Does “White” Make Right in the US?

For all my Caucasian friends and family- I am not trying to be derogatory in any way with this title (If I am, please let me know!).

This last weekend I gave a talk that included a discussion on race and multiculturalism. It got me thinking about a theory I have, one that I have not objectively tested or studied (perhaps you will know of a study- please let me know). The theory is basically this: in a community where one ethnicity is dominant in both size and power, in order for organizations to be regarded as socially “valid,” that one ethnicity needs to occupy some sort of leadership in the organization. So, for example- in a predominately latino neighborhood, in order for an organization to be valid in that context, a latino/a needs to have a leadership position. I think most of us would agree with this.

But here’s a slight twist. In the eyes of the US society as a whole, does a white/caucasian person need to be involved in order for the organization as a whole to seem more “valid”- to be seen as a more legitimate voice, to be taken more seriously by mainstream America- if there is caucasian leadership in the top positions?

As a non-Caucasian leader of a multicultural organization, sometimes I feel this to be true; I used to feel it a lot, but not recently.   Perhaps I have a problem, an inferiority issue…

What do you think? Leave your opinion, and your ethnicity/race (if comfortable), in your reply.

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17 Comments»

  Kelly G. wrote @

I think it’s hard to define U.S. society as a whole – the city I come from is 65% Asian and most of the city government type things/school board/etc. are dominated by Asians (generally not immigrants, though – usually second or third generation). So my first answer was going to be no, I don’t think there necessarily needs to be a Caucasian person just because in California it’s so hard to define ‘society,’ because the different communities are so diverse, but I think it’s a tougher question than that. I think society definitely assigns validity to being more Americanized – probably someone who speaks without an accent and isn’t noticeably way more attached to a different culture than American culture is a lot less likely to be taken seriously in America than someone who’s of a different ethnic background but doesn’t ‘seem’ different.

But I also think if the organization is specifically geared toward being multi-ethnic, having someone who isn’t Caucasian as a leader is thought of as adding a lot of credibility (but it seems like that really quickly descends into having your token people of other races, though I don’t think that’s a problem with Ethnos/your being the pastor ….) Interesting post. =)

(And I’m half Cantonese and half Caucasian.)

  David wrote @

No. There are ethnic organizations which are seen as representative of their respective communities, i.e. the NAACP. If the organization is meant to serve all ethnicities, however, the “dominant” race should definitely be included in leadership.

(Half Chinese, Half Vietnamese)

  Floyd wrote @

One of the enormous achievements of American society is the degree to which the society has moved to being multi-racial in its basic form. If you look at the profile of the leadership of American government and corporations in 2006, and put it up against say, 1966, the comparison would be stark and staggering. Furthermore, it is not necessarily a negative situation if in organizations (especially business) in America that a greater degree of attractiveness for leadership is attached to someone who speaks English without a clearly discernable accent and whose loyalties still lie with the country in which they were born/naturalized.

Assimilation, in its intended form, does not involve eliminating cultural diversity. In fact, it can celebrate it, when, as it is in America, diversity is a major component of what makes this nation unique in the world. What assimilation does do, hopefully, is promote a smooth and efficient ability to conduct commerce and communicate ideas to one another in the aim of promoting understanding. Indeed, assimilation, properly practiced, promotes a unity and a sense of community that is critical for ensuring that diversity is able to build and bless, rather than Balkanize and create hostility and even war.

I am reminded by the fact that, after 9/11, one of the things that people in the Middle East, especially in the Afghanistan campaign, were stunned about, was the fact that the members of American military forces were made up of men/women from more than 90 nations from all continents of the earth, and that our leadership was similarly multiracial (a Scot battlefield general in Afghanistan, a Latino general in Iraq, Lebanese ambassador in Afghanistan, a Arab Muslim ambassador in Iraq, an African secretary of state–twice).

In Ethnos’ case, the fact that a Christian pastor in an American city is accepted with apparent ease (sometimes without ever thinking about it, in my case), is becoming increasingly common, and may serve to be the means by which the American church is able to ascend to a new and challenging place of leadership among the worldwide community of God’s people—a place of leadership based upon a demonstrated ability to have multiracial community among ourselves, rather than upon a sometimes-arrogant assumption that political and economic power entitles immediate dominance. Ciao.

  Floyd wrote @

Oh, and I’m an American, of Spanish-English-Scottish-Irish-Sephardic Jewish-French-Cherokee Indian descent.

  T.J. wrote @

I think these are fascinating points raised. I rarely have had to encounter the idea that in terms of leadership a role might be taken as less valid if the leader were non-Caucasian. But i think that has much to do with my upbringing by my mother’s white and Japanese family. My father is really quite aware of still very problematic existing racial dynamics in the US, and the residue of racial prejudice that colors discussions.

I think, however, that in the general Southern Californian milieu, to use Ethnos as a certain example, rarely do people bat an eye at your lack of Cauciasianess. =-) I say this not to dismiss any feelings you have felt or conclusions that you have drawn, but that the emphasis of the church and the cultural positioning of it in Southern California may be influencing factors to have yoru racial identity seem less of an issue to the passerby.

That being said, I don’t deny that there are still residual structures and prejudices in the US (even in much vaunted SoCal) thatseem to limit or decry the position of people of color. I’ve certainly experienced that myself, as a multiracial person.

Thought-provoking thoughts indeed, Yucan.

Teej
(who is Irish/English/African-American/Cherokee Indian within a white/black/Japanese family).

  chiafrica wrote @

hey yucan. i’m glad you’re writing for the world to see. i hope it’s a good thing for you!

that’s a good question to ask: does white make right? sometimes i think so, especially when i look around at who’s in leadership. but sometimes i think it’s just me being frustrated and pushing back against what i see as leadership opportunities tained by racism.

i like what TJ has to say. One thing I’ve been (re)learning is the fact that race is constructed and how it changes from place to place from people to people and culture to culture. church has it’s own culture. so does southern california, northern california, afrika, atlanta, or wherever one might be. how that works out as a leader esp. within the context of a greater community can be complex.

in short: i don’t like it, but i see that white seems to make right in more cases than not. it seems normal for a white person to be in leadership, but when a person of color is in front, we check them out. or at least i know i do. it’s something i’m even working out with myself.

on the other hand, i strongly believe in indiginous leadership. i think leadership is often referred to in context of power. i think it’s powerful to defer to others and to come lead with a good does of humility. less of i can fix this and do that, and more of: what do you think?

this isn’t all that worked out, but one thing that immediately stood out to me, is that even the way that we respond and talk about this is very academic and intellectual. nothing wrong with that, but i think it brings up this tension ( at least i feel) with race and education and culture and leadership/power. i’d hate that this conversation just becomes academic muscles that just soothe the soul. all true for me too.

maybe it’s the nature of the internet and blogging. but that’s another can of worms…

thanks for all your thoughts folks.

-chia
canadian born chinese american – influenced mostly by life in california (but with some stints in other places too!)

  Floyd wrote @

Last week, I wrote,

“In Ethnos’ case, the fact that a Christian pastor in an American city is accepted with apparent ease (sometimes without ever thinking about it, in my case), is becoming increasingly common….”

I meant to say “Christian pastor in an American city of Chinese descent, etc…” Sorry for the oversight.

I also liked TJ’s comments very much. Considering that we come from different political philosophies, I find that totally cool. The Holy Spirit rocks!

  Jim P. wrote @

In the latest studies on salary comparisons non-white males get paid 70-80% of what white males with the same position get and women get paid 74% of what white males holding the same job get. In the latest study on size and leadership the vast majority of CEO’s in America are six feet tall or over. Any organization that is headed by a taller than average white male is going to benefit from these demographics.
I’m a 6 foot 3, white male of Jewish, French, Irish, and German ancestry, who is not a CEO and gets paid equally with my women colleagues in public education.

  yucan wrote @

Thanks, everyone, for your thoughts. One situation/example that relates to this discussion that frustrates me: I’ve been to and/or seen a couple of “national” pastor conferences this year where all the speakers are white except for one black speaker. Sure the speakers were great and had a lot to say, but what does this communicate to people within the church and outside? I’m afraid it can communicate a host of things that may be hurtful for the overall cause of Jesus in this country and generation…

In both instances, I wrote an email of concern to the organizers and am waiting to hear back.

  T.J. wrote @

I think that’s a very interesting point you’ve just raised, Yucan. I think that one of the most significant aspects of American racial relations/consciousness were demonstrated in that example you just offered. Obviously, the idea that having all white speakers with one token black man does NOT in any way effectively address racial issues, but I would argue that for many people in the United States, the idea of race relations is still simply depicted as that of a white majority with the inclusion of a small, problematic black minority. Such a view is not representative of modern events (indeed if it ever was), but I feel such thinking prevails often–granted the black/white dynamics of American race relations are longer lasting and more deeply entrenched culturally than many others, but that doesn’t mean it is the SOLE issue to be addressed, something I think the various ethnicities represented in just this discussion thread have raised.

Just more thoughts on my part. =)

  Steven wrote @

In reference to the “national” pastor’s conference, I think I know which conference you’re talking about and I don’t think it communicates anything hurtful to the country nor this generation. What it does communicate is that those people had good things to say and that they picked their speakers based on their ability to speak on those topics. I doubt they picked the “token black guy” because he was black, but because he had insightful thoughts on those particular topics the conference addressed. Are we really offended they didn’t have an Asian or Latino pastor speak? Or because the majority of the 5 or 6 pastors were white?

This year, a similar conference is being held and the speakers come from Florida, Scotland, and the Cayman Islands. Does this some how communicate that white pastors have the monopoly on national stages and there is only room for a “token black guy”? I personally don’t think so.

I went to Urbana 2003 and they had different ethnicities represented for worship leading, speakers, etc. White, Black, Asia, Latino, African, Indian, and so on. Did this convey anything to me? Yes, it conveyed that they were concerned with how this big missions conference appeared and so had speakers from different ethnicities. I wish they had been more concerned with the actual content of messages, speaking abilities, and experiences of those speakers rather than basing their choices on ethnicity. Why fill quotas? Why not just base it on who they are and what they can bring? We insult the Black pastor by thinking they was brought on because he is black. Likewise when/if they have a Latino, Indian or Asian pastor speak I’d like to think it is because they are qualified to speak on that topic, not because of some concern how they need to appear more “multi-ethnic.”

  elderj wrote @

wow steven, your reply implies that the ethnic minority speakers at urbana 2003 were only chosen because of their ethnicity, andby implication that they had less valuable content, ability or experience

  Steven wrote @

Elderj, what I meant to imply was that the speakers at Urbana were poor with no regard to their race. John Stott was the only keynote speaker and he didn’t make it. So it showed, at least to me, that they didn’t put a whole lot of thought into the quality and content of what those chosen speakers brought to the table. In addition to that, they showed that they did have great concern to have a multiethnic panel of speakers, which could or could not have contributed to the quality. Whether they were chosen for their ethnicity I don’t know, but it sure looked like it.

This was to illustrate that the “national” pastors conference picked speakers by the content and quality, and they happened to be 3 white and a black guy.

  yucan wrote @

Steve-

Thanks for the comments. One thought I have regarding your point that the speakers were selected because they had something good to say, not because of race: couldn’t an all white selection communicate the idea that the organizers thought that non-white people did not have something good to say about that given topic?

I guess another issue that brings up is this: is selection based on race/ethnicity a kingdom idea? I haven’t thought through all of this, but I believe it is. There are many examples of this: Moses’ Ethiopian Wife in Numbers (!!!), the intentional nature of the expansion of the kingdom across racial lines in Acts, etc. Why does God do this? I think it reflects His glory and beauty better…

Conference coordinators need to think about this, if at the very basic level that it reflects God’s glory. And obviously not to diminish any “quality” issues. But in many ways, I think they are forced to, because inevitably you’ll come across two speakers who can comminicate the same truth in very similar, powerful ways. Who should they choose? Would a choice based on race reflect God’s glory better? I guess I’m still trying to figure it out, but I’m feeling pretty strong about a “yes” here…

  T.J. wrote @

i just might have to agree with you on a Yes, Yucan.

While I think Steve raises valid points, I’d also liek to address the idea of white privilege. Yes, teh conference could happen to pick based on ‘merit’ speakers that are predominantly white, and the one other speaker on his ability, but that doesn’t eliminate him being a token, that doesn’t eliminate their selection processes, and that doesn’t eliminate the fact that there must certainly have been other talented pastors of color to speak. Do I think that purposeful racial selecting at the expense of quality teaching a poor idea? Certainly. But a great inclusiveness strikes me as definitely necessary.

  Kelly G. wrote @

Yucan, I think I agree with you and T.J. as well. I grew up in several different white (usually Assemblies of God) churches and Cantonese Baptist churches, and while the ultimate truths were the same in both, I’ve always felt a really, really significant difference in the way such truths were applied and lived out between the two different types of churches, and I think a huge part of that was cultural differences. I don’t think it’s that a speaker from any one race would be ‘more’ correct or insightful than another or anything, but I do think speakers with different cultural backgrounds can offer different perspectives on the same truths, and I think that’s a really invaluable thing for the Church as a whole.

I think it’s also kind of a difficult thing to work with because I think some things that affect people may seem irrelevant to others based on cultural backgrounds. For instance, say one of the main seminars was about reaching out to non-Christians. If it were at one of the Chinese churches I grew up in, it might make sense to discuss how to reach out to older relatives who are Buddhist or who cling to old superstitions. But at a conference where the attendees were mostly white, that might seem really irrelevant and not at all necessary. I guess that’s kind of an extreme example, but I guess my question would be–how do you get around that kind of thing? Where do you find true unity when Christians come from such different backgrounds? Obviously the answer isn’t that there should be no cross-cultural mingling, but I feel like it’s really difficult to really be “one” as a body (I have an especially tough time sometimes reconciling my two different backgrounds, and that’s just two cultures, and ones I feel relatively comfortable in–the whole world is obviously so much vaster). I’ve been wondering about that for a long time–I’d be really interested in hearing any thoughts.

  yucan wrote @

Kelly-

Thanks for the comment and question. I think a big part of it is actually giving people the paradigms and tools to actually see how culture affects them and those around them, and to know how to follow Christ and love others from there. Of course, the first thing to do would be to show them the need for these types of tools. So, for example, teaching people how their own culture affects their outreach, and how other cultures need a different sort of outreach. This type of multicultural training is not just optional anymore, given the multicultural neighborhoods and workplaces we are in now.
One way we try to do it at Ethnos is to make sure, in membership orientation, everyone has gone through some sort of multicultural training. If they haven’t, we have them read a book about it. It’s not the catch-all solution, but I think it’s a start…


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