How I Survive Everyday Racism

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One of my first memories of being a pastor was a visit I made to one of our home-bound members, Julie (not her real name). Julie had been a child of the church, had attended worship throughout her adulthood, sang in the choir for years and had been married there — but all of that was long past and now Julie, well over 400 pounds, was confined to her home because of her weight.

Julie was also on my “twice-a-month” visitation and communion list.

I still remember the first time I entered her home: the clutter was mesmerizing and the smell was overpowering, but the voice of the Holy Spirit rang clear, whispering in my ear,

Okay, Bruce, you are her pastor.

When I walked into her room, I was in shock. There was human feces on the ground, rotten food strewn about and lying in the middle of it all . . . was Julie.  Immediately, I knew that my first call after this visit was going to be to adult protective services because clearly she and her husband were no longer able to care for themselves.

I stood in the doorway, my human senses were repulsed, while my pastoral heart ached.

Bruce, you are her pastor.

Trying to hide my shock, I sat down on chair next to her and started to chat. I was the new kid after all, so I didn’t want to launch into a “What you need to do…” diatribe right off. I was first going to build up our relationship.

So you’re the new pastor?

Yes, yes I am.

I hear you’re letting all the Chinamen come to church.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Now I knew this was not about me and not the place to get into a prolonged conversation on issues of race, but still . . . in my head I did one of those cartoon double-takes and looked around to see if anyone else heard the comment. I would try to redirect the conversation and many times I would find myself transported by Julie to the home of her childhood, her experience of San Francisco in the early 1930s and her time faithfully serving at her church.

Visit after visit, this was our dance. I would think to myself, “I have broken down the walls! We’ve moved on, hallelujah and amen!” and then she would slip in . . .

Are you still letting in all those Chinamen?

Yes, yes I am.

I would serve her communion and then I would leave.

Julie died during my time serving that church and, honestly, while I certainly grieve the end of any life, I was relieved that those visits would no longer have to be made and I would no longer have to engage in such pastoral care contortions.

As if . . .

Recently, during a worship service I was attending, someone came up to me and asked,

You’re Rodger Nishioka, right?

No, I’m not.

Today, someone at the one of the coffee shops where I “work,” in their best Asian accent,

You no rike riving here, you can rive somewhere else.

Seriously?!?!?

And apparently (h/t: Angry Asian Man) a person in the Seattle area burst into a dim sum restaurant, sprayed soy sauce over everyone while yelling,

Go back to China!

Yep. That happened.

You see, these kinds of race-based comments are always being made, some with malicious intent and others simply out of a lack of sensitivity. When I hear or see these kinds of things there are always choices to be made. Sometimes I just sit there while the theater in my head acts out a mighty ass-whooping that I then unleash upon the offender. Sometimes I do feel that it’s important enough to say something directly.  Most times however, I just get up, direct a little stink-eye their way and walk away. Honestly, having to measure my response is just is exhausting. And when I do react, seems that somehow the burden of the fixing the conflict gets sent back my way,

Don’t be so sensitive.

Sheesh, I was just joking.

You’re so angry.

How can you let this stuff go?

There are no easy or right answers and we cannot pretend as if there are.

I will say — I find solace in the idea that life is a long road of communal and social ebbs and flows and, if I am going to be who I believe God calls me to be, I cannot give these words power over my life. This does not mean that I allow people to not be held accountable for their words or actions, only that my life must not be fueled by feelings of retribution, revenge or humiliation as these simply mirror back and reinforce patterns of communal brokenness. Instead, I must be driven by the conviction and belief that we, as a society and community can and must do better if we hope to see extended glimpses of the amazing beauty that is humanity.

Simply put, I refuse to give up on the idea that being community across lines of difference is holy and I remain committed to the idea that we will only get there if  more if us embrace the transformational power of extending our spirit, hands and words of graciousness and not rhetorical or physical violence. Words or actions of graciousness are not weak or soft, in fact, they are powerful and strong and find a way to confront injustice without denying the humanity or stripping the dignity of the one who needs to be held accountable.

So no matter how often I am mistaken for that other Asian Presbyterian or  told to go back to where I came from, or hear my ancestral language mocked, read racist blogs or feel unsafe, marginalized or excluded because of what I look like . . . I choose the power of graciousness.  It may feel better to strike back hard, but that is a choice I must force myself NOT to make at every turn, every day.

A difficult choice for sure, but one I hope more of us make.

27 comments

  • Mary Martone  

    Bruce, can I ask you a question? I know my responsibilities and realities are different from yours, as a white woman, but I’m trying to figure out my responsibility to respond to people’s poor behavior, vs. understanding that some people won’t change and just need to be managed. I know that when I have received nasty remarks about being a big homo or fat, I have chosen sometimes to confront people, and that’s usually when I feel like one of my kids needs to see me standing up for something, or someone else needs to be protected, or I think that the offender might actually hear it, or they just need to realize that there are consequences to behaving like that, which may involve confrontation and/or embarassment. But other times I decide that it’s not a moment where learning or change is going to be facilitated, and the humans of the world will not necesarily benefit from my immediate respoinse, so I let it go. May they live another day to learn. On the other hand, when I am witness to someone being racist or, say, transphobic; oppressions that I do not experience directly, I feel like I’m supposed to confront it every time, otherwise I’m coasting on the privilege to not be bothered enough to take action. But what if I feel like an action in that moment truly wouldn’t help or change anything? Is there a different set of rules for different people, like white people never ever using certain words (a rule I am 100% in support of)? Is grace something we are supposed to/get to flex in regard to direct personal pain and oppression, but a more consistant outward advocacy should prevail in others’ defense? I don’t want to be the person people stop listening to because my responses are perceived of as aggressive, but I don’t want to be shamed by that concern into not being brave for my friends. Any wisdom is welcome.

    • Bruce Reyes-Chow  

      Acknowledging this tension and not letting it paralyze you is about the best modeling you can do. None of this is simple and you have named many of the issues that must be taken into account. I wish there were set rules, but when it comes to how one reacts/responds it’s so so subjective. Thank you so much for commenting!

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  • Gordon Lindsey  

    Bruce: I deeply appreciate this post. When I was a seminary student some 40 years ago, I worked one summer in a summer camp serving primarily inner-city kids from New York. On the last day of the season, the camp treated all the counselors to a banquet in a nearby restaurant. The camp director asked if I would drive one of the station wagons, as I was old enough to drive.
    After the dinner, we were returning to camp. I was driving through one of those picturesque small towns in upstate New York. The car was filled with black counselors. I, a white person, was driving. Suddenly a police car flashed its lights, signaling to me to pull over. I couldn’t imagine what traffic law I had broken as I was driving carefully. I rolled down the window to get ready to deal with the policeman.
    I will never forget the look of shock and horror on his face when he noticed that I, the driver, was white. It was not what he had clearly expected. He angrily asked who in the car had called him a fuzz. I assured him no one had. He was not really reassured, but he reluctantly motioned us to move on. He gave us a final warning to speak to policemen with respect.
    It was a blatant example of racism. And I realized that I, a white person, had just experienced what many blacks experienced and still experience repeatedly. As a result, I believe when blacks complain about police harassment. I had just experienced it, and I have never forgotten that experience. I wish more whites were to experience what I did that night. It might change their attitudes as it certainly did mine.

  • chix0rgirl  

    This post was incredible, and speaks a ton to where I’ve been as well as to where I see (on a much more extreme scale) many of my Latino and black friends treated. Thank you.

    • Bruce Reyes-Chow  

      Thanks. Glad it spoke to you as I know this is not a unique story for anyone outside “the norm” — but we keep on.

      • chix0rgirl  

        I’ll have to check out your books as well!

  • Sarika  

    Hi, Someone on my Facebook friend’s list posted this article. I’m so glad that she did. I’m an Indian-American christian, and although I’m not a pastor, I could relate a lot to what you wrote in this article. I’m so glad that you are talking openly about these kinds of things. All too often, we don’t talk about them.

    • Bruce Reyes-Chow  

      You are very welcome and thanks for taking the time to comment.

  • Sue Krummel  

    Bruce, I was reading this while my four year old mixed race grandson was standing beside me this morning. He asked what I was reading. I told him it was about racism and asked him if he knew what that was. He said “no.” I told him it was when we treat someone differently because of the color of their skin or the shape of their eyes. He told me that if anyone did that in his pre-k classroom his teacher would put them in time out on the story rug. I told him he had a good teacher.

    • Bruce Reyes-Chow  

      That’s what we adults need sometimes: a time out. Thanks for sharing!

  • brianleport  

    Thanks for this Bruce. Over the years I continue to learn so much from you through this blog. You’ve been a voice of wisdom for those of us seeking to be more aware of how our own words and deeds may (even accidentally) reinforce racist ideas and stereotypes, both in our personal relationships and in broader society. Your gracefulness is encouraging and inspiring.

    • Bruce Reyes-Chow  

      Thanks Brian. Seems like forever since we met up at Java on Ocean (It was Java, right?). Hope you are well.

      • brianleport  

        Yes, indeed. All is well, though I live far away in San Antonio, TX, now. I wish I could trot on down to Java again to grab a drink. I miss San Francisco.

  • wandikamarie  

    You have a gift for helping majority folks understand privilege and microaggressions. I teach “Diversity in Practice” to masters students in couple and family therapy and have decided that this semester I’m going to begin each class session with a chapter from your book. Thanks.

    • Bruce Reyes-Chow  

      Thanks. I am glad the book could be helpful and thanks for the continued support.

  • Teri  

    love you.
    and, seriously, people think you’re rodger? y’all don’t even look anything alike, or have ancestors in the same country…. wtf?
    So sorry people are horrifying. Praying for a day when we can all be as honest and upfront as you are in your writing, until we no longer need to be because we’ve figured out how to just love one another in all our diverse created glory.

    • Bruce Reyes-Chow  

      I know right . . . there are actually a few of us Asian guys (also an Asian women group) we are often mistaken for one another. My lovely Presbyterian family.

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  • Julie Hodges  

    Bruce, sometimes I forget, as an Anglo woman, how outrageous it is out there for my fellow brothers and sisters in the faith and ministry. While I can shirk off stupid things people say to me as a woman in ministry, it is harder to read about racist comments said to others. Thanks for sharing your on-going experiences. We need to know about it.

    • Bruce Reyes-Chow  

      Thanks. And I know that you all get some doozies as well.

  • Pastor Le Anne  

    Thank you, Bruce. This is very well-written. Painful to read, but also very important.

    • Bruce Reyes-Chow  

      Thanks. It really is just “one of those things” that all of us at some level have to figure out how to deal with and not let it eat us up.

  • Dawn Hyde  

    Beautiful, Bruce. Thanks for sharing your stories so honestly.

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