This blog is a reflection on something I’ve been pondering ever since reading my friend Prof. Greg Carey’s post for the Wabash Center, a place supporting teaching professionals in religion endowed by the famous Lily Foundation. In this post, Greg addresses the issue of teaching as a white professor in a racially and culturally diverse classroom setting. Greg is probably one of the most tolerant and openminded individual person you will ever meet. That’s why his story touches me in a unique way. This is the story he told.
My friend Chuck Melchert took a significant risk once when we were playing a round of golf together. Chuck retired after serving as Dean of the Presbyterian School of Christian Education, and he knows more about teaching than just about anybody I know. He also sits in on my classes from time to time.
Can I tell you something?” Chuck asked. “When African American students in your class speak from their experience, you almost always follow up by explaining why you understand what they’re talking about.”
Chuck’s words were hard to hear because they were true. In that moment he had confronted me with my anxious desire to prove that when it comes to matters of race, I get it. I speak of an “anxious desire” because my behavior happens almost automatically. Indeed, I was not conscious of it until Chuck named it. Now that it’s out in the open, I have the chance to change my behavior. Yet even now I feel – and act upon – that impulse to prove that I’m one of the “good guys.” This anxiety, born of a well-intentioned desire to demonstrate cultural competence, creates all kinds of problems in the classroom.
For starters, I must congratulate Greg for his humility to admit to this experience because it is not a pleasant experience. The lack of consciousness Greg brings up probably happens more often than many realize. I find throughout the years of living as a racial minority in the US that I’m quite often on the receiving end of such unconscious but well-meaning desire to be one of the “good guys”. When I was a kid, I often get comments like “Wow, Hong Kong? I love sushi.” Lest anyone thinks that such a presumptuous comment is uncommon, my kids now sometimes get the same kind of comments in PROGRESSIVE NORTHWEST OF THE US. Behind such ignorant comment lie the desire to identify with the racial minority without first understanding the proper grid of interpretation. Sushi is not Chinese food! Chinese food is not all that defines my culture, and so on.
I find through the years that I get along best with those who would just listen without assuming ANY knowledge of my experience or my culture or what my rank is in light of their dominant culture. The more they try to listen to my experience, the more they will figure out how that experience can enrich their own experience as Americans. I think that’s the point Greg is making. Be quick to listen but very slow to speak. Greg teaches us that he, even as a well-educated and openminded person, doesn’t have to get everything. He doesn’t have the privilege of all knowledge (no one does!), not even in front of his students. Knowledge about other people’s experience and culture is “out there” and not “in me”. No one owns that knowledge completely, but by listening, we all can learn a little something from one another and gain a bit more of that knowledge. What Greg is saying is that it takes acknowledgement of one’s own privileged position and disowning that power to really “get it.” How does this apply to the reality of academia and church setting?
In academia, it is amazing how often many western academics (especially the more liberal or openminded ones) use words like “colonize” or “imperial” as their paradigm of interpretation without ever citing works by the colonized (aka postcolonial literature). I’m not even talking about theory here. I’m talking about practice of western academics. I always laugh because almost none of such academics had ever lived UNDER colonized and imperial conditions. It’s like me learning karate from a book without attending a dojo. It just doesn’t happen in the real world. Even if they cite the works by the colonized, they privilege the western perspective as the canonized perspective. Some do a little better by citing formerly colonized people who write in English like Edward Said or Homi Bhabha. Others like Scot McKnight try to sit with the colonized to study the Bible together to learn from them. Still others, such as NT scholar Jeff Staley, are heavily involved with non-white groups in their own scholarship. For many, this is the end game, but I suggest that this is only the start of a more in-depth and serious study about race, colonialism and scripture.
I think the western academia can do so much better than the present situation with colonial perspectives. There’s a simple and very glaring (but not at all obvious) problem when westerners talk about colonialism: the complete ignoring or ignorance of non-western sources. The real colonized voices never even surface! The ignorance of non-western sources is troubling because many of us who lived under colonized condition feel like that this lack of seriousness about other global perspectives decidedly privileges the western perspective and “we” (those who hold non-western perspectives) are merely the means to “their” gaining more power and prestige. By appealing just enough to colonial literature, many such western academics will make themselves look progressively respectable without ever really changing their assumptions. This in turn lands them lucrative tenure jobs and causes them to be “experts” in the field. Moreover, if they really want to read the Bible in a colonial or political manner, perhaps they ought to learn the language of the colonized. For example, how can anyone talk about colonialism under British rule without being able to read Afrikaans, Chinese or Devanagari script etc. ? Furthermore, how can anyone use a colonial paradigm from stuff written in English when some of the more grounded discussions are in Chinese or other non-western languages? After all, South Africa, China and India have had a long history of being colonized while the US has never even been occupied by a foreign force (well, ok, if you really want to count your cousins the Brits as occupiers, so be it, but still). We don’t see poststructuralist western scholars use Foucault without reading French, do we? But that’s precisely what westerners do with postcolonial methods. In fact, they also do that in many Chinese studies department here in the US. It’s no secret that most US non-Chinese PhD holders in Chinese literature can only read the Chinese of the text in which they received their PhD. For the rest of “Chinese studies”, they rely on translated English versions. I bet a huge number of them can’t even read the paper. This spectacle will continue to plague our western academia, even many of the more “liberal and openminded” academics. What we need are not advocates for us little people whose agenda make them money and create more privilege for them. Far from it! What we need is to be treated with equal or even superior partners in this dialogue on Christianity. Notice I don’t even use “global Christianity” because that’s only a term used by the privileged west that needs to remind the ignorant that Christianity is “global.” Yes, Christianity IS global, though it was rooted in Judaism. None of that, of course, is obvious to those who use that term.
The total privileging of western perspective will remain an impasse because most western scholars (and even some global South scholars) consider everything not written in western languages worthless, even though such civilizations have longer cultural history than the west. We would never expect Chinese students of English literature to do academic journal articles purely based on Chinese sources. Neither would we expect Chinese students who use western paradigm to interpret their own society not to consult western sources IN THEIR ORIGINAL LANGUAGES AND CULTURES, but this is precisely the way western academics do in colonial and political reading of the Bible (though, to their credit, at least they read Greek and Hebrew fluently). Unless people who are humble and openminded overcome this impasse, this assumed western superiority and privilege will fail to address real colonial reading of the Bible. I’m not optimistic.
How does this fit with church ministry? It fits so many contexts. Whenever I talk with many (not all of course, but why do I even need to qualify that remark? It’s mostly because many would be offended just because I mention a fact, thinking they themselves are mirrored in this fact) white ministers and academics about ministry or professional opportunities, they would automatically tell me, “Oh yeah, let me put you in touch with our church’s Chinese ministry or mission department … can you teach a course in Chinese for us for the immigrants who can’t read English? How about go to China with us to train up THEIR leadership over THERE.” Well, how about assume NOTHING? How about not just speak for me or assume you know better than I do what I’m qualified and not qualified to do?
Behind such well-meaning replies are two assumptions. First, no matter what strengths and weaknesses I possess, I should always work with “my people” in that corner over there in the Asian ghetto (I’m not saying my working with Asians put the Asians in the ghetto but that I’m being “ghettoized” to the peripheral project they consider the “mission field” (aka Asian ghetto)). I’m not saying that working with “my people” is a lesser calling. Far from it. It’s always a privilege to work with one’s own ethnicity or any group, but the assumption that I can ONLY work with my own ethnicity and nowhere else is a big and erroneous assumption; some of us minorities must have such low EQ and cultural competency that we can’t work with anyone other than “our own.” Second, those who tell us to work with our “own people” also assume that there’s nothing they can learn from me or any immigrant who can speak fluent English and educated in the west. Maybe my multilingual ability and global travels actually count against me. Somehow the extra cultural dimension and global experience are a minus rather than a big plus, all simply because of skin color and prejudices. Turn that around to a non-hyphenated American (I mean, “real” American) and many people will say, “Wow, isn’t he talented? He can speak many different languages and had lived all over the place.” See the problem? Assumed incompetence is the worst kind of prejudice built into a system of subtle (sometimes) upper class racism.
Another relevant ministry context is the pastoral office. The impulse to address everything and anything is built into many of us who are used to speaking in public. This impulse is especially strong among some church leaders. The art of listening is important, based on what Greg just shared in his story. By listening, we don’t assume that our perspective is the only perspective in the world. In fact, we may not even have the right perspective. That is a hard pill to swallow, but swallow we must. By not judging the person or even addressing the issue immediately, many of the church leaders (and I’m not just talking about pastors) can learn so much. The mind simply can’t open when the mouth will not shut.