The First Step is the Hardest: A Review of “But I Don’t See You as Asian: Curating Conversations About Race”

The days after the recent grand jury verdict in Ferguson, Missouri, many preachers were faced with a choice: do I talk about Ferguson or not? For many clergy that choice was complicated by a lingering question. How can I preach on racial justice if we’ve never talked about race at all? Thanks to Bruce Reyes-Chow, a Presbyterian pastor and former moderator of the PC(USA) General Assembly, one hopes fewer clergy will face such a dilemma in the future. Many churches have avoided talking about race openly out of fear that the conversation would be too difficult or too heated. But I Don’t See You as Asian seeks an alternative way to talk about race, carving out space between the fiery rhetoric of protesters and the erudite musings of academics. Reyes-Chow envisions discussions about this book taking place at a dinner table, where all parties can be honest, inquisitive, and, hopefully, moved to deeper empathy.

But I Don’t See You as Asian begins with an explication of Reyes-Chow’s background, assumptions, and goals. Though the section headings lack the intriguing appeal of the book’s later chapters, discussion groups would be wise to get on the same page here before jumping into the rest of the book. Reyes-Chow offers helpful definitions of privilege and racism that are neither accusatory nor so vague as to be irrelevant. Of special note to clergy is Reyes-Chow’s summary of how his faith illuminates his views on and experience of race as a Filipino-American. Though the book is not intended solely for churches, Reyes-Chow claims that the church has an indispensable role to play not only as a prophetic voice against racism but also as a prophetic listener that takes other’s experiences seriously.

The core of But I Don’t See You as Asian revolves around Reyes-Chow’s exegesis of twenty-one clichés about race. Some, such as “I don’t mean to be racist but…” and “But I don’t see you as Asian,” will likely feel unsurprising and embarrassingly obvious. But others are subtly provocative. “We need at least one” warns churches striving for diversity that they may end up expecting minority members and staff to be spokespeople for their racial group. Instead of giving minorities power and influence, Reyes-Chow claims that pursuing minorities often leads to tokenism and turns people into symbols that only serve to make the majority feel more diverse. Likewise, “Why do they always sit together?” uses high-school cafeteria politics as a starting point to explore why minority communities gather together around a shared language or culture. Such camaraderie, Reyes-Chow suggests, is integral to creating comfortable and supportive environments in a culture that holds whiteness as normative. That claim may make some white clergy wonder whether their desire for more racially diverse churches adequately provides racial minorities with the opportunity to develop their own liturgical holding spaces. Much of Reyes-Chow’s commentary follows this pattern, seeming mundane at first but gradually giving way to new and profound insights upon closer reading.

How faith communities respond to But I Don’t See You as Asian will depend largely on what they expect. The book’s subtitle, Curating Conversations about Race, is something of a misnomer. The book is neither a curriculum nor a set of guidelines for talking about race. Instead, it is a collection of insightful anecdotes and frank commentary on what it is like to be a minority in America today. Reyes-Chow asks the church to enter into honest conversation about how we understand and interact with race. But I Don’t See You as Asian will not solve the church’s complicated history with race and diversity. Even so, faith leaders would be hard-pressed to find a more engaging, accessible, and personal conversation starter for their congregations.

Image courtesy of flickr user usembassythehague.


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