Hidden Assumptions and Minorities’ Burdens

[Editor’s note: Dr. Sam Tsang is the author of Right Texts, Wrong Meanings (Wipf and Stock, 2013) and more than thirty other books on the Bible. He is a part-time associate professor at Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary, teaching preaching and New Testament, and an adjunct professor in Ambrose University College, Canada, teaching Introduction to New Testament, Prison Letters, and Acts. He has preached for more than two decades and taught preaching for more than a decade in different denominational contexts and cultures (both American and non-American). We asked him to provide us with some thoughts about cultural blind spots.]

I was chatting with a white American pastor a while back on race. He said something that I once but now no longer believe: “We’re all Christians. I don’t think we should think in terms of racial identity.” The longer I live as a minority in America, the less I agree with this idea. The fact is that it’s easy to say that as a member of the dominant culture.

I’m unsure whether the average American churchgoer knows that a lot of theologies and ideologies coming out in book form are actually based on Western assumptions. Why wouldn’t they be based on a Western assumption? Each person is limited both positively and negatively by his or her geographical location. Look at those from the east coast of the United States versus those from the West Coast. If cultures are so different even within the United States, why would people from cultures in other places be exactly the same as a person born and raised in America?

One (hidden) assumption is the superiority of the dominant mainstream Caucasian American voice. When Missio contacted me to be a guest blogger, I was of two minds about it, and it took me quite a long time to settle my internal conflict. Truthfully, when issues like this come up, I’m often hesitant to share because I realize the cost I may have to pay when I speak my mind. Every member of a minority group knows this cost. Maybe others will assume that we’re trying to cause trouble or upset the society, when we are merely narrating our stories. Thus, as minorities, our first struggle is the extra emotional precaution we have to exercise before we narrate our experience. A few days ago, I read a blog written by a white blogger titled “When white people don’t know they’re being white.”  At first, I laughed out loud and wanted to share it on Facebook, but then I thought that a white person had better do the sharing. I can’t afford to lose any more friends. Would what I say be truer when a white person says it? If so, why? Credibility does not merely relate to race but more so to the power of a dominant voice. In every society, the dominant voice, however wrong, is the superior voice. But truth should not be based on cultural dominance.

Another (equally hidden) assumption is what I call the “I’m my own person” approach.  Since my PhD is in biblical studies, I often wonder why some of my white counterparts do not see certain problems in their individualistic biblical exegesis in applying the Bible only to “my own person.” The problem is not due to a lack of education. Their Western lens—the one that enables them to say “Let’s forget about race and culture and focus on our (whatever that means) identity in Christ” —may be the problem. And yet, our biblical faith calls us to community and not merely to a life of atomized individualism, which suffuses Western ideas. The assumption simply does not work. Many people do see themselves as part of a subgroup, even if the group is the dominant group. In my recent run-in on a controversial subject, I’ve lost a number of (so I thought) close white friends. A number of white friends emailed me in private because they didn’t understand why I got involved in this situation. The surprising number of close friends who did not talk to me but quietly left the friendship circle is shocking. Whatever the reason for an abrupt breakage of friendship, they had preferred to side with their sub-group (privileged whites) over our journey as friends together. No matter what their intention is, their action showed that identity with a subgroup is more important than long-term individual relationship. No one is his or her own person completely. We are, after all, creatures of community. Individualism and faith community building are enemies.

One final (hidden) assumption is what I call the “I like you. We’re friends. Let’s disregard any cultural differences” approach. Diversity is a fashionable catchword.  However, real diversity is a rare praxis.  The dominant, singular cultural narrative of the US is dwindling; American cultural is becoming increasingly diverse. It is not enough just to say, “I accept you because you’re different.” What exactly does that difference mean? It means that we don’t only embrace the minority superficially by sweeping real differences under our bed. In America, our broader culture has been strengthened and learned much from other groups. We have come to empathize with the suffering of some minority groups. For instance, we remember the Jewish Holocaust. We have also developed greater disdain for slavery and sympathy for the Native American plight. More work still needs to be done. These are important steps. But what about the recent immigrants, like Latinos and those from countries in Asia? They too bring a rich narrative that is most likely historically longer than the relatively short history of the U.S.

We can learn so much about God and redemption even in each cultural narrative (e.g., importance of a household faith in Asian culture). Why limit our understanding to one culture? Many decry the lack of education in world history and geography in America. Whatever the public school has failed to address, the church can repair, not merely for educational enrichment but for missional purpose! When 9/11 attacks happened, some Americans began to learn more about the Muslim world.  Some American Christians began to look for ways to have dialogue with Muslims. This then is the problem. The Church is often reactive rather than proactive. She’s more of a follower than a leader to the society. But both church leadership and lay people in the churches seem to be in the grips of a single narrative and singular theology peppered with Western ideology in Christian clothing. That clothing needs to be mended, the fabric made richer and stronger from other cultural narratives. Otherwise, the Church will freeze to death in the upcoming spiritual ice age.

No one is immune to cultural bias. While this essay seems to be about race, it isn’t. It is really about dominance and power. A good friend pointed out to me that by 2050, the white, European-descended population in the United States will likely no longer be the dominant culture, which would represent a great reversal. “The Minority’s Burden” matters because power should not be allowed free rein with no understanding of the minority groups. The problems outlined here need solution for a better tomorrow in our church and society. Whether a group is majority or minority, together both can search for a solution.  Can we not keep our cultural identity and our faith? Certainly, only if subgroups are willing to recognize their blind spots when another subgroup points them out.  We aren’t just looking for tolerance; we’re looking for understanding.

 

Photo: Laura Shreck

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  • Charlotte Blackburn

    I think if there’s anything that can unite us all as Christians, or maybe should unite us, is the need to speak truth to power. What you seem to be talking about, and what I particularly appreciate, is it’s not always about race/culture, etc. It’s the concept of community and the taint of privilege and power which very often is based on who is in the majority, whether real or perceived. In an American context, that community (of privilege and power) looks a certain way, but in other countries (I currently live in Indonesia) the privileged and powerful use the same kind of “us” vs. “them ” mentality to maintain societal norms. A fresher and more effective way to enhance understanding may indeed begin with a new awareness of who has power and how it’s used to maintain privilege based within the applicable context. Thanks for a thought provoking piece.

  • “A good friend pointed out to me that by 2050, the white, European-descended population in the United States will likely no longer be the dominant culture, which would represent a great reversal.” Is this referring to a statistical or political one? White Europeans can be smaller demographically and still wield the majority influence and power as evidenced by apartheid South Africa and Israel-Palestine.

    Excellent insights and analyses, more Christians should be examining these hidden biases that allow them to justify unending wars on Muslim lands and ongoing suppression of alternative voices and narratives in the national discourse.

  • Erik Hyatt

    The hidden message in this article is that a dominant culture (not a dominant “race”) tends to dictate how one responds to others in a particular country. This is true in every country. In fact, to use the term “White” or “Black” or any other color as a macro-descriptive of a particular cultural behavior is by definition “racism”. For not all pail-skinned people share the same cultural values (e.g. Russians, Norwegians, French). Nor do all dark-skinned people share the same cultural values (e.g. Nigerian, Caribbean, or South Indian). But the point of the article is still well taken – the unbiblical assumptions and practices of a dominant culture that claims to be largely Christian (particularly America) need help to see their blind-spots. As a pastor of a multi-ethnic church in America, I believe the church can lead the way in fulfilling Dr. Tsang’s hope – each cultural group (including the dominant cultural group) challenging and being challenged by one another to see their own blind-spots, in an extraordinarily humble and loving community, as we examine the bible together with the help of the Holy Spirit. Finally, by 2050 it is projected that European-descended Americans will be the minority “RACE”, not necessarily the minority culture. Thank you, Dr. Tsang, for challenging us to think on these things.

    • Sam Mad Doc Tsang

      Erik,

      I would respectfully disagree on discussion about the word “white”. Using skin color depiction is not racism. What we do with that skin color can be. We’re dealing with two different issues. 1) we’re dealing with skin color in connection with culture and surely there might have been some more room for me to refine my argument about Irish and Italians being diff from English Americans and so on. Yet, my experience from my life here in the US (and maybe that isn’t yours) as one who grew up “white” (I had two Asian friends in high school because my school and my area had almost no Asians), the group can act quite homogenous due to their collective connection to other “white” (for a lack of better word) parts of the world either during colonial era or later immigration (e.g. Irish).

      2) Race labels are a tricky thing. I suppose maybe using the word “dominant culture” would be better. At one time, it’s strange that southern Italians were considered lower scale on the racial spectrum than Asians in the US. In a sense, they were white but non-white all at once because everyone wouldn’t treat them as whites. I concede that many of my Hispanic friends are essentially white, but many whites (not all of course) do not consider them white. The skin color depiction can be physiological or sociological. I suppose I’m using it in a sociological way and not a purely physiological way. “Culture” would have been better but just for the convenience of a small article and for rhetorical effect, I used “white.”

      Thank you for being engaged in the clarification process though. I appreciate your thoughts.

      • Erik Hyatt

        Thank you, Dr. Tsang. I meant no disrespect. I really do agree with the intent of your article. I have just found that the “white, black, brown” (etc) categories open too many opportunities for racist feelings and confusion. Doug Sharp’s book, The Idolatry of Race and the New Humanity, IVP, 2002) gives a great overview of the problem of race terminology.

        “Any conversation about race and racism between European Americans and other peoples is likely to consist in talking at or around one another, since it is not likely that each will understand what the other means.” (p. 21)

        Sharp’s chapter on “the Language of Race” shows how socially constructed and biased the terminology is. So any time we assign a value (positive or negative) on a group based on common race categorizations, racism is almost inescapable.

        I just think it is more productive to focus the conversation on cultural influences (both dominant and minority cultures) rather than on race categories. And in the end, I think that is essentially what you were addressing. Thanks for the dialogue.

        • Sam Mad Doc Tsang

          I didn’t interpret your comments as disrespect at all. I’m glad we’re having this conversation in an honest and gracious fashion. I appreciate your discussion and believe me, i don’t like using skin color very much at all for my categorization at all. I certainly see where you’re coming from. I have friends from all ethnic descent and countries of origin. Overall, I think you read me correctly. It’s good for me to clarify my points too. So, I thank you, brother. Be blessed.