How to have productive discussions about racism

What an impassioned discussion about race-based issues on ESPN’s First Take with Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless after the ESPN headline incident where a racial slur was used and employees suffered severe consequences — one fired, one on probation.

While I agree this was a productive discussion on a sports television network, I wonder what it’d be like to have this kind of productive discussion in the Christian world / church context? Why is it so difficult to have this conversation that’s obviously much needed in American society at large, which in turns implies that it is at least just as necessary within the church?

And if an Asian American were at the table, in addition to the African American and Anglo Americans at that table, what would s/he have said?

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About djchuang

DJ Chuang is a social media strategist for churches and non-profit orgs, with a personal priority on next generation Asian Americans. He's a veteran blogger at djchuang.com and resides in Orange County, California

Comments

  1. Daniel So says:

    DJ — Thanks for linking to this video. I definitely appreciate the frank nature of the discussion. I think the Church would do well to create space for honest dialogue — from the video, it appears that the trust necessary to create this kind of environment was already there, from having worked together and believing in each other’s characters/good intentions. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case in church settings.

    I wholeheartedly agree that it would have been much better to have an Asian American person there to discuss as well, since they were discussing Jeremy Lin and the issues of race surrounding his sudden rise to prominence.

    I know Stephen A. Smith trades in being a shouting-head (and I generally like his columns), but I disagree with him on one key point: In my opinion, there is a *huge* difference between forgiving on a personal level and dealing with institutional racism/ignorance. Jeremy Lin did what he had to do: to publicly forgive the writer/editor (who continues to claim innocence/ignorance) and move on. Indeed, on a personal level, when dealing with racism — which I know many of us deal with regularly — forgiving and moving on is a necessary part of maintaining our sanity.

    However, for “the worldwide leader in sports” to allow such a blatantly racist headline to go to press — even if they tried to minimize its impact by emphasizing the fact that it was on their mobile site — is unacceptable. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a professional journalist to to understand that the word “chink” is deeply offensive. The job of a writer/editor is to deal with words, and understand their impact.

  2. elderj says:

    “However, for “the worldwide leader in sports” to allow such a blatantly racist headline to go to press — even if they tried to minimize its impact by emphasizing the fact that it was on their mobile site — is unacceptable. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a professional journalist to to understand that the word “chink” is deeply offensive. The job of a writer/editor is to deal with words, and understand their impact.”

    This is the challenge though isn’t it? We all agree that words have power and that there is a personal and institutional responsibility to think carefully about the words we use and the implications, even unintended, of those words. And plainly someone, somewhere should have caught this before it went to press. On the other hand the phrase “chink in the armor,” is not itself racist, nor even racial. Poorly chosen in the context, absolutely, but not automatically racist. In fact I would venture to say that there are a great many people who wouldn’t know that the word has racial connotations at all, especially if they’ve not been in any context where they would learn that.

    So what do we do with words is a critical question. And is racism to be determined by intent of the person or institution, or by the impact, or by some other metric? If it is simply a list of “no-go” words for White people, then we reduce racism to something cartoonish and irrelevant. We can’t actually know the intention of people’s speech, though in charity we ought to give the benefit of the doubt to someone who cries ignorance.

    I knew some Black folks who were deeply offended by an older White person who referred to Black people as “colored.” Why should they be offended, when that was the preferred name for Black people when the elderly person was in their formative years. Similarly, I know some people who religiously use the term African American to avoid offending Black people — when most Black people aren’t offended by it at all.

    I don’t say any of this to be insensitive to the issue, but to highlight that we lack any sophisticated way of approaching these issues. ESPN fires someone who perhaps honestly made a mistake and meant no harm. How is any justice served or lesson learned? ESPN doesn’t suffer any consequences for their institutional racism, but the individual who may indeed not be racist at all is punished for simply being unaware. We need a better way forward.

  3. djchuang says:

    Daniel, elderj: thanks for adding your comments on this; of course it’s only the tip of the iceberg. You’ve both keenly noted the vast differences of individual vs. institutional racism. Thus, it takes very different approaches to change each of those realms. With supposedly more “important” priorities, race & faith issues are put on the backburner, and the rare occasional conversations that arise due to controversy or Heritage Month, is too infrequent and doesn’t advance change, only makes a casual revisit.

    Happen to catch ESPN First Take this morning, Stephen and Skip had quite an energetic discussion about Tim Tebow’s expression of faith, with Bible verses being quoted, a rather robust conversation about how we ought to live out our faith in the public square. All this transpired on a sports TV network. What an indictment on the church’s (broadly speaking) lack of cultivating these kinds of conversations and discussions. Yes, sure, it’s important to reconnect with God through worship services on a weekend, AND it’s also important to have a place to work out the implications of our faith and how to live it out & how it can be expressed on the weekdays and at home.

  4. Daniel So says:

    ElderJ — Good to hear from you! I always appreciate your insight, and for the pushback here.

    I wouldn’t advocate a “no-fly” list for words. I agree that it could trivialize the more important issues — as if avoiding a set checklist of words was all that was necessary to ensure justice.

    I suppose I’m showing my cards a little here: While I certainly was not surprised that such a headline occurred (I was waiting for the other shoe to drop at some point during the Linsanity), I guess I’m kind of surprised that non-Asian folks wouldn’t see the racist connotations in that phrase, in that particular setting.

    Seriously: putting the word “chink” underneath a photo of an Asian American on a widely read site. To me, that seems like it would be quite obvious, even to non-Asian people.

    Growing up as one of the few Asian Americans in my Michigan hometown, I heard “chink” more than I care to remember. “Chink in the armor” was not a neutral phrase for me — I’ve had people use that as a racial taunt. I understand that my experience is not universal, but I think it’s rather naive to suggest that “chink in the armor” couldn’t easily be used in a racist manner. Apparently, ESPN used that same phrase in reference to the China Olympics.

    I agree that we need a better way forward. I also agree that ESPN should face further consequences for their institutionalized racism — and not just against Asian or Asian American people. However, I am still highly skeptical of the editor’s attempts to defend himself and claim ignorance/innocence.

    I get the feeling he also would have lost his job if he had tried to use the word “colored” in some attempt at wordplay in reference to an African American person, even if the entire black community was not offended by it.

    As you said, we can’t know the intentions of someone’s speech. Indeed, this editor continues to claim it was “an innocent mistake.” In the end, though, I think it’s reasonable to hold a professional journalist to a standard of recognizing that using “chink” in a headline about a rising Asian American star is highly offensive. Now, how to hold ESPN accountable…

  5. elderj says:

    Daniel — yeah it does boggle the mind a bit that he wouldn’t think of it, or at least that SOMEONE wouldn’t think of it, which ironically makes me think the guy who wrote it really was ignorantly clueless. He’s married to an Asian woman for crying out loud; he should have known better. I hope his wife burns his dinner “unintentionally” for a few weeks. That said, he’s the fall guy for ESPN right now, which has a pretty lousy track record on race, so it can seem like they taking things seriously, but really aren’t. It is telling that the folks who said racially insensitive things on air are still working for ESPN while this heretofore nameless copyeditor is looking for work.

    Your point about the different meanings of words is valid. My wife was very offended when she saw the headline, but she had no context for anything other than a racial meaning to the term. It is a word with an unfortunate double meaning (unlike words like nigger which have none other than a negative connotation). For some folks though, it would never occur to them to think of the phrase “chink in the armor” as offensive until it is pointed out, and indeed it was the context that made it offensive, not the phrase itself.

    The real issue I think is not just the words, but the freedom people seem to assume that they have to say almost anything about Asian people without consequence. Lin’s Asian-ness is celebrated by the mainstream (i.e. White) press in an almost cartoonish manner and the headline only serves to increase the sense of invisibility. It saddens me that people feel they can mock Asians with relative impunity

  6. Jim Eaton says:

    Excellent thoughts here…as an Anglo 3rd-culture person with roots in South Asia, I profoundly believe that the Church should be leading the way in these discussions about race & culture. American life has progressed from mono to stereo to surround-sound, yet it often feels that the Church lags several decades behind in cultural intelligence. Intentionality is key as is incarnation, along with the awareness that building trust through relationships is a life commitment, not a quick fix. The intercultural journey is often painful but ultimately deeply enriching.

  7. Kevin Nguyen says:

    side question to DJ: you have to teach me to embed the youtube video straight into the blog, instead of using the link.

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