. To see a person as an individual, we have to shut off our instincts and pay attention to that individual. This is not an easy task, but it’s a necessary one. We need help doing this.
But I Don’t See You As Asian gets us started on the road to seeing people as individuals who exist within a certain community, rather than individuals who represent our image or idea of a certain community. From this perspective, we can begin to have honest, practical conversations about appearance, race, history, and what happens next. This is not something most of us have to do every day. Much of America is so socially segregated that, if you are white, it’s possible to live for years without facing a crisis concerning a racial situation. If you want to reach beyond your comfort zone, begin with this book.
Deborah Evans is a Michigan librarian and writer who works with reluctant teen readers and publishes Paravanes:Meditations, a Christian devotional blog. She graduated from the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) with a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in library/information services. Deborah also earned a graduate certificate in archival administration at Wayne State University. Her career in history and library services includes library management, oral history interviewing, and work as an interpreter/presenter at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. Her podcast book reviews can be heard in the Community Audio section of archive.org. Deborah, a Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church, USA, lives in southeastern Michigan with her daughter Gabrielle and a wide assortment of books and ephemera.