Welcome to Part 6 of my series of racism in the church. This edition is to all, but I narrow some questions to visible minorities. You can read the entire blog series following the links below. In this edition, more on the discovery of systemic racism underlying contemporary churches, and how visible minorities have handled this reality.

A family adopted a young boy. He was aboriginal; they were white. When he was a kid (around eight?) I was at a social function at their home. Guests were given the instructions not to bring alcohol. The reason was simple, they didn’t want to expose their son to liquor because they believed his aboriginal DNA predisposed him to alcoholism.

It wasn’t until last week that the light bulb went off and I connected their good intentions for what they were/are: white fragility undermining the narrative of systemic racism and abuse committed to aboriginal people. It was the immense generational trauma that came with the stripping of basic identity that led to widespread alcoholism in First Nations communities. Susceptibility to alcoholism based on race has nothing to do with. But that wasn’t the story they chose to believe.

Why did it take me 20 years to realize this? Simply put, it takes the right moment to recognize and see systemic injustices.

It’s easy to spot overt and casual racism. Like that time in the small white evangelical church I grew up in. For years, my family setup for service in the community hall. We often had help, this time from an older English man. We were making great time, and for some reason, unsolicited, he decided to remark about our efficiency by pulling his eyes slanty like Asians (my mom is Japanese and Chinese), and saying, “many hands make light work,” complete with a shoddy Asian accent. (Before white people suggest this isn’t racist, he thought it was OK to make an insulting joke about slanty eyes, accents, and Chinese work ethic (I guess?).)

It’s more difficult to spot underlying racism particularly when it comes out of mainstream culture. For example, in November, I went to the Canadian premier of the short documentary, “The Problem with Apu.

Comedian Hari Kondabolu, confronts his long standing “nemesis” Apu Nahasapeemapetilon – better known as the Indian convenience store owner on The Simpsons. Through this comedic cultural exposé, Kondabolu questions how this controversial caricature was created, burrowed its way into the hearts and minds of Americans and continues to exist – intact – twenty-eight years later.

As you’ll find out in my upcoming book, The Simpsons practically raised me (not really). I’ve seen (probably) every episode. I also remember the teasing and the jokes, some I told myself, based on the voice of Apu. For context, Apu was essentially the only, and certainly most popular, brown character in mainstream TV for a generation. He is voiced by a white guy. It never occurred to me how this combination and its root was problematic to me and to culture in general. Why should this matter?

Here’s a test. Have you ever had a problem with Apu? Have you ever thought the character perpetuated racial stereotypes? Or was he just funny? Have you pondered the character may be insulting to Indians? I didn’t for the longest time. Up until my 30s, the character of Apu might have seemed out of place, but I didn’t pinpoint it for its destructive voice.

Visible Minorities Waking to Systemic Racism

We need to confront the subtle yet damaging legacy of systemic racism in our culture, of which the church is a willing participant. That includes white people and visible minorities. It’s particularly relevant to second generation immigrants who grew up outside (or further outside) of ethnocentric boundaries. It’s not an necessary exercise for those coming out of a history of oppression (Natives or Blacks).

For me, I’ve had to journey to arrive in my current space where I’m seeing more imbalances in the system (particularly in the church). It hasn’t always been clear what always seemed ‘off’. Specifically to the contemporary church, racism has always been present, but not immediately obvious until I woke (“woke” having many ethnocultural backgrounds, particularly with black and brown communities,) to engrained yet hidden system at play.

Everyone has their own story and moments that factor into discovering new ways to look at the world. When this realization occurs the response can vary. I see it unravel in four different ways (from the context of a visible minority in the church.)

  1. Realize systemic racism, stay within ethnocultural barriers (ethnic churches).
  2. Realize systemic racism, leave church entirely.
  3. Distant from acknowledging systemic racism, content to stay within contemporary (white dominated) church.
  4. Realize systemic racism, work towards a redeemed church of tomorrow.

Most are in 1 or 3. I know this because it used to be my story before I started trudging along exploring the 4th option. I didn’t know better and never had vision for better. For the longest time, although I didn’t quite fit in, the traditional institutional church was what I worked to preserve.  (This produces a dubious scenario where ethnic churches try to propagate systems of privilege rooted in colonial theology. I digress.)

The church needs visible minorities with holy discontent. The ones who are not content staying in their closed ethnic churches, or not content within white dominated evangelicalism. I do believe the 4th option is better in a way because the first three do not adequately answer how the church respond to mission in a post-Christendom world. There’s more out there. But we must be willing to process deeper questions about the role minorities currently have.

I’m always interested in ways to address the unmitigated decline in the western church. Part of that is adjusting the power structures of control. The way we think and view the world needs to shift outside of the modern paradigms of Christendom. I believe the shock to the system is here. I believe the current wave sweeping the church includes the emerging voice of women leaders who are finally receiving their due. After that (or along with) visible minority leaders will contribute their voice to shaping the church of tomorrow.