When and How Do I “Move Forward” as a Minority?

 In Pei Blog

My observations and thoughts on ethnic minority issues, as impacted by the 2016 U.S. election.

Politics isn’t really my passion or field of expertise, and I’m not normally motivated to write about it.  However, I am motivated to write about topics that impact ethnic minorities, as that’s who I am, and it’s a huge part of the work I’ve been doing for the past decade.

Over the past month, it’s bothered me that the pain and grief that minorities have been expressing seemed to get “lost” under debates about “which candidate was the lesser of two evils” or other issues.

I get why it happened.  There was so much emotion and reactivity in the air, that it seemed few of us could think outside of the “which side are you on?” box. 

Here’s a prime example on social media.  I saw one friend make a very generic, reasonable request for people to simply listen to what others were saying, and not judge or critique.

Guess what some people wrote back with?

“So who did you vote for?”

“I knew it!  You voted for ____!”

I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry.  That is reactivity at its peak.

To be fair, this is probably exactly what we should expect on social media.  It’s a place where people often react and speak quickly before thinking.  A lot of statements are taken to be judgments, and the most polarizing and emotional posts will get the most reaction — thus rising to the top of the newsfeeds, and elevating our angst that “this is what most people think.”  So we respond with passion, and the cycle continues.

And all of this happens outside of a relational context where we have to engage people face-to-face.  It’s no wonder that most friends I know who were able to process and talk about these issues in person had mostly positive experiences to share.  In the future, I’m considering making these adjustments to get a better picture of reality:

  • Split my time 50-50 between online and in-person discussions. Or maybe 60-40 in favor of in-person.
  • Make sure I have at least one safe, non-judgmental relational space to process thoughts and feelings with people I know and trust.
  • On social media, don’t just read the posts at the top of the newsfeed, but scroll way down to see posts that aren’t as inflammatory and take those in, too.

Anyway, my approach this year was to listen first before making any statements — and specifically observe issues that impacted ethnic minorities.  So here’s some of what I observed:

  • The vast majority of my ethnic minority friends — I would estimate around 90% — felt some degree of pain and fear.

    This was regardless of their religious or political leanings.

  • A lot of Caucasians were noticing this.

    I can’t recall a time when I heard more discussion about ethnic minorities than this season.  Whether people were debating minority issues, or trying to figure out what they thought, or expressing their support of their minority friends — there was a lot of attention given to this.

  • Here were some helpful things I noticed.

    A Christian coworker said this to her minority friends (paraphrased): “Thanks for sharing… I don’t know exactly how to walk alongside you during this time, but I want to.  Keep sharing with us, and know that I see your pain.”  Another person simply shared that he was noticing that a lot of minorities were afraid and upset, and he was affected by seeing them so unsettled.  He wasn’t sure what to do with it, but he felt the reality of minorities as if he was interconnected with them.

  • Here were some not-so-helpful things I noticed.

    Again, attempts by ethnic minorities to express themselves often got lost in the sea of political reactivity, and some people responded to their pain by talking about the flaws of candidates and other polarizing issues.  Other people made statements like “God is in control” or “It doesn’t matter who’s in political office.”  Whether or not these were true or well-intentioned, these statements often functioned to minimize or shut down minority pain, grief, or expression.  They generally weren’t spoken to encourage further dialogue or learning.

  • I talked to some people I didn’t know, including Uber drivers. : )

    One African American man said that he had talked to a lot of Caucasians who felt embarrassed by the racial comments and insensitivity that they saw happening around them.  They were bothered by what some other Caucasians were doing.

While it was hard to do, it was helpful for me to separate myself a bit from the emotional landscape so that I could observe, listen, and take in what people were expressing over the past few weeks.  Now that I’ve had some time to process more, I do have some thoughts and questions of my own that I’m processing (again about ethnic minority issues):

  • What does “unity” really mean?

    Everywhere I hear people saying that this election has been so divisive, and we need to come together in unity.  I think I get what they mean, but again I hope that these statements don’t serve to shut down minority expression or experiences.  I don’t think “unity” means that we stop talking or even stop disagreeing… unity is not uniformity.  I hope that people don’t confuse “division” with “diversity,” and think that differences are bad just because we’re still learning how to engage others with maturity and respect.  Doesn’t “unity” mean that we learn to live with people who are vastly different from us, and treat them respectfully even as we disagree?

  • What is unique and special about the United States?

    I wonder if we as a country are facing an identity crisis — why does it matter to talk about ethnic minorities, after all?  Despite flaws and failures throughout history, why has the United States adopted a philosophy and value of welcoming people from all around the world?  Is that still something our country takes distinct pride in? 

  • How do Christians view the kingdom of God?

    While it may be tempting to assert power to bring about a desired political or societal outcome, Jesus took a very different path.  When everybody expected him to conquer the Romans and take back Jerusalem through will or force, he chose a far different path of sacrificial love to open up a kind of salvation that nobody could imagine.  When his followers wanted to make him into a king, Jesus withdrew from the spotlight.  Jesus noticed those whom everyone else overlooked, and defended and advocated for the marginalized of his day.  What can Christians learn from Jesus himself, about what the kingdom of God really looks like?

Finally: when and how do I “move forward” as an ethnic minority?

This question has been heavy on my heart.  Because first of all, I cannot move forward too quickly.  Too often, minorities have heard the messages of “move on” or “get over it”, which are much easier to say when you’re not in pain or grief.  Ethnic minorities want to know that people hear the deepest cries of their heart.  They want to know that they are seen and valued for who they are.  This is not weakness — it takes great inner strength to be this vulnerable, to express things like, “Do I matter to you?  Will you accept me for who I am?  Do I really belong in this country?”  Ethnic minorities need space to process these questions, and to grieve some of the pain and grief they may feel.

At the same time I’ve wondered: is it possible for me to move forward in some way, without minimizing the space that others may need?  Because I’ve also talked to ethnic minorities who feel paralyzed, and it’s inhibiting the day-to-day work they’ve been doing to serve other minorities.  It’s not helpful to move forward too quickly, but I don’t think it’s helpful if we never move forward in some way. 

But what does it even mean to “move forward”?  About five years ago, my wife and I worked on an article co-written with our Latino, Native American, and African American coworkers on majority-minority culture relationships.  Here’s an excerpt that may be relevant:

As ethnic minorities, we cannot wait for the majority culture, before we choose to live out a posture of equal and empowered partnership. We lead because of who God created us to be, not out of reaction to how others may define us.

However, many barriers stand in the way of this vision, whether it’s unawareness, anger, resignation, deference, feelings of inferiority, or fear of differences and change. Some of these are deep-seated, and have roots in unprocessed wounds of past generations. Engaging our pain can be costly. Sometimes we feel it’s easier to not think or talk about it, or to stay emotionally or relationally separate from the majority culture.

This is our challenge: how do we move forward, when so much inside and outside of us is telling us to pull away? Moving forward does not mean forgetting or trivializing our past. It does not mean leaving the dreams and hopes of our families behind. It is not denying who we are, or self-sacrificially putting ourselves into unhealthy or abusive relationships.

Moving forward means unapologetically bringing all of ourselves to our leadership and relationships, and inviting the majority culture to do the same for our benefit. It means a willingness to dialogue with mutuality and respect, through our differences and disagreements. It means a heart to learn and serve, not because we feel inferior, but because we see others as equally valued members of God’s creation.

We move forward with the integrity to stand firm in our God-given identity, and the courage to extend grace where pain has been experienced. This requires not just persistence, but perseverance. It is rooted in an unrelenting hope and belief in the dignity of all people, and how they should be treated. It is rooted in a prophetic call to transform our suffering into advocacy, just as Jesus did.

Extending forgiveness is not easy, but with it comes the power to free both the minority and majority cultures from the bondage of their dark past. Many Caucasians have inherited feelings of guilt and shame, due to transgressions of their collective history, that can cause them to withdraw. Yet as we ethnic minority leaders persist in engaging the majority culture and initiating healthy partnerships, we play a redemptive and prophetic role in encouraging Caucasians to live out who they truly are. This is the beauty of an empowered partnership: neither side is devalued at the others’ expense, but both sides are lifted up.

In closing, this is what I’ve been processing.  Deep in my heart, I long for the majority culture to be able to connect with my pain, and the cries of ethnic minorities throughout the country.  Some have done that.  But many more may never be able to do that, and that is a reality I must face.

There are also many Caucasians who will not be able to see and hear me, unless I hear and see them first.  I may not like it, but it’s reality.  And it’s reality that behind every Caucasian who says something insensitive or dismissive of ethnic minorities… there’s pain in them, too.  As hard as it may be, I feel called to hear them and connect with their pain, because that’s what I would want them to do for me.  It may not feel fair, but when did mature and healthy love ever feel completely fair?  I cannot wait forever for the majority culture to take the first step.  I can’t control what they do, but I can control what I choose to do.

So that’s what I’m processing.  For me practically speaking, I’m taking steps forward as I continue to work on some projects related to helping majority-minority relationships.  I cherish your support and encouragement as I do that in the coming year!  Thank you for reading, and I’d love to hear your thoughts as well if you want to write me.

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