When I first came to Regent almost three years ago, I was struck by how the Regent community eat together, or should I say, did not eat together. I noticed that even when we spoke the same language the groups were generally divided among visible, ethnic lines. In the first month I was invited to two Regent parties. One was predominately Asian, the other was predominately Caucasian. And I thought to myself, “What’s going on here?”
The usual explanation is that people tend to be with those whom they are comfortable with. This is true to a certain extent, but is this a natural occurrence or a symptom of a larger problem?
Allow me to explain my perspective. I was born in Canada and I am ethnically Chinese. When Chinese people see me, they think I am Filipino or South-East Asian. When Caucasian people see me, they think I am international. It is not until I speak, with a Canadian accent, that people finally understand that I am Canadian. This is the frustration and gift of being a second-generation “visible minority.” I can navigate between different ethnic groups, but it takes some time before I can “fit” anywhere because I am not what people assume me to be.
This has shaped how I see the Western world. I see it from the eyes of the visible minority who are trying to find a place in larger society. We see things that people from the dominant culture do not see. We notice who is missing in the media, in art, and in politics. We see the areas where we are under-represented because we do not see the faces that we can identify with. We notice when we are stereotyped and aspects of our culture are objectified to sell products (like the “Rickshaw Rally” VBS curriculum featuring a white girl in a Kimono with chopsticks in her hair). We feel either invisible (silenced) or painfully conspicuous (tokenism). To put it bluntly, we are sensitive to issues of race because it is a matter of our identity.
Since coming to Regent, I have come to learn that doing theology involves one’s identity and that ministry involves the integration of the whole person. For visible minorities living in a pluralistic society with undercurrents of racism, identity must include race.
Yet rarely do I hear about the interaction between race and theology in our academic discourse. Is theology “color- blind”? By not acknowledging the role of race in theology, we fail to recognize the realities of racial inequality in society and religion. To ignore the role of race in theology is also telling people like me that my ethnic heritage does not matter and that my culture has no bearing on Christian thought or practice. But what is race? And what does race have to do with theology?
Scientifically, there is only one human race. In some ways, I am using “race” interchangeably with “ethnicity,” which is a very simplistic way of describing groups of people with a common heritage that may include language, culture, and traditions. Some would say that the idea of race is a product of European imperialism used to describe “other” people. It has negative connotations and can cause people, including myself, feel uncomfortable. But that is why I choose to use the term to highlight an issue. The problem is not my ethnicityoryourethnicity.Theproblemis “race.” And like it or not, it is an issue in the North American Church.
As for the intersection between race and theology, I feel neither confident nor capable of explaining this. I do know that God has not only created diversity but is ontologically diverse as three distinct persons; out of the Imago Dei, the theology for diversity exists….so what of it? What is the impact, if any, of race on Christian theology and praxis? How then do we engage with people of different ethnic groups in our society, in our churches, and at Regent?
It has been my experience that we, the Church, have done little beyond acknowledging diversity (i.e. mutliculturalism). Some do not consider it at all. So I want to offer an initial stepping stone which some of you have taken and far surpassed me. Instead of assuming things about each other, learn to ask. Ask a friend from a different background what their cultural experiences are. Find out whether or not they feel represented in the Christian tradition. Ask who their theological sources are and what spiritual/theological questions they want to raise. It is my hope that as we begin to hear and see each other better, these cultural distinctions will be less of a division and more of a celebration. A celebration that would be evident by who we eat and dance with.